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The ins and outs of an SEO audit
How should you perform a site audit? What tools should you use? And how can you best present your findings to attain buy-in? Columnist Janet Driscoll Miller recaps a presentation at SMX West that covered these questions and more.
Whether you’re taking on SEO for an existing website or getting ready to launch a new one, a comprehensive SEO audit is crucial to understanding what problems exist and what work needs to be done. At SMX West, three SEO audit experts shared their knowledge from start to finish on a proper SEO audit.
Jessie Stricchiola: Key Elements of Discovery & Planning
Jessie Stricchiola, CEO of Alchemist Media, started off the panel by laying out the essential steps to performing an effective SEO audit. Before you get started, you must first understand the purpose of the audit, because each type of audit requires specific issues be checked. Some common reasons you might perform an audit include:
- a new website;
- a first-time audit for a website that’s not yet been live or has never had SEO performed on it;
- a website redesign and CMS migration;
- a domain/subdomain migration; or
- to diagnose traffic drops and penalties.
If you’re a consultant or an agency, you’ll also want to consider the background of your client when undertaking an SEO audit. Some questions to consider are:
- Is the client a startup or an established business?
- Who will be point of contact? What is this person’s skill level?
- Are development and engineering internal, external or both?
- Why did their prior agency relationships end?
It’s also important to identify in-house SEO owners and resources, as they will be your champions and help ensure your findings are accepted and addressed.
Now to the meat of the SEO audit. What should you include? Start with the website’s properties, background and history. Look at:
- subdomains, mobile versions, https and schema;
- organic efforts history (get any documentation you can);
- technical background such as redesigns, CMS migrations, performance;
- analytics status (views, filters and configurations, KPIs);
- Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools History (indexation, notifications); and
- paid search data.
Once you’ve gathered the properties, background and other information for the site, it’s time to take a site tour. Look at:
- broad topic landing pages;
- sub-topic focus pages;
- user account pages; and
- product/services pages.
If a website redesign or CMS migration is planned, understand what the launch timeline looks like. I’ve personally found this often changes, so stay on top of the timeline. Also acquire wireframes and site architecture information from the designers and developers to evaluate pre-launch.
If a site has seen traffic drops or penalties:
- Check and document historical data.
- Obtain crawl, backlink and related data.
- Investigate historical link-building and SEO efforts.
- Inquire about historical remediation efforts.
You can view Stricchiola’s entire presentation from SMX West here:
Benj Arriola: Tools, Tips & Tricks
Benj Arriola, Technical SEO Director for The Control Group, spoke next and shared a multitude of great tools to use for an SEO audit. Arriola started by addressing technical SEO tools, starting with tools that crawl a site and look for errors, such as 404 errors. He recommended:
- Xenu — This tool is free, but it runs on PC only and can be challenging with larger sites.
- Screaming Frog — This tool is inexpensive, works on PC and Mac and reports on a variety of SEO factors such as heading tags, duplicate title tags and so on.
- Deep Crawl — Also inexpensive, this tool runs on the cloud (rather than locally) and is not OS-dependent. It also tracks a number of SEO factors, such as broken links, http status headers, missing XML sitemap, blocked URLs, AJAX usage, OpenGraph tags, thin content and duplicate content.
For information architecture, Arriola recommended SEOquake for all indexed domains. For topic hierarchy, he suggested DYNO mapper and PowerMapper. When examining taxonomy and “folksonomy,” he suggested using the Google AdWords Keyword Planner.
When it comes down to auditing code for SEO, Arriola also recommended several tools for various code auditing tasks:
Schema and Microformats
- Headless browsers
- Mobile phone emulator: Cowemo’s Emulator
- Browser resizer: Web Developer Toolbar
- Google PageSpeed Insights, mobile tab
- Google Mobile-Friendly Test Tool
Audits include more than just technical issues, though; you’ll need to address content issues on the site, as well. Arriola recommended several tools for various content-related SEO measurements:
Impacts from a Panda Update
- SEMrush (Arriola also noted that SEMrush has a cool keyword finder to identify keyword opportunities your competition might not be addressing.)
- NetBase (measure net sentiment and more)
- Google Search Console
- Sites that use their own backlink crawlers:
- Tools that connect to the backlink crawlers above and use their data:
- Tools for identifying bad/toxic links:
Finally, while the tools Arriola mentioned above are great for most sites, those auditing large enterprise sites may require a tool that can index and provide information in a different way that is less taxing to your servers. He recommended BrightEdge, SearchMetrics, Conductor and seoClarity for enterprise-level SEO audits.
To learn about all of the tools Arriola shared, including some not mentioned here, check out his SMX presentation:
Annie Cushing: Delivering Audit Findings With Dignity
Rounding out the panel was Annie Cushing, Founder of Annielytics, who discussed how you can deliver your SEO audit reports with dignity and get the buy-in you need to make change really happen.
When delivering audit results, it’s obviously crucial to secure buy-in from those you are delivering results to; however, sometimes you need to realize that the results of your findings may make others look bad. How can you be empathetic about it? Think about how you can carefully share data without necessarily pointing the finger directly at others.
To organize your SEO audit, first nail down your process. Stricchiola shared some great processes in the bullets above, and Cushing also suggested making a checklist. From the checklist, you can then create a template to follow, which is especially important if you plan to do many audits over time for various websites.
Be sure to document and include historical context in your documentation. By being organized and using templates, Cushing has found that she has more time to spend against the analysis portion of the audit versus the data collection itself, which could easily be outsourced to others.
Next, run the crawl. Arriola shared many great crawling tools in the list above. Cushing also shared that you may want to ask the client when the best time would be to perform the crawl. If a client’s website experiences high traffic volumes at certain times of the day, you may want to avoid those times to perform the crawl.
In addition to reviewing the pages of the site as Stricchiola mentioned, Cushing also made an excellent suggestion: Try filling out the forms on the site. Do they work? Where do they go? Is the content behind them indexable? How is it found?
Once your audit data collection is complete and you prepare your presentation, give it some finesse! She shared her formatting tips:
- Use styles in Word. These work like CSS does for a web page and make formatting much easier.
- Customize the styles. Don’t just use the default settings. Consider incorporating the client’s brand colors.
- Use page numbers.
- Avoid data dumps. As Cushing would say, “Make the data sexy!”
- Use arrows and provide commentary in screenshots. So when you want to accentuate a point in a screenshot, use arrows and text boxes with commentary to point out the data you want to highlight.
- Provide explanations and annotations.
Because the SEO audit may shed light on some missteps by others, try being empathetic as you prepare. Avoid using the second person (“you”) if possible because it will seem that you may be criticizing the client or the person who may be responsible for the issue.
SEO audits can also be complex. Be sure to define terms as you go. Why are certain things that you’re measuring important for SEO? Explain it.
And finally, you’ll want to ensure that your findings and remedies are implemented. With many clients’ resources overwhelmed, it’s helpful to give them a guideline of where to start. Assign priorities to your recommendations so they know the best order to get started.
Check out Cushing’s full presentation from SMX:
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.