Ever wondered how we do our SEO audits?
To be clear, I’m not talking about the surface-level 1-page “reports” that come from automated tools.
We’re talking human-researched, hands-in-the-dirt, in-depth SEO audits that give you an actionable battle plan for the next 6 to 12 months of SEO.
We made a YouTube video that chronicles everything that goes into our SEO audits. You can check that out below, or read on for an even deeper dive into our process.
Why We’re Showing You How We Do SEO Audits
There’s a couple of reasons I’m writing this article today.
For one, I strongly believe that there’s power in sharing knowledge. SEO is something that most clients don’t understand that well, and many traditional web design agencies don’t fully grasp SEO either.
By showing what goes into a real SEO audit, (not the two-page, freebie “SEO reports” that many place use as a lead magnet), it will help more people see all the factors that go into moving a website up the search engine results.
Second, we had another agency that we respect, with a history in SEO, reach out to refer one of their legacy clients to us.
As a good faith gesture, I put together a SEO audit for their client. The founder was blown away, because they expected one of these one-page freebie “SEO reports” that I mentioned previously.
Needless to say, this opened my eyes to how most SEO companies are perceived, even by other agencies that have a SEO background.
That’s the biggest reason I’m writing this article today. So you can tell the difference between the credible and the charlatan SEO agencies out there.
Tools We’ll Need for Our SEO Audit
I lean on KWFinder for keyword volumes and localized search, Ahrefs for back link and domain research, and Moz Local for citation accuracy. If you want to use SEMRush or Majestic instead of Ahrefs, that’s fine too. I simply find Ahrefs to be a bit more robust. Varvy is another SEO tool that I use to find specific information.
If we can get access to the website’s Google Analytics and/or Google Search Console, then all the better. This isn’t always possible, as sometimes, we are called in to do a SEO audit because the current company handling the web development and maintenance is underperforming, and they may not be willing to “play nice” at that time. Sometimes, we can’t access the Google Analytics or Google Search Console information because the person who originally built the website has ghosted, and they are out of the picture entirely. In that case, we may have to start from scratch with a fresh GA account. (Note: Our reader Rene Morozowich pointed out that you may be able to reclaim an abandoned GA account by going here, and choosing the last option.)
For the rest, you only need a browser, the Google results themselves, and some deductive reasoning.
The concepts behind a SEO audit are not complicated, though they do require some time and thought.
Many digital marketers are continually searching for shortcuts, automation, and tools to do the heavy lifting. Premium tools are good for collecting data, but they require human analysis to turn that data into meaningful information and strategic planning.
So let’s break it down.
SEO Audit Section 1: Intro and Why We’re Here
The first section of the SEO audit describes the problem that caused the company to reach out for SEO help.
At this point, we’ve already had a conversation with the owner, CEO, or CMO and asked them some questions about why they are researching SEO companies.
What are they trying to accomplish? What is their ultimate goal for getting traffic in Google? What do they want to have happen?
Normally, the desired outcome is more sales, more leads, or they want to crush their competition. This first section is about establishing a starting point and framing the situation. We’re documenting how the website and search traffic affects the overall business, and stating the business goals for our SEO work.
SEO Audit Section 2: Keyword Research
One of the things that we ask on our intake form is what keyword phrases do you want to rank for?
Usually, what we’ll get are some high-level keywords. Meaning, the most generic keywords, one or two word phrases, no longer-tail keywords. Most businesses don’t know what they should be looking for when it comes to keywords, and as a result, miss out on many keyword phrases they could be ranking.
One of the main goals in this section is to look at different keyword phrases that they could be ranking for, based on search volume and ranking difficulty.
We’ll look at some factors like, what is their competition ranking for? What are their customers actually searching for?
We’re going to add a bunch of our own keyword suggestions, based on search volume, keyword difficulty, and what your customers are searching for before they pick up the phone and call you.
If this is for local SEO, then we’ll look specifically at search volumes from certain cities or neighborhoods. Is there enough demand to make certain targeted searches worthwhile? Can we uncover a lucrative keyword phrase that they didn’t previously consider?
The next part of Section Two is all about looking for patterns.
Now that we have a collection of keyword phrases, we’re looking not only at search volume, but also documenting some basic patterns of how the search results are laid out for each.
For our keyword phrases, we’ll point out what’s in the top spots, where your competitors are, where you are, and which pages are ranking.
We want to take notice of any patterns that start to emerge, paying attention to what the searcher intent might be.
