You've just been given one day to do an SEO audit for a site, and you're asking yourself what to do with so little time. Instead of following your instinct to yell at the person who made the request, today's column will outline a practical approach to doing the best job possible in one day.
The focus of this rapid audit is to identify issues at a strategic level - either because they are big impact items or may require large development team efforts to address. Given the one day restriction, we'll focus on identifying problems, not fixing them. This plan is not thorough, because you can't be in a day.
The major elements are:
1. Look at Google Webmaster Tools For the Site
If Google Webmaster Tools isn't currently set up, then get it put in place. The list of great data you can get from this is long, but here are some of the most important things:
- Are there are any messages for the site in the opening screen? Hopefully not, but if there are, you want to see these first.
- Check out the crawl errors. One of your first recommendations is going to be to clean these up. Not sure this will impact SEO? Check out this case study.
- Check out the sitemaps to make sure there is no problem there (Site configuration -> Sitemaps).
- Check out your Robots.txt (Site configuration -> Crawler access). Any content blocked that you didn't expect?
- See what the most popular search queries are (Your site on the web -? Search queries). Of particular interest here is the ranking data that Google provides. Search on some of the more popular terms and see if your titles and descriptions look like they can entice more clicks if you adjust them. Look for opportunities. Something in the 4th spot? Might represent an opportunity to get it to move up.
- Look at your crawl stats (Diagnostics -> Crawl stats). Drops in pages crawled per day, or increases in time spent downloading a page are a warning signal.
- See how fast your site is running (Labs -> Site performance). If you see something like the screen shot provided below, you have found something for people to work on. Google Webmaster Tools will give you some specific suggestions on how to do it.
2. Look at Bing Webmaster Tools for the Site
Think there is no value in looking at a second Webmaster Tools? Think again.
Google does a nice job with their tools, but allows you to get the viewpoint from a second search engine, and you will see different things. For example, even their 404 report will show different 404's than Google's. The main elements you are looking for here are:
- Pages Crawled to see if there is a noticeable drop.
- Pages with Crawl Errors – this may report different errors than Google
- Sitemaps to make sure they are properly recognized by Bing.
- Look at the Index report to check if there are any noticeable changes. The go deeper and look at Index Explorer, which is a neat tool for seeing how Bing sees your site hierarchy.
- Traffic because you can check out the search phrases bringing traffic. Of particular interest is the Average Impression Position and the Average Click Position, as these can tell you if rankings are moving up or down over time. Pages that are going down are probably offering a poor user experience compared to competition. That's a problem.
3. Perform a site: Check on Your Site
See how many pages Google has in the index for the site. Compare that result to the number of pages you think you have.
With larger sites it is often difficult to know exact page counts, but you should have a general idea, such as its between 30,000 and 40,000 pages. What you are looking for is a huge discrepancy. If you think you have between 30,000 and 40,000 pages and Google reports 100,000 pages you probably have a (potentially massive) duplicate content problem.
If you see a large discrepancy, then you know you have some work to do to figure out the nature of the problem. You can look at the pages returned in the SERPs for the site, and you may get your answer there. If that doesn't work, go back to Bing Webmaster Tools and look at Index Explorer as it may show the problem there. You can see a screen shot of what that looks like here:
4. Crawl the Sites
There are a number of crawling tools you can use to help you with this. These can help expand your duplicate content checking efforts as well as a number other checks that include:
- Duplicate titles
- Missing titles
- Duplicate meta descriptions
- Missing meta descriptions
- Crawl depth
- Other similar items.
This type of data can be invaluable. Companies that offer these types of tools include:
- SEOmoz Crawl Test Tool (requires membership in SEOmoz Pro).
- Raven Internet Marketing Tools (requires a fee to use).
- Screaming Frog SEO Spider (a free tool that looks like it provides some great metrics, though I haven't tested it personally). Let me know in the comments if you have and what your experience has been.
These are just some examples of the more well known tools that you may have that don't cost an arm and a leg. SEOmoz and Raven provide a lot of functionality beyond a crawl that you can use in a rapid audit as well. Some SEO agencies can provide you with a proprietary crawling tool as well.
5. Perform Some Title Checks by Hand
Spend 30 minutes flipping through various categories of pages to see if you see clear title problems, such as titles for pages that are not unique, or titles that don't properly use keywords. Given the limited time you have, this will be a spot check, but it should help you determine if you have any major problems on your hands. If there are, you can write this up as part of your report.
6. Check the "Keyword Space"
Use a tool like the Google AdWords Keyword Tool. Based on your review, get a sense as to the most sought after search phrase for your market space (that is likely to convert). Is that in your home page title?
Then look at the next level down. What is the first level of refinement that users make after they progress past the top level term? Do you have pages for each of those at the next level? Perhaps you should.
Then take it one level further. This will tell you if you have a site hierarcy with holes in it, or if the hierarchy is misaligned with the way that users think (which is a bad thing).
7. Compare Your Backlinks vs. 2 or 3 Top Competitors
Getting crushed by the competition on the link building front? If so then all that on page SEO won't save you and you have to plan on fixing the link building plan as quickly as you can.
With those seven steps you should be able to get a top level look at a site. If you're looking at the site for the first time, you should also add a step (make it the first step) of interviewing the team responsible for the site to see what you can learn that way. Sometimes you can get invaluable information without involving a computer or the web at all.
As I mentioned before, this plan was not intended to be a complete SEO review. These are the sorts of things I like to do if have to make a rapid fire evaluation of a site, regardless of the reason for the need.
Once this is done, you can go back and explain all the other work that still needs to be done, such as working through the solutions to the problems found, and the other auditing that needs to be done to complete the job.
Doing a comprehensive job takes far more effort than one day, and on complex sites can take weeks or even months to do. But the process outlined above will peel back the covers and get you started.