I challenge anyone to pick up a book about content strategy and not encounter the words “content inventory” within the first few chapters. After all, if the definition of content strategy includes “governance,” step one is to figure out what exactly needs to be governed. The scope could be broad or narrow, shallow or deep, and there could be pages—and even versions of those pages—hidden deep in long-forgotten crevices. As content strategists, it’s our job to strap on our headlamps and find them.
Content inventories aren’t easy—I learned that firsthand. The most insightful information can’t be drained out of a content management system or analytics database. Valuable inventories are the result of long, thoughtful work. But the effort is worth it because when you’re done, you’ll have an in-depth knowledge of your site’s shining moments and hidden secrets so you can develop a strategy for how to deal with it. All of it.
Before jumping in, let’s get definitions straight: A content inventory isn’t the same as a content audit. An inventory is quantitative—it helps measure how much content exists about what topics and in what formats. An audit is qualitative—it helps measure whether that content is any good and if it meets the audience’s needs. The great news is that an inventory can serve as the starting point for an audit.
Reality sets in
My journey to inventory enlightenment started 4 years ago, when I was asked to join a team tasked with redesigning a multi-thousand-page website. At the start of our redesign, there was understandably a lot of focus on our most visible content—the homepage and the most popular sections that hung off our navigation. But there was little talk about the pages that were nestled in the shadows, nor about what we were going to do with them.
To get that discussion started, we needed data—proof—that there was more to the story than our top 25, 50, or 100 pages. So it was time to do some digging. But how?
I started with books, articles, and blogs—you name it, I read it. To address our broader project goals, I needed to learn everything I could about content strategy, user-centered design, architectural and navigational best practices, and this funky new (at the time) thing called “responsive design.” Of course I found all of that, but one of the most common best practices was the idea of starting a redesign with a content inventory.
What it brought on, in reality, was a flood of both administrative and emotional ups and downs that I was ill-prepared for. I’d recently experienced true grief in my personal life; I quickly started equating this adventure with something akin to professional stages of grief.
Stage 1: Denial
Did I really just volunteer to take this on? What was I thinking?
Most of the web writers I talked to had only worked on sections of the site, a handful of pages at a time, and didn’t have the time to go beyond those borders. Designers were eager to jump in, armed with bundles of markers and colorful sticky notes that would help us visualize the site. Hmmm…not quite what I was looking for.
That’s when the panic started to settle in, and I started questioning whether I really needed an inventory after all. I wasn’t confident I had the time or the mental stamina to get it done. But everything I’d read sounded so reasonable, so undeniable, so I shook off my doubts and got to work.
Stage 2: Anger
I talked to some more people and thought I was finally making headway when a few information architects pointed me to our sitemap and analytics tools. Was everything I needed easily downloaded out of one of those systems? Nice thought, but the reports I got back contained thousands of lines of data that had an overwhelming amount of redundancy and an equal number of gaps.
I took a deep breath, opened up a clean spreadsheet, started on our homepage, and clicked everything ‘til I couldn’t click no more. (Carpal tunnel, anyone?)
I was about 100 lines into it when it hit me: Wow, this is going to take a long time! How in the world was I going to get this done and do everything else I was responsible for? I revisited the original reports, considered asking for an intern…anything to make it easier. It didn’t help that one of our senior UXers declared this whole “inventory thing” to be a complete waste of effort. That if I insisted on doing it, it would have to be on my own time. I stopped just short of screaming, fantasized about throwing one of my content strategy books at him, and had to will myself to not throw in the towel.
Finishing the inventory became a way to soothe my wounded pride as much as fill a need for the project. So it was time to shake off the anger and get back to work.
Stage 3: Bargaining
The good news was that we were only focusing on the public side of our site (meaning, no logon required), so that made it a little easier. I always knew where to start, but I soon learned how critical it would be to decide where I intended to stop, and then stay within that scope.
