SEO Audits: What You Need to Know

by on 07/03/2009 • 26 Comments | SEO

“The first step in diagnosis is to find the root cause.”
- Vanessa Fox at SMX Advanced 2009
Conducting an audit

We couldn’t agree more. That’s exactly how we approach SEO audits, they’re a diagnosis. You have a horrible, gaping wound and we’re here to fix it. There isn’t a fool proof system in place for what we do and we don’t have some trademarked, five step diagnostic process we follow. We’ve been doing this for a long time and don’t need some proprietary SEO audit checklist to tell us that you’re hemorraging duplicate pages or have unhealthy linking practices. We do have our methods for analyzing a site, but we don’t limit ourselves to only analyzing x pages and 37 on-site factors (or some other random buzz number).

We quote our clients for SEO audits based on the scope of the problem. This means, we’ve figured out the problem before we send you a proposal. From there, everything else is a formality, so that we can explain the problem thoroughly, cater the prescription to your resources and find other potential problems.

The problem we face when proposing SEO audits to potential clients is that they sound expensive and confusing. Worst still, many of those clients have gotten burned by them in the past. The truth is, SEO audits can be both costly and intimidating, but the benefit is immense when everything is implemented properly. So, I thought I’d take a moment to outline what you should and shouldn’t be looking for from an SEO audit, because frankly, I have to answer this too often.

What Shouldn’t Matter about SEO Audits

What the report looks like.
I love working with lawyers! They get it. They know that time is money and if they want the best from us, the more time we spend physically doing the work, the better return for them. I could give some of our clients a full SEO audit in a text document and they wouldn’t give a rat’s ass, because they know we’re getting the job done.

The length of the report.
Everyone wants their money’s worth and as painful as this may sound, size doesn’t matter. You don’t need bullshit. You need actions and you need them implemented quickly. I’m going to tell you exactly what you need to do to fix very specific problems and I’m going to try to do it in the least possible amount of words. Sometimes I find myself looking for ways to beef up an audit, because it’s only two pages. That’s when I have to sit back and realize the suggestions we just gave you in two pages (though they’re rarely this short) are going to have a HUGE impact on the performance of your site. This is advice you’ve been struggling with for years and we just handed it over. Should we wrap the answers to your problems in a beautiful shroud of bullshit? No, go implement the advice and the sooner the better. We respect you enough to know that you don’t need fluff, you need real help.

Testimonials.
Of course we have happy clients and happy partners and those are going to be the only testimonials we put on the site or share with you. Every company is like this, so why does it matter? You want some kind of insurance that we’re big and trusted. We get that. However, everyone screws up and sometimes, the biggest names in the game can hide crap results behind dozens of testimonials. This isn’t a popularity contest. It’s your business. So, don’t take our word when it comes to results, don’t take our partner’s words, don’t even take our friend’s words. Go and do the homework. Read our profiles, do searches for the company, analyze the sites we can publicly share with you, read interviews about us on other reputable sites, look at the history of speaking engagements, etc. Do whatever you have to do to feel confident in our abilities, but turning to a giant testimonials page on our own site just isn’t trustworthy.

Education.

“If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.”
Frank Zappa

College degrees mean next to nothing in this industry and if our educational background is important to you, we’re not right for each other. Before you go getting your panties in a wad, let me clarify. Education is important, but where you get it from isn’t. Not just some but most of the best SEOs in the world did NOT go to college or if they did, they didn’t finish. This industry moves too quickly to study it in a formal classroom setting. You have to be in it everyday, testing, learning, sharing, succeeding. I did graduate from college and I don’t regret that decision, but I do know that “Internet marketing” was a single paragraph in my Principles of Advertising class. That’s it! One paragraph that said that Internet marketing was too new and risky for agencies to pursue it, we were better off carefully crafting newspaper ads and direct mailers! Thankfully, I was employed as a SEO before I graduated and I’ve never looked back (at least not in this field, primatology is a different story).

The sad fact is that these “shouldn’t matter” subjects will always matter to certain business owners and companies. The good news is, there are plenty of Internet marketing companies to go around.

What Makes a Good SEO Audit

Personalization.
Whoever you go with, the audit should be written for you. If it looks like a template, it’s easier to lose sight of the big picture. You came to us with a specific need and you won’t fit into the same box previous SEO audits came in. We aren’t going to only look at x pages and x on-site factors. We’re going to look at YOUR site, the industry, the competition and then figure out what’s wrong. I know I could waste an hour detailing every title tag on your site, but what if the problem has to do with dozens of mirrored sites? Well, that seems like a terrible waste of my time and your money just for the sake of conformity.

