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A Content Designer’s Guide to Content Inventory & Auditing (ft Desperate Housewives)

person in white shirt and blue denim shorts standing on black and white floor

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching Desperate Housewives, it’s that the more you suppress your emotions and how you really feel, the more cruel, ugly, and heartbreaking they’ll become when (and if) they come to the surface. If there’s one other thing that I’ve learned from watching Desperate Housewives, it’s that they always do come to the surface.

Divorce, infidelity, alcoholism… Those are some of the select few consequences of bottling up our problems in the hope they will resolve themselves.

Wait, what does this have to do with content design, did I click on the wrong link? Hear me out.

As someone who’s obsessed with connecting seemingly unrelated dots, I’ve spotted some similarities in how problems build up in our emotional lives and how digital projects are handled.

Often, what feels like an enormous, unsolvable problem… isn’t. It only feels that way because we merge all of our problems into a neatly labeled single “mess” and try to solve it all at once.

It feels impossible, not necessarily because our problems are exceptionally unique or difficult, but because they each have different levels of urgency and priority which we disregard when looking at the big picture: a mess.

Some problems require other people’s help or support. Some problems contradict our other problems: “I need to start eating healthy, fresh food. I also really need to save money. I could cook at home. Where would I find the time?” This is how a lot of us think. We feel overwhelmed and unable to get started because it’s all too much whether we’re talking about food choices or a website redesign.

If we want to change things in our organization in the long term in a healthy, sustainable way (none of that “move fast and break things” BS here), we should start with an actual inspection of what’s going on and the severity of each problem.

Enter: content audits.

I work in finance now (audits are my passion)

Before I get my American analogies mixed up (horses first? carts first?), let’s briefly discuss risks before I dive into the fun stuff (content audits).

Risks involved with not starting by examining the current state

  • Difficulties prioritizing product opportunities and turning them into successful features
  • Builds resentment – if employees have mentioned these issues numerous times, it will feel like their input was disregarded, causing them to not engage in good faith in planning sessions or disengage completely (“Who cares what I think, it’s not like you listen to us anyway.”)
  • There’s no shared, clear understanding across team members on the state of what has been done or is currently in progress

How to do a content inventory

You’ll encounter many terms: content audit, content inventory, content disposition, content analysis. The term will vary from company to company. Generally speaking, though…

A content inventory is a single document that stores everything published by a digital entity (say, your favorite specialty coffee shop’s website) in all the years it has existed as a digital entity. 

Format: A content inventory is usually a spreadsheet.

Tools: Whatever you/your stakeholders already use! I can’t stress enough how important it is to reduce (or better yet, prevent) friction during this process. I’ve used Google Sheets and Airtable. An online whiteboarding tool like Miro will also come in handy, more on this below.

The content inventory artifact: The spreadsheet is populated with URLs, all of the URLs that have ever been published on the coffee shop’s website. This should only showcase internal URLs. For example, if the coffee shop made it to the “best specialty coffee spots in Vienna” list on Trip Advisor and they link to that list, while that URL has been technically published on their site, it’s an external URL that shouldn’t be reflected on the inventory since we’re not concerned with analyzing Trip Advisor or their content strategy.

Content inventories look different based on their intended use. For example, if you’re auditing voice and tone for a coffee ordering app, the inventory would likely include app screenshots to show user flows—the multiple steps users go through to perform an action—like creating an account, ordering an espresso, or changing addresses. Each user flow would also show variations. What do users see if a specific feature like Apple Pay isn’t available in their country? What if they’re trying to order, but haven’t confirmed their email address yet? This type of content inventory would live in Miro or Figma since spreadsheets loathe images.

If a content inventory is a single document that stores everything published by a digital entity, how is it different from a site backup? Will I need an engineer? A site backup is a copy of all your website data. It allows web administrators to save everything associated with your site and restore it in case of data loss, malicious attacks, or human error. While the backup includes the literal contents of your site (say, the words and images you put on every page), the inventory only needs the tokens of the contents (the page URLs).

Once upon a time, this was done manually *cue gasps*. Fortunately, you can now use website crawlers like ScreamingFrog or Sitebulb that will do this in a few minutes. Based on your Content Management System (CMS) of choice, you can also use plugins (WordPress) or APIs (Hubspot).

How long does it take a website crawler to pull a list of every URL on a website and put it in spreadsheet form? It varies on how big the website is, how long it’s been around, how varied its offerings are, etc. For example, your favorite specialty coffee shop may have 300 URLs (less than 30 minutes for a site crawl), but Dunkin Donuts will likely have tens of thousands (hours for a site crawl).

The good news is that you won’t be in a rush. The bad news is that a content audit process usually involves multiple team members and departments and it will take a while to coordinate things whether you’re in a rush or not.

Once you have crawled the site to pull all URLs (or have taken screenshots of key user flows), you continue onto the next step. 