So I started bargaining with myself. I gave myself permission to put off things like all the tabs and subtabs on hundreds of standardized product profiles, if I promised not to give up on other areas that weren’t so standard. And the thought of documenting more than 1,200 glossary terms—each one an individual page—was definitely back-burnered.
After setting those boundaries, I started making measurable progress and feeling pretty good. Until…
Stage 4: Depression
The surprises started surfacing. Pages on outdated servers that were built once and abandoned more than a decade ago. New projects adding and deleting pages without fixing now-broken connections. Pages built by agencies and other vendors, but that I couldn’t navigate to. I knew they had to be out there, because they were right there in the search results!
And then the abyss: that one fatal day when someone who was “just looking for some quick information” corrupted my beloved spreadsheet.
It felt like one headache after another, like there was some force against me completing this thing. I took me a while to accept the fact that perfection was always going to be out of reach, but that I couldn’t use that as an excuse to give up completely. I dug out of feeling defeated and kept clicking away.
Stage 5: Acceptance
The audit might not be perfect; I accepted that. But after months of work, I was finally done!
Do I still have that spreadsheet 3+ years later? Absolutely, and I still refer to it, show it off, update it, and clip pieces from it almost every day. I’ve had to go back and fill in gaps now and then, but the guardrails I’d put in place have prevented me from driving off of numerous inventory cliffs.
Am I really territorial (maybe a little terrified?) when it comes to letting other people touch it? Words can’t describe. But I love the fact that I can now tell people exactly what all those books promised because I know with 99.9% certainty:
- How many pages our site has.
- Which topics are covered, and how extensively.
- What formats and programming systems are used on which pages.
- Where each page lives in our site’s architecture.
- Where the content for every page is stored.
Having these and lots of other details continues to help us size-up our site for resourcing and budgeting purposes, prioritize pages for our ongoing redesign, and get ready for a CMS migration. My team now has very specific data and details to help drive discussions and, ultimately, decisions.
Could I have used the data that came out of our sitemaps and analytics tools and been somewhat satisfied? Maybe, maybe not. At a minimum, they were and still are useful for spot-checks and validations.
Was all that time I spent creating the inventory worth it? Undoubtedly. Sure, I had some questionable moments along the way, but I can say now—with complete sincerity—that I’d do it all over again, the same way. By clicking on each page, one by one, I actually learned something about our site, about how our content was intertwined, and about exactly what it must be like for other people to find and use our content. And that can’t be gained through a push-button report.
Ready to start a content inventory?
My best recommendation: Take a deep breath and dive in. Get ready to be amazed at what you find, both the good (“Wow, I didn’t know we had that!”) and the bad (with accompanying heavy-hearted sighs).
Yeah, I know a lot about my website. But here’s what else I learned:
- The value and knowledge gained from the inventory—both the spreadsheet itself and the process I went through to create it—was truly undeniable.
- Setting realistic boundaries and patiently working through challenges as they arose helped me overcome any anger or depression along the way.
- Acceptance is contagious: What started as my personal push to finish the inventory became my team’s acceptance of the now-well-documented scope of the redesign work ahead.
Here are a few books I’ve thoroughly wrecked with highlighters, notes, and my own supply of colored sticky flags—and that I still return to again and again for inspiration and a reminder of what’s important, even if it isn’t easy.
- Content Strategy for the Web (2nd edition), Kristina Halvorson
- The Content Strategy Toolkit, Meghan Casey
- The Web Content Strategist’s Bible, Richard Sheffield
I’d love to hear other stories in person at Confab Central 2016 in May!
Ready to learn more about content audits and content strategy? Gayle will be speaking at Confab Central on Thursday, May 19th! Save $200 when you register with this special code: UXBOOTH16
Ready to get real about your website's content? In this article, we'll take a look at Content Strategy; that amalgamation of strategic thinking, digital publishing, information architecture and editorial process. Readers will learn where and when to apply strategy, and how to start asking a lot of important questions.