How to Conduct an Effective SEO Website Audit
Last Updated 7/15/2019
Table Of Contents
- What is an SEO Audit?
- Tools We Use
- The “First Impression” Check
- General User Friendliness and Conversion Optimization Best Practices
- Indexation and Crawlability
- Site Speed & Mobile Compatibility
- Missing Markup and Tags
- Primary Keyword/Product Discovery
- Competitive Landscape and Competitor Comparison
- Pages Poorly Optimized for Search Intent
- Harmful Back Links or Anchor Text Profiles
Having a properly built, seo friendly website with optimized content will increase the likelihood of your business being found when consumers are searching for the products, services, or expertise you offer.
SEO is one of many traffic sources than can bring relevant traffic to a website. Paid advertising, social media, email marketing, content marketing, even direct mail can be used to generate qualified leads as well, so don’t limit yourself to a single channel of marketing.
While we encourage a multi-channel approach to marketing, there is no denying the need for SEO as one of those channels.
Conducting an SEO audit should be the first step of any new SEO project as it allows you to uncover the vital details needed to craft a customized and effective SEO strategy.
That is why an SEO audit is so important and why so many people (yourself included) search for some variation of “what is an SEO audit”, “SEO audit checklist” or “how to do an SEO audit”.
This article is going to cover the basics of what an SEO audit is, what tools can be used to perform an audit, and what areas you should be checking.
Completing a website audit for eCommerce stores is a different workflow than for a small blog, so we will focus on the “why and how”, so you can apply this information to any type of site.
Since we don’t believe it re-inventing the wheel so to speak, we will be linking out to useful resources throughout this article that cover certain specific elements in great detail.
What is an SEO Audit?
An SEO audit typically consists of reviewing technical SEO factors, content optimization, and link profiles with the end goal being to uncover issues specific to a website so that you can create a plan to correct those issues, bringing the site and link profile in line with established SEO “best practices”. Some SEO audits will also include checks to uncover conversion and user experience issues present on the site.
Perfect Vs Optimized
The end goal of SEO traffic is leads and sales. As such, our focus will be on items that help you reach the real end goal, which isn’t typically to have a “perfect” website. Instead of perfect, we will use the word “optimized.”
Remember, you are competing with other businesses, so if your site is in better shape than theirs, it doesn’t have to be perfect to rank and generate leads.
Establishing a solid foundation is critical to your long-term success, achieving perfection on the other hand is a “vanity” metric, that can rack up a large bill that never turns into a return on your investment.
To tackle an audit on your own, it is important to break it down into small, manageable sections. The main elements of an audit are technical SEO, content SEO, competitive analysis, and link profile review.
Those can further be broken down into the following areas:
- What is an SEO Audit?
- Tools We Use
- The “First Impression” Check
- General User Friendliness and Conversion Optimization Best Practices
- Indexation and Crawlability
- Site Speed & Mobile Compatibility
- Missing Markup and Tags
- Primary Keyword/Product Discovery
- Competitive Landscape and Competitor Comparison
- Pages Poorly Optimized for Search Intent
- Harmful Back Links or Anchor Text Profiles
The Tools We Use for SEO Audits
SEO Audit tools can save a lot of time and frustration, but they are not a replacement for a manual evaluation. The following tools will help you compile the information you need to complete a thorough, effective website audit.
Even the best tools used incorrectly are not going to help you solve SEO issues, so taking the time to understand how the tools you will use work is critical.
Here are the tools we use when evaluating sites and links profiles, the exact combination of tools used varies by project.
- Ahrefs: This is a powerful tool that lets you do everything from competitor analysis to content research and web monitoring. The learning curve is not too high, and they offer some great tutorials on how to use their tools. Pricing varies from $100 monthly to nearly $1000 for agency plans, much more than most businesses need.
- Screaming Frog: This tool offers a free tool that is limited but does allow you to find broken links and other issues. The powerful paid version adds some advanced features that allow you to look in detail at many aspects of your site and those of your competitors.
