A lot of companies offer SEO Audits, however all audits are not even close to being in the same league. I’ve seen audits that consist of a single page of bullet point “findings”, to 50 page cut-and-paste templates that offer little to no specifics when it comes to the site they’re supposedly created for. Personally, I believe a true SEO audit is much more than either of these, without having to be so long that they’d qualify for the New York Times’ bestseller list.
In Anatomy of an SEO Audit series part 1, I discussed the overall way in which I go about the audit process, and delved a good deal into the mindset aspects of audit writing. In part 2 of this series, I started discussing the components of an audit a bit more. Today I’d like to actually go back to the beginning – the first few pages of a typical audit I create these days.
Now what I explain here is not necessarily exactly going to fit in every situation. If you’re reviewing a 1 page site built entirely in Flash, there’s only 3 back-links and they all come from the boss’s daughter Jacinda’s AOL home page, you’re not going to need to write up a 25 or 40 page document. What I describe here is, however, generally applicable to anything beyond that type of worst case scenario.
Write To Your Audience
A quality audit needs to be written in a way that is tailored to your unique audience. For smaller sites, that means the site owner or manager, and if someone else is actually going to implement the action plan tasks, then the second person you need to write for will typically either be an engineer or designer. Even if you or your own team is going to be doing the implementation, think about who it is that’s going to do that work.
For enterprise / large corporate sites, you’ll need to ensure that you consider how to provide the right information for corporate ownership – the people we usually label as “C-suite” executives. This may or may not include one or more people such as a CEO, a CIO, a CTO, a CMO, maybe even a committee of SVPs and Junior VPs. (Don’t you love the great little acronyms that fly all over corporate conference rooms?)
I’ll need a completely new article at some future date to write up exactly how you might go about writing to the C-level audience, and how, if you do it wrong, you’ll never get their buy-in. So today we’ll just touch on the highlights of that.
Your Own Team
Even if you or your own team are going to implement the work, don’t leave out the tasking stuff. By including it in the document you present to the decision maker(s), you build trust and confidence. Not that they can comprehend what you’re talking about technically (though they just might be able to). No, it’s because by getting that information in, you show them that there’s a real plan of action, not just a bullet point list.
One reason to write to the technical audience even if YOU are that audience is simple. By putting in the time during the audit to generate the tasking, you’ve set yourself up to not have to go back a week, a month or 6 months later and say – “why did I list that item, and what did I promise the client/boss I’d do about it?”.
This is even more critical when the action plan calls for 100 or 1000 hours of work. That depth helps validate the expense in the mind(s) of the decision maker(s).
Writing to Multiple Audiences
Even though it takes more time to write to multiple audiences, doing so will allow each person in the loop the ability to digest what you’re saying. And it allows them to choose how much or how little they want to read. That fact alone builds confidence in business owners and managers, because you’re showing them you went the extra mile to help make the process as painless as possible. Which saves them from having yet one more reason to gouge their eyes out with dull pencils an otherwise unbelievable amount of stress.
Splitting Things Up
The simplest way to write to multiple audiences in an audit is to split things up. And if you do that, be sure to start with a document Table of Contents. That single page will let people immediately see what’s included and shows them where the information they personally care about the most, is located.
Refresh Everyone’s Memory
After the Table of Contents, a simple one or two paragraph overview statement works well to let everyone know, either for the first time or as a reminder, why the audit was called for and what went into the audit process. This matters for larger organizations because the document is going to get passed around. Sometimes to a lot of people.
Summary of Findings
Next up is a Summary of Findings. In short order, point out what’s good about the site and what’s not, as it relates to SEO. I prefer a bullet point list here, because it’s easy to digest. And C-type executives love you for that. It means that in 30 seconds they can grasp the overall health of their site.
Now that I’m including these in my audit documents, I always like to start off with what’s good, because that sets them up to be willing to accept the fact that in reality, their site is screwed. Royally. :-) It gives them the ability to see that all is not lost, it’s not hopeless, and the $2,000,000 they spent on the current site isn’t now a total write-off.
