Ditch the spreadsheet for content analysis.

Content Analysis: Inventories & Audits vs. Discovery & Decisions

Last updated August 27th, 2019. First published

Key Points

  • Aim for discovery and decisions rather than just a list of content.
  • You need a list, but don't stop there.
  • You don't need to inspect every page in order to make decisions about each piece of content.
Related resource
Dispositions Cheat Sheet | Use this sheet on your projects.

Unless your organization has been producing 100% garbage (very unlikely, even if you are frustrated with your site's content!), you're going to want to analyze your current content whenever you're making big digital changes (even if you want to throw out most of it, it's worth considering how to avoid the problem happening again in the future). 

This article is less relevant for small sites

If your origanization has a single, small website then: 1) congratulations and 2) you can use the typical approach of concentrating on a list of content. This article is mostly targeted toward large websites or digital presences with multiple websites (that in aggregate should be analyzed coherently).

Typical approach: Stare at the list!

A content inventory is usually seen as a list of content, and the audit is a qualitative evaluation of that content. Regardless of how we define inventory vs. audit, the two tend to get tightly entwined: we first generate a list of content and then someone evaluates these content item by item

This standard approach is quite entrenched. But it is also problematic:

  • We are wasting time looking at content that's obviously junk.

  • We are missing the forest for the trees (by looking line-by-line at content rather than the bigger picture).

  • We can't re-evaluate quickly (since you have to repeat the line-by-line analysis if you change how you want that analysis to be done).

  • For a large digital presence, multiple people will probably need to do the line-by-line evaluation. Especially if this is done internally, this will mean inconsistency in the evaluation.

  • The total effort of evaluating and transforming the content has gone up radically.

  • We don't have very solid content decisions (like we would if we use rules to make decisions), if we have any decisions at all from this approach.

But mostly: we are focused on the (wrong) process and not the outcome! It feels like progress since we are diligently generating impressive lists and slogging through them. But it's not very effective. 

Better approaches: Discovery and Decisions

In the end I think we should be attempting to do one of two things in our content analysis (generating a list isn't one of them, although it's a byproduct): 

  • Discover, understand, and communicate aboute the content we have now

  • Make solid decisions about our content transformation (including estimating the effort of potential content transformations)

Note that both of these are exploratory activities — we don't necessarily know all the questions before we start diving in. 

Have the list, just don't stare at it

For strong content analysis you need a list of all your content. The point is not to stare at the list. In discovery, we want to look for patterns and examples of those patterns. When making solid decisions, we want to only manually evaluate content that deserves it. But regardless we need to understand what we're trying to accomplish.

Ideally you also are testing hypotheses about your content. For instance, one agency using Content Chimera recently had a hypothesis that their client's site had a lot of pages with a ton of content on them — with Content Chimera we were able to reject that hypothesis (and to find those smattering of pages that did have walls of text). 

Content discovery to understand and communicate

Most articles on content inventories and audits devolve into: 1) a screenshot of a table (each row a piece of content and each column a piece of information about the content) and 2) a definition of what information should be collected on the content (the columns from the screenshot).

But you need a couple of things for strong discovery:

  • Flexible metadata. There are certainly some pretty good starting points for an inventory such as example URL inlink, URL "folder" structure, crawl depth, and analytics (which is why Content Chimera includes the first three by default and has the ability to import from Google Analytics). But every situation is unique, and you don't really know what metadata you need at the beginning, and every site is different (which is why Content Chimera can import arbitrary metadata from any source).

  • Charting. One of the more powerful approaches for discovery is to visually graph information, which can best lead you to an overall understanding. Moreover, visuals are useful for people who aren't thinking about content all day — the very people you need for buy-in to make large changes happen.

This gives an overview of a digital presence much better than a list does (example from Content Chimera)

Just because you can doesn't mean you should

Regardless of what tool(s) you are using, I recommend not indisciminately adding all metadata that you can into your inventory. I recommend starting with what's easy/default to gather, and then, once you better define the questions you want answered, you add more metadata (if needed).

Decisions to confidently move forward

If we're going to make big digital changes, then we probably need to make big content changes. One approach is to just dive in and start making the content changes. But a far more effective approach is to make strong decisions early, way before actually making the content changes. Why? Bigger changes usually require higher-level executive support, and it's too late to get that support once you start making content changes. Also, making broad changes leads to more consistency, higher efficiency, and fewer surprises. 

Specifically, you need to assign every piece of content three things:

  1. Bucket. What is the content? This is sometimes content type (like Blog Post) and sometimes more specific (like Old Blog Posts). 

  2. Disposition. What are you going to do with this content? 

  3. Resourcing. Who is going to do the work? 

An example breakdown of buckets, dispositions, and resourcing (from Content Chimera).

Just because you need to assign every piece of content to a bucket, disposition, and resourcing does NOT mean that you need to inspect each one (see "Decide. Don't Inspect."). The best approach is to define rules, something like these:

Example rules (from Content Chimera)

Dispositions Cheat Sheet Use this sheet on your projects.