Ready to take over search engine rankings and get into the top positions for specific search terms? Not so fast. Before you start optimizing your website, it is advisable to conduct a comprehensive analysis, the so-called SEO audit or site clinic.
An SEO audit mostly examines if all the processes, requirements and guidelines are in compliance with the rules of search engine optimization. If this is not the case, such an audit helps identify the various points where optimization is necessary and where there is potential to improve the ranking and quality of the website. For large agencies that specialize in search engine optimization, this a state of the art approach. Large in-house teams also make use of such lists.
This article will show you how you can carefully plan and conduct a professional and structured SEO audit in 13 steps.
How to correctly plan an SEO audit
Before venturing into the detailed SEO analysis, you should first create a well thought out plan. Most people are so eager to start the analysis that they risk overlooking some of the most essential factors. A follow-up probe can also fall short or deadlines may not be met. It is therefore advisable to create a plan that can also be worked on in teams. Here, it is important to ensure that all the important search engine factors are taken into account. A series of templates and best-practice examples are available on the market and show what an SEO audit plan could look like. These also help to consider many different criteria such as prioritization or implementation deadlines.
Figure 1: SEO audit template for planning and follow-up (source)
Determining the status quo
An SEO audit usually starts with an in-depth analysis of the website. Here, it is recommendable to use diverse automated tools. This is because a manual analysis, especially for large websites, can be extremely taxing. A series of paid and free analytics tools, which can be used to completely or partially analyze a website, are available on the market. Ideally, the tools not only take account of the technical setup of the website, but also look into the website’s internal links, content and architecture. This allows you to review all the different areas of a website without having to compare and contrast multiple different evaluations.
The Google Search Console is the most commonly used tool for the analysis. It is a free service from Google and website operators can connect their websites with the search console to analyze different search data. The tool provides a good overview of structural errors, code, existing discrepancies or broken links. This analysis can be used to derive appropriate optimization measures. The search console provides a good overview of the website data. However, if you want to go more into the details of the analysis, you can use additional tools such as Screaming Frog or OnPage.org.
Note: Assuming that from this point on, you will be getting an incredibly large amount of data and will also have to amalgamate these data, it is advisable to initially limit your analysis to the important sections of your website (mostly for large websites).
The actual SEO audit can be then be conducted after determining the status quo. You should pay special attention to these 13 criteria if you wish to “break down” a website with regard to the search engine factors.
- Analyze the pages in the index
- Tracking the page structure
- Internal links
- External links
- OnPage factors
- Important SEO KPIs
- Rich snippets
- Local SEO
1. Checking accessibility
The website’s accessibility is an important prerequisite for its successful indexing. It is important to ensure that the search engine bot can crawl the page properly. The Google bot is a crawler that collects the available website data, which it will later index.
Here as well, the Search Console can be very helpful in analyzing the website by simulating the Google bot and showing the errors found in the crawl. The Google bot can:
- gather information about your HTML files, Images, PDFs, and other file formats
- accept cookies
- normalize URLs
- review the robots.txt file
- analyze your subdomains
- analyze your sitemap
- ignore blocked URLs
The Google bot goes through the documents of a website and follows the links found on the page in order to index the relevant pages found. The bot can be identified as follows once it visits a page:
Google bot – “Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; Googlebot/2.1; +http://www.google.com/bot.html)”
In order to guarantee the accessibility of certain pages, you should adhere to a number of rules so as to ensure that the Google bot is able to crawl all the important pages.
This is a text file that is saved in the root directory and contains certain instructions for crawlers. Before starting the crawl, the search engine crawler explicitly searches for this file and follows its instructions.
Figure 2: Example of a robots.txt
‘Robots’ meta tag
The ‘robots’ meta tag is declared in the header section of a webpage and contains two attributes that tell the bot how these page should be approached. Four properties can be specified in the tag: index or noindex, and follow or nofollow. The “index” and “noindex” attributes indicate the indexing whereas “follow” and “nofollow” refer to the crawling and follow-up of existing internal and external links found on a page.
Figure 3: How to declare the ‘robots’ meta tag in the code.
