For a lot of marketers, an SEO audit is synonymous to a long list of checks with the goal of improving a website’s SEO metrics. The issue with this definition, however, is that it falsely suggests that you can use the same format for all websites, neglecting the type of business and their goals. Next to that, it is also wrong to think that a summary mentioning everything that is “wrong” is the way to go. Rather than a list of potential issues, what companies really need though is an action plan with clear priorities. If you want to have a real impact, you have to make sure that your tasks are well-defined and that it is clear for all stakeholders what the expected impact of your suggestions is.
Knowing this, it probably won’t surprise you that the majority of companies are not satisfied with the SEO audits they receive. Indeed, according to a survey that PeakAce conducted among 212 companies, only around 12% is completely satisfied with the SEO audits they receive. On the receiver’s side, most frustrations arise from recommendations not having the expected impact and time being wasted. SEO experts and agencies, on the other side, are often irritated because their audits don’t get implemented properly.
We decided that we can and should do better. In this article, we therefore cover what goes wrong exactly and teach you how to perform SEO audits from now on.
Understand the business and its customers
One size does not fit all
Although the basics of an SEO audit are the same for most websites, a lot will depend on the industry the business is operating in. The recommendations for an e-commerce website, for example, are likely going to be different from what you recommend to a news website. These, in turn, will differ from the issues on the website of a local business… You get the point.
You should avoid following the big players blindly too. What works for giants like bol.com, Coolblue or Zalando won’t necessarily work for you. When doing keyword research, search volume is indeed an important metric to take into consideration. However, you should look at competitiveness as well. There is no point in trying to rank high on very competitive and broad keywords with a very small website, in my opinion. Trying to do this would be a complete waste of time. Furthermore, it’s not because the big players leave certain issues on their websites untouched, that you should not fix them either.
What are the business objectives?
Everything should start with the business and its end goals in mind. Seems logical, but it is something that is often forgotten. Depending on the type of website, this might be:
- Get as many news article readers as possible and keep them on the website for as long as possible
- Sell X amount of product Y in country Z
- Get more visitors to your local store
- Generate leads for a service targeting a very specific, niche audience
Let’s say the goal of your business is the latter. In this case, your main focus should not be on trying to acquire as many website visitors as possible. More important is reaching the right audience. How can you do that? By having specific content and metadata tailored to your audience’s needs rather than very generic pages. In a later phase, you can broaden up, of course.
Understand the user
Your website can be perfect from a technical point of view, but still not attract any organic traffic at all if you don’t think like a customer. Try to understand not only what they search for, but also what the intent behind that search query is. If your content format doesn’t match up with the search intent, there is no way you will ever rank well for your focus keywords.
What are the resources available?
Before you start your SEO audit, it’s also important to know how many resources you have at your disposal. How much time can the IT team, webmasters, developers, agencies, etc… free up to work on the implementation of your suggestions? How much time are you planning to spend on the project yourself? Having a clear view of this will prevent you from making unrealistic recommendations. Don’t forget to allow time for support, meetings and unexpected trouble either.
Don’t get stuck in your SEO bubble
Have a plan B in place
Another thing to be aware of is to not get stuck in your “SEO bubble”. Ideally, SEO should be taken into consideration at the very first stage of planning a website. But does that mean that every project where this is not the case is destined to fail? Absolutely not! You can recommend rebuilding the entire website, but that’s not always going to be possible. Therefore, make sure to have a plan B in place in cases like that. Clear communication on the technical possibilities will also prevent you from suggesting things that are impossible to implement.
Keep in mind that SEO is not the only motivator, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Think about UX, for example. Some things might not be 100% ideal from an SEO perspective, that’s true. On the other side, with a bad user experience, the bounce rate will be much higher and you might not be able to compensate for with more organic traffic to the website.
Another important motivator for many companies is branding. I’ve had my ideas rejected more than once because the business prefers a more catchy headline, for example. In those cases, you need to try to find compromises and convince the business why it is so important.
Don’t rely on tools only, but try to find patterns and provide solutions
If you type in “How to conduct an SEO audit” in Google, the first organic result you see is from an article on how to perform one in less than an hour. Articles like this make the reader believe that the only thing you need to do is run your website through some tools and that’s it. I have to disappoint you here: regardless of what some gurus may claim, you will have to put some more time and effort into it than that.
