How to Perform an SEO Audit

Lindsay Halsey

Lindsay Halsey is a co-founder of Pathfinder SEO. She has over 10 years of experience working in SEO with small to large businesses. Lindsay focuses on teaching site owners, freelancers, and agencies how to get found on Google via a guided approach to SEO. Stay in touch on Twitter - @linds_halsey.

Maybe you’ve heard of SEO Audits - they normally are pages and pages of a report highlighting every single thing wrong with your site. Even a site with 20-30 pages of content can create an SEO Audit that is 3-5 times that size.

We don’t think that’s very useful at all.

Instead of completing an SEO Audit, consider an SEO Assessment. An SEO Assessment takes hours, not weeks to complete. It isn’t expensive and it isn’t overwhelming.

An SEO Assessment is a high-level overview of a website’s performance in organic search. It establishes a website’s current status including strengths and opportunities. Most importantly, it creates a roadmap for growth.

If you are a web professional who offers SEO services, an SEO Assessment serves as an on-ramp for customers who are just getting started with SEO. Learn more about how SEO Assessments fit into an SEO service offering in our post about packaging SEO services.

In this post, learn how to perform an SEO Assessment.

What’s Included in an SEO Assessment

SEO Assessments include three primary components:

  • Education — Introduce your client to the world of SEO. Our goal is to make SEO easily accessible. The time you invest to educate at the beginning of an SEO partnership is invaluable; it demonstrates the high value of your SEO services and reassures your clients that they have partnered with the right agency.
  • Evaluation — We observe your client’s website from 1,000 feet up to identify its SEO-related strengths and weaknesses. We break our evaluation into four topics: technical SEO, content, on-site optimization, and off-site SEO.
  • Roadmap — As we evaluate a website, we identify action items. Together, these action items become a roadmap for growth. Your customer will walk away understanding their website’s SEO strengths and weaknesses, as well as how to turn weaknesses into opportunities in future SEO projects.

How to Organize your SEO Assessment

At Pathfinder SEO, we follow a framework called the four pillars of SEO. This framework powers all communication, strategy development, and action items. It gives you scaffolding on which to build a holistic SEO campaign based on the findings in your Assessment.

The four pillars of SEO include:

  • Technical SEO
  • Content
  • On-Site Optimization
  • Off-Site SEO

If SEO is new to you, learn more about the four pillars of SEO before diving into your first SEO Assessment.

What You’ll Need to Begin

To complete an SEO Assessment, you’ll need:

  • Access to Google Analytics — Google Analytics allows you to see historic data about the performance of organic search as a marketing channel. Did the website encounter any major drops in traffic? Is it organic traffic steadily growing? How well does organic search traffic convert into leads and sales?
  • Access to Google Search Console — The Google Search Console is an invaluable tool for performing SEO Assessments. It provides insight into the keywords that are currently driving traffic in the Performance report. It also includes feedback from Google about how the site is being indexed in the Coverage report and Page Experience signals.
  • An SEO Assessment Template — A template makes it easy to systematically go through the most important components of each of the four pillars of SEO. It structures your Assessment and ensures you stay high-level and comprehensive at the same time. At Pathfinder SEO, we share an SEO Assessment template with our customers. Sign up and get access!

What You’ll Deliver

The primary SEO Assessment deliverable is a PDF that outlines your findings. We can use the same template for every SEO Assessment, populating our findings as we go.

At the end of the Assessment, we suggest scheduling a one-hour meeting to walk your customer through your findings. We initially present the PDF during this meeting, then share it via email after.

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How to Perform an SEO Assessment

1. Onboard your client.

Star the SEO Assessment by asking your client questions and listening carefully to their answers. Here are a few of the questions we like to ask at the start of any SEO project:

  • How have you approached SEO in the past?
  • Describe your target audience. Who are you trying to reach?
  • Where are your customers located?
  • Who are your top 3 competitors?
  • What website platform do you use?
  • Do you have any plans for a site redesign or re-platform in the coming year?

Then, provide the customer with expectations around timing. When will they hear from you next? What do they need to do to help make the project a success?

2. Get access to Google Analytics and the Google Search Console.

As noted above, you’ll need access to Google Analytics and the Google Search Console to complete a thorough analysis. Send your client an email requesting access to these portals. Note, that if you have Edit level access to Google Analytics, then you can often give yourself access to the Google Search Console.

