A Complete SEO Website Audit

Includes business model review, site goals, site checklist, keyword research, content checklist, competition, social media, and most important elements affecting organic search traffic.

The first step in tackling an organic search engine optimization (SEO) project is often an SEO website audit. This audit helps lay the foundation for future search success. Properly worked, an audit can be primary reason your site jumps from page 4 to page 1 on the SERPs.

The surprising thing about SEO website audits is how diverse they are. SEO practitioners often have divergent goals and methodologies. This affects which areas are audited on a website. Some audits are backlink-focused, while others focus on more technical on-site aspects. Many are good and usually helpful, however few cover every important area of organic search in 2012.

After reviewing some of the better audits in the industry, we’ve determined these 7 areas should be addressed in any good SEO audit. These are areas which have affected organic results with our clients, coupled with some industry research. Here goes!

1. Business Model & Website

Every organic search engine optimization audit should consider two things: your business model and how your website fits into the model. If you don’t know what you’re aiming for, how do you know if you’re a success?

Your business model determines how a website fits. For instance, if your business sells local plumbing services, your business needs leads. Consequently, your website should be a lead generation machine for plumbing prospects. Knowing the goal helps guide on-site strategy. Creating prominent, short lead forms on important pages – possibly all pages is a great way to improve lead flow. Knowing business goals also helps guide off-site strategy like creating backlink anchor text for “Austin plumber.” Bottom line, a business dependent on leads should have a lead generating website.

Call to Action from MoneyAndMarkets.com
Clear, obvious, measurable call to action.

The net result of this step is coming up with actionable, measurable goals for a website. More importantly, these website goals should be driven by the goals of the business.

2. Site Checklist

After understanding how the website fits into the business, the site and domain should be reviewed for any issues. We have found that no matter how well maintained your site, there’s always a chance something is missing on either your domain or website. Here’s the checklist we use:

Area Explanation
Domain keyword inclusion One of the historical factors of ranking has been keyword in your domain. However, we rarely recommend switching domains if the keyword is not included.
Length of Domain Short domains are recommended for both usability and search friendliness. However, we rarely recommend switching domains if it’s a longer-than-usual domain.
Canonicalized Site Versions The search engines want to see one version of your website. Ex. http://www.domain.com is not the same thing as http://domain.com. See: Canoncalization
Obvious Identity It’s amazing how many websites don’t communicate clearly who they are. Unless you’re Apple, your site should prominently tell visitors what you can do for them. This is usually accomplished with a pithy tagline in the header.
Obvious USP Every business has competition. The question is why your business is better than your competition. What is  your ‘unique selling proposition’ (USP). This should be prominently displayed as a featured article or a tagline highlighting the USP.
URL structure Avoid overly complex URLs since this can confuse the search engines. See: Good URL Structure
URL Content Organization Content should be organized into “silos” on a website through the file structure. Similar content should be housed with similar content in the same folder – hence the reason it relates to URLs. See: Content Silos
XML Sitemap An XML sitemap shows the search engines all of your content and is usually structured like this: /sitemap.xml It should also be submitted to the major search engines if that has not been done.
Robots.txt File The Robots.txt file tells the search engines what content should NOT be indexed. In the absence of a robots.txt file, the search engines assume all pages should be indexed.
Privacy Page Search engines use privacy pages as a trust factor. Make sure you have one.
Crawler Accessibility Can search engines see all of your content? Using technology like Flash and iFrames can hinder your indexing of your content.
Navigation Layout Well-labeled, HTML-ized navigation is key to both  indexing and usability. The harder your main content is to get to, the fewer robot crawls and actual eyeballs you’ll have on your site.
Site Speed We have found speeding up the site speed can be a tremendous boost to your organic search rankings. Google wants to see fast (Load times: 1-3 seconds) sites and they will reward good sites that get there. Google Analytics finally shows this metric here: Content > Site Speed > Overview
Pages on Website You should have a good idea of how many pages your site has. This can be run several ways depending on your CMS. Talk to your webmaster about how to do this.
Pages indexed by Google This number should match the number of pages that are not excluded on the robots.txt file, though it’s not always perfect. To find the number of pages, use this search query with your domain in Google – site:searchtrafficpro.com
Google Analytics (GA) Tracking Websites need good tracking. We use Google Analytics. Unless you have a compelling reason not to implement GA, install the latest version today. 
Pages tracked by
Google Analytics
If you’re running Google Analytics, find out how many pages are receiving traffic. The number of pages should closely match the pages on your website. See: Content > Site Content > Pages
400 Errors Broken pages happen to everyone, but they should addressed. There are a couple of ways to identify them through your server or a site scan. Screaming Frogis a great, free resource.
Redirects Sometimes content should be moved or has been moved to new pages. It’s best only to use 301 redirects to move content to new pages.
Signs of penalization Search for your domain and title tag in Google. If you can find both, then it’s likely there is no penalization on your website in Google.
Malware Nothing ruins your day like a little malware. Here’s a few ways to check if your site is infected.Detecting Website Malware 
Conversion Tracking The website should support the goals of a business. Those goals should translate to measurable actions on a website. Leads and sales are great website conversions to track. Conversion tracking is often done in Google Analytics: Conversions > Goals > Overview. 

