The first step in any SEO assignment is performing an audit of the client’s website to identify the problem areas, areas of opportunity and a general sense of where you are and where you need to go. In other words, an SEO audit helps you chart the road map for the work ahead. This is true irrespective of whether this is an inbound SEO prospect, or someone you identified as a lead and have reached out to. This is a comprehensive guidebook on what SEO auditing involves and how you should go about it. I have also included dozens of free and paid online tools available for you to perform this auditing more efficiently. So let’s get started.
Build A Site Profile
The first step in any auditing process is to know the monster you are dealing with. Are we talking about a website that was set up only last week, and is so still a virgin in terms of content optimization and backlinks? Or are we talking about a website that is many years old and has been worked on by many optimizers in the past? While the latter helps you build a great SEO audit report, the possible work in SEO could be humongous too; especially if it involves removing bad links.
Anyway, you will first want to know how old the website is, how big it is, in terms of the number of indexed (and unindexed) pages, the level of authority the website has, etc. My favorite tool in this regard is a Google Chrome extension called Open SEO stats. It gives you a generic idea about all the SEO aspects of any given website – like the age of the domain name, the number of indexed pages on Google, the number of backlinks, the traffic trend on third party services like Alexa and Compete, social media presence, page loading speed, web host location, etc. I like it because you get a complete picture of everything about the website in just a couple of clicks.
Website Crawlability Audit
So now you have a mental picture of the website you are dealing with, we can start with the first real step of the auditing process which is to test the website’s accessibility features. Here, we mainly check the website settings that dictate who can access the web page. Also, we check if the website standards are up to date and if web pages work as intended when we request an access.
The first thing to look at is what the robots.txt file say. For those new to the game, this is a text file that contains information on what kind of bots can access your several web pages. So for example, if you have an admin panel on your website for internal purposes that you do not want the Googlebot to access, you could set this condition in the robots.txt file.
You could access this file by simply typing yourwebsitename.com/robots.txt on the browser address bar. Sometimes though, what appears okay on the robots.txt file could have unintended consequences. Alternately, some robot accessibility restrictions may be set at a page level in what are known as robots meta tags. To ensure you have only restricted access for pages you intended to, it is a good idea to instead view the robot access information from a tool like Screaming Frog SEO spider.
This is a free software that will instantly crawl through your entire website and pull out all the HTML elements of your page. You may however require a license if you work with large websites that have more than 500 pages. Anyway, with this tool, you can get instant information on the robot accessibility settings from all the pages on your website. Use this tool to see what pages have robots set to ‘noindex’ or ‘nofollow’, and if this has been done deliberately to prevent Google from crawling the page or if this was a mistake.
HTML Status Codes
Besides robots.txt, another factor that could tell you if there any accessibility issues is the status codes. These are ‘responses’ that are delivered when a request to access a web page is sent. The most popular one, of course, is the ‘404 Page not found’ status. Here is a complete list of all the various possible status codes one could receive from a web page.
You may want to know what the status code for the different pages of your website is. The Screaming Frog SEO Spider also gives you information on this. I typically sort the results from SEO spider on the basis of the Status Code to be able to see all the pages that are being redirected (301, 302), not found (404) in one bunch.
Website Indexability Audit
So now that you have studied the “crawlability” of your website, the next step is to know if the content is getting indexed as desired on Google. If you are just starting out on SEO, one thing you should know is that what you see is NOT what you get. You may have a pretty looking website, but that is not how Google could potentially be seeing your website. While Google has been getting better at it, it is always a good idea to keep things simple. So here are some things that you should look at.
Is the website letting Google freely navigate through all the pages? Does the website have an XML sitemap that dynamically generates a list of all web pages from the website? Has this been provided to Google through the Webmaster tools? Identify these and include them in your audit report.
2. Site Architecture
How is your website organized? Is it one huge mass of a thousand pages? Or, do you have all the content properly organized into various folders and sub-folders. There are two components to the auditing process while looking at site architecture. The first is the URL architecture. Traditionally, it was considered a good habit to demonstrate the organizational structure in the URL. For instance, if you had a directory of various hotels across the country, you would typically have a structure like website.com/state/city/hotel-name.html
However, from an SEO perspective, what matters more is how easily can a user navigate from the homepage to any particular web page they want to. Evaluate how the content is organized, and how the various folders and sub-folders in the website are organized and inter-linked. Also, make a note of whether the URL structure is consistent among all pages under one organizational folder.
