Toward Content Quality

By Colleen Jones

Published: April 13, 2009

“With good content heuristics, we could make a case for better content without painstakingly doing an analysis of all of the content up front.”

How do we know whether content is any good? This simple question does not have a simple answer. Yet, I think having a good answer would help us show our employers and clients why their content needs to improve and how their content compares to the competition’s. As a start toward an answer to this question, I offer a set of content quality checklists for seven different lenses through which we can view content. I see these checklists as the groundwork for content heuristics, which would enable us to do heuristic evaluations and competitive analyses efficiently. With good content heuristics, we could make a case for better content without painstakingly doing an analysis of all of the content up front. Imagine, making a case for better content quality in a few hours instead of a few weeks.

Many interactive projects address content quality only through a style guide. A style guide is helpful, but it isn’t enough. One problem is that a style guide often emerges at the end of an interactive project, capturing how a team handled certain content issues and how they intend to handle them moving forward. That doesn’t help much during the project. Another problem that often occurs is a company neglects maintenance of the style guide going forward. (For information about living style guides, read Letting Go of the Words by Ginny Redish. [1]) Finally, many Web style guides I’ve encountered address word choice, brand voice—and that’s about it. The scope of content quality is much broader.

Recently, at IA Summit 2009, I had the opportunity to share several of these content quality checklists with some conference attendees who participated in the Content Strategy Consortium that Kristina Halvorson of Brain Traffic and Karen McGrane of Bond Art+Science [2] coordinated. The people who participated in that discussion provided excellent feedback that has helped me refine the checklists.

Content Quality Checklists

“Correcting spelling and grammar only scratches the surface. To truly consider content quality, we need to examine its quality along several dimensions.”

In my experience, a common misperception of the evaluation of content quality is that its scope is limited to the correction of typos and grammatical errors. Correcting spelling and grammar only scratches the surface. To truly consider content quality, we need to examine its quality along several dimensions. Consequently, the content quality checklists that follow cover everything from usefulness to voice to accuracy.

  • Usefulness & Relevance:
    • Does the content meet user needs, goals, and interests?
    • Does the content meet business goals?
    • For how long will the content be useful? When should it expire? Has its usefulness already expired?
    • Is the content timely and relevant?
  • Clarity & Accuracy:
    • Is the content understandable to customers?
    • Is the content organized logically & coherently?
    • Is the content correct?
    • Does the content contain factual errors, typos, or grammatical errors?
    • Do images, video, and audio meet technical standards, so they are clear?
  • Influence & Engagement:
    • Does the content use the most appropriate techniques to influence or engage customers?
    • Does the content execute those techniques effectively?
    • Does the content use too many or too few techniques for the context?
  • Completeness:
    • Does the content include all of the information customers need or might want about a topic?
    • Does the content include too much or too little information about a topic for the context?
  • Voice & Style:
    • Does the content consistently reflect the editorial or brand voice?
    • Does its tone adjust appropriately to the context—for example, sales versus customer service?
    • Does the content convey the appropriate editorial and brand qualities?
    • Does the content seem to have a style? If so, does the content adhere to it consistently?
    • Does the content read, look, or sound as though it’s professionally crafted?
  • Usability & Findability:
    • Is the content easy to scan or read?
    • Is the content in a usable format, including headings, bulleted lists, tables, white space, or similar techniques, as appropriate to the content?
    • Does the content have the appropriate metadata?
    • Does the content follow search engine optimization (SEO) guidelines—such as using keywords—without sacrificing quality in other areas?
    • Can customers find the content when searching using relevant keywords?

A Few Caveats

While I think these content quality checklists are a good place to start, it’s important to note several caveats relating to their scope and appropriate use.

  • As for any heuristic evaluation or competitive analysis, the expertise of the person evaluating the content is as important as the heuristics he or she uses.
  • An expert opinion is still an opinion. It is also important to consider other indicators of content quality such as Web metrics, usability testing, and customer feedback.
  • These checklists do not entirely fit user-generated content or user assistance content. However, I think variations of these basic checklists might be useful for those contexts.
  • These checklists certainly do not replace other important content strategy tools such as detailed content inventory and analysis.

Why Content Quality Matters

“If you already care about content, you know instinctually that its quality matters.”