The sitemap is a file that only helps the crawler to gather the correct and important content. As opposed to the robots tag and robots.txt file, the sitemap cannot block the crawler. However, pages that are relevant for the indexing and that have a significant added value to the user can be added in a sitemap.xml. Here, it is also important to propose specific pages to Google, notably those that are highly prioritized.
Figure 4: Example of an XML sitemap file.
Make use of exclusions
The accessibility by search engines is very important for SEO and you should therefore dedicate a lot of focus to this topic. To be on the safe side, you should be able to answer the following questions in the SEO audit:
- Is the Google bot approved as a crawler? (robots.txt/user agent switcher)
- Is the website crawled regularly by Google?
- Are important directories or sub-pages blocked?
- Is there a valid sitemap.xml?
- Is important website content excluded using the robots.txt file or the robots meta tag?
2. Analyzing the pages that are indexed by the search engine
In an SEO audit, the aim should be to identify which pages are detected by the search engine and which are actually indexed by the search engine. That is an important prerequisite since search engines can only rank pages that have been indexed.
A simple site request can provide a good initial overview.
This can be obtained by typing “site:www.mydomain.com” in the Google search slot. The number of indexed pages is then displayed above the search results.
As previously mentioned, indexing is not possible without crawling. It should therefore be ensured that the pages are not blocked, redirected, faulty, or do not contain other attributes that can prevent the crawling. The indexing status of a complete website can be seen and reviewed using the Google Search Console.
Figure 5: Indication of the approximate number of pages indexed by Google
Once in the index, the pages can then appear in the search results for the relevant keywords. Thus, pages in the index already possess the means for higher rankings. The problem arises when the ratio of the indexable to non-indexable pages tends more to the non-indexable pages. This can be an indication of an error with the page structure or can mean that certain pages are blocked. These are some of the aspects that should be identified in the SEO audit.
In order to identify errors and know whether something went wrong in the indexing, you should ask yourself the following questions in an SEO audit with regard to the indexed pages:
- How many pages are in the index?
- How many pages should be in the index?
- Have the most important pages been indexed?
- What is the number of URLs in the sitemap and how many are in the index?
- Are there some parts of the website that do not receive any visitors through search engines?
Figure 6: You can examine your sitemap in the Google Search Console.
3. Tracking the page structure
The site architecture reflects the structure of the web presence and has an important double function. On the one hand, it helps visitors to quickly find what they are looking for and on the other hand, makes it easier for the Google bot to crawl the website and hence simplifies the indexing. An interlaced directory structure or poorly linked subpages can negatively impact on the crawling.
The following questions should help you identify whether your pages are structured properly and interlinked in a neat manner:
- Is the site navigation easy to understand? Is it too sophisticated?
- Does your page have a breadcrumb navigation to provide additional orientation to visitors and bots?
- Are all the important sub-pages accessible with a maximum of four clicks?
- Does the page hierarchy have too many levels?
- Are the sub-pages categorized correctly and interlinked thematically?
- Are the URLs expressive and not too long?
4. Internal links
The internal linking is known to play a key role in the ranking algorithm of search engines. The homepage is regarded as the key element of a website and contains links to the other sub-pages. Depending on the website, the sub-pages can be categorized and interlinked based on various topics. This results in a heterogeneous, hierarchical structure that can be crawled and indexed easily by a search engine. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. The link structure is often impaired by orphaned, faulty or incorrectly redirected sub-pages.
The Google search engine also evaluates each page with a certain value. This value indicates the strength of the page, which is influenced by the inbound and outbound links on the page. This calculation is an important element of the Google algorithm (page rank calculation) and also plays a decisive role in the ranking.
The strength of a website can be determined using various tools. This can help you identify pages that are quite strong and that have the potential to be ranked highly.
Figure 7: OPR values on OnPage.org – indicate the strength of a page within a website
In an SEO audit, it is advisable to identify the following factors in connection with the internal links:
- Are there any error pages?
- Are there any orphaned pages?
- Are any pages redirected incorrectly?
- Are there contradictions in the linking?
- Are there more than 100 outbound links on a page?
- Are there any important pages that have too few links?
- Are the relevant pages “too far” from the homepage (click path)?
