SEO

SEO Audits: Strategic Vs. Tactical – The Right Solution for Clients

farmForSale SEO Audits: Strategic Vs. Tactical   The Right Solution for ClientsSomething that comes up often in my discussion with others in our industry regarding audit work is how many people who do SEO audits spend dozens, possibly even hundreds, of hours on an audit, and then deliver an 80-page or 100-page (or more) document to their clients.

In these discussions (and in an occasional Twitter rant), I’ll mention that the typical audit I produce is between 15 and 20 pages with extreme situations resulting in, at most, 30 pages. Some people have said that’s about where they’re at, so I know I’m not alone in how much I put into an audit from a written perspective. Yet what exactly is it that goes into those couple dozen pages?

Note: I wrote a somewhat similar article more than a year ago. This time, however, I want to build on those concepts covered and go even further  in explaining the key differences between strategic and tactical audits and discuss more of why this is important.

Strategic Vs. Tactical

Something I emphasize when I’m training others in SEO implementation or the audit process is the importance and value of grasping the concept of and differences between strategic audits and tactical audits.

Taking the time as you’re performing an audit and then as you’re doing the write-up of your findings and recommendations to see where something might be strategic and something else might be tactical offers many benefits. It really is well worth the effort to learn this process and make use of it. Everybody wins when you do.

Not Everyone’s Audit Cup of Tea

Before I go into sharing with you why I believe there is value in splitting out strategic and tactical into two separate audit processes, I do need to say that there may be reasons why you wouldn’t want to do that. Perhaps you enjoy doing it all in one audit. Maybe that’s the business model that you find works best for you. Maybe you believe it’s not right to do it the way I’m going to discuss here.

Whatever the reason, if you do feel that way, especially after at least reading through my reasoning, then by all means, continue to do so. You do what works for you, I’ll do what works for me, and we’ll all  be happy. :-)

Sound Business Benefits

When you separate out strategic vs. tactical concepts during an audit process, it allows you to achieve a number of valuable objectives.  These include (but may not be limited to):

  • Reduction in the Review Process
  • Reduction in Shiny Object Syndrome
  • Reduction in Rabbit Hole Economics
  • Increase in Focus Quality
  • Increase in Clarity of Priorities
  • Improvement in Client Adaption
  • Improvement in Client Understanding
  • Improvement in Client Appreciation
  • Increased Upsell Opportunity

As you can see, that’s a lot of benefits I’m claiming can come from this one realization about the work we do. Well, let me see if I can help validate why each of those is a true benefit and on enough of a scale that you’ll at least take a serious look at how you go about the audit process yourselves.

Reduction in the Review Process

The more you understand what is strategic and what is tactical, then when you are performing a strategic audit, you’ll be able to completely bypass having to spend any time on many other aspects of the SEO evaluation, decision making, and recommendation process. You’ll see that what you might have previously been focused on is really tactical and doesn’t belong in a strategic audit.

Reduction in Shiny Object Syndrome

By focusing only on strategic factors, you’re less likely to find yourself being enamored by things that aren’t necessary or paying attention to considerations you may not even need to be looking at for various other reasons, as well.

Reduction in Rabbit Hole Economics

Building on the shiny object concept, one of the biggest benefits to splitting out strategic from tactical SEO thinking is you’ll be much less prone to rabbit hole economics, which is the notion that the more you dig into something, the more likely you’re going to dig much further than you anticipated when you bid the contract. Now that’s still possible in my model, but it’s much less likely because strategic concepts, factors, and considerations during an SEO audit are much more resilient as far as only needing to examine a sub-set of data.

And believe me, it’s quite expensive, in the end, to go down most rabbit holes in our analysis work because every hour expended digging deeper into things you ultimately don’t need causes you to end up working many more hours on a single audit than you should be getting paid for at this stage.

Imagine, from the initial page volume I mentioned at the opening of this article, how many more hours it would take to produce a 70, 80, or 100-page audit than it does to produce 15 or 20 pages. That’s huge! Crazy huge!