3. Animation and Visual Content
4. HTML Markups
Wouldn’t you rate a news article that is full of spelling mistakes poorly? The same goes for an HTML page that is full of syntax errors and coding violations. In extreme cases, this can also impact the indexability of your website. Run a markup validation check using the W3C tool to identify errors that need to be fixed.
On-Page Content Audit
The next step is to understand if all the HTML content elements are in place on your website. While it is no longer required to have elements like meta keywords on your website, others like Title, header elements, meta descriptions and structured data are still important. I would recommend doing this process via the following steps:
1. Identify main elements through SEO Spider
Every web page needs to have a well defined title, header information, sub-headers. This helps Google understand the context of the page better. The Screaming Frog SEO Spider does a great job in providing this information from all the pages at one place. Typically, you will need to check for the following:
a) Are titles succinct and less than 65 characters in length?
b) Is the main headline on the page marked with the H1 tag and the subsequent sub-headers marked with H2, H3, and so on?
c) Is there more than one H1 tag for a page? This is a big no-no
d) Are titles unique? A lot of websites tend to have the same page title across the website
e) Is the title overtly manipulated for SEO reasons? This is again forbidden
f) Does the meta description provide a good summary of the page’s content? This is the content that Google search visitors read before clicking on to your link
2. Content Quality
The quality of content that the website delivers to its audience is paramount from an SEO perspective. But this is a pretty subjective thing to do since what one calls ‘useful information’ is often an individual perspective. At the outset, you will need to check for the following:
a) Is the content unique?
Siteliner is a good tool to help you identify content that may be duplicate on your page. But do note that this only helps with internal duplication. If you have plagiarized it from elsewhere, this tool may not be of help. For such cases, you may use tools like Copyscape.
b) Is it comprehensive enough?
The ideal word length is 300-500 words. But this is plainly subjective and depends on your niche. No tool shall be able to give you the right information for this question. What you could do is do a competitive analysis of other websites in the industry and see if your website has more in-depth analysis and information than the others.
c) Does it provide useful, well-researched and verifiable information?
Again, this is subjective. A competitive analysis could give you an idea of how good your website is compared to competition. Is there a compelling reason why Google should rank your site above the others? If not, note down these points in your audit report.
d) Does it make for easy reading?
Depending on your audience, your content should make for easy reading. This means that the content should not be riddled with too many jargons and abbreviations. Generally speaking, your website should be comprehensible to a student in the eigth to tenth grade. You need not spend too much time on this aspect and use a random sample of content from your website on a tool like Read-Able to benchmark your website’s readability factors.
e) Does the content seem manipulated for SEO reasons?
Self-taught website owners and amateur SEOs often place a lot of focus on elements like keyword density. This typically ends with a keyword-stuffed article that Google can easily make out as a manipulated piece. Your SEO audit report should definitely look into this aspect. The keyword analyzer from SEOBook does a good job at this.
f) Are there grammatical and typographical errors?
Finally, is your content free from grammatical errors and spelling mistakes? There are a number of spelling and grammar checking tools online. But if you are a native speaker of the language, you may make do with your own knowledge and the MS Word spell-check feature.
g) Are you targeting the right keywords?
This is an extremely crucial step. The website you are auditing may be the best in business. But without the use of relevant keywords, you may not be able to reach out to the right audience. Use keyword planner tool on Adwords to identify the main keywords for the niche and study if the website is optimized for all these important keywords.
3) Image Attributes
The SEO Spider does an awesome work crawling through all the images from your site and helps you identify those images that have not been attributed with ALT tags. ALT tag is a textual reference provided for images. This is to help website visitors who may not be able to view the image itself for various reasons and is thus an important SEO hygiene factor.