3. Review current results.

Your goal is to understand the current landscape of the search results. Is this client at the beginning of their SEO journey (are they ranking only for their brand) or do they have a mature traffic base (are they driving traffic to service pages, product pages, or blog posts)? Have any sudden changes occurred (such as a drop in traffic after a site launch)?

To complete the Current Results section, invest 30-minutes to an hour exploring Performance data in GA and the GSC. Focus on the following:

  • What percent of traffic comes to the website via organic search? This is found in Google Analytics. There is no perfect answer here; typically, it’ll be 50% or more of the total website traffic.
  • Do visitors from organic search have strong engagement? This is found in Google Analytics. Do visitors stay on site a reasonable amount of time, visit multiple pages during a session, and create a reasonable bounce rate?
  • What are the most popular organic landing pages? This can be found in Google Analytics or in the Performance report in the Google Search Console. These are the pages that drive the traffic.
  • Which keywords are driving visibility and traffic? Does the client rank #1 for any brand-related keywords? This can be found in the Performance report in the Google Search Console.

4. Analyze the site for technical SEO best practices.

It’s time to assess the website’s performance in terms of technical SEO. There are many factors at play; in our 1,000-foot assessment, we’re going to focus on the most important technical SEO elements:

Robots.txt
This file tells the search engines which pages/content to avoid. We are looking for two things:

  • Does the site have a robots.txt file?
  • If so, does it have a good set of instructions?

Here’s a great resource for understanding robots.txt files.

Each content management system (WordPress, Squarespace, Wix, etc) has its own standard robots.txt. Familiarize yourself with the default for your main content management system, then compare your client’s robots.txt file.

Go to the yourdomain.com/robots.txt. Take a screenshot of the robots.txt file and drop-in in the slide. Then, review it. For the most part, we want a robots.txt file to have a short list of instructions. Simple is generally best.

A red flag is a robots.txt file that looks like this:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /

This tells the search engines to not crawl any pages on the site. This is typically what you’ll see in the robots.txt file for a website in development. If the site is live, then we want to remove the Disallow: /.

Common action items include:

  • No action is needed. Your site has a great robots.txt file.
  • Your site does not have a robots.txt file. We suggest creating one.
  • Immediate action is needed. Your robots.txt file is telling the search engines to avoid crawling your website. This should be updated because your website is live.

XML Sitemap
An XML sitemap is the opposite of a robots.txt file. Think of it as a website’s resume; an XML sitemap lists all of the pages/content that you would like the search engines to see.

Go to yourdomain.com/sitemap.xml. This is the most common place an XML sitemap would be located. But, it could be called something else. If it’s there, evaluate the XML sitemap.

When it comes to XML sitemaps, we evaluate the following:

  • Does the site have an XML sitemap?
  • Is it properly configured to include the content we want to be indexed?
  • Has the XML sitemap been submitted to Google via the Google Search Console? Check the Google Search Console to see if it has been both submitted and accepted.
  • Are the included content types high-value (ie, neither thin taxonomy nor duplicate pages)?

Common action items include:

  • Your site does not have an XML sitemap. Create one and submit it to Google via the Search Console.
  • Your site has an XML sitemap, but it needs to be configured. Currently, it includes thin or duplicate content. Once the sitemap has been edited, we recommend re-submitting it to Google via the Google Search Console.
  • Your site has an XML sitemap and it’s great. Now, we need to submit it to Google via the Google Search Console.
  • Your site has an XML sitemap. It’s great and has been submitted successfully to Google via the Google Search Console. No action required.

Speed
Speed is an increasingly important component of search engine algorithms. It’s also challenging to address because Google continually changes the rules of the game and creates new benchmarks. When it comes to speed, good is good enough.

Mainly, we want to ensure that speed doesn’t impact a user’s experience of a website. If it does, then speed optimization is a high priority. We pay the most attention to Google’s assessment of speed, which you can assess in one of two ways:

  • Google Search Console: The Core Web Vitals in the Google Search Console can assess performance according to Google’s most important metrics. You’ll get a sense of performance for the whole site versus just one page. Not every website has data in the Core Web Vitals section of the Google Search Console, though. Take a look and see.
  • Google PageSpeed Insights: This tool is a great way to get the current speed data for any web page.

