In a follow-up to an earlier column on what a site audit is in general, today I am going to spend a bit more time helping with the understanding of what a good audit is and why you would get with a tools audit vs. a human one.
Website SEO Audits - What Are They?
The term website SEO audit is a very general one that means anything that the auditor wants it to mean. This means I could be spending hours laboring over every detail of your site looking for issues, challenges, and areas of improvement or I could be running a tool that spits out a report and I spend an few hours writing up a few actionable items for you. So which is it?
It Is All of the Above.
Is it wrong if someone just uses some tools and writes up a few actionable items and gives that to you? Is it worth the money to pay for someone to pour over every nook and cranny looking for the slightest detail that might be out of place? The answer is that it depends. Why are you doing the audit? What do you want from the audit? And what is your budget?
Tools Vs. Humans
So when you are getting an audit, the most important thing you need to know is what you are paying for and why you are paying for it. In most cases, your audit reports and costs will be based on who is doing the auditing: tool or human.
All audits have some level of tool involvement: reports are run, analytics reviewed, links pulled for evaluation. The question is, does the auditor write most of the analysis for you or does the tool?
What Is a Tools-Based Audit?
Tools audits are the type of audits where you run a tool, the tool makes an analysis, and you can do a small write-up and hand over the analysis to the client.
Who Are They For?
- They are NOT for: These types of audits are not for complex site issues or complex sites and definitely NOT for penalty issues. They are also not very helpful for sites with a large amount of pages or IT teams that can do much more than this audit will provide.
- They are for: These types of audits are for small site owners, with small budgets, who cannot afford a more detailed hands-on audit, but need a site assessment or for a client with a very specific review need.
The Goal of the Tools-Based Audit
The goal of this audit type is to just give you basic site data that you can use to make small to modest changes in your site. Do not expect large SEO effect, but you can get a noticeable change.
Red Flags – An Audit Wasted
This type of audit can be rife with misinformation and errors. It all depends on how good the tool is and how well the audit was interpreted by the tools. If your auditor cannot discern the difference between what is correct and what is an error, you can wind up making costly if not deathly mistakes based on this information. Well, website search death anyway.
Make sure to vet your auditor and know that they have enough understanding of the rules of SEO and the limits of their tools to tell you what you need to know and not just blindly give you a report. A report without a review from an informed auditor is worse than no audit at all.
As mentioned before, all audits will have some elements of the tools-based audit. The difference is the tools used, the reports generated, and the level of involvement of the auditor in the analysis reporting.
RKG example of what is covered in a comprehensive human-based audit:
They Are NOT For:
These types of audits are not for small site owners, with small budgets. The investment here is in time and experience and so for even the smallest sites there is an investment.
They Are For:
These types of audits are for complex site issues or complex sites and the ONLY TYPE of audit for penalty issues. They are very helpful for sites with a large amount of pages, many inbound links, IT teams that can implement the recommendations, and sites that want to see substantial growth in their organic traffic and positioning. Small business owners can also benefit greatly from this type of audit, but they need to understand it is in an investment, not an expense. It is also the only audit that should be performed if you believe your site has been affected by an algorithmic update, manual penalty, or unknown drop in organic traffic.
The Goal of the Human-Run Audit
The goal of this audit type is to give you a detailed human based hands-on analysis that includes, but is not limited to:
- A detailed and analytical write-up explaining to you the issues found and why they are issues in the first place. Ours average between 25 and 70 pages depending on the issues at hand, and this is not including the supporting documentation, which can be as many as 50-plus files.
- Detailed recommendations for implementation for the items found. Actionable recommendations are given to help you implement changes found. If a penalty exists (or an negative algorithmic shift), a careful explanation of which penalty you have encountered, why it is there, and what you can do about it.
- Supporting documentation:This is any necessary documentation that will support the findings of the audit and assist you in implementing the findings of the site report. These can include, but are not limited to a link list with link evaluations, analytics reporting, site crawler findings for example csv documentation from Screaming Frog showing you where your (insert issue) pages are located – as indicated by URL, screenshots, comparative traffic analysis, disavow list for Google if there is a links issue, and anything else the auditor finds helps explain their findings.
Red Flags – An Audit Wasted
At minimum, your audit should contain the following:
- Detailed analysis with explanation
- Supporting documentation to support and/or help you implement their findings
- Actionable recommendations. Note that every auditor will have their own name for this section or these items and they will approach the way they list these differently. However, if you do not have at least 10 actionable recommendations with either general or specific detail on how to implement those recommendations, then what did you pay for? There should be some amount of specific SEO advice supporting why the changes should be made or how they should be made or both.
Everything Else in Between
Other audits will be some combination of these and you will need to discuss with the auditor the goals, the expectations, and what will be reported to you. This can be common in limited scope audits.
NOTE: I do NOT recommend limited scope audits. What are these? Audits that only look at links or onsite or X pages, etc.
Why Not? What If I Only Want a Limited Analysis?
