An introduction to content

Understand why content matters to digital experience

What is content?

Content is not just words; it’s everything that provides meaning to a webpage. Content includes blogs, images, videos, forms, social media posts, reels, data feeds, and more… all the ways we communicate online. Content is only limited by our imagination, and new forms of content are evolving all the time.

Why does content matter?

Words are the most common type of content on federal websites, so, simple, clear, audience-focused writing is essential. Clear communication through good content is how federal agencies meet their missions and serve customers.

Clear writing in plain language enables website visitors to find what they need, understand what they find, and use it to meet their needs.

Both the quality and quantity of content can impact a user’s experience, particularly when content is not optimized for search, is no longer current, or published in formats that are not accessible or mobile-friendly.

How to create useful and relevant digital content

There are six key ways to create useful and relevant digital content.

  1. Default to HTML - Eliminate PDFs, publish content as web pages to improve usability and accessibility, and digitize forms and services.
  2. Write content in plain language - Tailor content to audience needs, use a conversational tone, and avoid unnecessary complexity; test content with users to ensure it meets their needs. Follow the federal plain language guidelines, which were developed to help agencies write clearly.
  3. Optimize for search - Publish structured content that is optimized for findability via search engines. Search engines rely on structured content to inform how your content is indexed and presented in search results. Also be sure to include metadata and tags in your website.
  4. Keep content current - Regularly review content for accuracy, indicate that content is up-to-date, ensure campaigns are strategic and time-bound, and remove outdated or rarely-accessed content as soon as possible. Content audits are a great tool for ensuring content is current.
  5. Demonstrate authoritativeness - Include all required content and links, and clearly label non-governmental content. Use the U.S. Web Design System’s identifier component to display agency links required by federal laws and policies. Also, follow the Design System’s link guidance to ensure you clearly identify external links and provide notification for non-federal external links.
  6. Provide appropriate access - Provide content in languages other than English based on audience need, and manually validate machine translations before publication.

What can I do next?

Content audits are important. They can help you identify who is responsible for content, how often it should be updated, and what role a particular piece of content plays for users. Best practices are to conduct content audits at least once a year. By performing regular content audits, you’ll gain valuable insight on how to keep your site more manageable.

The Department of Agriculture’s Digital Strategy Playbook shares techniques to help others better understand their customer and content. Use their four-step content audit process to get started:

  1. Set goals for the audit. Define what you are trying to learn or baseline by performing the audit.
  2. Establish the scope of your audit. Decide the area of the site and date range you’ll be examining. A full site audit might be impractical, impossible, or even unnecessary.
  3. Create a spreadsheet for capturing the data. The goals and scope of your audit will help determine the data you’ll need to collect. Add spreadsheet columns for that data.
  4. Choose a starting point and begin. Don’t worry too much about content relationships until you have processed all the information.

You can also download and use the USDA team’s content audit template spreadsheet (XLSX, 19 KB).

There are some free tools available that can help you gather all of the content on your site, or even make suggestions for how to conduct your audit. Ask what content audit tools are available via your organization or agency.