- Link Research Tools: This toolbox lets you analyze the full backlink profiles of your site and competitor sites. This tool does a great job of compiling link sources, making it a powerful option for when you need to get a manual or algorithmic link penalty cleaned up. It also allows you to run before and after estimates of your “link risk” score, so you can see how removing links may impact the overall health of your link profile.
- Google Search Console: Google offers several analytics and search tools, and this is just one of them. One of the most powerful parts of this tool is to get alerts for critical errors or issues, making sure your site is always Google friendly. Beyond that, you can check indexation stats, view html errors, and much more.
- Google Analytics: This is perhaps the most common web tool there is. By installing a line of code on your site, you can analyze page clicks, where traffic came from, unique and repeat visitors, and more. This should be one of the first things you install on your site.
- GtMetrix: This tool allows you to check site speed and provides actionable tips to improve load times. The “waterfall” feature will also help you pinpoint problem areas easily. They offer paid and free options, but the free version provides all the information needed to improve your site.
- Common Sense: Much of SEO is simply common sense. What do you look for on a search engine? What things turn you off right away about a site?
Clearly, you don’t need all these tools. Some duplicate the work of others, but they all have different interfaces and offer different qualities. SEMrush for example gives a more visual report of “site health” whereas Screaming Frog reports require a bit more knowledge to understand.
Many have free or inexpensive trial periods, so you can see which one works best for you without signing up for a lengthy commitment.
If I had to shorten the list:
- Link Research Tools would be my “go to” tool for link audits.
- SEMrush would be the “go to” tool for site audits reporting and competitive keyword research.
- GT Metrix, Search Console, and Google Analytics are free and valuable, so you should have all three!
There are, of course, other tools out there, and this is by no means a comprehensive list. It is just some of the ones that we use to make an SEO audit easier. Still, your number one tool will be your brain.
Once you have all the tools you need, you can move ahead with your audit process, starting with a “first impression” check.
The “First Impression” Check
As previously mentioned, SEO is a means of providing traffic, however, if the traffic never completes a conversion action, you aren’t going to see a return on your time or money. It is for this reason, each audit should begin with an objective look at how your site is being perceived by potential customers, not you or your organization.
In a moment we will dive deeper into conversion optimization, but that is not the purpose or goal of this phase.
Google’s “Search Quality Evaluators” documentation was created to help their team review, compare, and rate websites. This is to ensure that their current algorithms are returning the most trustworthy sites. These revealed two primary principles of site evaluation that we can use to help us think like Google (and consumers) does.
The E.A.T. Principle
This is a principle that Google uses to determine how trustworthy a site is. It is made up of three parts that add up to help Google rank a site:
- Expertise: Who is the author, and are they an expert in the field they are talking about? While once Google had an “Author Rank” tool, even though that is gone, the greater the expertise of the person who wrote the content on your site, the more trustworthy it is determined to be.
- Authority: This is the authority of your site. An example would be a lawyer’s site who has a blog full of recipes. While this may earn them some rankings with housewives, it is not their area of authority, and legal advice (written by a lawyer) is a much better representation of their authority.
- Trustworthiness: This is determined by two things: how often and where your site content is shared, and the backlinks you have earned or built. If you are an attorney, and your site is linked to by law sites, reputable journals, and reputable news sites, your site will be deemed trustworthy in that field.
This principle is part of a strategy to build trust through excellent content. This is easily done with a little bit of simple planning and forethought.
Your Money or Your Life (YMYL)
Beyond the E.A.T. principle that affects nearly every website out there, there is a higher quality standard Google uses to evaluate sites it deems are even more critical. These are sites that, according to Google, contain information and advice that “could “potentially impact the future happiness, health, or wealth of users.” These types of sites include, but are not limited to the following:
What this means is that almost any eCommerce store, medical practice, financial advice site, legal blog and many other categories will be held to a higher standard because if the advice there were wrong, it could have a dramatic impact on a reader’s life.