The SEO landscape is a large and complex set of interrelated implementations that have an effect on your site positioning and organic traffic. If you do a limited review you might THINK you have a links issues, but really have a Panda issue. Or you might do onsite only to later find out links were part of your issues.
Limited Audits Should Only Be Done If You:
- Have very limited funds
- Just had your site reviewed and want someone to reassess one portion of your previous audit (would need to be within the past 30 to 45 days with no major algorithm shifts occurring during that time)
- You are reviewing work done as part of an audit implementation process
- There may be other reasons, but I cannot think of any at this time
What Else Do I Need to Know About Site Audits?
Some general aspects to site audits:
How Much Should They Cost?
As mentioned, there are different types of site audits. What you pay will be different for each audit type and set by each auditor. However, you can generally expect the following:
Disclaimer: These numbers are based on what I know others charge for audits, but may vary depending on the auditor’s knowledge level and area you live in or the auditor lives in.
- Tools audit: This audit should run between approximately $500 and $3,000 for a small site, depending on how large the site is and just how much time the auditor is going to spend giving you an analysis on the reports the tools generate.
- Human-based audit: Non-penalty related audits should run from $1,500 to as much as the auditor needs to charge (though generally they top out around $15,000 per site). Most sites average between $3,000 and $8,000. Penalty-based audits will include a basic SEO audit with recommendations with a deep-dive focus on your algorithm issue or manual penalty. Penalty issues require much more time, knowledge, and understanding from your auditor. Never take a penalty situation to someone without a significant understanding of the search engine responsible and previous recovery success. This audit will run anywhere from $3,000 to whatever the auditor needs to charge. However, most run between $5,000 and $12,000.
The Free Audit
While there are legitimate and even legitimately good SEOs performing site audits for free as part of a service or to get you in the door, these should be approached with extreme caution.
Why the caution? Do you work for free? Do you spend hours and hours of time performing a task knowing you will not be getting paid? No? Well then you should be suspect when someone else says they will.
This is not to say these free audits are scamming you, though they do have that potential. However, even when not, even when done with good intent, will a free auditor spend the time and resources making sure they are reviewing every nook and cranny of your site? Will they follow that one analytics anomaly to find out what it means for you? Will they grab every link and evaluate it? And even if running a tools-based analysis, which they most will be, how much time will be spent analyzing what the robots produced for you?
While free audits are tempting, they rarely will serve you best. Better to go to someone who tells you their experience and time are worthy of your money.
Do You Have STICKER SHOCK?
Audits are an investment, not a simple cost.
SEO site audits, when done properly at the human or even tools level, should provide you with the information you need to advance your site goals. So the cost of the audit is an investment that as time goes on, should give you a return. Costs are just expenditures without return.
You Get What You Pay for in Audits
Given the current state of the "SEO environment," the issues your site faces can be quite complex. So when you get an audit done you are paying for more than just the document you receive. What should your audit include?
Auditor’s Knowledge and Experience
With audits you are paying primarily for the auditors’ knowledge, which can take years to learn. Don’t take chances by going cheap and getting information that will end up costing you much more in the long run with lack of positioning, site devaluations, and potential penalties.
A good auditor will be up on all changes and algorithm releases. They will have a detailed understanding of all aspects of SEO or at least what they are reviewing and how those affect a site. If an auditor does not have these abilities you are better off without the audit.
Analysis Level and Time Needed to Perform This Properly
A proper human-based analysis will take much more time than a tools audit. While a tools audit will only take the time it takes to run the tool and review the report, a human-based audit will take the time it takes to follow all the leads, gather the supporting documents, and write up your analysis.
In human-based audits, you are paying for the time it takes to uncover the things you thought were at issue and often the very issues you never knew you had. We have found link farms, click fraud, and even used this information to get companies out of third-party contracts. These types of results are not found quickly or easily. The role of the auditor is not some simple interpreter of tool data analysis, but one of forensic specialist looking to find the root cause of what a data point means and how to act on that data.
This is simple. How detailed is the report? What are they analyzing? What actionable recommendations will you receive and how will you know what to do with the information provided? For example, if you have a site with 1 million links and your auditor is going to use their own crawlers to pull back every link and hand audit what those links mean and how they should be evaluated (what we do), this is far more intensive then if using a tool to pull a partial report and that tool sorting the data for you. Which one you need is dependent on your SEO situation and audit goals.
This documentation will tell you where to look to make the changes, why the changes need to be made, and how they exist on your site. The level of detail is based on the tools used, but a detailed (every URL) report from Screaming Frog is a much better action point than say a list of the top pages report from a self-reporting tool.
SEO audits can include other items such as:
- Reconsideration requests and submission
- Strategy documents
- Detailed implementation plans – different from actionable recommendations in the depth and breadth of explanation and specific instruction
- Competitive and/or competitor analysis
- And any other service the auditor finds helpful
These, however, are usually charged as an extra benefit and since they are usually based on the skill and experience of the auditor, there are no standard prices.
Just remember you get what you pay for, and just like ketchup, cheap SEO usually sounds good until you eat it.