With Google, you want to go with the grain and not against the grain.
At the end of this section, we’re going to give some suggestions based on the evidence that we’ve seen so far. Including, what keywords should you be creating content for, what keywords you already have covered, and where you have a deficiency, aka a content gap.
SEO Audit Section #3: What’s Ranking Above You and What We Can Learn From This?
This is the part that almost nobody does. Looking for real patterns, identifying searcher intent, showing you what type of content you need to create to rank for specific search terms.
Here’s how it works.
We’ll take some selected keyword phrases out of our list, and then we’ll do an analysis of page one of Google for each of those. This means, we list #1 through 10, and identify the exact searcher intent for each result.
By looking at what’s actually ranking, we can form theories about why the search results look that way, or identify patterns to work within.
Remember in the last section how we said you need to go with the grain instead going against the grain?
You’re not going to be able to take a piece of content that goes against the established pattern, and make it rank above the rest of the search results. Instead, you need to give searchers what they expect to find for a given search phrase.
Here’s an example of this principle. You have a software product, and you want the sales page to rank for “software product A”. But when we look at the search results for “software product A”, everything on page one of Google is an informational page — definitions of that term, Wikipedia-style articles, etc.
No matter how hard you try, you aren’t going to rank an e-commerce sales page on page one of Google for a given search term, if every result on page one is an informational page.
What you need to do instead is make an informational page for that term, because that’s the established pattern of what’s already ranking.
I’ll give you another example of this idea. We had a client, they wanted to rank for a certain search term about a specific tool. But everything on page one of Google for that search terms was a comparison of “this tool versus that tool”.
The marketing team said because they sell both types of tools, and have relationships with those companies, they didn’t want to create that type of content. Because of this, they still do not rank for the search term in question.
Google does not determine what people are interested in, and what ranks on page one for a given search term. The people searching determine what shows up on page one, over time, by sending signals about whether certain pages satisfy their search query or not.
This third section in the SEO audit is about figuring out the prevailing patterns and searcher intent for the top ten results. By analyzing “the grain” of search results, and going with the grain, you will be able to create content that is more likely to rank for your target terms.
SEO Audit Section #4: Technical SEO
Section Four is all about Technical SEO, meaning, the infrastructure, performance, and other “under-the-hood” elements of your website.
What factors do we look for in the Technical SEO section of the audit?
- Is the website mobile-friendly or not?
- Does the site use HTTPS?
- Is the site using XML sitemaps for Googlebot and HTML sitemaps for humans?
- Do you have a Terms of Service or Privacy page?
- Are there broken external or internal links that require 301 redirects?
- Is Google crawling pages that no longer exist on your site? How many 404 pages do you have?
- Is your site accessible? Does it have the appropriate links for screen readers? Is the text contrast accessible? Do site images have ALT text descriptions?
- Here’s a big one: we look at your site speed, and specifically your Time to First Byte.
- Does your site have the If Modified Since header?
At the end of Section Four, we’ll give a list of suggestions of things that you need to change or improve.
SEO Audit Section #5: Content Audit
Section Five is a content audit of your website.
For smaller sites, we’ll look at each page individually, comparing the page to what’s ranking for the target search term, seeing how the page matches searcher intent. Does the page match up favorably to what atop the search results? If not, how can it be improved?
If it’s a large site, (thousands of pages), we might not look at every single page on the website, but look at the key pages. We’ll still analyze what needs to be improved.
If you need to make changes to the URL structure, (some people call this content siloing), we’ll give specific details for each page.
We also look at global elements, like the header, footer, and sidebar. Often, these can have an effect on SEO for the entire site.
How important is content to the overall SEO of your website?
If you only have time and resources to work on one aspect of your SEO, content would be the one thing I would advise you focus on.
However, planning and creating quality content is usually the area where businesses have the hardest time being consistent.
Content creation requires strategy, thought, and execution on a regularly scheduled basis. Great content marketing isn’t magic SEO fairy dust that gets sprinkled on the site at the last minute, it is hard work.
Even if you struggle to get a content creation process in place, I assure you it will make positive difference in your organic search traffic. The key is to be consistent, and not fall off once you get momentum going.
At the end of this content audit section, we’re going to make suggestions for new content that you need to create over the next six to twelve months. Publishing this best-in-class content will help you rank competitively with the other payers in your space.
