The Qualitative Content Audit

What makes a website good? We often say that content strategy is about getting the right content to the right people at the right time. “Right content” in that phrase is usually taken to mean relevant, timely, useful—all good things. But what about actual content quality?

A content audit is usually defined as the qualitative view of your content. While data, such as analytics, can be very useful in evaluating quality, there are also the more traditionally editorial measures such as assessing against brand guidelines, style guides, and voice and tone. In this article we’ll look at what some of those qualitative measures are and how to evaluate content against them.

In previous articles in this series, we've discussed how you can build on your CAT-powered content inventory to develop your audit. For the sake of this article, we'll assume that you've already created your inventory and therefore know the scope of your audit. 

Why Quality Matters

Every time a customer or potential customer comes to your (or your client’s) web site, you are given an opportunity to convey information, inspire trust and loyalty to the brand, and make a sale or otherwise engage the user. How you speak to your customers, whether your content seems thorough and credible, and how consistent the experience is with other ways your customers engage with you, such as your print materials or retail presence, can have a significant effect.

A fairly standard set of audit criteria includes these attributes:

  • Content is easy-to-read/scan.
  • Tone is audience-specific.
  • Nomenclature is clear and consistent.
  • Content communicates key messaging.
  • Content facilitates key user activities.
  • Content is engaging.
  • Content presentation is consistent.

Let’s look at how to assess against these criteria.

Standards and Style Guides

Brand Guidelines

Most major organizations have a set of brand guidelines, but unless a fairly robust governance process is in place, it’s easy for content creators to either be unaware of them or become lax in following them over time. Before you begin your audit, get access to those corporate brand guidelines, which usually address rules for content creation, including how to refer to the company’s name (are registration or trademarks required? Can the company name be abbreviated in any way? Must the company name precede any product name?), usage of taglines, and any particular brand “voice.” For issues of terminology, you may be able to conduct text searches either on the existing web site or in the content management system, and find incorrect instances.

Brand guidelines also are typically concerned with graphics and logo usage as well—for that part of the audit, we suggest you pair up with your colleagues on the creative team.

Voice and Tone

Most brand guidelines will include a set of brand voice attributes. For example, the list may include adjectives like friendly, conversational, upbeat, playful, and energetic for a consumer-facing site; for a technical site, they may be more like authoritative, serious, clear, respectful.

These are intended to guide the writers in creating content that reflects the brand and sets the tone for the user’s experience with the content. When auditing content against these voice and tone guidelines, keep in mind that not every piece of content can or should convey them all, of course, and different content types may lend themselves to particular writing styles. It might not be appropriate to convey product data such as lists of features and pricing information in a playful manner, but it is possible to make it approachable by avoiding the use of jargon or technical terms that assume a level of familiarity or expertise that a new customer may not have. Promotional copy, on the other hand, may place greater emphasis on the energetic, playful, and upbeat aspects of the voice.

Following are a few examples of what to look for in content written to our example attributes. If your style guide doesn't include a list like this, consider creating one to work with.

Attribute Content characteristic


  • Written clearly and conversationally
  • Uses short, simple sentences
  • Uses familiar, common language


  • Gives users ways to contact you
  • Content is easy to scan


  • Written as if you’re speaking to a friend, and want your friend to know what you know
  • Written informally
  • Uses contractions
  • Written in the second person: “you,” “your,” and “yours”


  • Uses the active voice
  • Empowers the customer with action verbs: Find, Search, Explore, Get, Shop, and so on

Audience Appropriateness

In creating messaging and content for a site, it’s important to try to project a consistent voice that conveys the attributes of the brand in a style appropriate to the customer being addressed. Whatever type of content you are managing, it’s likely that you’ll have users at different points in a purchase or engagement cycle as well as different levels of experience or expertise with your product or service.

Each of these customers needs to feel that the content is relevant and approachable and they need to come away from the site with whatever they came to get.

Content strategists need to be as familiar with audience research as the marketing team or any other team in the organization. When you understand who you are speaking to, how they like to be addressed, and what they are coming to the site to do, you can effectively evaluate how well site content meets their needs and speaks their language. For example, identifying key words and phrases that your customers use gives you a clear set of terms to look for in content, links, and headings. Gerry McGovern calls these “customer care words” and has written extensively about how to mine for and use them.

In a previous article, we wrote about how to use personas in content audits. Now is a good time to revisit those personas and think about how they would want to be addressed. There are several angles from which to evaluate content.

Expert vs. Novice

Technical sites or commerce sites that deal with sophisticated equipment have the challenge of speaking both to very expert users and people just getting started.

