How To Embrace (and Gently Encourage) the Content Audit

Rolling content audits are ideal. Only problem? Getting others to do their part. Here’s how to keep folks motivated to keep their content clean year-round.

After our long and brutal winters (especially this one, which was particularly nightmarish), Minnesotans everywhere look forward to The Great Spring Thaw. As the snow melts, things long-buried begin to emerge … and some of them are sort of gross. From our local paper, The Star Tribune:

As the snow melts, all that was tossed, lost and buried under mounds of snow is emerging, prompting some people to hold their noses as they take to the newly passable streets and sidewalks.
“Just picked up a [lawn bag’s worth of trash] along Nine Mile Creek today,” Marilyn Murray wrote in a Facebook post. “Lots of plastic bags, candy wrappers, glass bottles, a pizza box and bags of dog poo, which makes me think some people fake it when picking up after their pet by tossing it when no one is looking.”

“People who fake it.” LOL.

As I consider poor, martyred Marilyn making her way along Nine Mile Creek, picking up her neighbors’ icky detritus, it occurred to me: Marilyn is every website content strategist, regularly cleaning up the crap her coworkers publish when no one is looking.

This cracks me up and makes me sad. No content strategist should be relegated to clean-up duty—and yet, for those of us responsible for websites, we often are. Is this an inevitable part of the job? Or are there processes and tools we can use to keep our websites clean and well-organized year-round?

It’s a bit of both. Like it or not, content tends to get a little smelly over time. It becomes redundant, outdated, or trivial. There’s no way to prevent nature from taking its course here, and someone has to keep track of that content to make sure it’s removed or revised in a timely manner. Depending on how your organization has structured its content role(s), there are different challenges with this undertaking.

If you have centralized content support services, it’s more efficient to have someone conduct rolling content audits (a.k.a. “The Audit That Never Ends”) to keep track of what new stuff has appeared, as well as what needs revision or deletion. In this instance, we recommend creating and maintaining a “master content matrix” that only a few people have access to. Make sure your matrix document includes a field that assigns ownership of each asset (e.g., page, audio file, video, PDF); who-owns-what is typically a moving target and is just as important to track as the content itself.

If you have distributed content publishing capabilities, things get a whole lot trickier. In an ideal world, you’d still have some kind of centrally managed mechanism that keeps people on their toes when it comes to regular audits—whether that’s a person, a regularly scheduled group working session, an automated CMS maintenance requirement, or something else. But if that’s not possible, there are a few other ways to motivate people to keep their content nice and clean:

  • Send analytics. A nice and tidy little report of page views, bounce rates, and site search terms can often snap people into focus—what do you mean no one is looking at this entire section of the website? Now, this tactic can backfire, because sometimes folks respond with, “It’s not that those pages aren’t important, it’s just that people can’t find them … so let’s link to them from the home page!” OK, yes, if users are in fact searching for those topics, then you either have a navigation issue or a search issue and the content should be revised. However, if you’re convinced the content is just extra padding, remind your colleague that all that content needs upkeep, which is time-consuming and annoying … and it’s their job to do it. Hopefully that helps them say goodbye to that content nobody cares about.
  • Share user feedback. Hunt down every instance of “I can’t find …” or “This doesn’t make sense …” or “I hate this !@^$& website,” package it into a nice couple of paragraphs, and send it in an email with the subject header, “Our customers hate our content” or something equally link-baity.
  • Shame them with links and screenshots. This is probably the most powerful tactic. Ask offhandedly, “Hey, have you audited your content lately? I found these 48 things that you might want to take a look at.” Then attach your easy-to-use audit toolkit, which should include a) a content inventory template, and b) a “how to do an audit” brief (notice I said BRIEF) that walks them through the process.

(Assuming a distributed publishing model means you have a larger website, you can also check out How to Audit Big Websites for more tips on how to get your arms around a larger audit.)

The last, most important piece of advice I can probably give you is this: Please give up on the dream of The Perfectly Finished, Perfectly Perfect Website. That website does not exist. There’s a reason we say a site “goes live,” and it’s because we know it’ll require care and feeding over time. Embrace change! Commit to keeping up with your content clean-up. Of course, as you sort amongst the detritus, remember …

“…there’s always that one shoe. How does a person lose a shoe? And then you wonder where the other shoe is.”

I wonder. I always do.

Kristina Halvorson is widely recognized as one of the most important voices in content strategy. She is the owner of Brain Traffic, a content strategy agency; the author of Content Strategy for the Web; host of The Content Strategy Podcast, and the founder of the Confab content strategy conferences. Kristina speaks worldwide about content strategy, educating and inspiring audiences across every industry.

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