SEO campaigns can have quite the wide range in variety; some may be short term, some much longer and time-consuming than others. Some SEO campaigns may be very straightforward, while others may be largely complex, dealing with back-end website or server issues -- or even worse, trying to recover from a dreaded Google penalty! The point of this is simply that no two SEO projects are alike. Each one is unique, therefore making it an extremely bad decision to attempt to place an SEO process or offering into a specific template or cookie-cutter mold.
With that said, how is someone supposed to figure out what an actual SEO game plan might look like? Surely no one will just jump right into a campaign without first listing a website’s strengths and weaknesses, where the focus should be initially placed, and how long each step of the project should take...right? That’s why it’s of the utmost importance that the initial step of an SEO campaign is to first figure out what the rest of the campaign will actually involve. This means going through all the typical SEO categories of focus during a project and checking to see how a particular website stacks up to SEO best practices.
So what kinds of categories are we talking about?
The two main categories we can split an SEO audit into are very common: on-site SEO and off-site SEO. Then from those two main categories, we have many more sub-categories that fall under them.
We like to start with the on-site part of the audit. Why? Because having a solid website, free of any major technical errors or issues, provides a great foundation to build off of with the rest of the SEO campaign. It makes sure all the pages are fully indexable with search engines, and are ready to be optimized in the coming weeks and months. To determine if a website has any major issues needing to be resolved, there are a number of tools that can be really helpful. A few that we typically use are Screaming Frog, Moz’s Site Crawler, and Ahrefs.com. Using tools like these make it very easy to diagnose issues like 404 Errors and content-related issues like duplicate or missing pages titles, content, and H1 tags.
Example of a chart used in an SEO audit to outline the top on-site issues and errors
The next area to focus on puts content under the microscope even more; this time, looking at the page titles and content and looking to see if there’s any kind of existing keyword strategies already in place. For example, the homepage of a specialized sushi restaurant should ideally have the word “sushi” mentioned in the page title and in the content, as well as the primary city of the restaurant. Many times, a website like our sushi example will simply have the restaurant’s name without any additional information about their primary offerings and location.
Other on-site categories to check in an SEO audit are a little more tertiary, but still important nonetheless. The internal linking structure of a site needs to be examined to make sure all the pages that are to be optimized are able have the proper linking authority passed along in an efficient manner. You also want to be aware of any pages that have too many links on them; the general rule of thumb is to keep a page under 100 links. Anything more than that will not only dilute some of that linking authority to the rest of a website, but can also be seen as spammy to search engines. Another on-site area we like to check is for any existing rich snippets from Schema.org, and/or potential opportunities to add them.
While the on-page areas are straightforward for the most part (good/bad, yes/no, has/needs, etc.), the off-page categories are a little more subjective. Most of these categories involve looking at existing backlinks -- where they come from, what do they say, how many there are, etc. And while tools like Moz, Ahrefs.com, Majestic SEO do a great job at showing this information needed for the SEO audit, the interpretation of what this information means can really differentiate one SEO agency from another.
The first area we look for off-page SEO is the number of unique referring domains that link to the website in question. Typically, a website performs better in the search results if the number of referring domains is higher than another competitor. Having links pointing to your website from example.com/page1, example.com/page2, and example.com/page3 count as 3 links, however still just one referring domain. The referring domains do a good job at proving trust from a wide number of sources. However, it’s also important to look at the quality of the referring domains as well, to make sure there’s not a lot of bad domains linking back.
An example of a chart showing the number of referring domains a website has
After the referring domains, it’s important to look at the anchor text of all the existing links. The anchor text is the phrase an actual link says. Many times it’s a company’s name, like "Silverback Strategies", a URL of website like “www.silverbackstrategies.com”, or something random or generic like “Click Here” -- all of which are really important to have. But it’s also very important to have some “optimized” anchor text as well -- links that mention your primary target keywords. If such anchor text is not currently existing for a website, it would be something to include in the audit. On the other end of the spectrum, if there’s anchor text that’s way too optimized, isn’t diversified with a lot of branded/random terms, then it could be a red flag for a linking penalty and should also be noted.
Just a quick sidenote, it could be determined after looking at the referring domains and anchor text that a website may be a “ticking time bomb” and it’s just a matter of time before it’s on the receiving end of a link penalty. If that’s the case, the expectations should be set very clearly in the audit that a link cleanup will be required before moving forward with building any new links.
Look at is the different target pages throughout a website that referring domains point to is another important off-site SEO area to review. A majority of the time, the page that’s linked-to the most from other websites will be the homepage. However, it’s also important to have a well-balanced website. Many interior pages should also be linked from other sites, especially pages that pertain to some of the top products/services/offerings that may not have had the room to make it onto the homepage. It’s a great way of building up the page authority of interior pages, which in turn makes your overall website that much stronger. If a website only has links to the homepage, then it could be considered “top-heavy” and could lead to a longer expected timeframe of having those interior pages have any kind of exposure in search results.
We also like to look at some of the off-site social properties, such as Google+. We are strong proponents of having a verified business Google+ page (no matter if your business is local or not) that’s fully integrated into a website -- and it’s definitely something worth pointing out in an audit if a company is not taking advantage of it.
Once you take a comprehensive look at both the on-site and off-site SEO, it’s good to provide a summary of what the potential SEO campaign might look like. If there’s much more work to be done with cleaning up the on-site issues, it could be more of a “setup” phase that may last at least 2 or 3 months before moving forward with some off-site SEO strategies. If there happens to be no major website issues or errors, then the initial phase may only take a few weeks before moving onto expansion and optimization. No matter the case, it’s always important to use an audit to set the proper expectations and figure out the exact deliverables that may be needed for any SEO project.