Customization.
You might already have a team of experienced SEOs, you might be one yourself, or you might have absolutely no knowledge of the basics. Whatever the situation, we want to know where you stand today, so that everything we give you is useful, not a bunch of links to other sources or blog posts or guides that are available for free on our site. You deserve a SEO audit that’s customized to your resources, goals, timeline and budget, not ours.

What do we need from you for the SEO audit?

Before we start, we’re going to ask you for access to your site’s:

  • Analytics solutions
  • Google Webmaster Central account (or we’ll verify our own account)
  • Other webmaster accounts if the problem isn’t specific to Google
  • Other types of information and access based on your situation

Once the work has been scheduled and we have access to everything we need, we’ll dive into the site.

What are we looking at in a SEO Audit?

The following is in no particular order and I’m sure I’ve left off lots of other fun stuff we find along the way, but it’s a quick breakdown of our client’s most common diagnoses after a SEO audit. Sometimes clients know the problem when they come to us, so also consider this a list of problems we can prescribe solutions for:

  • Duplicate content
  • Redirect issues
  • Indexing issues
  • Crawl issues
  • Improper categorization
  • Crappy title tags
  • Crappy meta descriptions
  • Usability problems
  • Conversion problems
  • Keyword research
  • Keyword density (we don’t have some 3.14% keyword density formula, but more often than not, our clients don’t have the keywords they want to rank on the pages that should be getting targeted!)
  • Internal linking strategies and anchor text
  • External linking strategies and anchor text
  • Site architecture and URLs
  • Nofollow, disallow, noindex
  • HTML and XML sitemaps
  • Social media indicators

Again, that wasn’t in a certain order and I already know I’ve left off some other yummy things we look at, but you get the big picture. We’re diagnosing your site just like a doctor would. We start with a blank slate and eliminate the things that aren’t hurting you, making note of the areas that are. Sometimes the problem is obvious and sometimes it’s a mountain of tiny problems. Whatever the situation, you deserve more than a pretty, fluffy, by-the-books audit. You deserve a custom and personalized SEO audit that quickly puts you on the road to recovery or growth.

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About the Author

Rhea Drysdale

Rhea Drysdale is the Chief Executive Officer of Outspoken Media. When she isn't fighting for the SEO industry, she's She-Ra on Twitter. Connect with Rhea on Google.

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26 thoughts on “SEO Audits: What You Need to Know

  1. Rhea,

    You rock! I love doing SEO audits.

    One thing I’ve recently begun is doing them at no charge for very small business owners but only after I have a serious conversation with them and feel that they’re not already a lost cause business about to go under, or also where I feel that they really should be on the 1st page of Google (rather than they think they should because that’s what they’ve heard).

    Any other business that wants SEO and isn’t willing to pay for it is a company I want to avoid like the plague because if they don’t grasp the value of a professional audit from my company, they’ll never value the direct optimization work.

  2. I wanted to add to Alan’s comment that an SEO Audit can be a great sales tool, yet only to the very serious. I have to discipline myself to not go overboard and make it too detailed and too pretty. I like Rhea’s “direct” approach.

    I’ve learned, however, that audits can also overwhelm them. Now I try to close it out with the top 3 priorities. I type less by inserting screen shots with concerns highlighted in red. It’s a great way to find out if they are reading or looking at the pictures. :-)

    I now realize how important it is to access their Webmaster tools as a first step. Excellent that you outlined this as what you need before starting. (Of course, that wouldn’t apply to a pre-client audit.)

    Super post, Rhea!

  3. Thanks Alan and we do that to an extent, too. It’s tough because we get way more inquiries than we can take on. I want to help everyone, especially in this economy, but we’d quickly run Outspoken into the ground if we did. At least, that’s what Rae’s groomed me to say, because I couldn’t say it on my own in the beginning! This is why Rae and Lisa are awesome, they complete me.

    However, like you, we do try to help those we believe in. If they can recover rankings to a certain point or have a successful business model, they’ll be able to use us for more down the road. We’ll do what we can whether it’s referring them to another SEO we trust that’s less expensive, giving them links to a solution that’s already been covered or dropping some advice in a quick email/call. Again, it’s tough, I have to make a judgment call for everyone and I’m sure I’ve been both wrong and right in the past.

