Summary: A content inventory and audit are two important activities to complete before developing a strategy to improve your digital content. Conduct them together to set your content up for success.
Before developing a content strategy or undertaking broad sweeping improvements to your existing digital content, two important activities should happen first: a content inventory and a content audit.
Definition: A content inventory is a list of every piece of digital content you currently have, captured at either the page or asset level. It includes specific characteristics about each piece.
Definition: A content audit examines, assesses, and evaluates the quality of the content listed in the inventory. Audits uncover content that needs updating, where gaps exist that new content could fill, and if certain pieces of content are ready for removal.
A content inventory lists out the digital content you have and includes aspects such as each pieces’ name, format, URL, creation date, author, and metadata. A content audit determines the quality of the content and whether it needs to be updated or removed.
Do I Need Both a Content Inventory and a Content Audit?
The short answer is yes. While a content inventory is a good first step toward understanding the depth and breadth of your content, it won’t tell you much about the content’s quality or how to improve it. That’s where the audit comes in and why we suggest completing these activities together, instead of only doing one or the other.
It’s acceptable to start with the content inventory and then do the audit. The details for each piece of content cataloged in the inventory will help you understand the broad implications of any decisions you make in the auditing process and enable you to take quick action on those decisions.
When and Where Do I Start?
Content inventories and audits can begin and continue throughout any phase of the product-development process. Teams may kick off new redesign projects with these activities to determine what content to carry over and what to leave behind. Other teams may realize over time that they need to start tracking and evaluating their content to minimize user confusion, redundancy, and information overload. There’s really no perfect time to start; if you don’t have a content inventory and audit yet, now is a good time to get going.
Start by thinking through the following elements related to people, process, and tools:
- Establish ownership for the inventory and audit — both the process and the artifacts. It might be you alone, or you and a few colleagues.
- Involve others early on; inform everyone, from stakeholders to authors, designers, and user researchers, of what you’re doing and align on appropriate audit criteria.
- Provide impactful updates initially, and at a regular cadence along the way. Other people are more likely to care and trust you to make decisions about what to ultimately do with the content if you keep them meaningfully informed. Don’t overload them with detail here.
- If you’re dealing with a lot of content, develop a ‘start-small’ mindset. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at first, but break up the effort into small increments. If there’s more content than you can fathomably handle, start with a manageable yet impactful subset.
- Prioritize inventorying and auditing the content that is either most frequently accessed or supports top tasks (for users and the business).
- Divide and conquer tasks with other people. Set clear expectations and give concrete examples for exactly what you expect partners to do and how. You may even want to demo the process of capturing the inventory details and show teammates how to effectively audit various content types.
- Choose a tool to house both the inventory and the audit. It should have a low learning curve and barrier to entry. Use something you already have in your digital-workplace toolset and that is already familiar to all collaborators.
- Explore whether you can automate some of the process using digital tools (e.g., crawling tools, CMS exports of titles, dates, authors, metadata). However, it’s best if actual people handle the auditing portion by looking at and assessing each piece of content.
- Timebox it: do what you can initially in a given time frame (for example, 6 weeks) to learn about your content issues and successes. You’ll want to make some meaningful progress at first to keep the momentum and interest in content improvements going. Inherently, content inventories and audits are ongoing tasks, so they’re never really finished.
Choosing a Scope and Criteria to Include in Your Spreadsheet
You’ll want to choose a scope for your content inventory and audit that fits your organization’s needs and your team’s capacity. You can conduct these activities for an entire website or app, subsection of a website or app, or even an entire user journey with multiple touchpoints. If you’re tracking and evaluating content across a customer journey, look at critical content needed by users during that journey (maybe even in concert with a journey map) and see if there are any knowledge gaps or underperforming content that’s detrimental to overall experience.
Regardless of the scope you choose, spreadsheets tend to work best for content inventories and audits. Teams working remotely and collaborating in the same document can use tools like Google Sheets or create spreadsheets in Excel or Numbers. If you share the document on SharePoint or a team server, allow everyone to view the inventory and audit, but make sure permissions are set appropriately so that only approved individuals can update it. Keep a backup copy of the spreadsheet, just in case.
Inventory attributes to have in your spreadsheet include, but aren’t limited to:
- Name or title of the piece of content (not the page title, the actual name or title); if it doesn’t have one, give it a clear name or summarize what it is
- URL or link to where it lives
- Author, owner, or source (who wrote or created it, who owns it, is it user-generated, fed in from somewhere else, etc.)
