I think it would be fair to say that Google’s major algorithm updates in the last couple of years have seen us all asking ourselves some tough questions about the quality of what we’re putting on the web. This soul-searching has seen many reform their link building habits, while others have seen Google’s clamp-downs on web spam as an endorsement of the high-quality link building they’d been doing all along. But the focus hasn’t just been on links: the Panda update in its various iterations has shown that high-quality on-site content is paramount. This has seen the necessary rise of the content audit, and as someone who has long been a stickler for top notch content, I thought I’d share with you the process I go through and the things I include when I audit a site. I’d be really interested to hear how yours differ from mine, so feel free to leave a comment and let me know about the processes you use and the things you look at!
The giant content audit spreadsheet – and why I don’t use it
A question that often comes up when a client wants a content audit is what form it should take. Many consider a content audit to be a giant spreadsheet with every single URL listed, along with marks out of 10 for various quality metrics. Because of the sheer scale, this method often relies to an extent on automation, but that only gets you so far; a true assessment of content quality requires a human eye, and for bigger sites it’s not practical to look through every single page. While the process of content auditing in this way certainly has its merits, the way I like to do it has more of a qualitative focus that I believe gives the client considerably more value.
Look at a representative sample
Most websites follow templates that ensure a uniform design throughout the site – or at least they should! This means that content can be split into content types – for example, homepage, service page, product description page, blog post, and so on. Each content type is there to fulfill its own purpose, and requires its own assessment as to how well it achieves its aims. So why waste time looking at every single URL on the site when the comments you’re going to be making about one page in a particular category are likely to apply to the others in that content group?
I believe that the key to a good and actionable content audit is to look at a representative sample of a site’s content, providing concrete observations and recommendations and exploring in depth the actual experience of people using the site. They are, after all, by far the most important consideration.
The big content audit checklist
I’ll start with a disclaimer: every site is different. I’m not a believer in sticking rigidly to templates, and I typically use the headings below just as a starting point. I will often add or remove sections according to what’s appropriate for the site I’m looking at.
So, here’s what I would look at…
This section looks at who uses the site, how they use it and what bits they visit more and less. Aspects I’d look at are:
- Languages and countries – gaining an appreciation of the demographics of your visitors can help you understand how well your current site caters for your target audience. Who is your current target audience, and are your visitors who you expected? For example, if you’re wanting to target customers in a particular country and that country isn’t high on the list, it would be worth looking at how well your content meets the needs of people from that country; do you need to add extra content tailored specifically to that country, or perhaps add a translated version?
- Mobile – what percentage of your audience accesses your site from a mobile or tablet? How well does your content perform on a mobile and is it worth introducing new content aimed specifically at mobile users – for example an app?
- Engagement – looking at engagement metrics gives a rough understanding of how users interact with the site, though metrics such as bounce rate and time on site are notoriously tricky to draw conclusions from. This is why I would use them to look at relative popularity of pages rather than looking at the absolute figures.
- Popular pages – for obvious reasons, identify the pages that get visited the most and least. If there are pages I know to be a key concern to the client that don’t appear high on the list of most popular content, I’d want to identify why.
- Search terms – looking at the paid search terms driving the most traffic can identify keywords worth optimising the site for, while organic search terms driving traffic give more of an indication of the current level of optimisation of the site. It’s common to see mostly branded search terms in the top ten for an unoptimised site.
Trust factors and brand identity
It goes without saying that people will probably not give your website the time of day if it doesn’t seem trustworthy. A strong brand identity is key to achieving a high level of professionalism and trustworthiness, and that means things like consistent use of design, styling, logos and fonts throughout the site.
But what other factors can improve the trustworthiness of your site? In addition to having a clean and professional design, here are some of the features I’d want to see included on a site to convey a trustworthy impression:
- Credentials – does the site prominently display important industry accreditation and membership? Is it obvious what these mean?
- Contact details – it should be easy for people to get in touch with your site, and it shows that there are real people behind the anonymity of the internet. Many people still prefer to speak to a real human rather than emailing or using a Help page.
- Membership numbers – if you display on your site that you have millions of members or users, this shows potential customers that your site is popular, and therefore trusted by others.
- Testimonials – these are another way of showing potential customers that others have successfully used and enjoyed your product/service. If photographs are used, make sure they’re of real people – stock images just make the testimonial look fake.
- Social media accounts – while social media arguably isn’t for every business, people have come to expect businesses to be on Facebook and/or Twitter. Having prominent links to your social media accounts won’t just encourage follows and likes; a regularly updated social media account with plenty of (two-way) interactions helps show your business to be up-to-date, embracing new forms of communication, and easy to contact.
- Good English – the standard of English on a website is something that users won’t notice if it is high quality – it should be one of many flawless aspects of the website that subconsciously give users an overall impression of quality and trustworthiness – but that they will notice immediately if it is poor. Typos and lapses in grammar are likely to be picked up on and will come across as unprofessional. Furthermore, if the copy itself feels laboured – for instance, using ten words where one would suffice – I’d be recommending a refresh.
Amount of content
This can be a tricky one, because it’s about balancing the needs of your users with that of search engines. You don’t want to overwhelm your users by presenting them with a wall of copy or too many pages, but conversely if a page has very few words on it, Google will find it harder to understand what it’s about and may assume that there’s nothing there of value to users – so you’ll find it harder to get that page ranking well. Typically, a balance can be struck by presenting the user with a reasonable amount of content formatted in a web-friendly way – i.e. using bullet points and subheadings to break the text up and make it easier to read.