One of the most important first impressions of your site is speed. It must be optimized to open quickly on nearly any device. Many users start and end their website journeys including inquiries and purchases, on a mobile device like a tablet or their phone.
Studies show that if a page opens in slower than 4 seconds, a user will choose another site.
This means your site not only has to be responsive from a mobile perspective, but it also needs to be fast, and this means optimizing photos, graphics, and limiting code to only essentials.
This also affects your rankings in Google Mobile Search Results, fueled by the Google Accelerated Mobile Pages initiative. If you are not familiar with this development, catch up. It is vital to your SEO and your site success.
Content Must Convert
Not only is speed essential but so is the content of your site. This is where the E.A.T. and YMYL guidelines come into play. You must establish that your website is trustworthy, and the way to do so is to have statistics, case studies, and facts to back up the information you are providing. The sites you link to in your content should be high authority sites who are themselves trustworthy.
In other words, don’t back up your statistics with a reference to a spam filled site or one that is not usually accurate. Instead, use government websites, education sites like universities, and news sites like CNN, NBC, Forbes, and Inc. You should also be using sites recognized as authorities in your niche.
Your content should also be conversational and easy to read and understand. Avoid jargon and other industry speak that will lose a reader’s attention right away. Explain what you mean without being condescending, and make sure your content is entertaining as well.
Little Pieces – Big Impact
These are all elements of a good site. Making a good first impression is more than just the look of your site, and the colors and photos you use, and how professional it looks. These things are all important, but they do not eclipse the content on your site, and how trustworthy you appear right from the outset.
Don’t ignore content and again, use your head. What makes a good impression with you on a website, specifically those of your competitors? Incorporate those elements into your own site. One you’ve made a great first impression, you can move ahead to keeping users on your site and getting them to come back again over and over.
General User Friendliness and Conversion Optimization Best Practices
It’s fine to make Google happy, but that is not really what the last section was all about. We will talk more about Google and technical SEO in a moment, but for the moment we will talk about what the E.A.T. principle and YMYL are really trying to accomplish.
SEO really comes down to what is best for the user. As Google incorporates Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence to take their ability to rank websites to a new level, the real goal is to get the search engine to think like a person.
Modern SEO is largely about user experience. It is a tool that you use to do three key things:
- Attract Users to Your Site: This is what showing up in the top of the right web queries does for you.
- Keep Users on Your Site and Entice them to Come Back: This is what your content does for you. You educate web users through entertainment, earn their trust, and spark their interest in what you are going to share or do next.
- Convert Web Browsers to Subscribers, Buyers, and Lifelong Customers: Conversion is defined in different ways depending on your campaign and what your current goals are, but the two items above lead to this one thing: conversions.
How well is your site doing at these things? There are some great ways to figure that out, and once you do, find ways to improve.
Track What You’re Doing Now
Do you have goal tracking set up in Google Analytics?
If you are aiming for nothing, you will hit nothing. Set goals for at least two things: traffic and conversions. You should also be using Google Analytics to measure user engagement, sources of traffic and conversions, and more. If you are not measuring it, you certainly can’t test your methods, and if you can’t test your methods, you can’t improve them.
Essential Trust Elements
We talked above about users trusting your website and the content on it. What elements do you need in your pages to earn their trust? That depends in part on the purpose of the page they have landed on. For instance, what makes them trust a home page is different than the elements on a sales page that make it trustworthy.
Here are some examples, and some ideas of how to make these elements work together.
- Home Page: This page first needs to display a professional, modern design. This is a place not to ignore the psychology of color. Different colors inspire trust, while others like orange and yellow, make a user feel a bit uneasy. Use soft, comforting colors and a seamless design that looks good on mobile or a desktop.
- Information Page: This can be everything from a blog post to an FAQ or About Us page. The page should have a clear headline, a professional look and feel, and be free of grammatical and spelling errors. The text should be clear and concise, and any photos or illustrations should be relevant and not overly flashy. A visual representation of trustworthy sites on the topic that have featured your content is a quick way to build trust as well.