For speed-related action items, you can be as specific as you’d like. Let the customer know how large of a priority this is and include any specific speed-related suggestions (like “utilize a CDN” or “change hosting to a premium hosting provider”) here.

Mobile Usability
As you know, the web is accessed on many different devices, from desktop computers to laptops to tablets and mobile phones. Mobile usability means that your site provides a great user experience, regardless of screen size.

The good news is that most websites already meet Google’s mobile usability standards, thanks to modern design and CMS platforms. You should still double-check to confirm.

Go to the Google Search Console and review the Mobile Usability report. Note any pertinent findings in this slide.

Security
A secure website is a must! If an insecure website gets hacked, it will likely drop out of the search results. A great place to start is confirming the existence of a properly installed SSL certificate and making sure the site is accessed using HTTPS.

Use the Liquid Web SSL Checker to ensure your client meets this standard. Grab a screenshot to paste in this slide.

If your client doesn’t have an ongoing web maintenance package for their website, the topic of security is a great upsell opportunity. All sites should have a plan for staying up-to-date and compatible with the latest themes, plugins, etc. in order to remain secure.

Errors
Google reports any issues discovered when crawling and indexing your website. These can be found under Coverage in the Google Search Console. Look at two types of errors for this Assessment:

  • Page Not Found Errors: Navigate to “Excluded” in the Coverage report of the Google Search Console. Look for “Not Found (404)”. Review those URLs included in this list. Document how many there are currently; 301 redirects are needed to repair them.
  • Broken Links: Scan your client’s website using this handy broken link checker. Note how many errors are found. Each broken link will need to be fixed by going through the site and repairing/redirecting the hyperlink.

Summarize your Technical SEO Findings
At the end of the Technical SEO section of your Assessment, give your client a general overview of how they stack up in terms of technical SEO. Is technical SEO a strength or a weakness? Reiterate any action items from each of the six technical SEO aspects you assessed.

5. Evaluate the website’s content.

Content is the backbone of SEO. It’s how your client shares expertise online, and Google both looks for and rewards expertise. We can assess content according to the following four categories:

Quality — Well-written, unique content is a must. Content must also be comprehensive and tackle a subset of your client’s expertise in-depth. Generally, comprehensive content has a high word count.

Keywords — Any web page needs to include the keywords for which you want it to rank. These keywords need to appear naturally in the content. Use the core keyword several times in a post and use secondary keywords once or twice. If the copy reads poorly due to keyword frequency, then it’s overdone.

Recency — The search engines value websites with recent content. For some businesses (such as news sites), recency is a critical factor (think New York Times). For businesses who serve a national audience but are less time-sensitive, recent content is the key to relevancy (think Pathfinder SEO). For local businesses (like your local dentist), recency isn’t as pressing.

Blogging is the most common way to create recent content, but you can also revise existing pages to meet recency criteria. Ultimately, our goal is for our clients to evolve and steadily improve their content over time.

Relevancy — Content needs to be relevant to the audience your client is trying to reach. Some sites receive a high volume of traffic for something besides their core business. In this case, the client’s content doesn’t match the keywords their audience is using.

Spend 30 minutes reviewing your client’s content. Score them against these four criteria.

Review each content type, and look for the core elements that should be included in each. Does the site have product pages without reviews? What about missing information — do hours of operation appear on the contact page?

We also want to evaluate the website’s content compared to the competition. Spend 20 minutes reviewing the content on your client’s competitors’ websites.

What observations do you make? Do they have more pages? Do pages have more content? Do they blog frequently?

Summarize your Content Analysis
Is content a strength or weakness for the site? What action(s) should be taken in the months and years to come? These aren’t page-by-page recommendations; think more at the 1,000-foot level.

Suggest specific action items such as:

  • Commit to a regular blogging schedule. Target 1 post per [week/month].
  • Invest in longer, more comprehensive blog posts.
  • Expand the homepage content to include [missing elements].
  • Expand the content on your category or collections pages.
  • Add testimonials to core pages including the homepage, services pages, and the contact page.

