How to Carry Out Content Audits — Yes, PluralThe author's views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.
Content audits: the brief report generated as part of your pitching process and then forgotten about, or perhaps a small section of your broader SEO audit. These two words will mean different things to different marketers, and the time you assign to this project will also vary depending on how much value you put into your content strategy.
It's true that copywriting and content marketing fall under the umbrella of SEO, but if you want to get the most out of your efforts, you need to look at content creation as a department all its own. While it can aid SEO, PPC, and social media strategies, content has its own set of roles and goals to accomplish. Therefore, a content audit and a content SEO audit are two very different things, in my professional opinion.
I’ve been working in digital marketing for six years, helped to build an SEO department from scratch, and have probably written more content than Marcel Proust. My current role is 100% content focused, and while I do incorporate SEO techniques to give my work the best chance of success, my focus is first and foremost on the quality of what I write.
With that in mind, most of this piece revolves around the importance of, and how to carry out, content audits. However, I’ve also included a few ways these can be used to help your SEO team.
Why are content audits useful?
A content audit done once to highlight current issues with a website as part of the pitching process, and then consumed by a wider strategy, will have a short shelf-life of usefulness. However, a content audit that is continuously updated and used to guide next steps has multiple uses, including:
1. An insight into the past
When you take on the management of a website, you might not have the opportunity to speak with the person who managed it before you. You may be able to gain some insights from the site owner, but it is extremely rare that you get the full picture.
A content audit can help you piece together some additional information. The call-to-action on the page, for example, will show what the previous content manager was hoping to achieve.
Where the content is placed on the site will also give you some information:
- Top-level pages will rarely be end-funnel pieces
Product pages will often be sales-orientated
Blog posts with internal links will show what pages your predecessor was trying to strengthen.
Reviewing historic content topic concentration can also guide you on which product type or services were the most important to either the previous manager or the business owner. This can help you ascertain whether it’s a focus worth continued investment, or if you should move on to something else entirely.
2. Ascertaining at which point content is picked up and becomes successful
It’s easy to write-off (see what I did there?) a content project as failed if you don’t see success in the first few weeks or months of publication. However, as with PR, you may find that a piece that wasn’t considered successful at the time of publishing gets picked up later down the line. Understanding how long pieces take to become “successful” by your standard of measurement will help guide future strategies and prevent current frustrations growing.
3. Guiding current/future strategies
Understanding what worked well previously offers a fantastic insight into what your target audience is looking for. Are there specific trends that you can glean and utilize within your current strategy? Does your target audience respond more to a particular structure or topic?
From the analysis, you will be able to gauge quick wins, whether it's reworking pieces that you believe can perform better, utilizing other marketing methods to promote certain pieces, or scrapping something entirely and starting again. Likewise, you can determine topics to stay away from if necessary.
You can also highlight topic gaps in the current content and discuss these with your client. Perhaps there are certain angles they don't want you to take but forgot to mention. Or your client may give you the go-ahead to create new content to fill these gaps and measure the impact.
It's worth mentioning that you should carefully consider the metrics you’re using to evaluate content performance. There is no point in measuring a top-level informational or educational page against ROI alone, as it will always fail when compared to pages that focus on bookings or purchases. For higher-funnel pages, measuring engagement metrics and assisted conversions will give you better insight into how the page is actually performing.
4. A tool for reporting
While the initial creation of a content audit can be a time-consuming task, maintaining it takes minutes. With that said, we all know that minutes are valuable, and they stack up. Additionally, some clients will always prefer hands-on tasks to be completed and will struggle to see the value in these “admin” types of projects.
Using the audits as part of your reporting will save you time at the beginning of the month (or whenever you send out your reports), particularly if you add an analysis and next steps to your audits ahead of reporting week. That's what I call a winner-winner, vegan chicken dinner situation.
Current content audit recommendations from the SERPs
I reviewed the top-ranking content for the topic "How to do a content audit". I wanted to see what they had in common. While they all made their own points, there were some common recommendations:
This chart essentially works as a step-by-step guide on carrying out an effective content audit already, however, these were largely focused on analyzing content for SEO purposes.