5. External links
The analysis of the external links, i.e. links that point to your website from another domain, is also an integral part of an SEO audit. Here, you should pay special attention to links that result from spam pages, or an unusually high number of links from external sources. These could reflect badly on your website with search engines. When analyzing external links, it is advisable to also pay special attention to the link popularity. The number of incoming links from different domains reflects on the link popularity of your page. This means that the more a website is recommended by other pages, the more trustworthy it is.
The following are some of the questions on the so-called link profile of a website that should be answered in an SEO audit:
- Are the external links linked thematically to the respective page/URL?
- Is there an unusual number of external links from a domain (side-wide links)?
- Are there too many suspicious or spam links?
- Are external, trustworthy websites linked to the website being analyzed?
- Are there too many links pointing to the homepage and too few pointing to the various sub-pages?
- Does the Google Search Console provide any information about the incoming links (e.g. penalties)?
- Are there valuable links that bring many visitors to a certain sub-page?
6. OnPage factors
There are a number of other important factors that should be kept in mind when conducting a thorough SEO audit.
- Meta title: This tag in the header section of a page is displayed in a snippet in the search engine results list. The tile should not contain more than 55 characters and serves as page’s heading. Every title should be unique.
<title>This is your page title tag</title>
- Meta description: This meta tag is not relevant for the ranking, but is similarly used in the Google search results snippet. The description can be used to increase the click rate in the SERPs. Here, a maximum of 155 characters are allowed, otherwise it will be truncated in the display. Each description should only be used once. If it is missing, Google automatically searches for a matching description.
<meta name=”description” content=”Descriptive text”>
- H tags for headings: Heading tags should be used chronologically (h1-h6) and give the website content a meaningful structure. Only one h1 tag should be used per page (main heading)
The following questions should be answered in an SEO audit with regard to the OnPage factors:
- Are title tags duplicated?
- Are there any title tags that are too short, too long, or even missing?
- Which page descriptions are too long, too short, or even missing?
- Are there any duplicate H1 headings?
- Are the h1-h6 headings in the wrong order?
For search engines, the content and its uniqueness is very important. All of this should be inspected in the SEO audit in order to optimize the content in the future.
The following aspects should be checked in the SEO audit:
- Are there pages that are purely identical?
- Are there any pages with similar content?
- Are there any pages containing very little text < 300 words?
- Is the ratio of code to text optimum?
- Do all images have alt tags?
- Are the images compressed accordingly?
A website is deemed successful in search engines if, when the corresponding search terms (keywords) are searched, it is placed in the top positions in search engine results, and if it answers the questions of the users. Observing which keywords are at which positions in Google rankings is essential and should also be examined in an SEO audit.
The positions of competitors as well as identification of the ranking potential also play an important role in this context. The exact placement can be identified using various tools (e.g. the Google Search Console, Sistrix, Searchmetrics or OnPage.org).
The following questions should be answered when conducting the SEO audit:
- At which positions are my brand keywords ranked?
- Which search terms are in the first position and bring the most traffic?
- With which terms is my page ranked in position 11 and which terms have a potential for a higher ranking?
- How is the ranking distribution across all keywords?
- Which are the winners and losers among the keywords?
- What is the search volume for my keywords?
- For which keywords will I not be found?
- Are there corresponding landing pages for my relevant keywords?
9. Identify important SEO KPIs
In every SEO audit, the key performance indicators (KPIs) must be taken into account. These performance indicators serve as important ranking factors and are considered by search engines when assessing websites. It is therefore advisable to include these factors in the SEO audit in order to develop an optimization strategy.
- Bounce rate and dwell time: These performance indicators give you a clear clue of whether users consume your content or if they quickly leave your website. It is hereby important to review these two factors critically and independently. A high bounce rate and low dwell time could be an indication of content that is not interesting, or a website navigation that is too sophisticated.
- Click-Through-Rate (CTR): This figure is an indication of how often users click on your website from the search snippets in Google search results compared to the impressions of the snippets. The CTR can give you clues about how to optimize the meta tags (title and description).
- Organic traffic: The distinct visitors from the SEO channel can be used to identify the pages that are visited the most as well as the actual source of users who visit your website (e.g. through external links). Through intensive observation of the traffic, it is possible to draw general conclusions about the seasonality and user behavior. Organic traffic is very cost-friendly in comparison to other traffic channels (paid search or social).