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6. Review the On-Site Optimization

On-site optimization is a way of adding context to your content. The four key components of on-site optimization are:

  • Page Titles & Meta Descriptions
  • Headers (H1-H6)
  • Alternative Text
  • Internal Links

Page Titles & Meta Descriptions
Page titles and meta descriptions appear in the HTML code of your website’s header section. They act as organic ad text in the search engine results, so they can be used to market your pages.

These are perhaps the most important components of on-site optimization because they:

  • Act as ad text for each page in the search engine results.
  • Improve your click-through rates.
  • Drive traffic.
  • Improve your rankings in the search results.

You can evaluate current page titles and meta descriptions using a Chrome extension such as SEO META in 1 CLICK. This makes them easy to view for each page. Alternatively, you can crawl the website using a tool like Screaming Frog, then export the full list as a spreadsheet and evaluate them in bulk.

When evaluating page titles and meta descriptions, keep these best practices in mind:

Page Title Guidelines

  • Create a unique, relevant title for each page on your website.
  • Aim for 50-60 characters.
  • Format titles like the title of a book. Use capitalization.
  • Explain the page’s content in clear terms.
  • Consistently use the same title separator, such as a pipe (|) or a dash (–), to separate your page title from your brand name.
  • Include focus keywords at the beginning of the title (without keyword stuffing).
  • Always place your brand name after the title separator (except for on the homepage, where it typically goes first).

Meta Description Guidelines

  • Create unique meta descriptions for every page on your website.
  • Aim for 150-160 characters.
  • Include your focus keyword somewhere in the meta description.
  • Draft a paragraph for each that can be read easily.
  • Use an active voice versus a passive one.
  • Make these engaging, and include specific calls to action.

Common action items include:

  • Customize the page titles and meta descriptions for all top-level pages. Automate them for frequently updated content types such as blog posts and products.
  • Update existing page titles and meta descriptions to include a greater emphasis on keywords.

Headers
Headers improve a user’s experience by breaking page content into organized sections. They show up in the page’s HTML code and contain a hierarchy from 1–6. The search engines use the header tags to understand the page’s structure.

Quickly evaluate header structure using a Chrome extension such as SEO META in 1 CLICK. Review one to two pages within each content type. What trends do you see? For example, is the title of a product on a product page the H1? Are H2s and H3s used in logical places?

Ideally, each page has just one H1, followed by H2s and beyond using a nested structure. Header copy should also be logical and include keywords when possible.

Common action items include:

  • Revise the top pages on your website to feature just one H1, adding in H2s and H3s below it.
  • Revise your top 10 blog posts and break the content into sections using headers tags. Currently, blog posts have one H1 (the title of the post) but no structure in the body copy. Add H2s and H3s to break up the content, which will make it easier to scan and digest.

Alternative Text
Alternative text is HTML code that describes an image on a web page. It’s required for web accessibility, and also helps the search engines understand the relevance of your images.

Review the alternative text on images on the top 10 most viewed pages of the site using a tool such as SEO Meta in 1 Click. Alternatively, scan the site with Screaming Frog and follow these instructions to review the alternative text.

Common action items include:

  • Update the alternative text on the top 20 most visited pages on your site. Follow best practices for alternative text when adding future images to the site.
  • Your alternative text is excellent. Keep up the great work.

Internal Links
Internal links are links that point from one page on a website to another page on the same site. They make it easier for the search engine to index your website, and tell the search engines which pages are the most important.

You can view an internal link graph using the Google Search Console. Navigate to Links > Internal links > Top linked pages. Review this list. Is it logical? Does it paint a picture for the search engines of what pages are a high priority?

Common action items include:

  • Your site meets best practices for internal link usage and paints a clear and accurate picture of relative importance amongst your pages.
  • There are several high-priority pages such as /example which don’t appear in the most linked-to internal pages. Review existing blog posts and add links pointing back to important product and service pages.

Summarize your On-Site Optimization Findings
At the end of this section, summarize your findings. Is on-site SEO currently a strength or an opportunity for growth? What are the highest priority action items?

7. Off-Site SEO

Off-site SEO means everything that happens outside of a website. The search engines look for external signals (backlinks, Google Maps, social media) as a gauge of a site’s online authority and trustworthiness. Authority and trust are strong ranking factors, so the importance of off-site SEO can’t be ignored.