- Sales Page: A sales page should have a clear headline and a clear call to action that mimics or is clearly relevant to that headline. The page should be simple, easy to read, and easy to navigate.
Adding an item to a cart or checking out should be a clear and simple procedure, and somewhere the page should highlight security and the importance of preserving customer data. If the page collects any data via a form, there should be a clear statement of how and when that data will be used. Lastly, don’t forget social proof. Have other purchased? Did the like it? What benefit did they derive from purchasing your product or service? Collect and display testimonials that answer those questions.
One of the primary reasons a user will “bounce” from a page is that something just looks off about the page or the site and it isn’t a visual site review is the only way to spot this type of issue.
In a recent presentation from Distilled, they ask for feedback from non-SEO’s about what items found on a website are of concern. Respondents said:
- “The Reviews Seem Fake”
- “There’s not enough information about the company and why I should use their products”
- “The pictures were of low quality and blurry”
Again, use your common sense. What makes you leave a site without making a purchase or continuing to read the content there? Avoid those things on your own site.
Once the basics are covered, you can move into more advanced conversion optimization tactics.
Conversion Optimization Tips & Best Practices
There are of course countless lists of things you should and should not do when it comes to increasing conversion rates including this great list of 101 great conversion rate optimization tips. Here are some highlights and some tips of our own.
- Psychology of color: I know this keeps coming up, but it is important. Know how color affects the brain and use it to your advantage.
- Make Value Propositions Clear: What do you want the customer to do, and what value does it bring to them? In other words, what problem does it solve, or need or want does it fulfill? The most successful websites at conversion have this down to a science.
- Test, Test, Test: Test different approaches to your calls to action. Make them not only clear but try to anticipate and answer any questions users might have. A/B Testing on a single campaign can increase conversions by over 100%. Test your headlines, your graphics, and even the number of form fields required for them to complete a subscription or purchase. Test the ability for users to log in using social media accounts, and even test payment methods. Short takeaway? Test everything.
- Ask Questions: Take surveys on your website, social media, and through email. Let your customers tell you what they want in a website, and then give it to them. Web Engage is a good tool for getting anonymous onsite feedback from users, but simple tools like Survey Monkey work well on social media and with your email list.
- Stop Talking About Yourself: Talk instead about why the customer needs you. Focus not on features or on the negative, like what the customer will miss out on without you, but instead on benefits, and how your product or service will enrich their lives.
- Make Many Landing Pages: Different landing pages will work for different demographics, and traffic that comes from Twitter will not respond the same way as traffic from Facebook. Design pages accordingly. Remember, the more landing pages you have, the more leads you are likely to generate.
- Add Media: Adding product videos instead of just photos can increase sales of that product by 144% according to some studies. The same is true for other media, like virtual and augmented reality applications and photos, and even audio reviews.
- Think Long Term: If you are selling memberships, subscriptions or software as a service (SAAS), it will take time to build trust and higher conversion rates. Don’t rush it. Rates will increase over time.
Probably the most important takeaway from this and other lists is that companies who have a strategy related to conversion are much more likely to see a large increase in sales. However, an astonishing 61% of companies only test 5 times a month or even less. No wonder conversion rates are so low.
The truth is, every website in the world has a conversion problem, and the process of testing and increasing conversion rates will be an ongoing battle as long as a company is in business. Think of these astounding statistics:
You have 8 seconds to capture a reader’s attention on your landing page. After that, most users will leave if they are not engaged.
Take a deep breath. There is a lot to absorb here, and when it comes to doing an SEO audit, you may already be feeling overwhelmed.
Think of it this way…
By simply trying you are ahead of over half of the companies out there today.
There are some things you might be doing that will harm your conversion rates, and you need to stop doing them right away.
Choose Words Carefully: Studies show that subtle turns of phrase can dramatically decrease or increase conversion rates. Vague, scammy, pessimistic words can send users running, and it is amazing to see what turning those into specific and positive words will do for your site.