The following audit recommendations can have some applications to SEO (and I do add a few suggestions of my own at the end), but the main aim is to provide insights into your content's quality concerning the reader's experience, and the SEO implications of those, rather than concentrating on ranking or backlinks, for example.
How to start a content audit
Before you even think about exporting and diving into a pool of data, you should first speak with your client. I mentioned earlier that content audits can be time-consuming and that some clients may not be keen on you spending a bulk of your time on this type of analysis.
To get your client on board, I suggest discussing the following:
1. The reason behind the audit
There are multiple reasons you may want to carry out an audit. Are you trying to:
- Guide your content strategy?
Remove outdated content or update it to boost performance as a quick win?
Learn what type of content your audience responds best to?
Understanding what your client will find most valuable and acting on that will reduce the time you spend on your audit and increase the likelihood of getting the go-ahead.
2. The type of content you’re going to audit
This is an excellent route to take if the site you’re working on is extensive, as you'll no doubt want to carry out tasks that will move the needle as well as conduct your audit. Speak with the client and decide together whether you should start by analyzing blog posts, e-books and guides, service pages, category or product pages, and create a schedule to work from.
Breaking up your audit by content type will allow you to tackle chunks of the analysis and reporting while still having time to undertake other tasks and add to your content strategy month-over-month.
3. Important goals, CTAs, and metrics
Ask your client what the main website goals are and dig deeper than merely "more sales". In addition to content that targets end-users, there will — or should be — pieces that target every stage of the marketing funnel to either guide a website user to a desired action, or solve their problem or question both pre- and post-sale.
Additionally, understanding what metrics your client cares about most will help hone your audit and any strategies that stem from it.
4. How far back the audit should go
You may want to focus on content published up to a year ago, or you may want to go back as far as possible, but what does your client want? How much budget are they willing to allocate to this project? These are essential questions to ask before you do any audit work.
How to conduct the initial audit
Remember that this audit is for content purposes only. While the SEO team can add their own columns to the spreadsheet afterwards so that all of the information is in one place, you won't necessarily be looking at metrics like backlinks, page speed, or rankings.
1. Export a list of all URLs
Using whichever tools you prefer to find content published during your pre-agreed time-scale.
2. Assign a function to each URL
This could be any function from the marketing sales funnel and will give you insight into what other departments to approach when it comes to content improvements.
For example, pages targeting people in the exposure phase of the funnel that already have quality and engaging content but aren't performing could benefit from optimization from the SEO team. In contrast, you could reach out to the CRO team for pages targeting the conversion phase.
3. Assign a goal and call-to-action
Assign each of these to every page based on the conversation you had with your client. If you struggle to assign a function or a goal, then this is content that can immediately be labelled "to be improved".
4. Make things colorful
Color is an excellent visual aid to understand each page’s health based on your assigned metrics. If, for example, a page doesn't target the call-to-action you set, that cell would be colored red. Once the issue has been resolved, you can change the cell to green. Make sure you download the original so that you have quick evidence of the work you’ve done.
5. Include additional information
You'll want to include the usual metrics based on the assigned page function so that you can analyze how the pieces are performing. These metrics can be traffic, conversions, new or returning users, etc., and color code these, too, based on how well they’re doing.
You may want to implement a sliding color scale and organize it from best-performing to worst-performing, to better show whether a specific topic outperforms or underperforms.
It's also a good idea to include information such as publish dates and authors to find any trends that you can replicate. For example, if one author seems to produce continually high-performing content, perhaps you could speak to them about their process to see if your writers can replicate it.
6. Next steps
Your initial content audit could look something like this, and you should be able to pluck out some next steps to incorporate into your content strategy.
This is my favorite part of the audit, where you give your overall opinion of each page. You can be as detailed or succinct as you like. Here are a couple of examples to give you an idea of what you could look for:
You may find that a product page has very clinical information and could be improved by adding in some emotive content.