Backlinks
Links from other websites that point to your client’s website act as votes of endorsement and increase authority in the online space. We call these links “backlinks,” and our goal is to have a network of backlinks coming from high-quality websites.

We can evaluate a site’s “authority” via domain rating with aHrefs Backlink Checker (free).

Enter your client’s URL and explore the backlink network. What is the goal? What is a good domain rating? It depends on the industry space. Local business websites don’t need to have as high of a domain rating as one competing in a national or international landscape.

Enter URLs for your client’s competition and see who’s leading the space.

Identify a number range for “good” based on the competition. If your client is the leader, then the action item is to keep up the good work. This means keep cruising with current PR and backlink efforts (don’t hit the brakes and stop — otherwise, the competition will catch up).

Alternatively, if your client is lagging behind, then we need to pick up the pace of link building. For many businesses, this means simply getting started, and we recommend real-world tactics such as guest blogging, sponsoring events, getting links from partner businesses, etc.

Local Search
The search engines look to listings in location-based portals such as Google Maps, Yelp, Yellowpages.com, and more to understand a business’s name, address, phone number, service area, hours of operation, etc. It’s essential that this information be accurate, consistent, and broadly distributed across the web.

Start your evaluation of your client’s local search presence by finding their Google Maps listing; Google Maps is at the center of this local search ecosystem.

Common suggestions for action items include:

  • Verify and update your Google Maps listing via Google My Business. Then, focus on acquiring 5-star reviews and citation building.
  • Increase your review count on Google Maps. Your competitors have X reviews on average and your listing has Y.
    Invest in citation building to improve your “health score” by having more widely distributed and accurate business information.

Social Media
Social media engagement is another off-site signal which helps the search engines better understand your business.

Because the social web is complex and has a paid component (via ad campaigns), the performance of an individual post isn’t a strong SEO signal. Instead, consistently updated social channels are a positive trust signal according to the search engines. That said, social media isn’t a strong SEO signal overall, so don’t place as much emphasis (or invest too much time) on this one.

Evaluate your client’s social channels for basic best practices.

  • Are the channels maintained?
  • Is the posting frequency appropriate for the industry space?
  • Are they focused on quality over quantity (versus spread too thin across many different networks with little content)?

Summarize your Off-Site SEO Findings
Is off-site SEO a strength or a weakness? What next steps do you suggest?

8. Summarize Your Findings

Be encouraging. Note which of the four pillars are strengths and which are weaknesses (opportunities). For example, “Your site has a solid technical SEO foundation. Opportunity lies in content marketing and on-site optimization.” or “Your site has a solid technical SEO foundation, strong content, and your on-site SEO meets best practices. Nice work! The biggest area of opportunity is in growing your authority and trust via off-site SEO.”

Note that the next step is to begin a one-time SEO project and jumpstart results. During this jumpstart project, many of the one-time action items uncovered in the Assessment will be addressed (think fixing an XML sitemap or cleaning up broken links). Longer-term action items (like consistent long-form blogging), get strategy assistance during a Set-Up and get monthly posts as part of ongoing Monthly services.

9. Present the SEO Assessment to your client.

Schedule a call and walk the client through your findings. Try to avoid using industry jargon. Your goal is to explain your findings in simple terms that make real-world, marketing, and business sense.

At the end of your presentation, explain that SEO is a step-by-step process. With the Assessment in hand, we know precisely what steps need to be taken to jumpstart growth.

Be ready to present the next of your SEO offerings — a one-time project to build the SEO foundation. The Assessment isn’t the end of the road … it’s just the beginning.

10. Sell the Next Step in your SEO Offering

It’s time for action! The next step is your one-time project to build the site’s SEO foundation. Think of it as an “SEO Set-Up”. Learn more about building your SEO services offering.

STILL HAVE A QUESTION?

If you have more questions about this, feel free to reach out.

Lindsay Halsey

Lindsay Halsey is a co-founder of Pathfinder SEO. She has over 10 years of experience working in SEO with small to large businesses. Lindsay focuses on teaching site owners, freelancers, and agencies how to get found on Google via a guided approach to SEO. Stay in touch on Twitter - @linds_halsey.
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