How to do a content audit

A content audit is the process of analyzing a digital entity’s content based on pre-identified metrics like page visits, time spent on page, readability, voice and tone consistency.

Content audits also help identify opportunities for content design impact.

Format: This depends on the audit’s goals, for example:

  • A content audit for a website redesign would store decisions related to which pages should and shouldn’t be migrated over to the new site. The metrics to decide what gets left behind might include page visits (any page with less than 200 monthly visitors) and publish date (any page published before 2010). In the content inventory spreadsheet, you would group URLs into those that are staying and those that are being left behind. You may want to schedule an engineering handoff call to walk them through the doc.
  • A content audit for voice and tone for an app would include your ratings for consistency of voice and tone in every step of the key user flows. During content audits, you’ll identify needed content changes (quick, relatively painless to update) and technical changes. The latter might point to changes needed in the structural architecture which usually introduce unintended consequences for other teams, users, or systems. A content audit should include next steps and responsible team members.

Common content audit metrics

  • readability metrics: titles and headings, reading level, meta descriptions, sentence length, alternative text
  • analytics metrics: page visits, time spent on page, device breakdown, most visited pages
  • brand metrics: voice and tone, how design system standards are applied

Content audit metrics should score high in replicability, meaning that anyone else using the same measuring system would obtain the same result.

For example, flavor doesn’t have high replicability, and if you ask 3 regulars at the coffee shop to pick the most delicious coffee, you’re going to run into issues. I might like fruity coffee, but someone else might consider bitterness the winning factor. However, if we give the same people access to the last 6 months’ payment information, and tell them to identify the best coffee based on the highest amount of orders, they will all get the same coffee.

Similarly, evaluating intangible concepts like beauty, style, or emotional state is tricky. We could be reading the same article and have different opinions on whether it’s good writing or not.

There’s an ongoing joke in the design world about how unhelpful clients’ feedback (or non-design folks in general) is: “Make it pop.” “It needs to look more modern.” “Can it be more dynamic?” “I’ll know it when I see it.” I’m calling it a joke lightheartedly, but a quick search returns abysmal results like idiotic client feedback, stupid client criticism, Ridiculous Client Requests, Dumb Things Clients Say to Graphic Designers.

This could be an article on its own, but my semi-spicy take here is that this is our fault and expecting people who aren’t subject matter experts to know technical jargon and provide concise next steps for us is naive at best and harmful at worst. Provide clear directives on what you’re looking for feedback on and keep it specific, ideally providing examples of what good feedback would look like for the thing you’re sharing. You’re the expert, dude.

All that being said, using objective and easy-to-grasp metrics to analyze content effectiveness is key to making sure you fairly quickly reach a consensus that everyone feels confident and knowledgeable about.

Quantitative vs qualitative content audit

Context is key. There’s no inherent value in the metrics themselves. For example, knowing that a page gets 1000 visits a month isn’t valuable information unless you can put it in context:

  • How many monthly visits do other pages on the site get, 100 or 10000?
  • How many monthly visits do similar pages on other sites get, 100 or 10000?

Besides context, something else that also makes a content audit powerful is your ability to identify and analyze notable outliers.

As a content designer, a lot of people expect you to focus exclusively on the words. Don’t do that. Focus on the user need and finding the best possible way to deliver that information whether that’s reducing the number of words, introducing a new content format (like a map), or something else.

From Sarah Winters’ book Content Design:

“What they need, however, is a series of easy-to-follow steps to get them out of debt–which may not be quick or easy at all. It’s not what the person wants, but it is what they need. A content designer will think about the best possible way to deliver information to the indebted person. Perhaps that might mean using video, or an online debt repayments calculator. Those are pieces of content that might meet the need, but in many organisations, creating them will be the responsibility of a completely different team. So a content design approach will take that into account, and the work might involve building relationships with teams you’ve not worked with before.”

You can divide the content issues or improvements you’ve found, dividing by impact, time/effort needed to fix, and responsible team members.

To summarize, a content inventory and audit:

  • provide a clear, full picture of your content
  • provide user-centric, impactful tasks for your team to work on
  • are fun if you also find categorizing information and untangling messes exciting like I do
  • make it easier to tackle problems (since you’re actually aware of them)
  • help identify opportunities for structured content

To wrap up, have you ever sent an email saying something like “I’ve attached my resume for your consideration” only to realize you didn’t? I’ve been there. One day, someone at Google realized this happens a lot and now Gmail shows you this confirmation dialog box.

Gmail error message screenshot: It seems like you have forgotten to attach a file. You wrote "find attached" in your message, but there are no files attached. Send anyway?

I don’t know that a content designer was involved in this, but this is a good example of issues you can identify by auditing common pages or user flows. There are ways you can help, money to be made, user frustration you can prevent, and just more ✨ delight ✨  you can add to the world through your work.

Further reading on content inventories and content audits

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