Visit the website
Yes, crawling tools like Screaming Frog or SEMrush are great, but they are just that: tools. Everyone can export data and combine it into a single report, but that doesn’t make you an SEO specialist. In my opinion, the biggest danger of claims like this is people auditing websites without ever even visiting or using them. There is indeed an option in Screaming Frog to help visualize the website structure, but this can never match up with using the website like real visitors would do. You would be surprised by how many issues you can already discover by just visiting the website.
Some examples of issues and opportunities you can identify by just visiting the website:
- Basic user experience issues
- Illogical website structure
- Sources of duplicate content
- Content opportunities
- Irrelevant anchor texts
- Pagespeed issues
- Irrelevant or missing headings
In extreme cases, where part of the links on the website is uncrawlable, you might even miss part of the website if you only use tools.
Rather than just listing symptoms, you should try to find patterns. For example: do not just provide a list of all redirect chains, but try to find where they are coming from. One of my clients, for example, had built-in redirect chains in all of their footer and navigation links. Telling them to fix this is going to be much more helpful than providing them with a list of redirect chains.
Another example: Don’t just mention that there are 58 pages with duplicate metadata, but dive deeper. There is a multitude of reasons why a website can have this issue: duplicate content, identical metadata on all pages, metadata was not translated, … Try to identify what is causing the issue.
Focus on what matters
Imagine the following scenario: You just spent days creating the perfect SEO audit and decide to finally send it over to your client or managers. They open your audit with 20 tabs or 100 pages but are completely overwhelmed. Busy as they are, they decide to come back to it “later”. But before you know it, later becomes never and your recommendations never even get read, let alone implemented. What a waste of time!
Is this really going to make a difference?
Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes marketers make when performing an SEO audit is to overload the receiver with issues. I’ve been there and I understand that it’s very tempting to create a list with everything that is not according to best practices. However, I recommend you stop focusing on issues that are not going to make a difference anyway. The scenario above illustrates exactly why, but let’s look at some concrete examples to make it stick:
Scenario 1: An owner of a small business knows nothing about SEO and asked for your help with a very simple website. You noticed that they don’t have a sitemap and recommend them to create one because best practice says so. It’s at this point that you should ask yourself if this is really going to make a difference. If so, you can include it. But in cases like this, a sitemap is often just nice to have since the website is so simple that search engines have no difficulties crawling it at all. It’s more likely that well-optimized metadata or additional content is going to make the actual difference.
Scenario 2: You are taking over the SEO for a company that has been working on improving its SEO for years. You know that site speed is very important and decide to put the URL of one of the website’s pages in a tool like Google Pagespeed Insights on GTMetrix. These tools give you an entire list of optimization opportunities, which you decide to copy into your report blindly, without even looking at the metrics that actually matter. Instead, you should ask yourself: How fast is the page now? How much would the page speed actually improve when following these recommendations?
Start with the end goal in mind
Try to work backward. What I mean by that is that you should start with the ultimate end goal. This could be more sales for product category X in country Y, for example. How are you going to get more sales? By having more website visitors, coming from organic search (amongst other things). How can you improve qualitative organic traffic? By improving rankings, but also CTR and bounce rates. Let’s say you already rank quite well, then it might be better to focus on the very high bounce rate instead. How can you improve the bounce rate? By having faster loading pages, for example.
Once you have come up with a list of recommendations that will actually make a difference, you will need to come up with an action plan to actually get them implemented. Clear communication about responsibilities, deliverables, and deadlines is an important part of this plan.
What are the main priorities?
Even more crucial, however, is setting the right priorities. If not, people will tend to start with the recommendations that are the easiest to implement, regardless of whether they are impactful or not. Hence again the importance of having an idea of the potential impact. Not sure of what the expected impact is? Check pages where it is already implemented or test it on a small section of the website.
Don’t just look at the potential impact though, but also at the resources needed. When dealing with international SEO, for example, the implementation of hreflang tags might have a bigger impact on the domain of a small country than improving meta titles. But does that mean it should be done first? Not necessarily.
A framework we like using at CLICKTRUST because it takes both impact and time into account is the Eisenhower matrix:
According to this matrix, you should start with the “quick wins”. These are tasks with high impact that don’t need a lot of time to get implemented. Good meta titles for your most crucial pages and fixing broken links are good examples of quick wins.
Tasks to schedule in sprints
Next up are the tasks that have a high impact, but that take more time to implement. Think about hreflang tags and canonicals, page speed optimizations, dealing with duplicate content issues, and creating new content, … These tasks should be scheduled and tackled in sprints.