It is believed that hyperlinking to contextually relevant high authority publications tend to have a positive fallout on your own web page’s ranking. Additionally, linking contextually to others part of your own website is a healthy way to improve navigation and usability. While auditing the hyperlinks on your web page, there are specifically a few things to look into:
a) Broken Links : Use a tool like W3C Link Checker to check for broken links in your website. Remember to tick the recursive option so that you can check across your whole website.
b) Link Quality : This is again a very subjective aspect. The thumb-rule to determine the quality of the destination website is the kind of backlinks it has, the general level of quality of the website. Ideally, you may want to perform a site audit of each of the websites you are linking out to. But since that may not be practically feasible, a quick way to assess the destination website is to see if it links to, or is linked from an excessive number of spammy websites.
c) Nofollow : There has been a lot of discussion over the nofollow strategy for websites. A lot of website owners tend to be pretty defensive and thus nofollow all their external links by default. This may be unnecessary and can also be counter-productive. Use nofollow if any links are sponsored or if you cannot vouch for the quality of the end link. The nofollow Chrome extension automatically identifies nofollowed links on any web page and is a good starting point to audit the hyperlinks on any web page.
d) Anchor Text : Apart from nofollow, this is another aspect that has been abused by website owners. Identify the anchor text used to point to various internal and external links and analyze if they are either significantly promotional in nature or are stuffed with keywords.
On-Page Security Audit
Often times, websites are penalized by Google for not being secure enough. There are a few things you may check out to evaluate how good the website is, in terms of security.
Google has recently announced that they now have HTTPS as a ranking signal. While the non-deployment of HTTPS is not likely to bring down your rankings anytime soon, it is a good security feature to offer your customers. Depending on what you offer, consider the use of HTTPS on your website.
2) Malware Content
Websites are often hacked to host malware content. In some cases, the WordPress or Joomla theme you download may contain hidden malware that may be linking out to spammy niches like casino or gambling. There are two ways to track such content. The first method is to check into your Google Webmaster tools account to look for any malware content reported by Google. The second method is to install the Avast Chrome extension that scans all the Google search results for spyware. Once done, use the ‘site:website.com’ search operator on Google to get a list of all your web pages and look for any potential spam reports.
3) Neighborhood Analysis
Tools like SpyOnWeb give you a list of websites that are hosted in the same IP network as you. Identify potential spam websites on your shared hosting neighborhood that could affect your search ranking.
The off-page audit of your website has mostly got to do with backlink analysis. However, that is not all. You will also need to benchmark the social profile of your website, local listing profile and the overall trustworthiness of your site. Here is a brief on how you go about it:
1) Backlink analysis
This is one of the most important aspects of an SEO audit and one could write an entire book on this topic. However, for the sake of this article, here is a brief rundown of the various aspects you should check out –
a) Number and quality of backlinks : The Moz Open Site Explorer is one of the most popular tools for backlink profile analysis. This service not only gives you the tentative number of backlinks to your website, but also provides a domain authority and page authority rank for each of the inbound links. While this is in no way the absolute measure of the link quality, it gives you a rough idea of the kind of links that point to the website.
b) Anchor text analysis : A natural backlink profile will have a healthy mix of all kinds of anchor texts and not just the keyword you are trying to rank for. AHrefs is a great tool to take a peek into the multiple backlinks that are pointed to your website along with the anchor text used and nofollow parameters, if any. Check out their raw export feature to download the backlink file for any further processing
c) Nofollow ratio : The BacklinkWatch analysis also gives you a distribution of followed and nofollowed links. Typically, most hyperlinks to a website are follow in nature. However, the complete absence of nofollow links can raise eyebrows. This, in conjunction, with other parameters like anchor text keyword stuffing, hyperlink from low trust websites, etc. is often an indicator of bad backlink profile. In such cases, there is a good chance of your website having received a penalty from Google. Look out for any notifications on Webmaster tools for warnings and penalty notifications.
d) Linking Schemes : It has been more than a decade since link exchanges and link wheels went out of use. But you won’t believe the number of websites that still do it. Even if the site you audit does not engage in such tactics, if God forbid, the websites you have earned links from engage in such tactics, it is time to make a note of such websites and potentially disavow them later. The same is true for sponsored links. Even if your client does not pay for links, getting backlinks from websites that do is a risk factor and needs to be accounted for during your site audit.
e) Relevancy : Do a thorough analysis of all the hyperlinks to your website and identify the context for each link. Hyperlinks that are from websites with little context are risky and could potentially impact your website ranking. This is a long drawn process but it is recommended that you do this manually without relying on tools.