Or perhaps a blog post has some really great content, but it is clunky and hard to read; which could easily and quickly be resolved with some restructuring.
A service page may be improved by incorporating content that targets People Also Ask Boxes; answering questions you know a searcher is seeking.
These notes will also give you an idea of the time-frame required to improve these pages. I like to color code the notes in red, amber and green:
- Green means the page is fine (or great) as is, or could be a quick win to target.
- Amber refers to pages that could be improved, but would require more time. It’s not so much a quick win, but the optimizations are worthwhile.
- Red represents pages that should be removed entirely.
Initial content audits should be extremely flexible. The amount of information you include is entirely up to you and can change from client to client. Notice that I don’t focus on performance metrics. I do look into performance metrics and use these to guide my notes, but as we are dealing with such a large volume of pages with an eclectic variety of goals; I don’t include them in the actual audit to prevent unnecessary comparisons and overcomplications.
How to carry out monthly content audits
Initial audits are perhaps the most time-consuming, as you’re working with unfamiliar pages, but they’re incredibly valuable and well worth the time and effort.
Maintaining monthly audits — whether in the same spreadsheet or a stand-alone document — is a fantastic (and quick) way to measure the success of any content you create or adapt moving forward.
They can also work as a checklist to ensure your team is producing consistent content if you want. You could include checks in your monthly audit such as:
- Whether images were used
What alt tags were used (remember they have functions other than communicating with Google)
What internal links were added
Specifying what CTA was included
Another great thing about monthly content audits is that they can be used as part of your monthly reporting; killing two birds with one stone. Here’s how I experimented with monthly content audits:
1. Set a deadline for reporting
If you’re only producing one piece of content per month, you’ll most likely be able to report on the success of each piece every month for a year. But the chances of that are unlikely. Therefore, it's good to agree with your team and client on how long you’ll measure your content's success.
Perhaps, after some research, you’ve discovered that most blog posts in this particular audit take three months to reach their peak. If that's the case, you’ll want to look at success metrics once the piece has been live for three months. This cuts out unnecessary time spent updating the audit and will also prevent awkward conversations with clients about why the content isn’t performing yet.
Alternatively, you may have created evergreen content and want to monitor this piece every month.
Whatever avenue you choose to go down, ensure that your client is clear on the plan to set expectations.
2. Add in essential information
Later down the line, whether your client, a team member from another department, or even you are viewing the monthly audit, you should be able to see key information within the first few seconds such as:
- The title of the piece
Type of content: a how-to guide, listicle, case study, etc.
The author of the piece
The department the page is assisting: content marketing, SEO, social media, etc.
How long the content took to produce: this will help your client understand how much of their budget was allocated to each task.
Date published: this is particularly important if you aren’t responsible for uploading the content to the site.
Performance metrics: based on the function and goal of the page. This should help you establish whether or not a piece of content succeeded or requires additional investment.
3. Next steps
If a piece performs exceptionally well, you can analyze what made it so successful and try to duplicate the results. For example, if you notice that your how-to guides were the highest performers, include more of these in your content strategy moving forward, or perhaps update an underperforming piece into this format to see if things improve.
Likewise, if a piece doesn't perform how you hoped it would, you should consider whether it’s worth improving it. Should you try re-structuring it? Perhaps you could advertise it via social media or PPC? Or maybe it's best to leave it behind and adapt your strategy to ensure similar pieces aren’t created?
All together, your monthly content audit could look something like this:
How to do annual content audits
Finally, the annual audit. These make yearly reporting a snap as you already have a lot of the information in your monthly audit. Once you've copied and pasted the initial information, all that's left is to update it with the latest performance data and write an in-depth analysis to be included in your report. This can consist of showcasing the best performing pieces and highlighting any patterns.
You can also highlight what was learned from the worst-performing pieces, as these will also offer valuable insights.
Complete the audit with ideas of how you can use the data to increase performance next year and set some benchmarks.
