Whether you’re newly responsible for a site’s ongoing SEO or are starting an SEO project from scratch, knowing where to start can often be the hardest part. We’re going to try to set out some of the best practices and strategies to help get you started.
The purpose of SEO audits is to assess the current performance of a site in order to drive future improvements. This article will look at the processes involved, the tools you can use (both paid and free) and how regular auditing can help your brand succeed.
What is an SEO audit?
An SEO audit is a series reviews, checks and processes which aim to assess the present performance of a websites capacity to rank for its chosen key terms and benchmark that performance against an ideal in order to provide feedback, suggestions for improvement and serve as the basis for any SEO roadmap which hopes to facilitate a greater ability to rank in future.
Often these reviews will uncover problems with the targeted keywords, issues with site architecture, performance, content and a host of other aspects of a website which, while not necessarily directly related to SEO can have a knock-on impact on ranking – meaning that SEO audits can lead to the generation of a workflow that necessitates action from multiple departments.
This can make the recommendations of SEO audits labour intensive to implement, meaning that interdepartmental buy-in is also an important part of the auditing process.
What is included in an SEO audit?
SEO audits cover the full range of how a website functions and, while it may be necessary to summarise when reporting findings to various stakeholders, a good SEO audit should be thorough. As such, while we’ll try to use as many free tools as possible, there are occasions where a paid subscription is a must-have for completeness. That is not to say you can’t improve a site’s SEO performance using only free tools, just that for the best possible results, some tools are recommended.
That being said, SEO audits generally include a mixture of the following:
- Keyword analysis
- Mobile performance
- Technical SEO
- Backlink auditing
One of the primary tasks of SEO as a practice is to achieve rankings and improve rankings for a specific set of keywords. However, this list should be reviewed during any thorough SEO audit.
Keyword target review
Volumes change, intent changes, the way people search changes – and your keyword targets should change, too. For a first audit or new site, there may be no historical information, but you can use tools such as Google Trends to check for previous peaks in interest.
While search volume is not the be all and end all of keyword targets, if a previously huge volume has dropped to nothing, the question has to be asked as to whether the term is still worth optimising for. Similarly, new keywords emerge within all industries, and new ways of searching for old concepts.
For this reason, even established keyword lists should be regularly audited to ensure that the brand is targeting the best mix of key terms to deliver growth.
You can look to free tools such as Google Search Console for much of this task – you can examine the impressions a keyword delivers versus your position, for example, you can use Google Trends as mentioned, but tools such as Semrush, Ahrefs and Searchmetrics are particularly useful for conducting this kind of review – and many such tools will also offer suggestions based on your site for potential keywords to target.
Keyword gap analysis
A keyword gap analysis is a method of assessing where a brand sits with reference to direct competitors in terms of search visibility for industry terms. The ‘gap’, in this instance, is the area of industry terminology and keywords of all intent levels where your brand does not appear but where competitors do, or where you should appear but don’t.
- Missing content – A keyword gap analysis allows you to look at your website content and identify which pieces of the puzzle are missing or need optimising to compete for their target keywords. If you were an eCommerce site, for example, you might have a number of products which are missing a description or with descriptions which are inadequate for ranking purposes. With this in mind, it is vital that you make a list of content that is incorrect or missing, and add this to a content calendar.
- Uncovered topics – Ask yourself, are you missing content that could give you a boost in organic search? This will have been revealed at least in part by a keyword target review – it’s great if you have all of your core keywords covered in your content, but there are likely to be dozens of ways that consumers will search for products and services like yours and you can facilitate their discovery by targeting those keywords.
- Competitor targets – If you are looking to gain competitive advantage over your direct rivals, then ensuring you’re competing for similar terms is a must. The benefit of this is that it’s likely they will be completing similar projects to you – and this can uncover potential targets you may not have considered.
All three of these can be completed manually to an extent, but a lot of time and effort can be saved by using tools like Semrush’s Keyword Gap tool – which allows you to select competitors and then filter by keywords your site performs weakly for, or which your competitors rank for and you do not.
Mobile performance is the performance on which your site is judged. Since Google began to roll out mobile friendliness updates, culminating in mobile first indexing, the way your site performs on mobile has been treated as the primary indication of your site’s performance overall. As such, though you want your site to perform well across desktop and mobile devices, you need to devote the majority of your resources to ensuring that your site’s mobile performance is the absolute best it can be.
Search Console mobile usability
One of the best tools available for auditing mobile performance is located in Google Search Console. The mobile usability report features two charts on the main dashboard, the first of which is errors versus valid pages:
Obviously, in this case, you’re looking to minimise the number of errors your site is encountering – and the errors themselves are elaborated upon in the table below:
These errors break down as follows:
- Clickable elements too close together: – as you might imagine, this refers to icons, menus and the like which are positioned in such proximity that it makes clicking on the right option difficult or impossible.
- Viewport not set: – while I’d hope you won’t see this error, this refers to the <meta name=”viewport”> element which should be set generally as <meta name=”viewport” content=”width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0″>.
