A content set grows organically over time. It’s created over many years, by many writers with many different writing styles and degrees of detail. In many cases, the content creators are no longer part of your company. Their content, however, lives on.

It’s possible the content is in different formats destined for print or online outputs or is maintained in multiple proprietary tools such as Microsoft Word or Adobe FrameMaker. Beyond this, there could be a wealth of useful information within the company that the documentation group doesn’t maintain or even know about. It’s not uncommon for support teams and trainers to have lots of “tips and tricks” documents that really should be included in the “mainstream” documentation.

What Is a Content Inventory, Anyway?

A content inventory is, at its simplest, a list of what you have—your maps, topics, images (in a DITA model) or your HTML files, or your Microsoft Word documents, or your Adobe FrameMaker books and files. It lists file names, titles, cross-references, images used—things like that. It’s quantitative.

Why Do a Content Inventory and Audit?

There are many reasons to do a content inventory and audit. Some of the most common reasons are:

  • A clean-up before converting your content from one format to another (for example, before a conversion to DITA)
  • A clean-up before moving your content into a CCMS
  • A clean-up to reduce the costs of localization

Notice that “clean-up” is the common factor here. An organically-grown content set must be thinned out. Ideally that should happen on a regular basis, but we’re all busy. It’s hard to find the time to clean up when you constantly have updates and new documentation to deliver.

As a result, it’s only when some major tool or process change is about to happen that we are forced to make the time to clean up, so most content inventories and audits are driven by a specific purpose.

If you are moving your content into a CCMS, you’d probably like to make a fresh start and not import outdated or redundant content. You can import everything and clean up later, if that better fits your timeline, or you can clean up first and do a nice, efficient import. Here’s a subtle hint…clean up BEFORE you import!

The point is, the clean-up has to happen sometime—the sooner the better—and the first step in figuring out what to keep and what to discard is to create a list of what you have.

That list, simply put, is your content inventory.

What Do You Evaluate in the Content Audit?

A content audit is an evaluation of each item in the inventory. For each item in the inventory, you want to make a value judgement on it:

  • Is it Relevant? Does it add value for the user?
  • Is it Accurate? Is the information factually correct?
  • Is it Complete? Is all the necessary information present?
  • Is it Conformant? Does it adhere to authoring, style, structure, and terminology standards?
  • Is it Unique? Is it a duplicate or near-duplicate of another item in the inventory?

Let’s call these criteria RACCU, just to have a catchy acronym. If the answer to any of these questions is NO, then you need to decide what action to take on the item.

Developing a Project Plan

A project plan is essential. The content inventory and audit should absolutely be non-negotiable items in the overall project that is serving as the motivation, such as the conversion to DITA, or the purchase of a CCMS, or the implementation of DRM.

What should the project plan include? To start, you need a goal statement. It might look like this:

“To first inventory our current body of content for [product / group / business unit / etc.] to create a comprehensive list of current items and their relationships to each other. To then evaluate each item in the inventory to analyze and resolve gaps, redundancies, and inconsistencies, resulting in a clean body of content that reduces the cost and time for [conversion to DITA / CCMS implementation / localization / etc.].”

The Importance of Recurring Content Audits

It’s essential you do a periodic re-inventory and re-audit. I can hear you all groaning now. “It’s so much work! And then we have to do it again?” Well, yes. Not to the depth that you did your original inventory and audit, but yes. Think of it as an annual checkup. This kind of periodic re-inventory and re-audit is called a rolling audit, because it’s not a stop the presses event, but rather a mini-snapshot of just the content that’s most likely to have deviated from your RACCU standards.

Now that you know the basics on how to create a content inventory and audit, we invite you to make your own with the help of DITA Specialist Leigh White’s spreadsheet.

The content shown in the spreadsheet is the DITA-based documentation for a fictitious product called Thunderbird. It was originally sponsored by the consulting firm Gnostyx Research and included contributions from Joe Golner, Jacquie Samuels, and several other people. It’s freely available from GitHub.

A Must-Have Resource – Content Inventories and Audits: A Handbook, by Paula Ladenburg Land

This book provides: A wealth of information about the whole inventory and audit process, many more details about the material I’ve covered, helpful checklists and flow charts, and a list of still more resources you can take advantage of.