Creative Web Design: Being creative is one thing, being entirely outside the box is another. There are some horrid designs out there, and while they may grab the user’s attention because they are shocking, they send visitors running away. Users have certain expectations for web design. Meet them, and don’t ignore what works for others in your industry.
Sliding Banners and Giant Pop Ups: These sound like they come from the circus, and that is where they belong. Large pop ups that cover the entire content of your site and sliding banners are true conversion killers that need to be banned. Yet companies that think they are clever use them over and over again. (I should add that this point is heavily debated, with people advocating strongly on both sites, how do you feel about intrusive, annoying popups?)
Making it Difficult to Purchase: Your shopping cart should be simple to get to, simple to use, and you should accept every payment method you can think of, except maybe crypto currency (although you might want to consider that even). The more challenging it is, the more likely people are to abandon it and go to your competitor’s site.
Unclear Call to Action: Make your call to action clear, like we discussed above. If people don’t know what they are doing, they are unlikely to do it. The fewer options you give them, the more likely they are to do what you want them to do, so don’t overload a page with multiple calls to action either.
No Customer Reviews or Negative Ones: If you are not displaying customer reviews on your site even if you are pulling them from elsewhere, you will greatly hurt your conversion rates. Customers trust online reviews and look for them. Make them easy to find and provide good products and services to avoid negative ones. Use reputation management software to make sure customers are happy with your products and services.
When doing your SEO audit, keep these things in mind. You can’t fix all of them overnight, but you can make things better by keeping them in mind.
Now that we have talked about your users and what they want and need, let’s talk about how to communicate this to Google and other search engines.
Indexation and Crawlability
So now we have your site running well and set up for your users. Still, you and others are having trouble finding your site on search engines. This is a real concern whether your site is new or it is an older one that suddenly dipped in rankings.
These are things that indicate an indexing issue. What does indexing mean? This requires a certain understanding of how search engines work. Essentially, they are not crawling the web live, but instead have their own index of the internet. How do they get this index? By “crawling” the web on a regular basis.
Think of it this way. The search engine has intelligent “spiders” that crawl across the internet, looking for things that are new or updated. They then organize those things by indexing them.
This index is what we are really searching, like a huge card catalog that you can access in seconds. There are a few major issues that can affect the indexing of your site: deindexing, usually a result of Google penalties, or Index bloat, a case where your site has too many pages being crawled, and search engines can’t tell which ones are important.
The first step is to check Google search console, and make sure your pages have been submitted and subsequently indexed. Not every page you submit will be indexed, but if many of the pages submitted aren’t getting picked up, it is a warning sign of a bigger issue.
The second step, checking for index bloat is a little trickier, but one you can do easily enough once you know how. First, you need a history, so you need to check Google Search console and Bing Webmaster tools once a month. This will give you a record of what behaviors are normal for your website, and what statistics you should expect.
If you see a large increase in the number of pages crawled or indexed, you know that there is a potential issue with indexing bloat. Once you have identified an issue is present, you need to determine why it is happening.
Here are some common causes:
- Domain URLs being served through both http and https protocols
- Parameter URLs caused by internal search
- Parameter URLs caused by product filters
- Blog taxonomies
- Session IDs in URLs
- Injection of spam pages following a hack
- Old URLs not redirected properly following a migration
- Trailing slashes at the end of URLs causing duplication
- UTM source
Of course, the fix for these issues will depend on what is causing them. Some we will cover in a few moments when we talk about markup and tags, but there are some that bear mentioning here.
One of the first fixes required on many sites is an update to the robots.txt to ensure only the correct pages are being crawled and marked for indexation. Without proper directives, Google will be left guessing about what they should crawl and consider indexing.
Let’s say you have an online store and each time a product filter is applied, it creates a unique URL, with the same content as other pages. If these dynamic versions do not have a canonical tag setup and they are not set to ‘no-index’, you could end up with hundreds or thousands of useless pages indexed.
Blog post and blog category pages often create confusion with search engines because they contain the same or similar content. Using rel=”next” and rel=”prev” pagination markup will help the search engines understand the relationship between these pages.