- Content wider than screen: – generally experienced when you have failed to define a width or break points for your site or images, this is where you’ll see pages on your site which require sideways scrolling to see the whole page.
- Text too small to read: – again, this is fairly self-evident but refers to the size of your text when viewed on smaller screens – again, you can resolve this by selecting specific increases in font sizes along with your break points, attributing font sizes relatively (using em or rem), or by specifying font sizes along with your site’s @media queries.
Speed and performance
Mobile speed and performance can again be checked using Google Search Console – this time with the Core Web Vitals enhancement. The top report will give you an overview of how your site is doing on mobile devices.
Alternatively, for a little more information, you can use the ‘Lighthouse Report’ in Chrome’s ‘Developer Tools’. Using the traffic light method and a score out of 100, this will give you an overview of a few key performance elements:
It will also give advice as to potential improvements that can be made to the site in order to improve performance – something which any SEO audit should be including as speed and Core Web Vitals take on a more powerful role in rankings over the coming years:
Technical SEO is where most SEO audits tend to focus, and should be a main concern due to issues in this area having a huge potential to impact rankings. While we wouldn’t say all facets of SEO audits are equal, this section can be over-weighted when conducting audits at the expense of other areas. Equally, any audit that doesn’t feature a section on technical SEO is probably going to be giving only half the picture.
Page titles & meta descriptions
A hugely common issue with most sites – especially those that haven’t been looked after by a dedicated SEO – is that page titles and meta-descriptions tend to lose focus, get duplicated, or end up being repeated for multiple pages. As such, it’s important that an SEO audit is able to offer a list of page titles and meta descriptions which are either missing, need work or are duplicated.
Some CRMs will allow you to sort pages by meta description or page title, but for the easiest way to organise and export this information (including a record of duplication of one or both) is to use a tool such as Deep Crawl or Screaming Frog – both of which have the option to inspect all URLs to see whether such things are present.
Like snow, redirects are fine in small amounts but enough of them can cause serious problems with traffic.
Whether they’re the result of updating content, or a site migration or move to https, redirects can mount up over time becoming what are referred to as redirect chains. These are oversights – while we may remember to redirect URLs, we often fail to update the internal links to that page and so an internal link becomes a link to content which redirects to the updated version – and that can add up over time causing delays in page loads and internal navigation.
The below, for example, is a report that can be exported from Screaming Frog which details any redirects which include more than one step from page of origin to page of destination.
While the ideal is that all redirects will go straight to the destination page, things start to become a problem if 3 or more redirects are in between pages. This tends to be more of an issue for older sites, but it should be a part of an SEO audit for any sites which have had work done on site structure.
Your 404 page is not one you hope your user will spend a lot of time on, but as with redirects, they can accrue over time. There is nothing wrong with 404d pages per se, but they can become an issue at higher volumes.
If a product has been discontinued, for example, and there is no close equivalent to redirect to, then returning a 404 status is fine, similarly for articles which are no longer relevant for your audience and which cannot be updated. However, a 404 audit – which can be performed using Google Search Console or a web crawler – should be carried out during any SEO audit to ensure that the volume of pages returning 404 is never too high and that no useful, or potentially useful pages are returning the status.
There’s a great discussion of why canonicalisation should be audited (and how to do it) on the Screaming Frog site, but to summarise: most of your content should have a self-referential canonical URL – these indicate that the approved page and the page you would like to be indexed and treated as the original location of the content located there. Canonicals, therefore, should be audited for chains (as with redirects), for unindexable canonical URLs and missing URLs.
Again, this can be explored using either Google Search Console or a crawler:
Site structure & navigation
Site structure and navigation are vital not only to how users move through your site, but also how bots will do the same. Fortunately, what works well from a user perspective will also help the bot do its job. The aim of a site structure and navigation audit is to ascertain how easy it is for both user and bot to traverse the site – which means that you’ll need to make sure no pages require too many clicks to get to, that the structure isn’t too complicated, breadcrumbs are in place, that the various means of traversing the site are intuitive for users of all needs and there are no orphan pages (pages with no internal links which are unreachable from your site).
Best performed using multiple tools (but to a lesser extent achievable using Google Search Console), a backlink audit can reveal a host of important information that can improve the performance of your site.
While there is a never-ending argument about how important links should be to rankings, they remain and are likely to remain one of the most important ranking factors. However, because the way Google has historically determined the usefulness of links and their ability to understand their context has changed, combined with the unfortunate fact that some bad links will naturally accrue over time, a backlink audit should be a part of your regular SEO audit.
This is tough to achieve at scale using free tools, but it can be done at least at a base level by exporting all external links and trawling through them for any sites which are obviously unwanted (for most, this would include certain gambling, adult and other sites which have historically been viewed dimly by Google.
Obviously, the more links you have, the more time this will take, but without a tool to perform an initial, automated review, this is a labour-intensive process.
As an example, Semrush has a backlink audit tool which gives a fantastic starting place for any investigation. There is also the option to automatically submit a disavow file if you connect the tool to your Google Search Console account.