This is a section we recently added. Content pruning is where you take pages that are old, outdated, and receive no traffic, and evaluate them for either:
- Combining with another article
- Deletion and redirection to another page
We separate content that is a candidate for pruning into 3 categories:
- Less than five visits over last six months, no incoming links
- Less than five visits over last six months, incoming links, but they are all nofollow
- Less than five visits over last six months, incoming links, but they include follow
If there are incoming links, then we are less likely to recommend for pruning. We can leverage internal links from the candidate page to other content. (You should build links from the low traffic, incoming linked page to your most popular content.)
If you delete and redirect pages, make sure it goes to a page with similar content.
SEO Audit Section #6: On Page Factors
In this section of the SEO audit, we’re looking at how keyword phrases are used on the individual pages.
We analyze title tags and meta descriptions, which are the snippets that you see in in Google search results. Our goal is to make sure you are using your keyword phrases here, while making the search result enticing to click.
We’ll also look at keyword distribution in H1s, H2s, and the different headlines on the page. Do you use keywords in these?
Are you using synonyms for your keywords? (Some people call these LSI keywords or latent semantic keywords. What they really mean is synonyms, and words that are closely related to the main keyword phrase.)
Additionally, we’ll make sure you aren’t guilty of doing SEO from 1999. If you are keyword stuffing your pages, we can help you write in a way that sounds natural to humans. (Keyword stuffing can actually hurt your SEO, because it is obvious to both humans and robots that you are trying to manipulate rankings.)
That said, it’s difficult to rank for search phrases that you don’t mention on the page. You still have to mention the words that you want to rank for, on that page.
We’ll also look at the legibility and presentation of information on your website.
Is the text legible? Is it presenting the information correctly? Ultimately, you want the design of each page to support the presentation of the content. The design of your site should call attention to the content in a way that makes people take action.
SEO Audit Section #7: Your Back Link Profile
Back links is what a lot of SEO companies focus on, because it’s easy to build spammy links.
What’s not so easy? Building credible links back to your website, that move the needle, and drive real traffic. Or, seemingly, even identifying the places where you should be getting links.
Links are a big part of SEO, because search engines use them as a way to determine authority and trust. If sites that are closely related to your industry are linking to you, that’s a good sign that your business is authoritative and trustworthy.
But, most SEO companies, especially ones at the low-end of the market, rely heavily on PBNs (aka Private Blog Networks) for link-building. This is a bad idea, and can get your website penalized.
Links are still a core element of Google’s ranking algorithm. However, many SEOs want to take shorcuts without doing the work, and use websites that are built from dropped domains, rent links on websites, or pay to have “spun” content created for blogs on content farms.
As you can guess, these are all shady practices, and frowned on by Google. Their quality guidelines explicitly frown on participating in link schemes.
Here’s what the majority of cut-rate SEOs miss.
In order to get links that drive referral traffic that leads to sales, you must create relevant, topical, interesting content.
When we look at your current back link profile, we want to figure out what the gap is between you and the large brands that are usually taking up most of page one of Google.
Many times, we’ll find that most of the results on page one have thousands of links pointing at a page, while your site only has a handful.
To fix that, we want to look for common patterns in the websites that are on page one. Where are they getting links from? How can we get you closer to their level? Can you get similar links if we put in some effort?
We also want to identify industry-related websites where you can get mentioned, where you can get publicity and press for your company. Positive attention is the name of the game. We want to get eyeballs on your brand, and figure out how to build momentum for your brand.
Creating great content, generating positive press, establishing community and industry relationships are just a few ways you can earn back links to your website.
What are some things you can do to make Google recognize you as a legit brand?
Here are a few things we’ve noticed.
Large brands secure social media accounts with their company name. They publish fresh content on their website, and their social accounts on a regular basis, because they want to attract customers. Large brands are always on the lookout for ways to highlight ways they are innovating, and how they are helping their customers.
Small brands are usually heads down in their work all day, every day. Unfortunately, small brands seldom get press, rarely publish on their site, aren’t active on social media, and don’t take any action to attract attention to themselves online.
Content, links, and brand are perpetually intertwined together.
SEO Audit Section #8: Google Business Profile and the Knowledge Graph
In the eighth section, we’ll look at your Google Business Profile We also want to see how you appear in Google Maps and the Google Knowledge Graph. (The Knowledge Graph is the info that should appear on the right hand side o the page hen you search or a company on Google.)
Specifically, are you in the right business category? Is all your information correct and proper? We also want to make sure your company is in the right category on Bing and Yahoo.
Are you using structured data on your website? We use Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool to see what’s being output.
