How to Run Live ‘Site Reviews’ at Events (and Why You Should)

How to Run Live ‘Site Reviews’ at Events (and Why You Should)

20th June 2017
Site review at Cardiff SEO Meet
Site review at Cardiff SEO Meet

I’ve been running a quarterly SEO meetup (Cardiff SEO Meet) since May 2016. Early on, I had the idea of running live ‘site reviews’ alongside talks, where we (the audience) would audit a website together, live on the night.

We ran our first one at our second event (August 2016), which I was fortunate enough to Periscope with the permission of the person who volunteered the site to be reviewed:

We’ve now run four of these at five events, and I’m hearing more and more from people that they’re the most valuable part of the event – even more so than the talks from the speakers.

In this post I’ll talk you through what they are, how to run them, what to watch out for, and offer a variety of tips and tricks along the way.

What is a ‘site review’?

As mentioned above, a ‘site review’ – in the context of an event/meetup – is when you (as a collective) audit a website live on the night, spending 20 minutes or so giving SEO advice on a variety of areas: keyword research, SEO copywriting, technical SEO, link building, and so on.

I had the idea when I saw that some exhibitors at brightonSEO a few years ago were conducting one-to-one site reviews with attendees (I have a feeling it was RocketMill who was running them, although I’m not sure if they still do them these days). But then I thought to myself: why keep them private/one-to-one, when you could make them public and review them as a group?

When I run them at Cardiff SEO Meet, I’ll usually kick things off by asking the volunteer of the site (usually the webmaster/business owner) to introduce themselves and their site, and to spend a few minutes talking about their plans, their goals, etc.

Then the fun starts. I usually run a Screaming Frog crawl on the site, so that we can take a look at page titles, meta descriptions, etc. I’ll also bring up Majestic data, to see what links they’ve gotten already (if any). The Google AdWords Keyword Planner is open in another tab, so we can look as search volume data for their industry and target keywords. I also grab suggestions of tools from the audience – with one person one time sharing with us all the delightfully named… Keyword Shitter. (Hey, say what you will, it’s a pretty handy tool.) You could also consider getting CMS access to the site, as well as access to Google Analytics, Google Search Console, etc. – although I’ve not gone this far with any of the site reviews I’ve done just yet.

The idea is to simply try and give as many useful suggestions as possible, whether it’s metadata best practice guidance, spotting duplicate content issues, offering blogging and content strategy suggestions, giving link building tactic tips bespoke to their situation… Whatever crops up within the time that you have.

We’ve had a bit of a mix so far: some are businesses that have just launched; others have been around a while but admit that they’re new to the thrilling world of SEO. We’ve also had a mix of industries: we’ve had a web designer, a social media trainer/consultant, an EdTech platform, and – perhaps our most unusual – a subscription box service containing science activities for kids.

Why are site reviews so useful?

The site reviews have grown more and more popular at Cardiff SEO Meet. Some regular attendees have told me that they come just for them, seeing the talks is secondary – an added bonus. That blows my mind, as I really didn’t think that they had a lot of potential originally – to the point where I almost didn’t bother to run them.

So why do they work so well?

They give ‘back to basics’ SEO advice

Recent talks at Cardiff SEO Meet have been on topics such as growing your brand via YouTube, optimising for Google Home, and conducting advanced outreach to get the attention of celebrities. While this is all well and good (especially for advanced SEOs who want to learn something new), we often get business owners who want to learn a bit about SEO themselves – and these topics may not necessarily be of interest of them.

Instead, they want the nitty-gritty stuff: content, keywords, technical and links. The site reviews are handy in this regard because we often dive into each of these areas (albeit only briefly) in the context of an actual website.

You’re getting ‘hands-on’ advice from experts

Attendees also get the benefit that people who contribute advice are usually professional SEOs.

I usually kick things off and sort of ‘chair’ the session, but to avoid hogging the mic, I usually try and rope in other people as soon as possible. You’ll find that those who speak up are usually those who work in SEO day-in-day-out – and they’re offering their advice for free. This is extremely valuable, not only for the person volunteering their website, but for others listening in, who might be thinking to themselves: “I could apply this idea to my site, too.”