3. Keyword Research

Keyword (aka key phrase) research is a foundational element to any SEO campaign. Knowing which words to target guides the majority of search optimization efforts. This is why keyword research is so important. If you already have your targeted 5-20 keywords, then skip to #4.

There are many ways to do keyword research. The easiest (free) way is to use the Google AdWords Keyword Tool (we recommend using the tool when you’re logged into your Google AdWords account). This tool pulls industry-relevant keywords based on your website or a supplied keyword.

AdWords Keyword Tool Screenshot
The quick and easy way to find target keywords for your website during an SEO Website Audit.

If you’re starting from scratch, enter what you think is your most relevant keyword for your business. Going back to the local plumbing company example, enter “Austin plumbing company”. The tool then exports a list of keywords with columns for competition (in AdWords), Global Monthly Searches, & Local Monthly Searches. Ignore Global monthly searches and just focus on the Competition and Local Monthly Searches.

From here, picking keywords turns into an art. You want a good combination of relevance, high search volume (monthly searches) and high competition. Relevance is the most important. By relevance, you can’t pick “plumbing company” since it’s too general. Instead, something like “Austin plumber” works much better. It’s relevant, has high competition, and has 9,900 local monthly searches – that’s a good keyword.

For your short-tail, non-blog SEO strategy, we recommend targeting 5-20 keywords to target. Keyword research can (and should) be more technical than this. But if you’re just getting started, this is a great way to build out your first keyword list. For the audit, you may just want to confirm you’re targeting the right keywords.

The final step in keyword research is keyword tracking. Where does your company rank for the target 5-20 keywords? The best free tool we’ve found is SEO Book’s Rank Checker. Simply input all the keywords and record where they’re ranked in Google, Bing, & Yahoo. Export results to a safe place. Having this benchmark, you’ll be able to see how effective your SEO is in future months as ranks climb (or fall).

4. Content Checklist

After reviewing your target keywords, it’s important to review how these keywords are implemented on your website.

Area Explanation
Keyword Targeting One of the primary ways to target organic search traffic is through keyword targeting (aka keyword mapping). This is where keywords are assigned to specific pages on a website. It should be evident in the following 4 elements.
Title Tags The main pages on the website should include targeted keywords in the Title Tags. Title tag should be no longer than 65 characters.
H Tags H1, H2, etc. should include targeted keywords somewhere in the heading of those targeted pages.
Keyword metatag Although it’s not as important as it used to be, it sometimes helps to include targeted keywords in the keyword metatag on the targeted pages. Keyword metatag should be no more than 256 characters.
Description metatag Once your site is ranking on Page 1, it’s important to have relevant page descriptions to encourage click-throughs. Description metatags should be no longer than 155 characters.
Substantive /Unique Content Content on pages, especially important pages, should be unique and substantive. If someone who knows about your business is writing the content, this one should not be a problem. If not, your SEO will suffer.
Image Alt & Filenames Images help both site stickiness and SEO. Image alt tags should both describe the image and include targeted keywords for those pages.
Keyword-focused Onsite Links Each keyword targeted page should include links to other keyword targeted pages. These on-page links should also be keyword-focused. For example, an editorial link could be: “Whenever you need an Austin plumberto fix your drain, you need expertise – fast.”
Duplicate content Duplicate content is online content that has been published somewhere else before. Make sure there’s no duplicate content on your website.
Readability Like it or not, most online readers are not accustomed to graduate-level dissertations. Content writers should aim for a 6th-8thgrade reading level in most, non-legal content.
Call to Action Each page should include a call to action (CTA). The prominent CTA should be consistent across the entire site. If possible, it should also be tracked with conversion tracking. Ex. “Signup for a Free Report Now!”


