There’s no substitute for the human brain. (No, this isn’t a post about zombies.) The brain can make connections, inferences, and judgments better than any computer program can (so far). Computers don’t strategize, computers don’t create.
But there are things that computers do very well—such as finding, retrieving, and processing large amounts of data much faster than a human can.
Fortunately, we don’t have to choose between using tools and using our brains. Optimizing for what computers do well and humans do well leads to greater efficiency, more predictable outcomes, and better-informed content strategies.
Let’s look at the benefit of using automation tools in the creation of some of our typical content strategy deliverables.
The Content Inventory
Let’s start with the content inventory, often the first steps in a content strategy project. An inventory is generally performed as the quantitative first step in the discovery phase—the “what do we have, what is it, and how much of it is there?” calculation that helps us plan and scope our projects. Inventories are data-rich. They typically consist of a list of all the pages on a site, to which we add additional information and often spend many hours organizing. Creating the content inventory is often the least-favorite step in a content project—depending on the size and complexity of the site, they can take days or even weeks to complete when done manually.
So why inventory? Content inventories are used to…
- establish the breadth and depth of a site
- provide the basis for project estimation
- identify content structures
- set a baseline for the site pre-redesign or migration
But they are used in other ways as well. For example, making sure you always have the information necessary to understand your content set and make decisions about it based on real data. An accurate assessment of your pages also allows you to plan for your content lifecycle—from on-going maintenance to future development, re-use and possible migration of your website content. Content inventories are critical documentation to projects such as redesigns, refreshes, or migration.
The Content Audit
Following on the inventory, we conduct the content audit— the qualitative step in the project, the step where we move from data collection to analysis and ultimately to strategy. Content audits are critical to developing the deep understanding of a site that informs planning and implementation of an effective content strategy. They play a role in content migrations and ongoing site maintenance as well.
Audits are both a deliverable and a process. In deliverable form, they are sometimes spreadsheets, sometimes documents, in which the strategist has done the work to supplement and analyze the data found in the inventory.
The inventory tells us what we have and how it’s structured. The audit process involves a deeper dive into:
- connections between pieces of content
- the value of the content as measured by business goals and metrics
- the quality and accuracy of the writing
- adherence to brand and editorial guidelines
- content ownership and disposition status
A thorough audit, combining as it does both the data about the site and the human analysis of the content, is the stage in the process where most content strategists prefer to spend their time and is an important tool in communicating the strategic value of the project to the client.
What if we could spend less time creating the inventory and what if the inventory itself started to provide some of the information we gather in an audit?
Tool-assisted content inventories, such as those created by CAT, the Content Analysis Tool, help speed the inventory process and get you to the audit process more quickly. Including data such as the images, documents, and videos associated with each page; links in and out of each page; and the metadata (title, description, keywords) in an easy to read interface saves valuable time finding and cataloging this information manually.
CAT-generated inventories begin to blur the line between inventory and audit. From the links in and out, you can infer the overall site structure and cross-linking strategy. From the lists of documents, you can see if the site relies heavily on non-indexable content such as PDFs.
Viewing the URL structure and metadata for each page lets you see how well your site performs in terms of search engine optimization and site taxonomy. And if you’re planning a site migration, knowing all the links that you need to track as part of your redirect strategy and all the associated files that need to be migrated along with each page will save valuable time down the road.
While there’s no substitute for human analysis, using tools to automate away some of the tedious, time-consuming tasks that go into a content inventory and audit can help us be more efficient and make better use of valuable project time.
Time is at a premium in most web projects—we rarely have as much of it as we want or need to do the kind of thorough analysis, strategy, design, and delivery we would like. We spend too much time wrestling with manual processes, sorting through data, cataloging information, tracking work, and managing change through the lifetime of a project.
There is hope though. Those of us in the content and user experience world are fortunate to be experiencing a boom in the release of a wide variety of tools to help us do our jobs better—including, of course, GatherContent, which facilitates collaboration and organization of content; Trello, for project task management; design and prototyping tools like Axure and Balsamiq; and my own Content Analysis Tool (CAT), which automates the process of creating content inventories.
The promise of these tools is that they can help free us up from some of those manual, clerical tasks and allow us to use precious project hours doing the things our brains do best and that bring us the most job satisfaction. And from your client’s perspective, activities that result in well-designed, well-managed, useable, useful sites is a much better investment than a spreadsheet, no matter how well you’ve organized and color-coded the data.
Content professionals have more tools than ever before to help them spend less time on the tactical and more on the strategic and creative. If you have a favorite tool, tell us about it in the comments below.