If you’re using Yoast SEO (for WordPress or Drupal sites), does the structured data on your website match up with what’s on your Google Business Profile?
If your business category needs to change, or if any of that information needs to change, we’ll make suggestions here.
Also, we’ll see how many Google reviews you have compared to your competitors. This is very important for local SEO, along with some other factors that we’ll talk about in the next section.
SEO Audit Section #9: Third-Party Reviews and Citations
In Section Nine, we’re going to look at industry specific citations and review sites.
For local SEO clients, we’ll be looking at Yelp, and any industry-related sites. We’re going to assess your profiles for a few factors.
- Are you in the right business category?
- Does your Yelp business profile mention the specific keyword phrases you are trying to rank for?
- What does your reviews count look like compared to who’s ranking above you in Google?
- Are your profiles on Yelp and other third party sites filled out completely?
Most businesses that need local SEO help need to get more reviews on Yelp, Google, and industry specific sites. Yelp plays a considerable part in your local SEO, even though they are kind of a competitor to Google.
We’re also going to look at your information on industry specific sites. This will vary depending on what specific industry you are in.
If we’re helping you with local SEO, if you’re trying to rank in your local city, we’ll look at NAP citations. (This means we make sure your Name, Address, Phone number, Business Category, and Website are consistent on the key information aggregate websites.)
We’ll use a tool like Moz Local to identify any place where you have inconsistent citations, and fix them.
The key is getting more positive reviews on Google, Yelp, and industry-specialized review sites than your competitors.
What if you have been collecting reviews through a service, or email, or a written sheet, and then publishing them on your website’s Testimonials page?
Well, that’s great. But it’s not going to mean nearly as much as getting reviews on Google, Yelp, or verified review sites.
There’s a few reasons for this. First, if those reviews aren’t published anywhere else, you could be making them up as far as Google knows. When you leave a review on Yelp, or Google, or the BBB, or even Facebook, you have to verify your identity to a degree. (Ironically, Google reviews are probably the easiest to fake out of these four).
Yelp is actually the hardest to get a review to stick, as Yelp filters out reviews for a wide variety of reasons to prevent review fraud. However, in a large percentage of cases, the companies that have the highest number of Google reviews + Yelp reviews and are still close to five stars overall, seem to be on page one of Google for their “money” search terms.
SEO Audit Section #10: User Experience
In this section, we’re going to look at anything in the user experience of your site that needs to change, if we haven’t addressed it already. Usually, this comes down to design and functionality.
Is it easy for people to find what they are looking for? Does the website look like it was designed this in this millennium? Are there a dozen popups that assault the customer as soon as they land on the site? Do the contact forms give enough information?
My personal pet peeve is the “design trend” of putting light gray text on a white background. I have perfect vision and it’s difficult to read. Let’s all agree to not do that anymore.
Our suggestions at the end of this section are all about helping your customers achieve their goals without impediment or trepidation.
SEO Audit Section #11: Miscellaneous
The last section is Miscellaneous, where we look at anything that we might have previously missed.
Do you need Google Analytics? Should you install a Facebook Pixel for retargeting? Do we need to add a heatmap tracking tool like CrazyEgg to measure the effectiveness of the design?
If you should be leveraging other marketing channels like email marketing, social, or traditional media, we’ll make our suggestions here.
SEO Audit Final Section: List of Action Items
At the end of the day, what you are looking for is a list of things to do. The last section is a bullet-point list of actionable items that you can hand to your marketing and development team. Or, as many of our clients choose to do, we can execute on the checklist and take care of it for you.
Please note: not everything that ends up in this list of “to-dos” is a five minute fix. Oftentimes, there will be larger-scale items that must be addressed for you to move up in the rankings. Every audit is different, and every website and organization comes to us from a different starting point.
After the Audit: Implementing Our Advice
It’s true, we’ve had companies order our SEO audits and carry on business as usual with no improvements.
But nine times out of ten, companies hire us to run through the list of items we’ve already identified as needing improvement. This invariably leads to an increase in organic (unpaid) search traffic from Google and Bing. You can read some of our case studies here.
The difference between the type of SEO audits that we and a handful of other SEO professionals do, and the automated one-page “free SEO reports” that most SEO companies use as a lead magnet is night and day.
If you’re currently offering SEO services to clients, I hope this challenges you to go more in-depth. Conversely, if you’re a business owner or CEO wondering if you should take the next step in hiring a SEO consultancy, I hope this gives you a better idea of what to expect.
As always, if you have follow-up questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section below.