  4. As soon as you register a Google Webmaster Console account you associate specific SEO-savvy people/companies with the website. Does that incur any risk? If yes, how should that risk be managed?

  5. Nice summary Rhea

    IMO,
    it’s a good idea to include a separate file of Glossary of SEO related terms along with the audit report.

    (Many clients do not have an idea about what is an anchor text; forget about URL canonicalization, htaccess, robots.txt, etc )

    An informed client is easier to work with and can save lot of time….

  6. John – Well, it’s not like Google profiles SEOs as criminals………

    On the topic of associating accounts, we try to avoid using our actual Outspoken account and we steer clear of personal accounts if the client didn’t have the foresight to separate the two. We typically create a new account for the client that we can use for our purposes, but it’s still unique to them. Sometimes they have a different account already setup by the time they get to us. We don’t worry about associating the account if the relationship is public knowledge.

  7. The email addresses and IP addresses of those accessing Google’s tools on behalf of clients give away the SEO involvement. Yes, I do believe Google pays attention., and acts on the data when action supports its ultra-conservative business operation.

    I raise the issue because of the “Market for Lemons” aspect. A clean/safe/managed-risk approach to Google costs a heckuvalot more to execute than just moving ahead with Google at face value. The client obviously knows nothing of this, and SEO service providers don’t bring it up. Therefore the market doesn’t value it, and any quality SEO who cares to responsibly manage risk can’t compete in that marketplace on price.

    Every time Google promotes SEO as something you should be doing, and provides guidelines, you can assume there is an underlying reason for them proactively influencing the SEO marketplace. They corral their internal troops under the guise of “protecting publishers from mistakes and evil spammy, SEOs” but in reality they are managing the SEO marketplace.

    Coming soon is formal registration of SEOs and a “seal of approval”, once the fears are firmly established, and the SEO providers understand the business model that helps Google help them take their client’s money. Of course you may never see it out in the open… you’ll just start to wonder how those pro-Google SEO guys got the inside angle on every new development, got the mentions/links/referrals, etc.

  8. ability – informed clients are MUCH easier to work with!

    FYI to future readers, check out John’s response, We’re All SEO Tools.

    John – the problem clients face is Google’s market share. You mentioned the double-edge sword in your Structured Data post. I’m averaging several inquiries a week from desperate business owners that are a month away from closing their doors if they can’t get a quick Google fix. Pardon my language, but that’s fucked up. I don’t know who told them to close their brick and mortar operation just because they achieved a top 10 ranking three years ago. Banking your entire business model on Google is ridiculous.

    Yes, I’m a pusher. I’m no better than Google for supporting the habit, but I don’t think they started with this desire to slowly squeeze us conformity out of us. I feel like we have to take some responsibility for this as spammers. Perhaps not you or I, but yes, SEOs. Unless we’re working for the most altruistic and quality company in the world, do we really deserve a top 10 rank? Perhaps not, but we manipulate the system until we get it. Google compensates. We manipulate again. Google compensates. etc. We’ve danced each other into a corner.

    So, the real question is, where do we go from here?

    I liked the actions you outlined in your post for reducing dependence on Google and the transmission of data to them. Much like reducing dependence on foreign oil or growing the demand for organic food, it’s going to take time and lots of small actions from a much larger pool of people. We need continued awareness, political action and a better alternative. The stars are aligning…

    Thanks again, I really enjoyed this!

  9. SEO Audits are hot! :) This is my favorite service to provide. I think you hit the nail on the head with “personalization” and “customization”… I’m interested to see what is offered in these $100 site audits that I see being hawked around.

    With that said, I wish you went more into the costs. How do you structure your pricing? Based on hours? The toughest part of my Site Audits are pricing them out! :P

    There’s no way I could provide my SEO Audit service for free, considering the amount of time I put into them. Though, if it is something quick and easy I can guide them on, a quick phone call or email pointing them in the right direction would be no problem.

    As for Johnon’s comments, maybe the label “SEO Audit” is not the best, as it becomes more of a “Website Audit.” I am indeed more of a marketer than an SEO in the way I perform my audits… but “SEO” audits seem to sell. ;) Also, while I do take some precautions, I’m not too worried about being under the watchful eyes of Google either, as I don’t do anything I feel like I would have to hide. Plus, there are plenty others taking that kind of heat off of me…

  10. Lisa must still be off on vacation as it seems she’s letting Rhea and Rae post more :P Great post. It’s a great reference to come back to when checking my work. Thanks a ton!