Increase in Focus Quality

The more you focus on lesser considerations, the greater decrease you will find in the quality of your focus. Spending too many hours looking over reams of data or examining and then recommending things that belong in a tactical audit will, quite often, result in blurry vision, lost enthusiasm, confusion, distractions…and the list goes on.

Believe me. I know. Because I used to be a “do it all in one audit” person. So I know from direct, painful experience.

Increase in Clarity of Priorities

Since you gain quality when you have the ability to focus on your audit work, you naturally then have a clearer mind during the process, and that, in turn, means you’re most likely going to have a much better understanding about what issues need to be considered priorities. That’s a very big deal in the audit process because as I’ve discussed in my audit articles in the past, and really showed where it was put to use in the Panda One Year Case Study I posted at the beginning of the month, prioritization is crucial to helping clients get the best possible results.

Improvement in Client Adaption

When I present a document that is laser focused on strategic factors and considerations, clients are much less likely to be overwhelmed by the volume of information. Sure, you may initially wow them with how thorough you appear to have been, or you may impress them with the belief they’re getting so much value for their buck, but, ultimately, what I’ve found countless times from clients who previously got 90-page audits from others is they communicated appreciation on the surface.

Then they left and ignored the majority of the recommendations because they were overwhelmed by it. They thought, “There’s no way we have time to put all of this to use,” or “We can’t afford to spend all that time,” which then turns into, “Let’s just do what we can and hope for the best.”

STOP THE PRESSES OMG

Let me stop you dead in your tracks right now. One of the biggest tragedies I’ve seen in the audit consulting I do is a prospective client coming to me after their site got hammered by Panda or Penguin and hearing them tell me, “We need an audit. Here’s the 90-page audit so-and-so did last year. Maybe you can make use of it.”

Really. That happens a lot. And that’s how I know, for a fact, that so many site owners end up NOT doing the work you’ve spent countless hours producing. It’s not that they don’t like you or that they don’t care. It’s because they get overwhelmed by it, and their capacity to take action becomes short-circuited from information overload.

And a year later, they come to me to help them fix the problems. Now that doesn’t automatically mean they’re wasting their time paying me for what you already did. Maybe what you put in that document really was the best answer to their needs. Maybe not.  I’ve seen both on the very few times I’ve even scanned one of those SEO War and Peace books.

Yet all I know (and care about) is these site owners have come to me because whatever they DID implement from recommendations someone previously provided them “sort of” worked or worked for a while until one of the many Google updates caught up with them.

Of course, I’ve seen many more cases where a client got NO advice, no guidance, or a rip-off, boiler-plate audit. In those cases it’s more obvious why their site tanked. Yet people really need to understand this problem and stop churning out 90-page audits unless you can say, for the record, that the overwhelming majority of your clients really did implement everything in them, which is unlikely, because if they did and if you knew what you were talking about, they should NOT have come to me afterward.

Back to Benefits

Sorry about that rant. Okay, I’m not sorry. It needed to be said. Anyway, the point of that rant was to show how clients really will be more likely to adapt more, if not actually all, of your recommendations. (Yeah, even a 15-page document can sometimes become fodder for the recycle bin #facepalm).

Improvement in Client Understanding

When you swamp a client with a 90-page audit, you fail miserably at the bigger picture concept of what I personally believe is a very important concept, client understanding and education. The more I can help a client understand the issues and understand why each recommendation I make is important, the much more likely they are to appreciate me.  It’s something they tell me all the time, every time I do an audit.

And the more you educate them, the more empowered they feel because they actually do become much more empowered and confident that they don’t need to endlessly pay someone else for what they should ultimately be able to take on themselves or have their team take on.

Improvement in Client Appreciation

That building of client understanding and education fosters an invaluable trust, and that sets them up to succeed at an even higher level. This means when they do need to call on my services for something in the future, they know they won’t be overwhelmed or have to pay me for something they can now be take on themselves. So everybody wins.

Increased Upsell Opportunity

Every aspect of an audit that is truly tactical in nature, and thus not included in a strategic audit, is a candidate opportunity for you to offer those clients additional services. Don’t mistake that for, “You should have provided that in the audit, and now you’re just looking to rip off your clients,” because it’s not about that. It’s about breaking it down into manageable chunks, and as you read below, it goes even further than that.