2) Social Profile
A website’s social media authority has become increasingly relevant in terms of SEO over the past few years. A higher engagement indicates greater authority and could hence possibly help in SEO ranking. This does not necessarily mean the number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers you have. Instead, it has got more to do with the authority of people tweeting your links or sharing your posts. The Social Authority Checker tool from SEOReviewTools is a good way to benchmark your website’s social authority against direct competitors. While this does not take into account the authority of the users sharing your website URLs, it does give a good starting point to analyze social authority.
3) Local Listing Profile
If the website you are auditing is a local business, it is important to separately audit its local listing profile. This includes the following things:
a) Directory listings : Identify the major business listing directories for the geography the website being audited is based out of and monitor its presence across all these listing pages.
b) Local pack : Identify the major keywords that the website should be ranking for and monitor its visibility in the local pack of the search results.
c) Google+ Page : Does your business appear verified on the Google+ local listings? Also, how is the engagement on this page with respect to the images and videos added, reviews and followers?
d) Local SERPs : How does the website rank for the various keywords relating to the business. If possible, analyze these results with and without including the location in the keyword. For example, if you are auditing a carpet cleaning service in Jacksonville, map the search ranking for both ‘carpet cleaners in Jacksonville FL’ as well as ‘carpet cleaners’ – this needs to be done from a local IP so as to measure the precise ranking positions.
e) Identify duplicates : The Google My Business page might many times have duplicate listings of the same business. While this could be inadvertent, this is also a popular tactic used by blackhat marketers to be visible multiple times inside the local pack. Make a note of these duplicates in the audit report.
f) Check penalty : Penalty in the search results is not the only concern. A local business website may also be penalized from being shown in the local pack. A good way to identify such penalty is by making a search for the primary keyword on Google Maps (example: carpet cleaning in Jacksonville). The results are tagged in an alphabet count – if your website is tagged with one of the top letters like A, B, C,etc. and is still absent from appearing on the local pack, then it is most likely due to a penalty. The reasons for the penalty is multi-fold and is not within the scope of this article.
g) Getting the categories correct : Is your business tagged to the right category on the Google My Business dashboard? Getting associated with the right category is extremely crucial to ranking for the appropriate search terms.
h) Comprehensive profile information : Assess the comprehensiveness of the business profile. This includes business description, right business name, address, phone number, email, open hours, map location, photos and videos.
i) Visibility on Apple and Bing Maps : Make sure your business is listed on Apple maps and Bing maps as well.
j) Structured data : Use the Google structured data testing tool to verify that all the important elements on your website have been marked up correctly. This includes any reviews that you may have since click through rates are believed to be higher on the search results when accompanies by star ratings.
While a lot of manual effort is required to accomplish all of the above auditing parameters, you could get started on this using the BrightLocal local search report. Do note that this is a paid tool and some features are restricted to work with USA based clients.
Mobile SEO Audit
No SEO audit report is complete without looking into the performance and health of the website on mobile search. Here are some things to look into:
1) Webmaster Tools Report
If the website is already linked to the Webmaster Tools, navigate to Search Traffic → Mobile Usability and make a note of any issues pointed out by Google.
2) Mobile URL management
With smartphones becoming mainstream and data plans more affordable, mobile versions of websites are no longer mandatory. However, if you still have a separate mobile URL for each of the website links, check for the following:
a) Proper redirection : Are all the URLs redirecting to the mobile link from a mobile phone?
b) Canonical : Are all the mobile links set up with proper canonical tags to help Google identify the right source link?
c) View desktop version : Do you provide visitors an easy way to view the desktop version of the website?
d) Vary HTTP header : If your website serves different HTML code and design from different URLs to the user based on the device they access the website from, then check for the Vary HTTP header on the source code.
While unique mobile version of the websites are no longer used, it has become extremely critical to replace them with responsive designs instead. While auditing your website, make a note of how your website renders on various mobile and tablet platforms.
4) Design Audit
Usability plays a huge part in any SEO audit report and this is all the more vital while looking at mobile SEO. Make sure to assess the following:
a) Use of Flash elements : Most mobile phones do not run Flash. Make a note of such elements that are deployed on the website
b) Use of popups & popovers : We are not talking just about ads (which are anyway relegated to a miniscule percentage of websites these days). Popovers are many times used to offer better usability on the web. However, they may fail to render correctly on mobile platforms.
c) Use of multimedia : If you render images and videos on your website, how are these elements displayed on a mobile device? Modern HTML5 based video players are lightweight and render better on mobile devices.
d) Validation check : Run a validation test on W3C mobileOK checker to make sure all the design related aspects adhere to standard guidelines.