  11. Rhea you’re clearly an SEO, working for non-competitive webmasters. if they were more competitive, your work would be limited to search-engine specific optimizations.. sort of the Website Audit that CK mentions, plus then very specific SEO advice (based on Google’s unique requirements, etc).

    I think it’s sad that clients accept that most of this is “SEO” and therefore not the responsibility of their web people… when much of it clearly should be. If things were different… if SEO was limited to SEO, the search engines might have less influence. We would also have more freedom to innovate if we weren’t so quick to say “but you can’t do that because of SEO” (true as it may be).

  12. Listen to the client, make them feel comfortable review their site and give them the benefits and risks of adopting strategies (and I mean all of them).

    Start low and scale it up. I think many SEOs data overload the client (the list here is fine as a checklist, but you share that with the clients and you start taking the client back to the days of just looking for keyword positions as an indicator of success, and of them comparing elements of your service – which they don’t even understand – with your competitors) – as I’ve commented before.

    As for proposals? no more than a page, and reports no more than 2. Problem with payment? Pay me when YOU think the time is right, I know I will deliver.

    Competition between agencies is fierce, can we all agree that – therefore the biggest factor in keeping your client is making them feel as though they can rely on you and that you care about their business.

  13. Rhea, you rock. I just lost a client because our sample audit was ‘only 18 pages’ versus other companies submissions. Never mind we redacted 1/2 of it…

  14. Rebecca :)

    Ian – sounds like you were better off. It’s like having a professor that assigns grades based on the number of pages you typed rather than the quality of the work. I had one of those back in the day and literally put this in the middle of the paper, “you aren’t even reading this are you? I could write anything in the world and you’d never know.” I got an A on the paper. How ridiculous is that?

    Call me a nerd, but I got pissed and wrote the professor a negative review after the semester. I’m sure other students were cursing me, but when it comes to my education, I paid for it and I was getting crap in return. Yet again why education means nothing when looking for a good SEO and why it’s most important to look for a personalized audit. Definitely better off without the page counters!

    “If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you
    have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?”

  15. Thanks for this post Rhea: I love the Zappa quote. Some of the most important changes we can recommend to a website owner don’t take much ink and paper. Others require exhaustive documentations, long lists of URLs, etc…

  16. Good stuff Rhea, got me thinking about how we audit here and I might be making some changes based on your ideas. I mostly audit in my head, going through the site and making changes as I spot problems but really should start documenting them beforehand – I just don’t like to wait, want to get stuck in straight away!

    Re: Ian’s point, think we’ve all had that before. I’ve seen huge-looking documents with just 1 paragraph of large type on each page, just to pad it out so it looks like they’ve done more preparation. Thankfully most clients see past it, and as you say, those that don’t are probably best avoided!

    More posts like this please!

  17. Haha, love the Pink Floyd reference Rhea. Admittedly we tried a number of different off the shelf packages to generate material to put in reports (don’t shoot me!) when we were starting out in the SEO industry.

    We soon found that that approach only served to confuse the hell out of clients and bombarding them with 100 pages was a ridiculous idea in the first place.

    They’re now all hand written and only relevant material is brought up. Again as above, pricing for them is the most difficult part, as people can get 300 page reports for £50 ($80 or so) but ours are now usually less than 10% of that size.

    Do you price for the time that goes into one of your reports or just assign it a standard price based on the size of the site, or even just a fixed price?

    RE writing something subliminal in your work to see what effect it has, I’ve done the same with a teacher I used to have, I even took it a step further and drew something in the middle of my text that they didn’t notice on a longer piece!

  18. Marty – I hear ya on some of the exhaustive points. It amazes me how some of the most important things are two sentences and others take pages. Whatever it takes though!

    Matt – thanks! And, keep me posted on how your process evolves. We’re still coming into our own, I change things up almost daily, which probably drives the clients crazy except that things get better and better.

    Sashi – good point about confusing clients. As soon as you present them with something, they come to expect it regardless of the actual value. Do both of yourselves the favor and start simple growing into your rhythm from there. Of course automation is the key to gettin’ paid! Find the sweet spot.

    We price by time and scope. Bigger problem = more time and more brain power.

  19. Great post Rhea. I always enjoy reading your stuff as it seems to come from a very honest place. Reminds me of Wil R. in a way.

    Even after the super actionable advice is served to the client on a silver platter, they still need to implement. Hand-holding with the client through the [implementation] process is a great way to ensure that it goes smooth (usually) and has helped us on many occasions to grow our relationship with the client.

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