The Secret to a Great Content Audit

In two decades of performing and overseeing content audits, I’ve noticed there is an alchemy that can turn a plodding analysis into a startling and meaningful insight.

by John McCrory

November 2023

There is a kind of magic to a great content audit. 

We immerse ourselves in vast amounts of information, through manual review of web pages, automated crawls, statistical tabulations, site and search analytics. We pore over hundreds or thousands of assets and document what we find in meticulous notes that no one else may ever see. We try out many different vectors of analysis knowing some of them might not bear any useful fruit. 

It is painstaking work, and there is no shortcut. 

I’ve probably done a couple hundred audits over the years and no two have ever been the same. Sure, the basic issues are fairly typical — too much content, content in the wrong place, content locked in formats not suited to the web or mobile, content arranged around internal organization structure rather than user’s needs — but the specific recommendations are always unique, tailored to the particular situation of the client. 

As much as I wish I could save myself some time, I’ve never been able to recycle an audit recommendation.* The biggest content opportunities that I found in each case were different.

The secret to that uniqueness and the originality of each audit’s insights, I believe, is the inductive process of the audit, moving from the particular to the general. Rolling up our sleeves and steeping ourselves deeply in the many particulars — the content’s format, subject, audience, templates and modules, objectives, reading-level and much more — is crucial. 

In inductive reasoning, the more information you have, the more accurate your conclusion can be. 

Inductive vs Deductive Reasoning

“You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.”
—Sherlock Holmes, The Boscombe Valley Mystery

When Sherlock Holmes famously described his method as “the science of deduction” his creator Arthur Conan Doyle was using the term in the broad sense of deducing a conclusion from a set of observed facts, rather than the philosophical concept of deductive reasoning that means to apply a general truth to a particular situation. 

Holmes actually uses something closer to inductive reasoning. He elaborates the observed facts and then eliminates explanations that are not supported by those facts to arrive at the only conclusion that fits that evidence, however improbable. It’s essentially the empiricism of Francis Bacon applied to detective work. In contrast to following a hunch, Holmes achieved his flashes of insight by proceeding inductively from the particular to the general.

In contrast, deductive reasoning starts with the generalities of known facts and moves, by inference, to specific suppositions of facts. Though that describes how people often think, it is a risky method of analysis:

      1. God is love;
      2. Love is blind;
      3. Ray Charles is blind.
      4. Therefore, Ray Charles is God.

But, how do we know when we know enough?

In my experience, we have to attain a level of mastery that goes beyond expertise. I find I need to know way, way more than seems rational or sensible. I need to know things I probably don’t need to know. Only when I’ve really overdone it can I reach an insight that transcends generalities, transcends categories, and is meaningful to the specific client challenge I’m working on. 

The danger at this point is never giving up and letting go of the hunt. I’ve seen this difficulty in newer, less-experienced content strategists. They might lack confidence to take a chance on judgements that don’t yet feel fully-formed. There’s the thought that if I can just figure out one more thing, then I’ll really get it, and of course that ‘one more thing’ is followed by another ‘one more thing.’ One more never ends. There’s always more we could know.


More than sweat.

This process of inductive thinking is not merely a steady grind, putting one analytical foot in front of the other until we reach the end. There’s an extra, intangible element.

I imagine a lot of content strategists have had this experience during an audit of feelings that are alternately chaotic and magical. As we engross ourselves in the data, an obsessive mania can take hold as the information piles up in one’s mind. Ideas about the content swirl around in our dreams, arranging and rearranging like Tetris pieces. Sometimes they fit together, sometimes they don’t. There are moments when we feel lost in a patternless sea of details. We can’t reach anything but ordinary observations, and we worry we are wasting our (and our client’s) time. 

This time spent floating in the waves, just sitting with our thoughts and turning them over and over in the mind, is essential to the task. We may sketch, we may mind-map, we may do a card sort. Whatever our methods, the unavoidable ingredient we need is time to think — and also to stop thinking. There’s a point where our accumulated observations dissolve into a mental soup the way a caterpillar molts and liquifies into a pupa. 


Insist on the time you need to do great work.

Sometimes we may feel pressured to skip ahead and over this step. I think that leaves you with nothing but pedestrian findings. They are obvious, small ideas that don’t add up to much beyond saying “make the content better.” The recommendations are logical, but uninspiring, an untailored assortment of unprioritized tactics and so-called best practices. That’s just sad, because it only takes a little more time for us to turn a mediocre content audit into a great one.

With time and the space clear of multitasking to let that chrysalis of ideas develop on its own, a magic moment will ultimately come when the puzzle floating around our head clicks into place like a metal button snapping together.


Take a walk.

You can’t just wait around for this inspiration to strike. You need that time to mull, but you also have to wake up and do something to push the insight out. It’s like putting a dormant branch of forsythia or cherry in a vase of fresh water to encourage it to bud and bloom.

For me, this moment of magic happens most often when I put aside the keyboard and screen and go outside for a walk. The change of environment and getting my limbs in motion seems to trigger that part of the brain that can slash through my tangle of mental fishing lines. I have a friend who goes analog with pen and paper.

What do you do that clears and nudges your brain for insight?

However you do it, it is critical to remove distractions, to clear and allow space for yourself. I don’t know how else to say it but that you have to act and not act at once.

Sometimes you can find your insight with a partner, but often it is on your own. You absolutely cannot get the insight to come out in a group. Groups are deadly to inspiration because they rob the individual of the ownership of the idea that allows the idea to evolve and grow — but, that’s a subject for another time. 



When the big insight emerges suddenly but smoothly into consciousness, it can feel as though the idea was there all along and now the clouds obscuring it have simply cleared away. But the truth is a metamorphosis has occurred. The jumble of ill-fitting Tetris shapes have been transformed into an elegant Sudoku solution. 

At last, we see exactly what is going on, and have a pithy way to describe it. The big insight then unlocks and opens up into successive ideas that build into a neat package which captures the challenge and the opportunity in a simple and original way. 

When we get to this level of insight, we offer more than generic tactics and best practices. We inspire action towards higher, strategic goals and aim our clients towards a fresh vision for content — while giving them a prioritized set of steps for accomplishing that vision. 

It was a slog, but now we know we’ve earned our keep. All thanks to a process of inductive investigation, with time for magic — magic that also happens to turn drudgery into fun. 


*I lied a little here. There is actually one recommendation I’ve recycled dozens of times and it can be considered a nearly all-purpose recommendation: Kill the PDFs! Convert them to native web content and use CSS to provide a print-friendly version when you need it.