Strategic Vs. Tactical SEO Audit Scalability

Giving away the farm is not scalable. Okay, it may be if you’re charging a high enough rate that you’re running a very profitable business doing it, but only if clients are implementing all your recommendations. Because if they’re not, you’re cheating them more than you are making a profit.

So if you don’t care about ethics on this topic (which you have a right not to), then fine, but if you care about not cheating your clients and you want them to actually implement all that you recommend, respect the concept and stick with strategic focus in that first audit. Then, IF they need your services for tactical, they’ll be more likely to come to you for the tactical and maintain a relationship with you for even longer.

The end result is that you have more time to do more work under more contracts.

You May Be Wasting Time or Ripping Off the Client!

If you churn out a 90-page audit, you could be wasting your time in so many ways, and that’s crazy.

Let’s say you perform an audit, and in that audit you discover, as just one example, that page titles need vast improvement. If you don’t just call out a few examples in your audit document and offer one or two “possible alternative better titles,” you could be throwing way too much energy into something you really don’t need to do.

Maybe that’s because the client really does have someone on their staff who, with just a little guidance, could be doing that work themselves. Maybe for pennies on the dollar compared to what you charge to do the same work.

Maybe it turns out after you present the audit to the client that they have the ability to automate the generation of at least some of those titles with reasonable quality improvement and that they could have done so for pennies on the dollar compared to your rate. That’s a great consideration because if a client implements every recommendation I provide, quite often many of the tasks can be automated, at least to a certain degree.

And I’m talking about client-side, not by some proprietary software you invented. I’m talking about directly within their CMS where that automation belongs so that they don’t have to come to you every time they create a new page or section of their site.

Like I said, there are countless ways you could be wasting your time if you go that far, and you may be charging the client for something they should ultimately be taking on themselves. Or alternatively, you may be able to offer to do the implementation aspect as a next-phase project.

Or they may not be able to put what you provided to use for countless business or technical reasons. Wow, imagine how much time you might be wasting. Seriously. Think about it.

What Is Strategic and What Is Tactical

Just writing an article on what is and what is not strategic vs. tactical in an audit could take a book to detail. Let me just give you a few examples here to hopefully start you thinking more on your own about it.

If I review a handful of page titles on important pages and see that there’s consistent patterns to the lack of quality of those titles, then I include that discovery in my audit. I explain why more refined titles are important, and I give a few examples of what I consider to be better titles. That’s strategic.

Taking the time (potentially many hours) to consider all that you should be considering when coming up with actual new titles like the keyword research cycle, the evaluation of topical focus cycle, all of that work. That’s tactical.

If I’ve determined that a section of the site has way too many sub-category links that aren’t related closely enough, I explain that issue and why it’s important, and I give one or two examples of sub-categories that would be better placed elsewhere on the site. That’s strategic.

If I need to take the time to evaluate every major category and every sub-category within those categories and then figure out what the relationships should be or how they should be grouped, that’s tactical.

If I discover URLs are poorly written, I explain that in the strategic audit. I explain why better crafted URLs are important, and I give a couple of examples of bad URLs and how they MIGHT be better optimized. Then I inform the client that when they do rework the URLs, they need to have a proper plan in place for error checking and 301 redirect implementation. I then also explain that it has to be done carefully and with serious focus.  As for the 301 implementation issue and the reason for the need for serious focus, I explain those considerations as well.

To actually take the time to re-work hundreds or thousands of URLs, that’s tactical.

As you can see from the examples above, there’s a pattern to the differentiation between strategic and tactical.

The Pattern of Strategic SEO Audits

  • Discovering a problem
  • Understanding why it’s a problem
  • Explaining how it needs to be fixed
  • Providing examples of how it might be fixed

The Pattern of a Tactical SEO Audit

  • Taking the examination down to a granular level
  • Taking the answers down to a granular level
  • Providing a page-by-page spreadsheet with specific change requirements

As you can see, there’s a very clear distinction between what is strategic and what is tactical. To me, there’s no question as to what fits in either category for the overwhelming majority of topics, issues, or considerations.

