Countless websites' search engine rankings were affected by the many major Google algorithm updates of the past few years. Search engine optimization (SEO) priorities have also shifted in this post Panda-Penguin-Hummingbird-Pigeon world. An SEO site audit is an essential way to take stock of how your website performs, especially in regards to its search engine rankings.
"Conducting an SEO audit is key for every business,” says Jeanine Krzyzanowski, director of link building strategy, Teknicks. “In order for your business to succeed, you need a solid foundation. It’s like building a house. Google has become very sophisticated over the past few years and if there is anything wrong with the foundation of your website, you may be at risk of being penalized by Google.”
Most experts say the core principles behind an SEO site audit haven’t changed significantly, but some aspects are more important than they used to be.
“Google still wants great, valuable, useful content,” says Philip DiPatrizio, founder of Treezio. “In the past, you may not have needed to worry as much about duplicate content or spammy backlinks. Both weren't a good idea to begin with, but Google wasn't as good at catching those signals as it is today. Now, more than ever, it’s vital to look for these things in an audit and correct them immediately.”
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SEO audits have become more holistic, according to Oleg Korneitchouk, director of digital marketing, SmartSites. “If before audits focused on the technical layout, navigation and backlink profile of the website, they should now include content analysis and social analysis. All these parts should be examined separately and together to draw actionable fixes to improve your SEO.”
While a thorough SEO site audit is usually best left to professionals, those who aren’t steeped in SEO can still perform high-level audits of their websites' performance, often using free online tools. Here are some top DIY SEO site audit tips and best practices from search and digital marketing experts.
What to Look for in SEO Website Audits
If you aren't too experienced with SEO, you should start your audit with the non-technical stuff, according to Courtney Herda, CEO, Smarter Searches. Ask yourself, “Does each page of the site have a clearly defined focus? Is each page written clearly to explain the who, what, why, when, where and how? Is the navigation clear and purposeful to lead to specific calls to action? Is everything spelled correctly? Does the site make sense?”
HTML and URLs
After considering the basics, take a look at the technical aspects of your site. “Do you have HTML title tags, meta descriptions, headings and images properly tagged for searches,” asks Herda. “Have you included a sitemap? Is navigation between content quick and easy? Who is linking to you and which pages are they linking to? Inventory the links and determine if there are any harmful or negative links.”
“The title tag is one of Google's main signals as to what a page is about,” according to DiPatrizio. You should ensure that each page has a unique HTML title tag with keywords relevant to each page, and “do your best to ensure text is ‘live’ and not part of an image,” he says. (Text in images isn’t searchable.) “Keep image file sizes at a minimum to increase load times. Use static URLs, such as 'example.com/services/example-service' instead of 'example.com/services.php?id=12.' Check if header tags (H1, H2 and H3) are being used. If they aren’t, use them.”
Duplicate content makes Google choose which page to display in search results, and that can diminish SEO efforts.
“Ensuring that your website is not unintentionally hosting duplicate content is one of the most important things to check for when performing an onsite audit," says Richard Kline, Internet marketing manager, LegalAdvice.com. Kline recommends using Moz’s Open Site Explorer to check for duplicate content.
How quickly (or slowly) does your site load? A few seconds lag time may seem like no big deal, but SEO experts say Google rewards sites that have fast download times. Google's PageSpeed Tool works well for checking your site’s speed on mobile devices and desktop computers, according to DiPatrizio.
Is Google able to easily crawl and index your entire site? You can, and should, use the free Google Webmaster Tools to check how many pages of your site Google indexes, according to Petar Traychev, CEO, Hop Online.
Don’t forget to take a look at your competitors’ websites when auditing your own, says Michael Riley, co-founder, Boxter.
Look at how competitors rank in search results for keywords you care about. If they’re beating you in Google rankings, look at their sites for reasons why. What are they doing that you aren’t or could do better?
You should look at how your site’s content compares to competitors' content that ranks above yours, according to Luke Marchie, co-founder, Majux Marketing. “If you both have a page vying for the same keyword, is the amount of content and detail on your page blowing your competition out of the water or is it half-assed?”
You should also look at your competitors’ backlinks, or links to their site from other sites. “How are they getting those links,” Marchie asks. “Analyzing your competition’s backlink sources can reveal a lot of missed traffic and backlink opportunities you'll want your marketing team to chase.”
Usability and Design
You should audit your site from the perspective of your target visitor, according to Herda. Take user experience into account and how it relates to the site’s usability, while also keeping in mind the search engine’s "experience" of your site, including how easy or difficult it is to crawl and index.
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“Not many SEO companies include design in their audits, but we do because it's a huge part of the user experience,” says Stephanie Biscow, vice president of digital media, DCW Media. “If your site is ugly, people aren’t going to be as intrigued. Simplicity and cleanliness give users the ability to easily read content without distractions. We also like to evaluate where advertisements are placed. Sometimes websites plaster ads all over the place and it doesn't allow for a user-friendly experience.”