If you already care about content, you know instinctually that its quality matters. Personally, when I encounter bad content, my blood pressure starts to rise, and I feel an uncontrollable urge to fix it. However, not everyone instinctually cares about content quality. (If they did, bad content would not be so rampant.)

What if you have to convince people who are oblivious to content quality that they need to improve the quality of their content? Persuading them will require more than a heuristic evaluation or a competitive analysis. Fortunately, some experts have already made compelling cases for content quality, so you don’t have to start from scratch. You can build on their convincing arguments:

  • Content is a strategic brand asset. If the purveyors of the brand or marketing are your audience, this argument will resonate. Content is a significant part of the brand experience, and we should treat it as such. Improving content adds luster to the brand. Kristina Halvorson and Joe Pulizzi make this case effectively. [3]
  • Content is a major part of the user, or customer, experience. If those who are responsible for user experience or customer service are your audience, this argument will garner attention. Redish’s Letting Go of the Words can help you make this argument. Halvorson also makes a clear case that content is a user experience issue. [4] It’s not just some arbitrary substance that fills our designs.

Ensuring Content Quality: Beyond the Style Guide

“Engagement is a metric that suits content well.”

Let’s say you’ve made a winning case for content quality and successfully improved its quality on a project. Inevitably, the question of maintaining the quality of content will next arise. I’ll now highlight a few ways of effectively maintaining content quality. This topic is rich and merits more discussion, but this list will at least help you move forward:

  • testing content with users—Incorporate questions about content in your user interviews, focus groups, usability tests, and surveys. We don’t discuss testing of content enough, and I plan to discuss it more in upcoming columns.
  • monitoring content metrics—Engagement is a metric that suits content well. For content that’s meant to support conversions, tracking whether conversions increase after improving content is important. For example, InterContinental Hotels Group conducted a pilot comparing their existing hotel content with improved content, which was professionally written and photographed. Everything else about the user experience was identical. With the improved hotel content, the increase in conversions was so significant it resulted in an immediate decision to improve all hotel content. [5]
  • establishing governance—Have a group of stakeholders from across the company or organization meet regularly to oversee major content decisions.
  • applying the publishing model to content—The publishing industry, for the most part, knows how to develop quality content—despite occasional disappointing efforts. (See Joe the Plumber as author.) Jeffrey MacIntyre articulates the publishing model well. [6] For major content efforts, a publishing structure and related tools—such as an editorial calendar—are a natural fit.
  • incorporating content guides, standards, and tips into CMS workflows—I would love to see guidelines for content quality incorporated into CMS (Content Management System) workflows. Including some contextual Help or quality checklists would provide effective reminders, preventing the people who approve content from forgetting what the content guidelines are. Publishing guidelines in a hard-to-find document probably won’t help much in the day-to-day grind of content publishing.
  • maintaining the metadata—I am not a metadata expert, but I know that, as the semantic Web progresses from dream to reality, metadata is becoming even more important to content quality. Rachel Lovinger demystifies metadata, noting important strategies and tools. [7]
  • hiring employees, consultants, and agencies who care about content—Whether you need a lone content evangelist, an outside agency, or your own content team, hiring people who have an instinct for and expertise in content will go a long way toward preserving its quality.

Join the Conversation

I welcome your thoughts on these content quality checklists. Can they form the basis for content quality heuristics? What is missing or extraneous? Are they too broad or too specific? Do they help us efficiently assess whether our content is any good? If so, why—or why not?

References

[1] Redish, Janice (Ginny). Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works. St. Louis, MO: Morgan Kaufmann, 2007.

[2] Jones, Colleen. “Content Quality: It’s More Than Fixing Typos.” Content Strategy Consortium at IA Summit 2009, March 18, 2009. SlideShare. Retrieved March 26, 2009.

[3] Halvorson, Kristina. “Content Strategy: The Care and Feeding of Your Most Important Brand Asset.” Conversations About the Future of Advertising, March 9, 2009. Retrieved March 26, 2009.

[4] Halvorson, Kristina. “Content Strategy: The Mania, The Myth, The Mayhem.” SlideShare, February 2008. Retrieved March 26, 2009.

[5] Jones, Colleen. “Usable, INFLUENTIAL Content: We Can Have It All.” IA Summit 2009, March 21, 2009. SlideShare. Retrieved March 26, 2009.

