When dealing with a large, complex, old and out-of-date website, a content audit can be a waste of time and money.

Recently, I dealt with an organization that had 100,000 pages on its public website. It was vast and unmanaged. Shortly after the web team began a content audit of the site it became clear that it was going to be an extremely time-consuming and expensive exercise, and also a wasteful one.

It was often hard to find the original owners of the pages. When they were found they often didn’t want to delete any content, even content that had been identified by objective measures as useless. It was estimated that it would take years and years to clean up the site. What was worse was that lots of new content was being published every day.

So, the organization decided to do something different. It focused on content for its customers’ top tasks and just deleted the rest. Didn’t do any auditing, didn’t ask any questions, didn’t tell any content owners. Ninety-seven thousand pages were deleted. Then they hunkered down and waited for the deluge of protests from content owners. They waited and they waited. Nobody protested. Nobody noticed.

Well, customers noticed. They noticed that the site was now much easier to navigate and search. All the Key Performance Indicators improved. Yes, traffic did drop but within 12 months, the 3,000 pages were getting more visits than the 100,000 pages originally were.

Sometimes you need to slash and burn. Otherwise a huge amount of your team’s energy will be spent on shoveling out the crap. Many web teams are simply focused on the wrong things. They spend more time on what is less important to the customer, and less time on what is more important to the customer.

The organization that had a 100,000 page website decided that it would focus on customer top tasks and seek to improve them. Anything that didn’t qualify as a top task was either deleted or else had its pages radically reduced. The tiny tasks greatly complicate navigation and search, and they eat up the time of the web team.

A lot of organizations today have the crazy situation of uncontrolled distributed publishing. On the surface it looks like a cheap option because it removes the "bottlenecks" of professional editors. But its results are absolutely disastrous. Bloated, ungoverned, unnavigable, unsearchable, unusable websites are the result.

To do content audits on these behemoths is a monstrous undertaking. It is generally faster, cheaper and better to focus on the top tasks and just cut everything else. Then, if some content owner starts screaming, you can deal with it on a case-by-case basis.

I have seen this approach succeed in multiple environments over the years and in the majority of cases the key to success was senior management buy-in. There were also clear rules established that ensured that the content bloat would not explode again. And the basis of all these rules was that content owners were no longer allowed to publish on their own. They had to submit to an editor who had real power to say no. Does that sound like a familiar model?