The homepage is a prime candidate for thinner content. Of course you don’t want too much copy getting in the way of a snazzy homepage design, but it’s usually possible to add in some copy towards the bottom of the page that won’t impact too much on the design. From an SEO perspective a minimum of 300 words is worth aiming for, but ultimately if more or less content than that is all that’s needed to give your users the best experience, that’s what matters most.
What content does the user see immediately upon entering a page? Look at a selection of page types (homepage, service page, blog post, etc) and assess whether the most important aspects of each are visible immediately. Does the site have adverts, and if so, do they dominate the page? Google is known to penalise pages that have too much advertising above the fold, so this is to be avoided. Are key bits of information and calls to action immediately visible?
Though it could be argued that this is more of a technical issue and therefore not a necessary thing to include in a content audit, navigation crosses into content territory in several ways. Firstly, it’s important that users can find their way around your content as quickly and easily as possible. A content audit perhaps isn’t the place for an in-depth site architecture appraisal, but it’s good to highlight any issues users may be having with finding important content.
Secondly, the copy on the page can be used to highlight and complement the navigation by guiding users to the pages you most want them to visit. Is your site navigation aided by calls to action in the copy, or clearly labelled buttons?
Content quality, including web writing best practice
To a certain degree the observations falling under this section could be subjective – your view on whether content is good quality may differ from that of the client, for instance! So I would use this section to highlight any issues with the tone and substance of the copy, whether it does a good job of explaining products and services, and how well the design and copy guide users to take actions such as finding out more and buying.
Web writing best practice is another concept to mention here. People read websites differently to how they read books, and will often simply skim a page to get the gist of it rather than reading it in detail. This is particularly true on mobiles, when people may be reading on the move. This means that content needs to be easily ‘scannable’, with the text broken up with subheadings and bullet points to make it easier to read. Walls of text not conforming to best practice should be pointed out in the content audit.
Using a proper header tag structure is also important, with a single H1 for the title of the page and H2s, H3s and so on for progressively less important subheadings.
A variety of media types – images, videos, audio etc – helps your site rank in universal search (where image and video results are pulled into the main search results) as well as enhancing user experience. Content such as videos or graphics is also more likely to get shared, which not only increases brand awareness, but also brings more traffic and links to your site. More on sharing later…
An old but nevertheless still important SEO staple, meta data should be included in the content audit because it does form part of the content of the site – in fact, given that so many people find and access websites via search, your title tag and meta description may be the first thing they see. So make sure you give them a great first impression and stand out from the sea of other search results!
Title tags should of course be optimised for search engines, but should also make sense to users and give them a bite-size summary of what your site is about. The meta descriptions should be well-worded and enticing, summarising key selling points and including calls to action to encourage users onto your site. Meta descriptions aren’t a ranking factor, but search terms do get highlighted in bold when they match a user’s search query, so including keywords where it reads naturally will help your site seem more relevant to what the user is looking for.
Images and image optimisation
Good images inject life and interest into a site and can be used to form part of a uniform visual identity if used consistently throughout. Does the site make good use of images, and do they feel unique to the site? I’ve seen sites that just use cheesy stock photos throughout, which doesn’t inspire confidence in users; it makes a site look as though it has something to hide, and any old spammer can populate a web template with a load of stock images.
Images should also be optimised to help them rank well in image search – that means having descriptive alt tags and filenames to help Google understand what an image is of. For instance, naming a photo of a beach with lots of meaningless letters and numbers won’t help Google at all, but naming it ‘couples’ holidays in Barbados’ will give it a much better chance of ranking for this search term in image search. And because image results are often pulled into the main SERPs, that may mean that your image appears above competitor search results even if your website doesn’t.
Strong internal linking is as helpful to users as it is to search engines, so look at whether or not the pages on the site link contextually to other internal pages. For example, a travel site offering travel guides to different destinations could cross-reference specific holidays or flight information elsewhere on the site, and could have a section at the end linking to other destinations the reader might be interested in.
External linking should be considered as well, as it’s thought to help Google establish your ‘link neighbourhood’ – are you linking to (ergo associated with) reputable sites or dodgy ones? Linking out to strong, authoritative sites is also likely to come across positively to users of your website by associating you with other organisations they may have heard of.
It’s also important to think beyond the site itself and look at how ‘shareable’ the content on the site is. For many sites this could come in the form of a blog, which has the added benefit of giving your site fresh new content on a regular basis (Google loves fresh content by the way).
People have grown accustomed to sharing interesting or amusing things online via social media sites, and sharing can do wonders for brand recognition. So think about what data you have access to, and what resources you could provide, that might get people sharing. If you’re a travel site, for example, video guides or handy checklists for different destinations would be useful, shareable content you could add. Infographics and white papers are other examples of shareable content that could work well depending on the niche your site operates in, but this is a great opportunity to flex your creative muscles and come up with some exciting content ideas tailored to your own audience.
Oh, and don’t forget to make sharing easy by including social sharing buttons where appropriate – you can even ask or encourage users to share by offering them something in return (e.g. access to exclusive content, or entry into a competition).
As I said at the start, all sites are different, and will have their own peculiarities, strengths and weaknesses. Don’t get too tied down by a template: feel free to go beyond it, add new sections, and get creative with the content suggestions!
What do YOU look at when you audit content? Do you think there’s anything I’ve missed? Share your thoughts below or tweet me @RachelsWritings.