The following questions about the SEO KPIs should answered in the SEO audit:
- Which SEO KPIs are important for my website?
- How do users behave on my pages?
- How often is the website clicked on in the search results?
- How important is the “organic traffic” channel in the overall online marketing mix?
Mobile friendliness is, since April 2015, an official ranking factor for Google. At the same time, the number of mobile Internet users is increasing steadily thus making mobile optimization of websites even more essential. Different tools, such as OnPage.org Focus or Google’s “Test for optimization for mobile devices”, can be used to examine if a website fulfills the criteria for mobile friendliness. The Google Search Console also provides tips for mobile optimization under “Search requests/mobile friendliness”.
Figure 8: Mobile friendliness with the Google test tool
The following are the most important test elements for an SEO audit with regard to mobile use:
- Is the website accessible on mobile devices and is it displayed properly?
- Is responsive web design, dynamic service, or a subdomain that is optimized for mobile devices used?
- Are the view port meta tag, vary header, or rel=alternate tag used?
- Are forms / buttons displayed properly and are they clickable?
- Does the page load quickly even if the user does not have an LTE connection?
- Are all the important functions (contact form, booking) of my page working properly on mobile devices?
11. International Orientation
Today, many companies are in global competition and operate multilingual websites that are oriented to the different countries. In such cases, you should examine whether the website’s source code has the corresponding tag. The hreflang attribute helps search engines to easily identify the respective country and the language for which the content is intended, and hence index the page accordingly. Furthermore, the hreflang attribute helps avoid duplicate content that might result from translations.
The hreflang attribute can be added in the <head> section of a page, in the response header or in sitemap.xml.
The following questions should be answered in an SEO audit in relation to internationalization and multilingual settings:
- Which languages are used?
- In which countries is the website active?
- Are the hreflang tags contradictory?
- How many translation versions does the page have?
- Are all the translated pages accessible or are there any errors?
- Are the pages, which are defined for the various languages and countries, also found in the respective markets?
12. Rich Snippets
Rich Snippets can be used to help make search results to stand out among competitors. A rich snippet is a markup that adds extra information e.g., review stars, prices, etc. to the search results snippets. In order for Google and other search engines to consider these data, they should be tagged accordingly in the source code.
Figure 9: An example of a rich snippet: essen-und-trinken.de
As part of an SEO audit, you can verify whether markups are used correctly. For instance, this can be done using this tool from Google or in the Search Console under “structured data” in “Search Appearance”. Other tips on markups can be found at: schema.org
The following questions can arise when examining rich snippets in an SEO audit:
- Which data can be structured in perspective?
- Are there any markups?
- Is the syntax of tags in the source code correct?
- Are tags displayed in the search results?
13. Local SEO
Local SEO is important for companies that operate locally. Interested customers begin their search online before visiting a local provider. In an SEO audit, you should also consider this and eventually review your Google my business profile. Here, it is also important to have web content that can be related to the respective location. With the entry, you provide the search engine with your company’s key information so that the search engine can establish a local reference for the company.
The following questions can be considered in the SEO audit:
- Is there a Google My Business entry?
- Are there any local references in the title, description, headings, or content?
- Is the business profile linked to your website?
- Do you use detailed description text in your ‘Google My Business Profile’?
- Are your company details (address, contact information) up to date?
All in one
The 13 steps of an SEO audit mentioned above, as well as the related questions, could help to work through the analysis of a page in a more structured manner and take a closer look at a website (there are, however, other factors that are beyond the scope of this article at this point). It is important to derive the appropriate optimization measures from the analysis.
The follow-up measures help attain a better performance in search engines and whip the website into shape both strategically and technically. That is how you prepare yourself for the high ranking positions: with a prudent SEO audit.
Irina Hey has been an Online Marketer with passion since 2007 in Germany and now works as an Online Marketing and Communications Superhero for OnPage.org – the SEO-Software for OnPage-Optimization. She writes many articles about SEO and develops a big knowledge base OnPageWiki for SEO-Beginners (de.onpage.org/wiki). Her strengths are communications and to explain things easily to those who find it complicated!