[6] MacIntyre, Jeffrey. “Publishers and Content Strategy.” Content Strategy Consortium at IA Summit 2009, March 18, 2009. SlideShare. Retrieved March 26, 2009.

[7] Lovinger, Rachel. “Metadata Strategies and Tools.” Content Strategy Consortium at IA Summit 2009, March 18, 2009. SlideShare. Retrieved March 26, 2009.

7 Comments

Good one, Colleen.

One point that should be obvious, but often gets missed, is that content has a functional purpose, and this should be explicit to author and reviewers alike. Without clear communication goals in the form of a brief, quality and evaluation become subjective. With them, it’s not hard to test the effectiveness of content, and it’s relatively easy to improve it.

General heuristics can be useful, but they’re no substitute for a specific brief, because they don’t incorporate priorities.

Any organisztion that can’t articulate what its content is intended to do has a governance problem.

A very interesting, incisive, and informative article.

I understand there is a need for the academic and forensic breakdown of what content is and how it provides value to a Web site, as so succinctly provided above.

However, in explaining things in such a way, I think it defeats the whole object of content, in that any explanation of it should be written in plain and straightforward English.

For example, as a Web copywriter, I frequently have to explain what the word content means to clients. My answer is that it essentially refers to and means words and pictures on a Web site.

It would really help everyone concerned if any kind of article concerning content and usability was written in a way that everyone could understand.

Sadly, too many people involved with the Web and IT&8212;or is that now ICT, where I believe the C stands for communication?&8212;in general, have spent too long talking in management-, industry-, and geek-speak.

This sadly neglects the primary importance of anything involved with the fields of Web usability and Web sites in that, at the end of the day, the customer, user, or simply put, people should be the ones that come first.

Saying all that, this comment was not left as any personal criticism of the above article, which perfectly sums up the problems of evaluating Web site words and pictures.

Rather it should be seen as a comment on the unfortunate way in which this kind of information is all too often presented, which sadly, immediately distances it from its prime purpose and the knowledge it is trying to promote&8212;that of general understanding.

David—Great point. Context is critical. Any assessment of content needs to take that into account. And I completely agree that functionless content often is related to governance.

Fred—Nice insight about having to explain content. I also encounter almost the opposite problem. I hear the term content being overused to refer to things that are not content. The client-friendly version of the heuristic evaluation should define what content is. That would solve both types of problems.

Hi Colleen!

I’m working on another article to add to the content quality conversation. I did take Fred up, though, on his challenge to define content simply, and I commend it to him and anyone else.

More later!

Stephen

Content Strategy Noob

Hi Colleen. After I read your article, I got goose pimples. I loved it. Thanks for that.

These days, I have one foot in the tech and the other in strategy. When I saw the word heuristic appear in your article, it sort of confirmed that the issues, processes, and techniques you’re applying are very similar to those taken by the software industry to improve software quality. When Fred chipped in with what does content mean to a client, followed by what is not content by yourself, this resonated clearly with problems I always face upstream on content-oriented projects.

This week, I was pulled into a customer project meeting that had started off in a design-led fashion—design the site, add two scoops of content, mix, sprinkle on some SEO and URL, and launch. As always Fred, I had to explain what content is through pictures and quite detailed explanations. Colleen, then came the items on your checklist—a timely post I might add :)—with a view to building out a strategy to do this.

David, I mostly agree with you, but think heuristics are a great way to get to the specific brief. What I’ve found is that organizations need help to articulate what their content is intended to do and that they are not always better positioned to write for their target audience in the first instance.

I absolutely rely on content strategists to put this ‘good stuff’ in place and embed it as part of any solution. Otherwise, as Jeff Goldblum put its, “ooooh, aaaaah, that�s how it always starts—on projects—and then later the running and screaming�”

Great post, Colleen!

Cleve—Goose pimples? Thanks for caring about content that much! Thanks also for your insightful comment to share your experience and weave together the conversation so nicely. I can’t tell who you are based on the Typepad profile, so I hope you get in touch sometime!

I’d also like to invite all of you to join the Google group that Kristina Halvorson has started about content">http://groups.google.com/group/contentstrategy?hl=en">content strategy.

May the great conversation continue!

Colleen, I’ve joined the group and the great discussions. Thanks.

I’ve also started a series on content modelling. I’d be interested in your thoughts as I progress down this path.

Cleve

Join the Discussion

Asterisks (*) indicate required information.