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Book Review Part IV: Content Strategy for the Web–Content Audits

April 7, 2010

In her book Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson places particular importance on the content auditing process. When content strategists are brought into a consulting project, the first thing they do is find out everything they can about the existing content on a company’s Web site.

The output of a content audit is typically some kind of spreadsheet that lists all the URLs in rows with several columns for descriptions such as those listed below. Note: These items are not the exact ones Kristina focuses on, they are the ones I have focused on at IBM. But there’s a lot of overlap between my list and hers.

  • Content type (page, PDF, podcast, video, demo, course, presentation, etc.)
  • Target audience (personas, job roles, demographics, etc.)
  • Purpose (awareness, consideration, lead generation, sales, fulfillment, support, service, etc.)
  • Key links (ingoing, outgoing, horizontal, vertical, internal, external, etc.)
  • Metrics (traffic, bounce, engagement, conversion, etc.)
  • Effectiveness scores (effectiveness of calls to action, links, architecture, etc.)
  • Quality scores (clean, clear, concise, credible, compelling, client-centric, etc.)
  • Relevance scores (how well does the content match user needs?)

Filling out this spreadsheet for even a small area of a Web site can be a big job. I agree with Kristina that it is the first necessary step. It is the foundation on which content strategy is built. Too often companies forge ahead without even knowing what they have already published on a topic or offering, let alone understanding the existing content’s effectiveness or quality. When you do that, you build all kinds of unnecessary complexity for site visitors–humans and search crawlers–making it all the more difficult to craft relevant experiences for them.

I just don’t want Kristina’s audience to think it’s an easy step. Unpacking each of the bullet points above can be considerably more challenging than she leads readers to believe in her book. The larger and more complex the enterprise, the harder it gets. I want take the rest of your attention in this post talking about those challenges. There’s not enough room for me to describe all the challenges I have faced in trying to audit sites within IBM. But I do want to talk about two of the items we focus on in our book–audience and relevance–after the break.

Audience analysis

One of the main reasons the Web is such a powerful medium is the way you attract your audience to your site. If you do it right, much of the audience that lands on your pages is prequalified. That means they have chosen to click your links in search and social media venues and they have a good idea of what to expect when they land on your pages. If you do it right, you also can meet them where they prefer to hang out and tailor your drive-to messages (short descriptions in search and tweets or other posts in social media) to their needs. This leads to lower bounce rates and higher engagement rates. In short, it leads to more relevant experiences for your users.

The key phrase is if you do it right. If you do it wrong, you can have the opposite effect. Doing it wrong often starts with  a misunderstanding of your target audience. I’m not talking about the people who come to your site and find it useful by accident. I’m talking about the people you want to attract to your site where you can interact with them. You might ask, “I define the target audience, how can I be mistaken in my own definitions?” Those definitions must be based on client realities, they can’t come out of thin air.

Building personas of the people you want to visit your site (in terms of their information needs) is a process that deserves its own blog post. But let me just mention here that the more up-front research you do the better you will do with building relevant experiences for your target audience, both on your site in in the search and social media venues they prefer. It is another powerful aspect of the Web that those venues provide ready sources of research in the form of keywords, conversation volumes, and sentiment analysis.

Relevance research

How do you determine to what extent your content is relevant to your target audience? Research again. This time, the research is not performed in search and social media venues. This time, it’s performed on your site.

Another powerful aspect of the Web is, if you do it wrong (quickly or not), you can adjust your content for the people who actually find and use your site. You’re never going to make a perfect audience definition based on automated research. There is always a margin for error. Where you err, you can learn with research tools applied to your site and iteratively do a better job of serving your target audience with relevant content.

I won’t cover this topic in too much depth here because I’ve already delved into it in the blog post 4 Web Analytics Basics. But I wanted to point out that a content audit is a living document. Once you document all your active URLs, filling in the information you need to make good content decisions is something you will need to do regularly. This is especially true of the last three bullets in the intro to this post: Content effectiveness, quality and relevance. The same pages will perform differently over time, especially if you are working to make them more effective and relevant for your target audience.

Overall, I agree with Kristina that content audits are vital to effective content strategy. I just want to extend her notion of an effective content audit to incorporating the necessary research you need to do a good job with content. In this way, the content strategist must be a true generalist who understands the traditional editorial issues involved in publishing and the more technical issues involved in external research and Web analytics.

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