Data Considerations

I also need to clarify, in case you were wondering, the issue of providing data to a client. When I’m doing an audit, I do run data, gather analytics, pull in keyword rankings on the top x phrases, export error reports on server status, review site speed on a few pages, review the inbound link profile, check the social footprint, etc., and I do provide all of that data to the client. Most does NOT go into the audit document.

For one thing, I HATE pasting a spreadsheet into a Word Doc, then having to reformat it all over again. However, I do include the most important aspects of the data right in the doc, such as the top phrase rankings (10 – 20 max), the competitive landscape sweet-spot chart, a screen capture of the page speed of the top 10 most visited pages (when speed is an issue for a site), and sometimes a few other things.

Yet it’s always a sampling of the full-on data I’ve gathered. The rest belongs in that separate spreadsheet. Again, that helps ensure I don’t overwhelm the client when they’re reviewing the audit document.

I do NOT, however, either generate or provide the client with a full-page report spreadsheet, such as the ones that show URL, title, meta description, H1 tags, H2 tags, and all the rest of that granular individual page info, because that is neither necessary (since I provide a couple of examples on aspects of the data that is high priority) nor beneficial during a strategic audit. It’s a shiny object.

In Conclusion

Some people go even further. They’ll list all the problems in their audit, but they won’t even offer possible solutions. They’ll actually leave THOSE for a follow-up contract. Wow. Yeah.

Personally I think that’s nuts because clients come to us for guidance and for help. They don’t want us to just point fingers; they want solutions. So I give them solutions. It’s just that I do so in a way that they can digest it, be more comfortable with the digesting, be more willing to take the next step to actually implement solutions at a pace they can handle, and be more appreciative of my effort on their behalf.

Way too many people are giving away the farm, which is NOT helpful to your business efficiency or the client’s capacity to understand the information and process it, except in rare situations. So STOP DOING IT ALREADY!

 SEO Audits: Strategic Vs. Tactical   The Right Solution for Clients
Alan Bleiweiss is a Forensic SEO audit consultant with audit client sites consisting of upwards of 50 million pages and tens of millions of visitors a month. A noted industry speaker, author and blogger, his posts are quite often as much controversial as they are thought provoking.
 SEO Audits: Strategic Vs. Tactical   The Right Solution for Clients

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19 thoughts on “SEO Audits: Strategic Vs. Tactical – The Right Solution for Clients

  1. Great post, Alan! One thing I’ll add is sometimes the difference between a 20-page and 40-page audit is the number of screenshots. I use a lot of screenshots in mine b/c I think it can help provide context and clarity. Others may use all (or mostly) text. In that case, it may be a similar final outcome, just one has pictures, which take up a lot of space in a Word doc.

      1. Confession – Raises hand to 70-page audit. BUT, the client had a team of 5 assigned to tackle areas of the audit, and the recap/post-audit training took 2 meetings.

        However, Alan, you’ve helped me to see that we were combining strategic and tactical and additional recommendations in one audit. No more rabbit holes!

        I do agree with Annie that screenshots area valuable and page-consuming. It’s helpful to balance text, charts and screenshots for various learning styles.

  2. Excellent post, Alan!

    A few weeks ago, I did an audit for the first time for my own blog, and the results were pretty interesting (some good, some seemed not-so-good).

    Of course, my audit combined the strategic with the tactical (because I didn’t know any better). Until this post, I didn’t know that there is a difference in auditing approaches that I can employ and be more focused/successful.

    Thanks a million!

  3. Loved the way you explained it, Alan. Strategic goes with discovering and explaining… Tactical goes with making changes and helping making changes. couldn’t be more effective and easier.

    Adding data to word doc is always a pain and I am still looking for a great tool to help build a good report.. a shorter and clearer one..

    Thanks for this excellent post

  4. Alan,

    I am a big believer in strategic audits. I think I come from the same school of thought as you that SEO audits are a research and educational document that come with actionables that are explained but also requires some thought past being handed over as to which options are most viable for in house team etc.

