Auditing probably isn’t the friendliest term in the world – conjuring up images of IRS managers and consulting firms in grey, boring suits. While IRS audits cost you money (and probably your house or business if you really screwed up), performing an SEO audit can help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your website and put you on the path to gaining visitors and revenue. Wondering what an SEO audit is? Every SEO project at Digital Third Coast (or any proper practitioner or agency) begins with an SEO audit – a complete evaluation of all the factors which affect the organic performance of your website, from what’s in your title tags to how fast your pages load and how easy it is for a user to complete a conversion goal. And there’s a lot that you can evaluate yourself to identify exactly what it is which holds your site back from being what it could be.
One Audit, One Goal
If you’re here on this website, then you’re probably interested in SEO in some type of capacity and have the basic understanding of why SEO is important. If you’re really new to this, check out our article on How to Teach Yourself SEO. The goal of the audit, summarized: Make Your Website Suck Less. The goal of Google’s search engine is to provide its customers with the best result – the site which is the most relevant to the user’s query, the most authoritative on a particular subject, the site which is easiest to use and satisfies the user’s need quickly. Google determines which sites are the highest quality through a combination of different criteria – which can be broken down into ‘on-page’ (content, site structure, site load time, tags) and ‘off-page’ (links to your website, social presence, and sometimes location or user history). In an SEO Audit, we’re looking at all of these factors to see what’s holding us back – what we need to fix to make our site suck less, what we need to do to be the best website for whatever it is that we do. We can break the SEO audit checklist down into two parts – the User and the Engine. Kind of like the Beauty and the Beast, if the Beauty was some guy shopping for pants or needing a lawyer; and the Beast was a data center in Silicon Valley.
Auditing for the User
Google’s robot looks at several factors on your site – the quality and quantity of inbound links to the site, how fast your site loads, how your pages link to one another, what the page says in written text, and countless other factors. There are several tools which allow you to see your website as a search engine. We’ll get into the technical side of things and some of these tools later, but keep this in mind: build for users, not for engines. Google’s entire purpose is to make users happy, so focus first on making sure your site is useable before getting into the technical end of things. By understanding how users’ needs as well as how the search engine sees your website, you’ll have the full picture of data available to address SEO concerns. The overall goal is to identify problems facing both the human user and search engine and go about correcting them. A happy user + a happy search engine = more traffic and more conversions = more $$$.
Climbing Mt. Google.
Tackling the task of SEO can seem daunting. Even those who understand how it works can be easily overwhelmed by all the different aspects of conducting a site audit. As with any large scale project, the key is to break things down into different areas and parts. First off – don’t get in over your head. Building a site with great SEO performance can take years and lots of expertise. By addressing some top-level issues and focusing on building a quality website, you’ll cover most of the SEO basics that will put you in a great position to grow. We’ll break it down into five parts.
1. Start with the website functionality and user experience.
Is it professional looking? It is easy to navigate? Does it load quickly? Do all the internal links work? Does your navigation make sense? Document issues you see and things which might hinder your users’ experience. All the traffic in the world to a site that frustrates your users isn’t going to help your bottom line.
2. Analyze the technical data and content of the site.
A great tool for this is the Screaming Frog Spider tool which allows you to pull all the title tags, meta descriptions, and heading tags from your website. Ensure that every significant page – home page, main category pages, major products, service areas, etc. - has these appropriate descriptive tags. Ensure that these significant pages have descriptive text on the page – even if it’s just a paragraph, give your customers (and search engines) information at every turn.
3. Assess the inbound links to your website through Google Webmaster Tools or a third-party link checking tool.
Take a sample of the links from Google Webmaster Tools (under “Sitelinks” in your dashboard). Are they sketchy websites you wouldn’t visit yourself, sites irrelevant to your business (like a list of flower shops linking to your website as a lawyer) - or are they sites relevant to your line of business? If you’re checking out these links and keep seeing sites that look illegitimate, that have nothing to do with your line of business - there’s a good chance your organic performance is hurting from it. Identify the quality links to your website and work to build relationships with those sources, as well as finding similar sources and reaching out to them to acquire more natural, quality links. If you want to get really advanced, you can use a 3rd-party tool like Moz or Raventools – but that might be jumping into the deep end of the pool a bit too quickly.