A thorough SEO audit includes benchmarking your website against what the competitors are doing. Typically, one needs to assess all that we have discussed above for each of your main competitors. Broadly, this means the following:
1) The on-page content and design audit
2) The backlink profile of the competitors
3) Their social profile and engagement
4) Performance on local SEO
5) Mobile SEO audit
This mostly completes the SEO auditing process. Is there something that I missed? Point out in the comments and I will add them to the process above. Meanwhile, here is a brief list of different tools you can make use of during your auditing process.
List of Tools
Google Webmaster Tools : Google’s very own website auditing tool that helps you identify the health and hygiene of your website and SEO strategies.
Found SEO Audit : A free tool that helps you generate an audit report for your prospects. Includes major error and warning notifications.
MySiteAuditor : A white labelled SEO auditing service that you may embed on your SEO agency website for visitors to assess their websites. In turn, also helps generate more leads.
SEOCopilot Audit Tool : Free online SEO auditing tool that scans your website for over 50 SEO ranking factors. Also provides side-by-side competitor assessment report.
Zadroweb Site Auditor : Uses metrics from multiple sources including SEMRush and Moz to prepare a well-referenced SEO audit report.
Screaming Frog SEO Spider : An absolute must-use for scanning all the various HTML elements on your website. Free for analysis up to 500 pages.
UpCity SEO Report Card : Touches upon a number of significant SEO aspects of the site. Requires user to input email address though.
WooRank : Another must-try tool to prepare a site review. Includes review of the mobile, social aspects of the site. Also includes the homepage keywords review.
FeedTheBot : Provides technical inputs on relating to HTTP response headers, CSS and JS use along with inputs on Google bot access, page speed and image SEO.
Microsoft SEO Tool Kit : An important tool, simply because it’s from Microsoft. Helps you audit the website beyond just Google guidelines and helps you look at the site from the perspective of Bing, Yahoo and more.
Visual SEO Audit Tool : A software that requires download. Enhances your audit by helping you visualize the crawl process, identify conversion deterrents through screenshot management, visual XML sitemap editors and a site analysis suite. Free to download.
Removeem Anchor Text analysis : A tool to study your anchor text diversity and helps identify potential risk keywords.
Xenu’s Link Sleuth : Helps identify broken links on your website pretty efficiently.
Copyscape : Freemium tool to identify plagiarized and duplicate content on any web page
Urivalet : Nifty tool to check HTTP headers and page load time.
Pingdom Speed Test : Popular tool to measure the web page loading time
SEO Bin : A pretty basic tool for title optimization. Provides inputs on various words and phrases that may be included in your title.
Structured Data Testing Tool : A Google tool to validate the rich snippets and schema on your web pages.
Sitemap Inspector : Helps you identify any potential issues and errors with your existing XML sitemap and also helps you generate a new one.
Fiddler : A useful tool for web developers to debug traffic, test performance and test security.
Open SEO Stats : A Google Chrome extension that provides a holistic overview of the website in terms of website authority, traffic trends, link reports, etc. A pretty good tool to begin your SEO auditing process.
Flash Checker : Want to be absolutely sure about your website’s use of Flash elements on the page? This is a good tool to go to.
W3C Markup Validation : A must-use tool for designers to identify potential markup and validation errors on the website.
Siteliner : A useful tool to identify broken links, duplicate content on your website
SEOBook Keyword Analyzer : Identifies keyword density to help identify over-optimization on your web pages
Read-Able : Know the readability of content on your website using indices like Flesch-Kincaid and Coleman-Liau.
W3C Link Checker : Recursively crawl your website to identify broken links
NoFollow Chrome extension : Instantly identify nofollow links on a web page. Useful to assess over-optimization of your hyperlinking strategy.
SpyOnWeb : Detect other websites on the same shared hosting as yours. Helpful to know the IP neighborhood of your website.
OpenSite Explorer : Get comprehensive reports about your website. Paid tool
BacklinkWatch : Free tool to get an instant list of all backlinks pointing to the site along with information on anchor text and nofollow use.
W3C mobileOK Checker : Check the mobile friendliness of your website using this free tool.
Do you have other interesting tools that I should include here for website auditing? Share it in the comments below and I will be glad to include them into the article.