Deprioritize or don’t do at all
Depending on your goals, there will also be tasks that are less impactful. If your main goal is to improve rankings, for example, schema.org will be less impactful. Therefore, it should be deprioritized. If on top of that, it takes a lot of time to implement, it should probably not be done at all.
Educate and follow up
There is nothing so annoying as seeing the client you had for over one year make the same mistakes over and over again. As crazy as it can drive you sometimes, you can’t blame them. It’s not their job to make sure everything goes according to plan, but yours. Indeed, it is your responsibility as an SEO specialist to guide and educate all parties involved, even before they have a specific question.
As mentioned before, the first thing you need to do after performing an SEO audit is to convince all stakeholders on WHY they should implement your recommendations. Once this is clear for everyone, you should move on to the HOW and WHAT of your recommendations. To help you with the latter, you can use our Technical SEO checklist.
Additionally, you don’t want your hard work to go to waste because of one small mistake causing damage to your website. Therefore, we recommend you follow up closely. Don’t assume everything will go perfectly and that no new issues will arise. As mentioned before, you shouldn’t lose sight of the end goals either, and regularly check if you see the impact on your KPIs.
Create quality documents that are actionable and understandable
It’s all about perception
Do not underestimate the importance of perception, so make sure that your documents are neat, well-structured, and easy to work with. On top of that, we recommend you always reread your own work for any spelling and grammar mistakes after finishing your audit. You will be surprised by the number of typos and errors you can still find in your own work.
However, quality documents alone are not enough. You will also need to adapt the format depending on the people you are addressing so that they know exactly what to do. The way in which you communicate with your developers and webmasters, for example, will differ from the way you address marketing specialists. This, in turn, will be different from how you approach more high-level managers.
So how should you communicate with each of these stakeholders?
As an experienced SEO, you obviously know what redirects, canonicals, and hreflang tags are. If you’re like me, you probably even tried to explain it to friends and family. However, most (marketing) managers won’t understand the technicalities that can be found in a huge audit document. What they do understand is the commercial impact of being outranked by the competition.
If possible, we, therefore, recommend you to confront them with their “pain” using screenshots of the SERPs for the most important keywords. In the case of a slow website, you can also show them how slow it is exactly and what the impact is on the bounce rate. Explain to them what you propose to fix all of this in simple language and use technical terms only if you need to. And remember that your goal is to have them commit to the SEO project and give enough budget to get it implemented.
For marketing specialists, on the other hand, you can go more in-depth. Next to the business impact, you should explain to them where you find the issues exactly and give precise solutions. Keep in mind that you should communicate in terms of patterns and solutions rather than just provide a long Excel list naming all the issues.
Developers and webmasters
Finally, you will need to work together with web developers and webmasters. As mentioned in the previous section, it is good that they have a minimum understanding of why they should implement certain recommendations. Like that, they can avoid making the same “mistakes” all over again. Even more important, however, is to explain to them WHAT they need to adapt and HOW. Go in as much detail as possible and provide code examples if needed. Like that, you help make their work efficient. To make their life even easier, you can create premade tickets with the right priorities in Asana, Jira, … as well.
Don’t forget that solving one issue might cause another one
Another thing that you definitely shouldn’t forget is that fixing one issue might cause another one. Of course, nobody has a crystal ball, but we recommend you try to anticipate as many problems as possible. To make this more clear, imagine the following scenario:
You’re auditing a website that has a lot of duplicate content issues. To fix some of these issues, you recommend using redirects. First of all, you will need to specify whether you want these to be 301 or 302 redirects. Seems unnecessary, but I have seen multiple cases where 302 redirects are implemented even though they are supposed to be permanent. In addition to this, you will also need to specify which internal links need to be updated. If not, you will likely see links to redirected pages pop up, ultimately slowing down the loading speed. If your website has a sitemap, you should definitely check if these pages are included as well because this shouldn’t be the case.
Fix the basics first
Yes, the idea of experimenting with schema.org or web stories is exciting. And yes, you can do a lot with Python (or whatever your preferred programming language may be). This is all very interesting, but all too often we see websites where the basics are not even implemented. We can’t stress it enough, but please start by fixing these first! It doesn’t make sense, for example, to create new content if the metadata on your existing pages is not ok yet. For the same reason, you shouldn’t start link building on pages without title tags.
Looking for more insights on how to perform a kick-ass SEO audit? Then definitely check out Bastian Grimm’s slide deck on ‘Why most SEO audits are SH*T’ and Bertie Charlton’s article about technical SEO audits.
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