Mention the word ‘audit’ to most business people and you’re likely to be met with grimace and words like ‘inconvenience’, ‘time-consuming’ or even ‘unnecessary’. This is because an audit is usually something imposed on a company to satisfy a third party – such as an industry or financial regulator. But audits can also be very useful because they have the potential to unearth a lot of very useful information and insights.
In the case of digital marketing, a website and SEO audit is absolutely essential. Not only will it inform your future strategy and approach, but it will ensure you have the strongest possible digital foundations in place, to begin with.
A website audit can actually refer to a number of very targeted audits, such as a security audit that will look at your site’s vulnerability to cyber attacks; or a penalty and recovery audit that will look at sudden dips in traffic to assess whether the site has been hit by a Google manual or algorithmic penalty. Another type of audit will look specifically at conversion optimization, focusing not so much on attracting new traffic onto your website but focusing on how to convert existing traffic into genuine inquiries or sales.
Generally, when we talk about conducting an initial website audit we’re referring to a general health check of your website. You can think of this much like putting your car through a MOT. It will raise any issues or potential issues, whilst ensuring your website is ‘roadworthy’. For the purposes of this guide, I want to focus on a general website health audit.
Breakdown of an SEO Audit
Generally speaking, a website SEO audit can be broken down as having two distinct goals. The first is focused on identifying issues and suggesting fixes for them. This is the more technical aspect of the SEO audit but will also include on-page optimization issues such as low content levels or poorly optimized headers, title tags and internal linking. Any potential fixes for issues identified here will be heavily informed by keyword research (more about this in a future blog post).
The second goal of an SEO audit is in interpreting the data and analytics thrown up by various reports derived from various tools (primarily Google Search Console and Google Analytics). This is the more strategic element of the report and the efficacy of any summary will be entirely dependent on the expertise of the individual analyzing the information.
Let’s look at each in turn.
Technical Issues and On-Page Optimisation
Meta descriptions are used to describe each page on a website and will appear in the search engine results pages (SERPs) as a snippet. Whilst they don’t affect SEO they have been shown to have a major effect on click-through rate (CTR) and therefore are extremely important to get right. An SEO audit will highlight missing or poor meta descriptions.
Titles are seen in the top tab of the browser when on a web page and are returned in organic search results. They are an extremely important ranking signal and also are important for identifying what the web page is about and are therefore important to CTR. An audit will reveal any poorly optimized title tags, as well as duplication of keywords across multiple title tags.
Headers (in HTML as h1, h2, h3, etc) give a considerable amount of context to search engine crawlers for any given page. Best practice dictates that an h1 tag should be used once, with further sub-headings using h2, h3 and so on. These subheadings are used to break up your text into more readable “chunks” and are ideal for targeting longer tail search terms that relate to your primary keyword. Your audit will identify the poor use of header tags.
Image files should be descriptively but concisely named and given a coherent alt text and title. This will help on-page optimization but, because images are returned in image searches, also help them rank here. An audit will identify any missing image alt text and titles.
URLs should be properly optimized and a website audit will identify poorly optimized URLs. There are a number of URL issues that a website audit can also throw up such as trailing slash issue in which a trailing slash and non-trailing slash URL can be counted as separate pages. Google will treat these separate pages as duplicate content and make the choice as to which version is the correct one to show. Other issues could be missing pages or broken links that return 404 errors and URLs containing incomprehensible strings of letters and numbers.
Along with the robots.txt, the XML sitemap is one of the first resources a search engine crawler will access upon entering a site. Within the XML sitemap should be a list of all URLs on the site, their ‘priority’ and last date of modification. A website audit will look to create an XML sitemap if one hasn’t been created already.
A thorough SEO website audit should uncover any successful or attempted hacking or cyber attacks such as phishing scams or malware, as well as uncover any potential vulnerabilities in the website’s security. For larger and more complex sites it may be necessary to conduct a separate security audit to comprehensively assess website security, but on the whole general health audits should flag most issues.
Duplicate content (or ‘appreciably similar’ content as Google refers to it) won’t necessarily incur a penalty but it will impinge on the search engine’s ability to decide which page to rank on a given search. A website audit will identify any duplicate content issues on your site.
Internal links are important elements of overall website optimization as well as user experience (UX). They not only help Google crawl your website and better understand it, but they help pass trust from more authoritative pages like the homepage to lower level pages. An SEO audit will identify internal linking opportunities, as well as poorly chosen anchor text in any existing internal links.
With an increasing volume of the search taking place on mobile, Google’s mobile-friendly algorithm update of 2015 and now the prospect of a mobile-first index, it has never been so important to make sure your website is properly optimized for mobile. A website audit will identify any issues in terms of mobile responsiveness.
Site Speed and Page Loading
One of the most important ranking signals for any website is plenty of “fresh” relevant content. Your website audit will identify areas with thin or low content. It is absolutely essential, therefore, from an SEO standpoint that proper keyword research is done alongside any website audit to identify the need for additional pages and to correctly target keywords on existing pages. This will also inform what title tags and header tags you use. We’ll be taking a much closer look at keyword research and mapping in a future blog post.
Whilst not directly affecting website rankings, an SEO audit worth its salt will make sure that all the essential social media accounts like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus have been set up correctly and actively used. It will also make sure that the company’s Google My Business page has been correctly configured and is appearing on brand searches in the SERPs.
Analytics and Reporting
A website audit should show a query report, which is pulled from Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools). This will give a good idea of the top searches that the website is being returned for in the SERPs. This should be broken down by impressions, clicks as well as where the site ranks in the SERPs on any given query. From this CTR can be calculated.
Traffic report (including top pages, bounce rates, behavior flow)
The website audit should also look to analyze important data from Google Analytics over a suitable time frame. There are any number of reports that can be generated by Analytics and in many ways, it’s the analysis of these reports from your SEO company that will really matter. As a general rule of thumb you want to be getting an understanding of unique visitors, referral traffic (where your traffic is coming from), session duration (how long traffic is spending on your site) and bounce rates (how many pages visitors are viewing before leaving your site). We will cover Google Analytics in much more detail in a future blog post.
A backlink report will analyze the number and quality of external links pointing to your website. This will be an overview and any significant backlink portfolio will probably warrant a tailored backlink audit. A backlink report should highlight any areas of concern though in terms of previous irresponsible link building activity.
A website audit is so much more than a health check of your website. Along with properly conducted keyword research, it represents a long-term overview that will help you focus your strategy in areas where you can get maximum impact. As such it is an essential first step in any digital marketing initiative. The scope and scale of it will depend entirely on the size of your website and the number of issues the website SEO audit uncovers.
There are of course a number of tools that will audit websites (some good and some bad), producing detailed reports in the process. Of course, it’s very important to bear in mind that when you’re working with an SEO agency, you’re hiring an expert, not a tool. As such, the most important element of any website audit isn’t the data itself but the level of expertise applied to interpret it, fix any issues and outline a comprehensive strategy off the back of it.
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