4. The technical nitty gritty.
As mentioned previously, look at site load time and identify the issues holding back your page load time with a tool like GTmetrix. (FYI: ideal load time is under 2 seconds). Sitemaps fall into this consideration as well, and there are infinite tools which allow you to create a basic XML sitemap and upload it to your site, making it easy for the search engine to find pages throughout your site. Robots.txt also falls in here…but that’s a bit dangerous to be toying with if you’re not sure of what you’re doing. This would also be the time to implement Google Analytics. Google Analytics will collect all the statistics and performance data on your website once installed, so that going forward you can check your progress, identify areas of concerns, and ultimately make better business decisions. Already have Google Analytics? Make sure that code is installed to every page before the </head> section of your HTML source code.
5. Develop a list of actionable items out of this audit and make a road map to address them.
Some examples of action items include:
- See a lot of bad inbound links? Start contacting those websites to pull the links. Start working on finding legitimate link opportunities – local newspapers and industry associations are a good place to start.
- Every page needs to have a descriptive title tag, meta description, and written content on the page. Start with the homepage, and then move to main categories, and then major products or subcategories.
- Does the site take forever to load? Consult your developer on how to reduce load times. You can take some actions yourself such as resizing images to be smaller (remember the web is not a high-resolution medium)
Much like doing your taxes or competing on a Japanese gameshow, there’s numerous obstacles and plenty of ways to mess up when you’re performing an SEO audit on your own website. Consider these items the pitfalls to avoid – much like forgetting to file all that money you made in Vegas at the blackjack tables as “income” or that giant spinning thing designed to knock you over on Ninja Warrior.
Too many times we see people who immediately fixate themselves with going after the biggest keyword or something like “clothing store” and put that EVERYWHERE on their site trying to pull rank for it. It doesn’t work. At all. Chances are you’re not Amazon.com or Macy’s where you can just rank for whatever you want. Too competitive. I would recommend checking search volumes of potential search queries that describe your business using Google Keyword Planner – but don’t get obsessed with these numbers. Don’t try to jam in keywords everywhere. Don’t try to build your site around one keyword. Build for user experience and quality, not a keyword, and you’ll outperform those who are fixated on a keyword and a keyword only. Keep in mind that narrower search queries might not have the same volume as bigger terms, but are more likely to convert. Someone searching for “pants” has no idea what type of pants they want. Someone using “purple pleated dress pants” already knows what they want and are more likely to buy.
404: SEO Knowledge Not Found
If you attempt to explore all these concepts but still don’t understand the basics of how SEO works, you’re going to get confused and frustrated. Moz’s SEO Beginner’s Guide is a great launching off point. Understand how to use the saw before you go off cutting things down.
Far too often we see those who patch over an issue instead of fixing the root causes of the problem. For example, if your site is creating duplicate pages for whatever reason, don't just re-direct all of the duplicate pages to the appropriate page. Fix the actual problem that is causing your pages to duplicate. Otherwise you’re going to be fixing the same problems over and over and over and never get ahead of the curve. If you’re an e-commerce site and your checkout doesn’t work right then no amount of traffic in the world will ever help you make more money.
Biting Off Too Much to Chew
Think about your car – you can change the oil, replace a tire, do the basics; but it hits a point where you’re better off going to a mechanic who’s dedicated his livelihood to fixing every type of car issue imaginable. Similarly, if you try to fix something way outside of your comfort zone on your SEO audit, you’ll probably make the issue even worse and frustrate yourself to no end. Focus on the basics with your audit – the title tags, good content on the pages, ensuring the links look good. These things alone go a long way towards your SEO success. Much of the things you’ll need to do are simple – anyone with the most basic understanding of HTML can fix title tags and install Google Analytics. If you have a platform like Wordpress, you don’t even need to know HTML to do these things. At the same time, know your limits and know when you need to get a developer or SEO professional to help you. I’ve seen many websites crashed because someone was too stubborn to call their web developer, many websites that tanked in traffic because they completely botched a sitemap, or sites with completely useless analytics data because they installed it wrong. They tried to do it all themselves instead of calling a pro – penny wise and pound foolish. Don’t crash your website trying to fix something and cost your business thousands of dollars in labor and lost revenue when a developer could have fixed it in 30 minutes. Don’t spend hours upon hours on auditing your site if your time could be used for things more valuable to your business. In summary – focus on the basics. The idea of an audit is to get the overview of all the things affecting your site – and from there, you can fix the essentials. Plus, if you do choose to work with an SEO professional or agency, you’ll be able to move the process along much faster and know what to ask your selected professional about. Happy auditing!