Obviously, you want your toxicity score to be as low as possible, but don’t be too alarmed by a score in the amber range – not only can you improve it, but natural link accrual will often leave a long running site with an amber score. The important thing is that an audit reveal the potential toxicity and enable the audited site to avoid further issues.
In addition to toxic links – reports such as the above generated by Semrush, and others by tools such as Ahrefs and Searchmetrics, will provide a list of domains which no longer link to your pages. While some will be lost to sites taken offline and natural webpage churn (as with the reasons given in the 404 section), this list can prove useful as it can provide some instances where the domain may not be aware that the link has broken or where you can offer a potential replacement page for them to link to. It may not provide huge lists, but these can help to maintain a healthy link profile and also help to initiate relationships with interested publishers.
Submitting a disavow list
While not a part of the auditing process, we thought we’d include a link here to an eBook that could potentially help to take action if the need arises from a backlink audit. Our ‘Link Auditing, Removal and Recovery’ eBook features sections on submitting a disavow file as well as other detailed link review techniques.
How to prepare an SEO audit report
While completing an SEO audit can be labour-intensive when done thoroughly, all of that work is essentially pointless if it can’t be conveyed to stakeholders in a clear and concise way. For that reason, your report should be treated with as much care as the audit itself. You don’t want it to be too long to deter reading, or too short that you can’t explain the findings clearly.
As with all reports, you need to consider your objectives before you begin compiling the report. If your aim is to increase budget for technical optimisation, then a content report will only pad the document – similarly a report seeking investment in the link profile will only require the link audit (and possibly content if you feel it will help the case).
Consider the following:
- Who is going to read the report?
- What do I want them to take away from the report?
- What were my hypothesis and does the data confirm them?
Once you have the data and have outlined the objectives, you can tailor the report and its content to the audience you’ll be presenting it to. Stakeholders from across the business will have different levels of knowledge of what the findings mean and how important they are – and you should tailor the content to ensure that it works on the level of their understanding. Meet them where they are.
Is the language clear and free of jargon that your audience may not understand? This is the main question you’ll need to ask yourself. As with tailoring, you need to write at the level of your audience. Experts in a field can quickly lapse into jargon or skill specific language – they are forms of shorthand, but only work between individuals with the same vocabulary. As such, you should ensure that you take a look at the finished report to ensure that you’ve written for the intended audience.
Best tools to help with SEO audits
This is by no means an exhaustive list – and there will be alternatives in virtually every case, but these are some of our favourite tools to help with the completion of SEO audits. While, for the most part, they will require a subscription, there are often free trials of parred back versions which can be useful for brands looking to assess their usefulness before committing to a monthly or annual subscription. For that reason, we’ve included a link to the paid tools for you to check them out for yourself.
Google Search Console
Google Search Console is a free service provided by Google and designed to help brands monitor and maintain and improve their site’s presence and performance in search results. The tool, which was launched in May 2015, replaced Google Webmaster Tools and is regularly updated to improve usefulness and add functionality. The tool offers error reports, keyword reports, mobile site reports and more – making it an ideal tool for any brand and perfect to newcomers.
As with Google Search Console, Google Analytics is a free tool provided by Google. The tool allows you to investigate your site and user interaction with the site. For SEO audit purposes, the site will provide information on the length of sessions, the number of users, referral information and more which will allow you to monitor where your traffic is coming from and how they are using your site.
Semrush is a software as a service (SaaS), which operates on a subscription model and provides online visibility and marketing analytics data. Originally an SEO tool and browser extension before adopting the SaaS model, the software offers a host of tools beneficial to SEO audits, including: estimated website traffic, Google Ads keyword CPC amounts, site auditing, topic research, and more. You can find out more about them on their website.
As with Semrush, Ahrefs is an SaaS for SEO and marketing which provides multiple tools to help analyse your site’s backlink profile (and those of competitors), as well as to find the most shared content for any topic (based on social media shares), get relevant keyword ideas and traffic estimations, track ranking positions and more – they also have an active blog which covers a lot of useful topics. You’ll find them here.
Screaming From is a regularly updated and improved site crawler which allows you to study how a bot such as those operated by Google experience your site and offers reports on a host of technical issues that are integral to SEO. Not only does it provide crawl data, however, recent updates have seen the site add spelling and grammar, schema markup, page speed and much more to the tool which is, frankly, invaluable for good SEO. You’ll find the tool here.
Are SEO audits necessary?
For a newly launched site, it should be hoped that an SEO was involved in the build process and able to implement as much best practice as possible. However, this is seldom the case and, as such, it is recommended that all sites should have some kind of SEO audit completed regularly to give the site the best chance of ranking for key terms and keyword targets.
How often should I run an SEO audit?
The key is regularity rather than volume. An SEO audit works best as part of an ongoing process of measurement and improvement. As such, some sites may run an SEO audit once a month, others may do so once a year (any less than once a year is likely to see errors creeping in just naturally through human and system errors), but the important thing is that the audit is completed regularly to observe changes, monitor improvements and catch errors before they become an issue.
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