Let’s talk about SEO
Many of us wear both SEO and content hats as part of our role, and I appreciate that merging the two audits is both a time-saver and helps form a holistic strategy. But I do urge you to look at your content as more than just a means to an SEO end, and I hope this post has highlighted the value of doing so.
Right, let’s talk about how you can use your content audits for SEO purposes:
1. Search term cannibalization identification
When gathering data for historic content, use your favorite tools to identify what search terms the pieces are ranking for. You can then (temporarily) reorder the spreadsheet from A-Z by search term and see if any URLs are competing for the same terms.
You can then incorporate resolving these issues into your SEO strategy. There’s a fantastic piece that goes into this in much more depth here.
Additionally, once you know which search terms you want to target for any pieces moving forward, a quick check of your records will tell you whether you or a predecessor has already tried this. If so, you can decide whether to create a fresh piece and redirect the original which will hopefully bring with it some backlinks, or update the old piece (which will take a lot less time and effort).
2. Potential quick wins
By tracking how the search terms for each piece are ranking, you’ll be able to identify any content that is teetering at the top of page two, or on the lower side of page one.
From here, you can identify if the problem is content- or SEO-related. Do you need more backlinks to strengthen it, some schema markup added, or does it need to be updated word-wise? Perhaps you’re better off targeting a featured snippet or people also ask boxes to get you up where you want to be?
When I carry out a content audit, I read every single page. Time-consuming? Yes. Pointless? Far from it. You see, by reading through older posts, I learn so much about the products and services the client offers. I also learn about the history of the industry and any questions that pop into my head as I read, I jot down and use them in my content strategies. If I’m asking the question, chances are someone else is too.
This not only puts me ahead of the game when it comes to content strategy creation, it cuts down on research time when I'm tackling a writing task and improves the way I interact with my clients.
And I also know from experience what will take the piece up another notch. Perhaps the headers aren’t optimized or the piece has excellent bones but the copy is just a bit cringy — we all remember adding .gifs into our content whenever possible to make ourselves look “cool” and “with it” (and the fact that I just said “cool” and “with it” shows I'm not). But the point is, I get a good sense of how to make things perform better by reading everything.
Add any quick wins to your strategy and grab that low-hanging fruit.
3. Internal linking optimization
I love internal links. I love internal links more than I love backlinks. And while I agree that not every piece should be linking to an end-of-the-funnel page, I do think that content audits are an excellent opportunity to connect newer pieces with older pieces for better overall synergy. It also improves the user experience.
I know exactly what you’re thinking. That's a lot of work to do for every single client. But I truly believe that it’s worth the effort. Not only will you be able to ensure your content stays fresh, relevant, and has more chance of performing well, but you will be saving time (and your client’s money) by not creating content that your audience isn’t interested in.
Just three examples of how really getting to know your web content can fuel your performance before I wrap up:
- During one client audit, I noticed that there was a lot of similar content but from a slightly different angle each time. By merging these pieces, the pages were fighting for ranking less and the overall quality was improved.
- One client of mine seemed very bonded to their previous content, and felt hesitant about us merging or reworking any of their blog posts. Because I’d carried out an initial content audit, I knew the topics and angles already covered, and so instead recommended implementing a hub-style page on one of their main category pages as a means to gain more visibility for the content. We kept the original content (only slightly optimized for search terms) and ensured that a visitor wouldn’t have to jump from page to page trying to piece together a full picture before investing.
- Finally, when UK gyms were reopening post lockdown, we wanted to do everything we could to give our fitness client a boost. Rather than spend hours and hours producing fresh content, we tweaked old posts and built a "welcome back pack". Before publishing this, there was a post that had been the top-performer since it was published about a year ago. This new pack pushed the piece off the pedestal and brought with it a good chunk of assisted and direct conversions.
When done well, content audits are a fantastic tool to have in your belt. They will not only help guide your strategies and get results, but they will also help you bond with your client too, which is a more than welcome side-effect if you ask me.