    Great post – too many people get strategy and tactics mixed up.

    C

  5. I guess the amount of pages should be relative to the size of site; amount of processes and the type of programming language and other technology it uses. Hard to guage an average based on that?

    1. Andrew,
      In my personal experience, size of site is not as important to the size of audit as number of critical issues. A small site can often have more critical issues. Mega sites (millions or tens of millions of pages) tend to have a handful of templates driving the majority of content and it’s those templates that can often be the cause of most problems.

      Of course if a site is more complex, yes, there might be more issues due to the scale. Its just that with as many audits as I have performed, I don’t see a direct correlation in size of site to size of audit.

      1. Hi Alan, point taken and agree the average CMS site provides the means for anyone to create hundreds of pages within days using a few templates. A lot of my sites use CMS but also have a lot of unique pages like store finders, maps, directions, booking engines using ASP.Net include files but thats my narrow vision and not the wider picture. 90 pages hmm bit overkill unless your getting paid by the page!

  6. Hi Alan,

    I really liked your post. This is definitely something I struggle with. I like to provide clients with a full checklist of important items – even if they don’t have the issue so they can have a resource during implementation. I find that otherwise, some clients take recommendations too literally and can actually over-do the optimization. (and sometimes they do that anyway but at least then, I’m covered – so really more for me than them).

    However, you are exactly right in that the document needs to be useful and the client shouldn’t need to pore over all that just to identify immediate action items. Separating the tactical from the strategic would make it much clearer.

    You gave me some great ideas for audit improvements – thanks.

    Marjory

  7. The risk of providing a 90 page audit is that it will never get implemented. It is much better to provide the strategy and we also find it useful to summarize the audit into high, medium and low priorities. This allows the often very busy IT team to prioritize the changes which will have the most impact. By making the first round of changes and seeing improvement then the more detailed granular tactical changes can be made. I expect anybody delivering a 90 page audit has never done tactical SEO or they might realize how daunting that is to the client.

  8. We had a chat about this before and I agree with most of the points you raise Alan.

    Our in-depth SEO audits are sometimes 40 pages. Why? Because sometimes we detect problems that actually fill 40 pages. Our audits also include not just the technical stuff but we also look at social and usability, There is always a wider picture than just sending over a list of duplicate content URLs. We also prioritise the client/dev optimisation tasks, creating a work in progress doc that the client, the developers plus ourselves then can work through. Sometimes takes a year to get 90% of the audit implemented.

    I always say “Google is not my enemy, lazy clients and lazy developers are my enemy.” We had it all before: Client pays a lot of money for extensive site audit and then doesn’t has the cash to pay the devs to actually implement the suggestions. Result: The whole ongoing project is suddenly on hold. That’s why I always try to educate the client as much as possible. They need to know what the actual further campaign implications are. I also have a conference call or a personal meeting with the client and the responsible dev where we go through the whole audit and check what is possible and what therefore needs to be prioritised. The result is often that the client realises that certain things that are flagged up in the audit [keyphrase research and mapping, title tag optimisation, etc] is better done by us because the client or the dev doesn’t have the actual necessary expertise to do it right. That is great for us because we get more work but also great for the client because stuff gets done the right way.

    Offering solutions to each of the flagged up problems is integral to a quality audit. You can’t just say “There’s something wrong with your internal linking structure, you better fix that”. You need to provide good examples. We also always attach a full list of all URL issues from our site crawl tool, not just some example URLs, so the devs have a complete set of problematic URLs.

    I see a lot of shabby painting-by-numbers SEO audits and their only reason for existence is to lure the clients in to sign off some very basic page optimisation and outsourced painting-by-numbers link building. #SHAMBLES

    Charlie Southwell summed it up nicely:
    “SEO audits are a research and educational document that come with actionables that are explained but also requires some thought past being handed over as to which options are most viable for in house team”

    Cheerio,
    Ingo

    1. I agree that to provide an audit and not provide specific, actionable “how to fix” recommendations is unacceptable, at least in my experience. As for things like site crawl errors, I don’t put those in the doc, they’re in the accompanying spreadsheet, though yes, they are included :-)