Many years ago—not before the internet, but close—I ran a book review program on an NPR-affiliate station in a small, Midwestern college town. Not everybody I recruited to write reviews could write them. Many agonized over the process and their result needed substantial editing.

Book reviewing, after all, requires a special sort of skill. You need to identify what the book is about; place it in a context; and assess the author’s intentions and how successful the author is in achieving them. A reviewer reads a book closely to understand the plotting and characters and style, but a reviewer also reads beyond the book, identifying the conversations it’s in with other books, recent (or long past) history, and cultural trends. The book reviewer takes these two readings and crafts a story about them that will be meaningful to a listening (or reading) public.

Another way to look at book reviewing is that a book reviewer is a content auditor. The book reviewer’s job is not simply to offer a thumbs up or a thumbs down, but to examine the book’s qualities and draw out evidence that communicates why it is or isn’t worth reading, what it does or doesn’t offer, whether the content does or does not deliver on what the title and back cover copy promises.

What is a content audit?

As a content strategist, I help my clients develop plans for how they create, manage, and govern content. This planning needs to start somewhere—and it almost always starts with a content audit.

A content audit can do many different things. It can look closely at navigation, or voice/tone, or microcopy used with the calls to action. It can look more broadly at content across a single content type (like product copy), or the organization of content, or the depth and quality of content. Or it can do all these things. Its purpose is to tease out what is and isn’t working and inform the thinking behind what the plan for creating, managing, and governing content ought to be. An audit is primarily a strategic document; it helps answers the question, “is the right stuff there?” against a set of criteria like user goals, brand position, and communication objectives.

Comparing what book reviewing teaches to content auditing

Book reviewers analyze the stuff that’s there against the stuff that could be there and the stuff that ought to be there. The reviewer analyzes a book against the author’s intention and ambition, and the world of possible options, namely, what other writers have achieved with similar materials. In the process, the book reviewer considers critical questions about the book: does the author deliver on the promise of the book’s premise? Do the chapters build on one another? How clear is the style? How well supported is the argument? How compelling is the story or narrative?

To a content strategist, this will sound quite similar to what goes into performing a content audit. The content strategist examines a website’s objectives against how well it achieves them, how appropriately it communicates a message to its audience, the logic of its architecture, and the story it tells.

The book reviewer has a second, equally important task on which the success of the analysis depends: communicating her findings. She can do that playfully, seriously, enthusiastically—tone is at the reviewer’s discretion—as long as she does it with clarity. Those listening to, or reading, the review, need to understand the rationale, and come away with the information that tells them whether the book is relevant to them or not (or whether it’s worth finishing the review).

Similarly, the content audit is always for an audience. Above all, it needs to be clear, although it ought to be well-supported, logical, and actionable, too.

There is one major difference between the content audit and the book review, however; reviewers deliver their message directly to citizens—to potential readers. The content audit is delivered to a client. As such, the content auditor has an opportunity that a book reviewer can only dream of: direct, meaningful input into creating a more useful, more relevant, and more meaningful experience—a better product.

Content auditing lessons from book reviewing

As content strategists, then, we can apply the practices of a book reviewer to our audits. By taking lessons from the book reviewer—or any reviewer, really—we can better refine and target our audits.

1. Identify “what it’s about”

At the core of the book review, the reviewer articulates what the book is about: the idea that motivates it. Similarly, an interactive experience is always about something. It’s not simply about getting people to buy a thing, participate in a thing, or understand a thing; it’s the brand or organization’s unique approach to that thing. For example, a content audit that finds a brand or organization whose stated vision is “inspiring the world” talking mostly about its internal processes will have usefully identified a discrepancy between what it wants to be and what it is.

2. Understand the context

All books live in a wider context. So do all interactive experiences. The context for an interactive experience doesn’t come from the site itself; it comes from what others are doing in the category and out of category, as well as all the information about the organization, its audience, and its objectives. Audits are best begun by collecting information through stakeholder interviews; downloading all available strategic marketing documents, user research, and analytics; reviewing what competitors and best-in-class experiences consist of; and, often, by talking to the target audience.

The context, after all, is not the thing itself; it’s the thing in relationship to everything going on around it—and all the circumstances that inform it. That’s why the most useful audit will consider the business, competitors, audience behaviors, and trends across the internet—what’s outside the “text” as well as what’s in it.

3. Identify intentions

Authors have an intention; they’re telling a story or proving a point in a way that’s specific to that book. An interactive experience ought to have an intention, too. As a content auditor, you’re working to figure out what it is about—or what it wants to be about, as suggested by user research, strategy, and analytics—and its context. Once you’ve done that, the job of combing through the experience and figuring out how well it measures up to its ambitions begins.

As content strategists, we’re looking for how the brand or organization wants to manifest itself—its vision for itself. We’re looking at what people are coming to the site for—the information they need and the experience they’re seeking. We’re doing a close reading of subheads, imagery, text blocks, and microcopy to see how they match the brand or organization’s vision, its users needs, and its objectives. We’re looking at how content lives across the brand or organization’s content properties—on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, in brochures and other print materials—to see whether its values and personality are appropriately expressed, because the risks of a mismatch between what its content says, and how its audiences interpret it, can be significant.

Example: A brand about affordable shopping throws up a Pinterest board about “Gifts for Her” where a red high-heeled shoe sits next to a bakeware set. The idea of the board is not necessarily a bad idea in and of itself—obviously, “she” needs “gifts”—but this particular configuration of objects risks communicating a secondary, sexist message; in other words, this board is conflicted on what it’s about. Our job is to see that conflict and help resolve it.

The value of an audit

An audit is strategic—and subjective. It’s a point-of-view that’s informed by expertise, research, and, wherever possible, metrics. The expertise is part of the craft of content strategy. We ground that expertise not simply in a close reading of content, but in how we apply our understanding of user needs and business objectives to our reading of content.

A book review and a content audit ultimately serve a similar purpose: they make people’s experience a little better, expanding their vision of the possible. They do this by telling a story about something that exists today. Where the book reviewer’s job is to entertain and connect an object’s value with those who will most appreciate it, helping them decide whether to make a commitment to a book later on, the content auditor’s job is to craft a story that offers an actionable vision between where an object is now, and where it could be, if it were to more fully meet its audience’s desired experience.

Of course, there are plenty of steps from the auditing to the creation. But every user experience has to start somewhere.