They usually offer more than just SEO tips

I try to make sure that we stick to SEO topics, but inevitably we often get side-tracked and divert to other related areas. I remember one site review having a lot of attention on the landing page experience, usability, and conversion rate optimisation. I’m pretty sure we’ve also covered social media, Google AdWords and design during some of them as well. Obviously you have to avoid this going way off-topic (and try to reign it back in), but if someone spots a quick-win fix – SEO or not – then it makes sense to quickly raise it.

They encourage debate

The great thing about SEO as an industry especially is that while some best practice guidance is universal, there can sometimes be disagreements about what you should and shouldn’t do in certain areas.

One of our site review volunteers was a web designer, so we got onto the subject of “Website Design by Joe Bloggs” footer links you often see at the bottom of websites. Some people talked about how they’re a good tactic to get links in that space (with some even arguing that they’re a necessary tactic, especially if all of the competition are doing it). Some people talked about how it’s good to do, so long as you don’t stuff the anchor text with keywords. Others said to do it but to use rel=”nofollow” on the link. However one attendee strongly objected to all of this, suggesting that it shouldn’t be done at all, as it may be against Google guidelines.

Meanwhile I was grinning and rubbing my hands together – I was loving every second of it. Debating the rights and wrongs and good and bad is what site reviews should be all about, and if someone disagrees with the advice being given, then it makes sense for them to speak up rather than to let it slide. Encourage debate as much as you can.

Pubcon 2015 Site Review session
Site Review panel at Pubcon Las Vegas

Additional tips and things to watch out for when running them

If you decide to give site reviews a go at your event/conference/meetup, here’s a few additional tips and considerations before you get cracking:

Choose people who have never had (professional) SEO work done before

This may seem a little weird at first, so let me explain..

You don’t want to be in a situation where you review the SEO of a site and determine that it’s really bad, whether it’s non-existent keyword usage, poor technical SEO or a dodgy inbound link profile – only to find out that the company is paying for an SEO agency to do SEO work for them. To make matters more complex, you might find that the SEO agency weren’t responsible for the shoddy work – in fact, what if they were brought in to clean it up? I’ve actually been in this situation before, hired to clean up another SEO agency’s shoddy work, only to partially get the blame for the original work, despite easily being able to prove that I had no hand in it. And it sucked.

In short, while I’m no law expert, if a situation like this were to arise, you could actually be at risk of ending up in a situation that leans towards defamation. The fact that there’d be a room-full of people witnessing it all would surely only make matters worse to boot. So while it’s certainly less fun and reduces the pool or potential participants, it might be safer to stick to sites that have never invested in SEO before, or those who have given it a go themselves DIY/in-house.

Consider drafting a quick legal doc to protect yourself

In addition to avoiding sites with obvious professional SEO involvement, there are steps you should consider taking that’ll protect you legally from the site volunteer themselves. What if they were to receive bad advice, implement it, notice a detrimental effect on their site and blame you (the event organiser) for it? Heck, it could even be the case that they receive good advice, but implement it months or years later and the situation has since changed. Not anyone’s fault, but it could still leave a bad taste in the site volunteer’s mouth…

Again, I’m not a law expert, but given that I’ve been in a courtroom before, it’s better to be safe than sorry. I drafted a quick one-pager that I ask site review volunteers to sign before we proceed. It simply says that if they were to receive sub-par advice and it backfires for them, neither Cardiff SEO Meet nor the audience attendees themselves can be held responsible or liable. I very, very much doubt anything would ever happen, but you can never be too careful.

Consider announcing the site before the event (for the attendees’ benefit)

The first time I ran a site review, I thought it’d be a good idea to unveil the site on the night. That way everyone would be in the same boat and would have to think on their feet, based on all that they’d discover within that allotted 20 mins or so. However in hindsight, this was a mistake – people focused heavily on design/visual elements and less so on SEO.