A new or novice user of a particular product or technology, for example, may feel unsure about making a decision, lacking confidence in their ability to gather the right information. A guided experience, offering ample opportunities to learn more via helpful content, could help enhance their confidence. Look for content that is offered in multiple formats (text, video) and is accessible via multiple entry points. Here again, looking for the use of customer terms from search logs may be a valuable audit tactic.

Sites aren’t always easily divided into expert vs. novice content, though (nor should they be), so be aware that novices can come across technical content. You won’t want all the expert-level content written in such a way that it doesn’t meet their needs, but look for ways that novices can easily navigate away to get more information rather than feeling they’ve hit a dead end that leaves them questioning.

For the expert user, the goal of the site content is likely to be more focused on making him or her feel well informed and offering ways to become even more knowledgeable. If the expert user is a business decision maker or the product appeals to users with a high level of knowledge already, they may not need much in the way of help content, but need comprehensive, specific, accurate information and they need it quickly. Navigation and copy should expressly support this focus by being as brief as possible, and using precise, concrete, to-the-point language.

A business audience will be more familiar with technical specifications and industry jargon and will expect that terminology be used consistently and accurately. Look for content features like specifications, expert forums, and side-by-side comparisons to make it easier for the customer to quickly assess and make decisions.

Plain Language

What if you don’t have brand guidelines that include voice and tone or an editorial style guide? You can seldom go wrong by embracing the concept of plain language.

Plain language is clear, succinct writing designed to ensure the reader understands as quickly and completely as possible. Plain language strives to be easy to read, understand, and use. It avoids verbose, convoluted language and jargon. – Wikipedia entry

If the content on your site isn’t, as the definition says, easy to read, understand and use, flag it for rewrite.

Voice and Tone by Content Type

A quick note about expectations for voice and tone by content type. All user-targeting aside, there are some common-sense guidelines for evaluating the tone and style of particular types of content. For example:

  • Blogs are generally informal, conversational, personal
  • Help content should be friendly, encouraging, supportive
  • Technical content is generally detailed, serious
  • Legal content is, well, legalese

Editorial/Style Guide

Many organizations have an internal style guide, or follow one of the standards, for issues like use of punctuation, abbreviations, and other terminology. For example, a style guide might address whether to use a.m. and p.m., AM and PM, am and pm, or A.M. and P.M. or when to capitalize or abbreviate certain terms common to the subject matter. When you begin auditing a site, ask your clients whether a style guide exists and familiarize yourself with it so that you can make a single pass through the content and catch all the issues. If the client doesn’t have a style guide, consider making one so that you can document the decisions you make as you review content and eliminate inconsistencies.

The purpose of having a style guide, of course, is to ensure a high-quality, consistent reading experience. As content strategists, we understand the importance of quality content. It communicates key messages to the audience and greatly influences visitors’ overall experience of the site. It also helps create an impression of the company behind that site.

Allow poorly-written, unclear, inconsistent content to stand and you risk leaving the reader with a bad impression of the company. It distracts from the task at hand and can subtly undermine the brand. Insist on making it right and you will not only make a positive impression on the audience, but they will also be more likely to absorb its main messages.

Consistency internally, as evaluated against brand and style guides is critical, of course, but many organizations have other, offline touch points with customers as well. Another reason to advocate for consistency is to reinforce the brand credibility and give customers confidence that they are dealing with a single organization dedicated to quality experience.

Content Requirements

Style guides may also address requirements for certain content types to ensure accuracy and consistency. For example, you would typically want product specifications to follow a strict standard and use a consistent set of terminology to describe product features so that accurate comparisons can be made between products.

Site hierarchy also should reflect the way customers think of your products rather than the way the business does. Avoid organizing the site by business unit but instead by what is intuitive to someone outside the company. If your audit process time and resources allow, doing some customer research such as a card sort can be very helpful in understanding how users think.

Navigation labels should be evaluated against typical customer tasks and include keywords based on what you know about how your customers search for or think about your site or product. It should go without saying that labels and links should allow a reader to accurately guess at what they lead to.


There aren’t hard-and-fast rules for auditing content against subjective measures like voice and quality. In many cases, the answer to how a particular content set should be authored, presented, and managed is “It depends.” Every site is different, every user is unique, and tastes and standards change frequently. But we still have a responsibility to our readers to make their experience the best it can be, so we work with what we have. Guidelines, personas, and data provide a framework within which to evaluate content. On top of that framework, we rely on our common sense and hard-won experience as strategists to guide our audit process.


Other articles in this series:

Using Personas in Content Audits

Auditing for Content Performance

A Template for Content Inventory and Audit