And of course, if your site has been hacked, none of these will work. You will first have to resolve the hack, and then often wait for Google to re-evaluate your site. The index bloat may be the least of your worries at this point, but it still must be addressed sooner rather than later.
Of course, if you can’t get pages indexed, they most certainly aren’t going to rank. Once you identify your most important offers, and the corresponding pages, you must make sure they are being indexed properly.
(There are several correct ways to markup sites, we will dive deeper into that below)
Site Speed and Mobile Compatibility
Not to beat this horse to death, but speed and mobile compatibility matter more now than ever before.
- Studies show that over 60% of searches are done on mobile devices, and many customers complete their purchases without ever going to a computer or desktop.
- Loading times of more than 4 seconds will send them to your competitor’s site.
- You have around 8 seconds to grab their attention with your landing page or call to action.
- A 1 second delay in your website load time can result in a 7% dip in your conversion rates.
How do you test your site speed?
How do you make sure your site is in the mobile first index?
Here are some simple answers…
There are several tools out there that will allow you to test your site speed. GT Metrix is one of the best, and it also will provide you with actionable steps that will improve your site load time. It even allows you to test from multiple regions and set up alerts for when your site is performing poorly.
One of the biggest performance killers is uncompressed photos, and image optimization is one of the first keys to speeding up your site.
As to mobile sites, here is the key. You need to use a site that is mobile responsive not just mobile friendly. The reason? There are hundreds of devices of different shapes and sizes, and the site needs to respond differently to all of them. A mobile friendly site will still produce user friendliness issues, and the message from Google is clear. Your site needs to work and render quickly on all of them.
What does mobile first mean? It simply means that for many sites, Google will index the mobile version first and use it to determine rankings and placement in SERPS rather than the desktop version. How do you tell if your site is mobile first ready? Well, Google has its own tool that will help you do so, and it can be found here as part of the search console.
The harsh truth is this: mobile search has long surpassed desktop search on Google, and by the end of 2018, mobile search is projected to be at 79%. If you are not mobile responsive with your site, and investing heavily in that, you need to get on the bandwagon and fast.
Being mobile ready is a huge part of your SEO audit as is the speed of your site.
Missing Markup and Tags
There are many meta tags out there, and they are one of the first steps in any SEO audit and the SEO education process. Most of the talk is negative, because meta tags are misused so often. There is a comprehensive meta tag resource if you want to know everything that is out there, but here are some of the highlights of what matters, what doesn’t, and what you can do with or without.
The Ones that Matter
Meta content type: This declares your character set for the page, and without it your page could be rendered improperly by the browser. Your web designer can teach you more about this.
Title Tag: You should have a unique title tag on every page that describes the content of that page.
Meta Description: This is the sales pitch for the page. Although it does not affect ranking, it does get the reader to click on the content. Make this a punchy and good draw for your page.
Viewport: This is especially critical to mobile. The standard tag looks something like this: <meta name=viewport content=”width=device-width, initial-scale=1″>
Robots: There are two places your can tell bots, such as Googlebot how to behave on your site. The site-wide settings should be setup in your robots.txt file. If you have exceptions to these rules for specific pages, <meta name=“Robots” > tag can be used.
For clarity, if your main robots.txt file allowed Googlebot to crawl and index the entire site, you could specify in the tag on certain pages that you do not want the page to be indexed. However, if you block Googlebot via the robots.txt, you cannot allow them to index certain pages, because they wouldn’t reach those instructions.
Confused? Here it is presented in a different manner: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/15705501/robots-txt-in-the-root-directory-will-that-override-the-meta-tag-or-will-the-me
Here is a good resource on setting up a robots.txt file: https://neilpatel.com/blog/robots-txt/
Directly from Google, here is the list of meta tags that they understand: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/79812?hl=en
The key to remember here is that you can add as many tags as you want. However, for SEO benefit, only the ones Google understands will be helpful. If you have additional tags on your site that are used for something other than SEO benefit, consult your developer to make sure your aren’t listing a bunch of useless tags. The ideal is to keep them to a bare minimum. Only use what tags you need to and go from there.
