The Why, How and What of Higher Ed Website Content Audits
A content audit is a structured assessment or evaluation of the state of a website’s content, often prompted by one of two common situations:
- A site has been operational for a long time and its content hasn’t received as much attention as it should have; or,
- A change is planned (e.g. a site re-design or move to a new content management system - CMS) and the issue of which content should be migrated has arisen.
Audits are essential for site migrations, but post-migration they help maintain content quality and consistency as part of a web governance plan. Regardless of the motivation, an audit identifies and catalogues a site’s content and helps answer the questions implicit in these situations: what content do our site visitors actually access and can they do so without encountering issues?
University and college website management doesn’t raise unique concerns about conducting content audits, but the need for audits is likely greater than for commercial websites. Higher education’s decentralised website management results in patchy maintenance of the various ‘sub-sites’ and a more uneven experience for visitors than is the case with more centrally controlled sites. Regular audits identify issues, improve content quality and provide visitors with a more consistent experience thus increasing the likelihood a site is achieving its objectives.
Consistency is one of the objectives of content audits and maintenance in general. Content audits often begin as projects, but rightly evolve into a process. Regular preventative maintenance avoids the degradation in site quality that results from long periods of inattention.
Why perform a content audit in the first place? The simple answer is: clarity. The more nuanced answer is to obtain clarity of purpose and of content. The stakeholders in an organisation's digital presence should know that a site’s content actually supports a site’s objectives (e.g. recruit students, enhance the departmental reputation, disseminate key research, etc.). Moreover, they should know that the content ‘works’ (e.g. links work, files are up-to-date or have been compressed to load rapidly).
An audit’s ‘why’ is important for stakeholders to agree, as understanding it keeps participants focused on the benefit (clarity) and reduces the chances of being side tracked by subsidiary issues that arise along the way.
How do you actually perform a content audit?
An audit comprises two components: assembling the content and evaluating the content. The former is accomplished through a comprehensive download of a site’s URLs – this is often referred to as ‘inventorying’ a site. The latter is done by exercising judgement in answering a few, seemingly, straightforward questions.
An audit is built on a ‘snapshot’ of a site as visitors currently experience it. It is unlikely that a site’s CMS can provide URL data in a useful format, so there are two better approaches.
The first is to gather and record data manually – typically on a spreadsheet, copy and pasting details along the way. For small websites this process is a bit tedious, but practical. In practice, this method can be extended to larger websites: web analytics data can identify a site’s most popular pages and these can be used to limit the number of pages to be audited.
A more comprehensive and less error-prone approach is to use an automated tool that crawls a site and records relevant data about pages and links. Frankly, this approach is a better use of time – the effort should be applied to evaluation not data gathering. There are a number of tools that can be used for this purpose and you can talk to us about using our service.
Whether you carry out data collection manually or programmatically, you will want to put the URL-related data in a spreadsheet or other data analysis tool for sorting, comparison and exception reporting. You will also want the spreadsheet’s URL links to be active as you toggle between the spreadsheet and each page being reviewed.
Once the site content has been assembled, it is important to recognise that not all content is equal: It is important to understand what’s most relevant to site visitors, to frame the analysis accordingly.
Almost all university and college websites have Google Analytics (GA) installed and GA has been gathering data about visitors and page views, even if the data has been accessed regularly. Data on page views can be readily downloaded for all URLs that have been visited over a chosen period. We suggest using twelve months – as this should accommodate seasonal variations in site activity.
You can match the URLs reported by your content gathering process with those produced by extracting data from Google Analytics and thus be able to rank order content by relative popularity. This process will likely demonstrate that not all URLs need checking. Popularity follows an 80/20-style rule: 80% of visits are to 20% of the URLs.
Extracting the web analytics data is important, as analysis will reveal that site visitors don’t access large swathes of content and other content is unexpectedly popular. As university and college websites have multiple stakeholders, and the influence of some on site content is greater than that of others, you will needs facts to support the changes you are likely to recommend. The analytics data places that evidence at your disposal.
Once the data has been gathered, the final phase is the substance of the process. What actions are you going to take as a result of the analysis?
After all, you only conducted an audit because you wanted something to happen.
The first task is the scan your list of URLs by rank order of popularity to reduce the analysis to only those pages that merit further attention. Sorting the lists, parsing the URLs to allow sorting by sub-directories and the like should identify the relative impact of different sections of the site and analysis can proceed accordingly.
The second task is to analyse the pertinent data by asking a number of questions to determine how it should be categorised. You should be able ask and answer the following types of question:
- Are the highly-ranked pages a surprise?
- Are there poorly-ranked pages believed to be important to the website’s objectives?
- Are the most popular pages the pages that should be visited the most?
- What purpose does the page under review serve?
- Who is this page’s intended audience?
- Does a visitor to the page understand what they should do next?
- Is the page’s information still accurate and timely?
- Does the page conform to style/branding/configuration guidelines?
The answers can be recorded on the spreadsheet and allows one of three actions to be taken accordingly:
- Retain – the content demonstrably meets its objectives;
- Remove – the content is not ‘fit for purpose’. It can be archived off-site or deleted; or,
- Refine – the content needs updating. For example: it is in the wrong format, a PDF rather than an HTML page; the ‘quality’ can be improved; it can be merged with other content.
Content audits evaluate websites to provide clarity about site content and the content’s effectiveness in meeting a site’s objectives. Using automation to gather content data ensures comprehensiveness and consistency and eases the shift from one-off exercises to a regularly scheduled process. If you've recently completed a site migration or it is thankfully a distant memory, you likely recognise the value of audits as part of a web governance strategy to ensuring that the quality of site content remains consistent with your online objectives.