5. Competitive Research

There are two steps to competitive research: identify your competitors and analyze the organic SEO strategy of your competitors.

The first step involves ID’ing who your competition is. Once again, go back to your keywords. Who is currently ranking for your target phrases? Before searching in Google, make sure you “depersonalize” search. That means you want to remove all traces of your computer from the search results. SEO Moz has a great article on how to depersonalize your search results in Google.

After depersonalizing search, look up your top 5 keywords in Google. The websites that consistently come up in the top 5-10 positions for each keyword is your organic SEO competition. Period. You may think that you compete against XYZ Plumbing Company, but if they’re not showing in the top 5 positions, that’s not your organic completion. Let your research determine who your actual competition is.

After identifying your competition, the next thing is to see why they rank so high. The best way to see why a competitor ranks well for keywords is to review the backlink structure of the competitor. What kind of links are pointing to the site? How many domain-unique URLs are pointing to the site? Backlinks are the #1 single factor that determine where sites rank for certain keywords.

The best free tool to see backlinks is Google. Use the search operator “links:yourdomainhere.com” to get a raw number of links that Google is willing to report point back to your homepage. The max number of links Google provides depends on the competitor. In addition, you have to click through multiple pages to see each of these links.

To bypass the tedium, use a paid tool for backlink research. The two we like are Raven Tools & SEO Moz Pro. Both tools include a wealth of data for the serious SEO practitioner. If you want to rank well in the search engines, learn how to research backlink data from your competitors. The audit is designed to show who your competition is and provide actionable backlink data.

6. Social Checklist

There are hundreds of organic SEO ranking factors. The largest growing factor in recent years has been social media. SEO has become more intertwined with social media. This is why any SEO website audit should address your company’s social presence.

Area Explanation
Are You Listening? The first step in any social media campaign is listening to the market. What are people saying about your brand or products? For the audit, search Google for negative mentions of your brand. For better social tracking, checkout trackur.com
Are you Blogging? Although blogging isn’t necessarily a strictly social part of your website, it fits well here. Without consistent, frequent, quality content, your site will grow stale in the search engines. 
Facebook Interaction Does your business have a Facebook fan page that links to your website? How active is your Facebook page. Do you post and if so, how often. How many fans, likes, etc.? Facebook is now huge in SEO.
Twitter Interaction Got a Twitter page that links to your website? How many tweets? How many followers? Lists? All of these factors can affect your SEO.
Google Plus Interaction It’s still pretty new, but it already matters. Make sure your site has an active Google Plus page.
Sharable Content On Site How social is the website? Does your blog have integrated ways to share content to numerous social media outlets. 


7. Next Steps: Recommendations & Future Audits

The final part of any good SEO website audit is getting a list of recommendations. This part is easy when everything above has been addressed. Simply start at the top of the audit and spell-out the issues that were found during the audit. Sometimes you may not know what to do. Talk to a developer or a competent SEO to get help in those areas. If you want to prioritize recommendations, the areas have been listed in order of importance: Business Model, Website Goals, Site Checklist, Keyword Research, Content Checklist, Competitive Research, and Social Checklist.

Unfortunately, SEO changes. Search engines shift algorithms which affects rankings and traffic. That’s why SEO website audits and adjustments should be done periodically – every 1-2 years. The good news is that much that affects rankings is static: quality content, quality backlinks, and positive social interaction will probably always help your SEO. Aim at structuring your website properly, creating quality content, and effectively interacting with your market and there will be less work after your next audit.