So, you’re ready to redesign and/or redevelop your website. What’s the first thing you do?
1. Design a few pages?
2. Pick some new colors?
3. Rewrite your mission statement?
Nope, nope, and nope.
The best thing you can do for your site, the content that will eventually live on it, and your future self is open up a spreadsheet and do a good, in-depth content audit. Period.
Today, we want to tell you why and how to do it right.
Don’t Skip This Step.
There’s going to be a hundred reasons why you might not want to just do the work of going through the site you’re working on restructuring, re-platforming, or redesigning page-by-page and content piece-by-piece. No time. No budget. Someone has impressed upon you that you just need to “make the thing already.” We’ve heard it all before, but the bottom line is, taking the time to see what exists, what’s good, what’s bad, and what content you need to be successful is absolutely vital to a smooth-running web project.
Content is hard. For some reason it’s pushed to the back burner on just about every project to some degree. But remember, nobody goes to the gallery to see the frames, and those frames are going to be mighty empty (or at least mighty ineffective) if you don’t start with a solid foundation of the content process.
The content audit is step one in building the house of a website. To continue the metaphor: You wouldn’t pick the windows after you’d put up the walls, so don’t skip this important info-gathering step!
Here’s how we make our content audits work harder for us, and some tips and tricks to remember as you set out to tackle your own.
Think of an Audit as a Living Document.
Your existing site is a goldmine of information. With a solid audit, you can:
Learn a lot about who you are (your audience, brand and products)
Get a good sense of all content you currently have (as well as how it’s presented and why it exists)
See where your head has been in the digital space previously
In all this info, we have at our fingertips both an incredible resource within which to refer and gather content clues, but also potentially a burden to bear. We need structure and organization to formulate a game plan that will help guide the content refresh journey, and that’s where a content audit comes in.
Again, we know you’re asking, “Do I really have to do this?” It depends on the project, but if you’re migrating any content from an old site to a new one, or planning to produce new content, then yes. Sorry.
But the good news is, you never just audit and forget it. There’s a LOT of ongoing utility here. A content audit isn’t simply a static record or a document created at the start of the project and then filed away. A quality content audit can be super helpful throughout the entire course of a project, from site mapping to design, and even as a reliable resource in development. When used to its full potential, it’s a comprehensive, living piece of the project puzzle that accounts for site information to be rethought, restructured, reordered, replaced, relocated and removed — referenced at nearly every step of the process.
Here’s the deal.
On the surface, a content audit is a comprehensive, “skim-level” look at all pages of a site. It’s useful for understanding and organizing existing content, in addition to evaluating and categorizing content for future action as we move forward creating the new site experience.
Dig a bit deeper, and it’s a working document with surprising layers of value. A great content audit can:
Tell you where the bodies are buried. ...Of course not literally. But you’ll find all the layers-deep detail, disconnected pages and hidden treasure troves of information that site crawlers just don’t catch (more about those later).
Help structure migrations and archiving. A content audit forces you to go page-by-page, reading and assessing what you’ll do with existing content: Redirect it? Edit it? Archive it? It’s an invaluable way to get a good grounding in your existing site while becoming familiar with the content. You never know when that one technical keyword or phrase from the client-slash-subject-expert will resurface in a meeting, and you’ll be the hero who can navigate there directly on the current site! Your client will be impressed that you took the time to learn their lingo, and your team will thank you.
Fill in the blanks. A content audit is a chance to figure out where the holes are — in both our understanding of you as our client, and the user experience for your intended audience. It also helps us prepare for the content discovery session we’ll walk you through as part of a redesign project. Your site may be crying out to add essential areas that may be lacking — and may be conspicuously absent from your current web presence.
Facilitate flawless redirects. Tactically speaking, a content audit provides a clear list of pages that will need to be redirected in development when the new site goes live. Typically these are the pages that were renamed or deleted in the audit process.
Use Technology, But don’t Rely on It.
Automated site crawlers are one tool in our creative arsenal that gets the content audit process started, saving a lot of time and trouble. At their most basic, these crawlers grab a site’s main URL and report all of the things connected to it. They can even catch pages that aren’t linked within the site, and clients are always stunned to learn what all is hanging out there in the digital ether.
But the resulting spreadsheet is only as comprehensive as automated technology can provide, and it’s just data — no insight. So, at Edgar Allan, we believe there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned human handiwork. With crawl results in-hand as a solid (but likely incomplete) data set, our meticulous content designers set out to manually and methodically organize the information. Armed with a template and a dedicated chunk of time (not to mention a high-octane playlist, podcast or audiobook), we click every link in every line of the spreadsheet — which sometimes spans hundreds to thousands of URLs depending upon site size and scope.
While a task like this can be daunting and may seem tedious, it’s really worth it. At the end of the day, we just enjoy doing it — and can honestly say that nothing beats the adrenaline rush of outsmarting the crawler when we find a link it missed!
Clean Out that Junk Drawer!
Any site that’s been around a while tends to accumulate pages and lose the fidelity of its structure over time. Think of it like a junk drawer: You had great intentions when you put all your kitchen utensils in neat boxes, but now...it’s just a whisk and spatula free-for-all. Sites experience the same type of entropy — pages that spin off in all directions, pages with good information on them but are disconnected from the main site, abandoned landing pages, outdated events, uncategorized blog posts...we’ve seen a hodgepodge of everything. Oftentimes there’s even more stuff hidden on a page, and you don't want to miss anything several tiers in.
Whether your site has been live for 10 years or 10 months, with a content audit, you uncover and peek into these junk drawers, providing a much-needed opportunity to clean house: Keep track of useful content that potentially can be recycled moving forward, while also deciding what can be scrapped. In this way, a content audit does double-duty as a transitional document between what was and what will be...not to mention that it’s always better than starting from scratch when writing content for a whole site! (Be prepared for the spreadsheet’s “find” feature to become your new best friend.)
Do Your Due Diligence.
This one’s a bonus, although it is perhaps the most essential nugget in regard to our approach of performing content audits.
It pays to be thorough — literally. More often than not, you’ll come across something that you wouldn’t have ordinarily found: Are external links opening in new tabs? Are there links to old articles on news sites that were since archived, resulting in that dreaded 404 error? When we note and account for each piece of content (section headings, body copy, blog topics, internal links and more) upfront and early on in the site redesign process, it saves our team precious project time — and our clients valuable dollars.
Now that you know a bit more about content audits, we hope you’ll agree they’re not so scary. In fact, you should be more terrified about NOT doing one! So when you’re ready to hit the spreadsheets, remember these audit ABCs to set you on a path for success. Future you will be so happy you did.
Like how we think and what we do? Contact us to get started on your next project!