Be honest in the summary. Don’t just add phony B.S. to make it SEEM like there’s good. If there really isn’t anything good, say so.
So for example, A 2 million dollar site built completely in Flash where all of the text in that Flash file is actually in graphic images that were imported into the file probably doesn’t have anything positive going for it at all, right? But maybe that worthless site has 5,000 inbound links, some of which are even from PR3 sites! Yay for them!
Example Summary of Findings
- Robust Content Depth
- Strong Rankings for Some State-wide Phrases
- Extensive cross-site linking
- Fair to Poor Rankings for Some State-wide Phrases
- Fair to Poor Rankings for National Phrases
- Code-level Information Architecture lacks SEO capability
- Disjointed User Experience Negatively Impacting SEO
- Concern regarding time-on-site issues
Wrap It Up
Even when you have a bullet point list in the summary section, it’s good to then wrap it up with one or two paragraphs where you spell out the sum total of what you’ve found. This is the opportunity to reinforce the concern you have with overall site health and where the biggest weakness lies.
Beyond The Summary
So the summary section (which should really never be longer than one page) is written for C-level executives, and site owners. It’s the fastest way to let them know the overall health of their site. Yet unlike people who write entire “audits” that are only 2 pages would have you believe, that’s all it’s going to do. The summary is never going to convince the CEO that you actually know what you’re doing, or that there’s actual proof that serious problems exist and are so serious that they need to now spend $50,000 or $250,000 to fix things.
And this is where the comprehensive SEO audit comes into play. The analysis portion of your audit document is where you lay out, issue by issue, example by example, all the things you found wrong. Because it’s really your analysis work that you are being paid for. And it’s that analysis work that is going to justify the fact that your client now has to pay you the remaining balance on your $5,000 audit fee. (Or where your boss finally acknowledges that you apparently really know as much as you said you did when she hired you). :-)
In my previous articles on this topic I already went through the concepts of how much and how little to include, when to give examples of actual page references as well as examples of the proper way to do SEO for something, and so forth. So I won’t go into detail here in that regard. But let’s summarize.
- Provide 1 or 2 URLs to pages where a specific problem can be seen
- Provide a description of the problem in a way that technical and non-technical people can understand
- Provide a “tasking” (solution) entry for every item you list as being a problem
- Include charts, spreadsheet snippets, Annotated Screen-shots
- Provide links to 3rd party sites if needed (See note on this below)
- Make references to “lost opportunity” or “potentially dramatic increase in revenue”
- Specify who the person or team is that will need to address various issues
- Call out any areas where more research or footwork needs to take place
- Only include entries in the detailed section that address problem areas
- Review or detail every single page if the site has dozens, hundreds or thousands of pages
- Use attacking language toward whoever created the mess (except on Twitter – but remember to anonymize the rant!)
- Write more than a couple or a few paragraphs in the explanation for any one issue (unless you need to in explaining the problem or detailing the tasking)
- Waste time justifying your tasking items (you are, after all, the authority on the subject)
- Include any entries in the detailed section that don’t address problem issues
A Note About Providing Reference Links
I make it a policy to never provide reference links in my audit documents except when pointing out a reference site, such as W3c.org, or samples of sites you believe links should be obtained from, or a specific competitor page when used as an example reference.
If you’re including links of any other kind, you’re trying to justify or rationalize why you think an issue deserves to be included in the audit, or why you’re telling them “this is the way to resolve this issue”. Never waste time justifying. If you find you need to, take a step back and remember that you really do know what you’re talking about, that you really have the experience or the knowledge. And if you find yourself rationalizing – it means you yourself don’t believe, on some level, that a task is needed. So check your ego, your fears, whatever. Just get that out of the audit!
So there you go. Yet one more piece to the SEO audit jigsaw puzzle. If you take the time to learn what goes into a truly well written and well thought out site audit you’re much more likely to succeed in winning hearts and minds. And when we win hearts and minds, not only is the work actually more likely to get implemented, but more importantly, you’re more likely to be paid. :-)