Looking at and testing your meta tags should be a cornerstone of your site audit, so take some time to familiarize yourself with the options if you aren’t already.
Primary Keyword or Product Discovery
Which keywords are the most important to your business? Or more importantly in today’s mobile marketplace, what long tail queries matter the most to your business? The answer has two parts, and neither of them are extremely complex, yet they do take some work to narrow and solidify.
The first is to ask the question “What are our customers searching for?” This is determined simply by doing some keyword research using tools like SEMrush to review the keywords your competitors are capitalizing on.
This quick check will give you similar keyword searches, long-tail results and provide you with the kind of volume people are searching for in those areas.
This is only the first step though. What your customers are searching for might get them to your site, but if you offer several products or services, how to you prioritize?
Really, the answer is also simple. Where do you make the most profit?
Determining what keywords and niche to focus on then is simply a matter of finding the answer to these two questions and determining where those answers overlap. That is the area you focus on first.
Here’s an example
An eCommerce store which sold a variety of products promoted “leather bike gloves” for sale. The problem? The keyword attracted both motorcyclists and bicyclists, and the gloves were actually designed for motorcycle riders. Not only did this result in confusion, but bicyclists purchased the gloves, found them too heavy for their purposes, and then left negative reviews.
The key is to be specific. There are two groups searching for bike gloves potentially. Make it clear which ones these are by either adding the keyword “motorcycle” to the description or changing it to “leather motorcycle gloves.” The same can be said for a number of products.
Be specific and avoid confusion to attract the searchers most likely to buy your products.
This is a big part of your SEO audit, but it also leads us to the next step.
Competitive Landscape and Competitor Comparisons
Remember the terms you determined above? What are your top 3 keywords? Now find the top five ranking sites in Google for those keywords and start comparing their sites to yours.
If your competition is doing better than you on the web, why?
Here are a few areas you should check to establish a baseline for each keyword:
- Average Content Length: Look at the top 5 ranking sites in your niche. What is the average content length on their blog? What about product descriptions and other content on the site?
- What Type of Content is Ranking: Are your competitors are using “how to guides” or instructional videos to rank for the terms most important to your business?
- How Authoritative are the Ranking Sites: Let’s say you have a brand-new site with 0 unique referring domains and every site ranking for your keyword has 1000+ RDs. This indicates a clear gap in the age and strength of their websites versus yours, so competitive link analysis, and link building need to be part of your ongoing roadmap.
- How Are They Using Keywords of Phrases In Their Content: Understanding the average keyword density of your competitors, the related terms they are using, and how they are incorporated into their content can give you a clear outline for your own content.
How do you gather this data?
You can use tools like Cora or Page Optimizer Pro to determine much of this information. When it comes to comparing link profiles, Ahrefs is our go to tool.
Don’t have access to these tools? Find the five top ranking sites in your keyword by searching in a Google incognito window. Then use the Find tool (control+F or Command+F on a Mac) to see the number of instances of the keyword on the page that is ranking. Note where and how the keywords are used. This will also tell you the total number of words on the page. If you find that each site ranking for your keyword includes in in the page title, the h1 tag, and mentions it 4 times within the body of the content, you now have a roadmap to follow when creating your content.
Likewise, you could manually review the word count of each ranking page using a free tool like Website Page Word Counter. The key takeaway, if you need data and don’t have a paid tool to get it, search Google and you can find all kinds of free tools that can help you. Don’t let a lack of tools stop you from taking the necessary steps to rank your site.
While comparing, be sure to see how your content stacks up with the sites ranking for your keyword.
Pages Poorly Optimized for Search Intent or Fails to Satisfy Search Query
As mentioned above, you should be looking at what type of content Google believes will best serve the user searching for your keywords.
What type of content is showing for the keywords you chose?
Is it videos, comparison pages, sales pages, long form content? Is the content you have created for that keyword in line with the type of content Google likes to show for those searches? If it isn’t, you need to change your strategy and approach.