These days, I announce the site three days before each event. That way attendees have a chance to do their homework and research ahead of the site review – and as a result, it’s usually more focused. Someone will chip in with: “hey, I noticed the site doesn’t have meta descriptions” and then we can take a look at that. Someone else might say: “have you considered [this link building tactic], given that you’re in [this industry]?” That leads us nicely onto link building. And so on.

Realise that the volunteer may not want to be live-streamed

The first site review participant was happy to be Periscoped (Periscope lifted the deleted-after-24-hours feature about a year ago, meaning that videos are now kept forever – if you want them to be, of course).

However later participants all refused to be Periscoped, usually because they didn’t want competitors to a) steal ideas for themselves, and b) see where they are situation-wise. It’s a brave thing to offer yourself up for criticism, and it can also leave you quite vulnerable – after all, their competitors can snoop on them, and if they find out that they are quite weak on the SEO front, they may use that against them.

I completely respect a site review volunteer’s decision to turn down the live stream. And hey, it’s not all bad – I’ve since come to realise that not Periscoping them can be a good thing… I Periscope the talks, so if were to Periscope the site review, I’d be live-streaming everything, which may affect turnout (after all, you might as well just watch at home instead of turning up)! With the site reviews growing in demand and popularity, by not live-streaming them it encourages people to make sure they attend so that they can see it for themselves.

Run software tools, reports, etc. before the event (just in case the WiFi’s dodgy)

Just to be on the safe side, run your tools/reports before the event and save them to your device. While it’s cool to run a Screaming Frog crawl ‘live’ in front of the audience, if the venue’s WiFi is flaky (or non-existent) then you’re screwed. Obviously it’s pretty difficult (nearly impossible) to review a site without an Internet connection, but if you face any technical issues then at least you have the data from Screaming Frog, Majestic, etc. saved as CSV to dig into instead at the very least. It’s better than nothing.

Try to encourage responses from a variety of people

One thing I’ve found is that you may get a few vocal members of the audience who dominate discussion. This is fine to an extent, so long as it’s not just one person all the time and also if everyone else is shy or that they don’t want to speak up anyway. However there’s a few good ways to coax responses:

  • Ask the speakers – Can they chip in with a bit of advice? Bonus points if it ties in with their talk topic and the advice that they gave.
  • Ask the sponsors – They’ll love you for it, as you’re drawing attention to them (that’s what they’re paying you for, after all)!
  • Ask past attendees – Did someone at a past site review make a really good point? Are they there again, and can the topic be revisited? What would they advise in this particular situation?

Challenge ‘questionable’ advice

At one event, we had someone in the audience contribute something that I’d consider to be grey hat advice, maybe even black hat. It teetered a little on the spammy side, let’s put it that way. Obviously when you’re conducting these types of public forum discussions, it cannot be helped. It may be really awkward to call people out on it, or to outright announce to everyone else that you think it’s bad advice…

What I do – if this happens – is to try and challenge it. In the above instance, instead of suggesting it was spammy, I asked the audience member if they considered it ‘overkill’ – thankfully in response they clarified their advice, and in doing so their advice became less spammy. Win-win for all involved, and without the awkwardness of getting into an argument or showing the person up.

Consider getting a guest chair to host the session

I haven’t done this yet (I’m considering it for the next event), but you could also consider asking someone to guest chair the session. I don’t like hogging the mic, but inevitably it happens when you’re in charge of running the show with this sort of thing. If someone else chairs the session – with your guidance – then it varies things up quite  nicely. It’d also give me chance to do some behind-the-scenes event stuff, such as updating Twitter and making sure that food/drink is fully stocked, as otherwise I’m unable to do this while the site review is taking place (especially given the fact that I run the meetup single-handedly).

Considering running your own site reviews at your event but have additional questions? Or have you run some and have something to share from your own experiences? Then why not drop a comment below?

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Written By
CIM-qualified Online Marketing & SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) Consultant with over 9 years of online marketing experience: 4 years' agency experience; around 6 months' experience working in-house for a national household name in the insurance industry; now freelancing full-time.
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