- Subject matter or topic it relates to
- Format (article, video, image, web part or component, webpage type, PDF)
- Creation or last-modified date
- Metadata (page title, meta description, alt text, etc.)
- Where raw files reside, internally
The set of evaluation criteria for the auditing process is usually twofold. It includes, but isn’t limited to:
- Industry best practices for web writing and other content formats:
- Chunking and white space
- Bolding of main ideas and concepts
- Bullets and numbered lists
- Proper contrast between background and text
- No text embedded in an image
- No video that automatically plays
- An organization’s own set of content standards, user needs, goals, and performance metrics; for example:
- User needs: Specify the audience, its task, and needs. Who are your content users and what are they trying to do (e.g., find answers, discover new information, learn about new topics, compare options, make a decision, get in contact)? To what degree does the content support them in that task? Do they have any unanswered questions?
- Content standards: To what degree does the content reflect the organization’s intended tonal values, include appropriate metadata, follow formatting and structuring guidelines, and uphold design principles?
- Goals and performance metrics: State what the content is supposed to be doing (e.g., create awareness, drive traffic, generate leads, sell something). Use performance metrics, such as clicks, views, bounce rates, likes, and shares, coupled with any qualitative insights from user research in your analysis. Does the content help reach the goal or detract from it?
Level of content quality given best practices, internal content standards, user needs, business goals, and metrics.
Filling Out the Details for Each Piece of Content
After getting your spreadsheet set up, take your content piece by piece and fill out the details in both the inventory and the audit. You likely won’t be able to audit each piece of content by looking at it alone; you may have to dig into your content-management system to find authors, metadata, and dates (if you can’t export this information) as well as your analytics platform to see performance metrics. You may even need to conduct qualitative user research to understand whether the content effectively meets user needs. In any case, it’s acceptable to start with your own review and assessment of the content, and then decide which areas or pieces need further digging to determine their fate.
Don’t overscrutinize the process of inventorying and auditing your content. If you’re not sure whether something meets user needs, complies with content standards, or dives metrics, note that in the audit spreadsheet. Those pieces are good examples to bring up to your team or the content creators to get their perspective. They may also have additional context to help you determine whether to leave the content as it is, update it, or remove it. Such instances may also help your team realize the importance of documenting user needs, content standards, goals, and success metrics before content creation begins or continues.
Determining the Fate of Content
It’s not enough to have your content inventory and audit complete. You also have to review it in its entirety to make decisions about what to do with problematic, inaccurate, or outdated content. Look for individual pieces of content or entire sections that are of low quality.
Looking at all of the factors and ratings in your audit, record a status for each piece: keep, update, or remove. For the pieces which need updating, document what exactly needs to be done to improve it and assign an owner to the task. The owner could be the content owner or author recorded in the inventory or someone else. Review your proposed changes with the stakeholders, content owners, and creators you’ve involved from the start — especially for significant changes or removing content altogether.
In general, getting content up to par with industry best practices and your organization’s content standards will likely be the easiest to do, so start there. Make sure each piece follows the best practices for web writing and includes coherent metadata. Iterating on content so that it evolves to better serve user needs and drive metrics may take more time. However, these heavier efforts are still worth pursuing as soon as possible after your content audit and inventory are complete, particularly for content that is highly visible and problematic for users.
Maintaining the Content Inventory and Audit
As soon as you start using your inventory and audit to guide what to do with your content, it’ll already be time for an update, to reflect new content created, actual changes made to existing content, or retired content. Any modifications to pieces or sections should be reflected in the spreadsheet as soon as possible.
Content-management systems and tools can help you keep the inventory portion updated automatically. However, the audit always needs continuous monitoring and updating by its owner(s). Being the owner of an audit is a big, time-consuming job. People always try to just tack it onto their other responsibilities and that never works out. Much like the content they contain, inventories and audits can quickly become outdated and unwieldy without care and maintenance. Share the responsibility of maintaining the content audit and inventory with the same group you’ve involved all along, or bring others into your process to help you keep it current and accurate.
Content inventories and audits are assessment frameworks, not an exact science. They’re great tools for helping your team shift focus and mindset from quantity of content to quality of content. Use them together to keep track of what content you have, where it lives, who owns it, and how well it performs. This information will reveal whether you should let your content live as it is, improve it over time, or remove it altogether.
Use our content inventory and audit template below to get started and learn even more about creating and managing digital content in our course, Writing Compelling Digital Copy.