Check out this post for a great overview of the importance of Query Intent, and a recovery checklist for people suffering from the Medic Update, who did not see a rankings increase from E.A.T improvements
This does not mean to scrap your old content. It still might be useful to some users, but you are not going to change the mind of Google overnight. Give the search engine and users what they are looking for and what they want.
Next, assume each page on your site is given a value and quality score. Score each of them yourself, but have others score them as well in the areas of both usefulness and value and quality. Take the average of all pages on your site to get the quality score.
Now ask yourself some questions. What pages do you feel would bring down the averages because of limited content, outdated info, low value, or other issues? Does everyone rank the pages the way you did? If so, delete or update those pages to bring up your average score.
Google just released another update to the algorithm in March, and it directly impacted sites that were ranking but not providing content that best served the search intent of the user. Ranking is more than just about quality, it is about best serving the user by providing them with the best type of content to satisfy their search query.
Your SEO audit can reveal your weakness in this area, but finding the problem is the first step in fixing it.
Harmful, Weak, or Non-Existent Back Links or Anchor Text Profiles
Finally, the backlinks to your site matter. A link audit should be part of your overall SEO audit, starting with a review of the links your currently have.
Evaluating What You Already Have
Over Optimized Anchor Text Profiles: What does this mean? It means that when your site is mentioned, a keyword-based anchor text is almost always used, like “high-quality shoes”. Google and other search engines expect your site to be mentioned naturally and using simple one or two keywords in your link building campaigns will get you stuck in rankings in a way that no amount of new link building can fix. Here is a quick run down of the types of anchor text and how to use them: https://stellarseo.com/anchor-text/
Bad Links: Low value, de-indexed, or irrelevant links can bring down your overall “link quality score”, reducing the impact of new quality links built to the site. Disavowing or removing these is an important first step. Even once popular link building methods like scholarship link building can become harmful over time, so don’t skip this check.
You can do this with Google’s disavow tool, and If you already have a disavow file, auditing it regularly is a good idea
If you have received manual link penalties from Google, you need to handle them in a completely different way from the simple disavow tool. Consult this guide from Link Research Tools to determine how to get out of the penalty box.
Getting your link profile in shape before you even embark on another link building campaign is crucial and will ensure you get the best possible results from your ongoing efforts.
Understanding Your Competitors
Making sure that your links profile isn’t toxic is a good first step, but it is far from the only step.
The next thing you will need to do (as touched on above) is determine the gap between your website and your competitors. Once you know where your stand, you can setup a plan to build new links and close the gap.
Each of your main keyword will return a different group of sites ranking in the top 5 results, so each keyword will require its’ own review. Do a Google search for your main keyword and record the top 5 sites.
Once you have a list of sites, you are going to check a few items, starting with the number of referring domains to the URL, and the amount of unique referring domains specifically to the page that ranks for your target keyword.
First, find the median number of referring domains to the ranking URL and then find the median number of total referring domains to the sites of your competitors
Here is a quick walk-through of how to do this:
Pulling It All Together
The above steps are meant to help savvy business owners and in-house marketing teams troubleshoot and develop an effective plan of attack when it comes to making your own SEO audit and determining where you excel and where you need work.
If you have a large or complex site, there are many technical issues (especially online stores) that will require advanced troubleshooting.
If you have a manual link penalty or believe your link profile is exceptionally risky, a professional link audit can save you a lot of time and frustration.
When choosing keywords, auditing your site, and creating your plan, keep your budget in mind. There may be a great keyword that can produce a lot of sales, but if you do not have the budget to rank for it successfully, pursue less competitive terms first and grow your budget as sales grow.
Taking the time to audit the current state of your website and your competition is the ONLY way to create a clear, custom, and actionable plan. Do not engage an SEO service that does not complete an intake audit as part of the overall strategy for local SEO or organic SEO services. The exception being when you contact a service for only link building, when you have an in house or alternate agency handling on page SEO. However, you should be aware that poor on page can drastically reduce the benefits of getting good links.