For many years I operated in a bubble performing audits on client sites. Coordinating and providing consulting in the implementation of my findings, yet not ever having an open dialogue with other professionals in the industry regarding what commonalities or differences we had in our approach.
As I began writing blog articles on my approach, and fielding questions from others regarding how I went about the process, I began to learn of two typical approaches.
One involves a quick audit, an hour or two, where the most common mistakes or issues are found, followed by broad recommendations. On the other end of the extreme, someone will spend countless hours auditing every detail, examining every page and inbound link, leading to a 50 page report, replete with complex Excel spreadsheets and analytics reports.
Personally, I take a different approach, one that works well for my needs, though it may not work for yours.
Strategic SEO Audits
The vast majority of my work these days involves strategic audits. Depending on the size and complexity of a site, I’ll spend anywhere from a few to several hours examining various aspects of a site revolving around how those aspects affect information architecture, content organization, and topical focus. While I’m doing this review, I consider indexation barriers, usability, and accessibility.
I then spend anywhere from a few minutes upwards of a couple hours examining the sites inbound link profile, considering total links, total root domains, link to root ratio, and scanning the source domains for patterns regarding domain families, domain types, keyword vs. brand anchor patterns, and overall inbound link health.
I also spend a few minutes up to an hour or so reviewing the competitive landscape and set up one or more sweet spot charts, looking for areas of weakness in the landscape. This is critical to my process because it shows me where opportunities exist to overcome competitive difficulty with the least amount of effort for the most value.
When appropriate, I’ll also review social media factors. Here, I’ll spend anywhere from a few minutes to upwards of an hour at most.
Patterns Reveal Bigger Problems
As I’ve communicated in several articles, I look for patterns in my audit reviews. If I find three or five pages on a site that have problems with any area, my experience tells me that this is something that needs addressing. Yet once I discover an area of concern, I don’t dig too much deeper at this point in my strategic audits. Instead, I record the information, describe the problem, describe why it’s a problem, and offer a few examples of it along with examples of how it can be resolved.
By the time I’m done with this process, I typically end up with a 10, 15, or 20 page document. A road map to resolving issues, that shows where energy needs to be applied. I don’t however, go beyond this much effort during a strategic audit.
Time is Valuable
I don’t go beyond the above described effort in a strategic audit for several reasons. First and foremost, I’ve contracted for a fixed bid audit. And with so many issues to consider, it’s too easy to get bogged down in any single factor and quickly use up all the time I’ve allocated. As much as I want to go the extra mile for my clients, I’ve come to learn that I’ve got a business to run, and my time is very precious in that regard.
Another reality I’ve found is if I present too much information to site owners and managers in my first audit, they rapidly become overwhelmed, discouraged and otherwise disheartened. By keeping my audits concise from this perspective, it’s enough to wake them up to real problems. It provides them enough education to help them accept the seriousness of issues revealed, and builds a level of trust and respect for the next step, implementing tactical SEO.
When I’ve presented a strategic audit and we’ve had a follow-up discussion regarding my findings, the next question from clients that comes naturally from that process is – “Where do we begin?”. If the client has an in-house person or team, or an existing vendor, they often have the ability to determine where to begin and how to go about the work. Or I might provide them a copy of my Guide to SEO for Content Writing.
If they need guidance or call upon my team and I to collaborate in the implementation, which is usually the case with clients facing extreme competition, here’s where it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get tactical.
Every site audit reveals different unique concerns and needs. Some sites might need to focus mostly on inbound link factors, others on-site factors, and others still, social media signals. Most of the time its a hybrid combination. Since I’m not an industry leading link building authority, or social media thought leader, I leave the tactical audit work in those areas to others I recommend – people and companies who are as passionate as I am but in their own area of expertise.
Defining What’s Important
When it comes to on-site factors, a typical tactical audit process happens in stages, and can most often be broken out into phases over time. There may be issues a sites developer or development team can resolve – these can include resolving on site 301 Redirect issues, duplicate content caused by other sites they own that should be eliminated, or architectural speed issues for example.
What I encounter most often involves keyword assignment and topical dilution issues related to those assignments.
Audits Addressing Topical Dilution
Quite often the first tactical audit requires one or more discussions with the client to help more clearly define the highest value and most important areas, sections and pages on their site.
What comes from that dialogue involves my need to validate or invalidate the clients beliefs. Is this topic really the most valuable? Does this section of the site really have the most potential for long-term goal achievement? Could there be content stuck down one level that is more important than it’s given recognition for?
Start at the Top
Once these considerations are made, reviewed and confirmed, we can begin the work of final keyword assignment. Depending on the size of the site, this usually involves only a tiny fraction of all the sites pages. (remember – I work on sites with tens or hundreds of thousands or even millions of pages.)
Perhaps it’s all of the main navigation linked pages, or those, along with all or a portion of the product or service categories. Rarely does it involve sub-category level or lower pages at this point.
My best weapon in this process is an Excel spreadsheet. In this spreadsheet I’ll have two, three or more tabs depending on how far this first tactical audit goes.
In a tactical audit, the following tabs are required:
- Pages Evaluated
- Topical Organization
- Keyword Assignments
Pages Evaluated Tab
Columns included in this tab include:
- Page Name
- Topical Focus
In this tab, I list all the pages I’ve evaluated – pages the client thinks are valuable. While my goal might be to make recommendations on only 10 or twenty high level pages, if I think pages these link to need to be reviewed, I’ll include those in this tab. Which means for this tab, I might look at upwards of a couple hundred pages. Doing so sometimes shows me pages that are buried that need to be brought up to a higher level.
I then review the top pages in that list to examine their individual page optimization, as well as cross-page optimization. I do this to determine whether there’s topical dilution at the page and cross-page level, and whether they’re grouped together properly or need to be moved to a different location.
Topical Organization Tab
In this tab, columns inlcude:
- Top Tier Content
- Second Tier Content
- Third Tier Content
- Existing URL
- Reorganization Notes
In this tab, I’ll typically include ten, twenty, or in rare situations, upwards of 100 or so pages. I reorganize and rearrange, if needed, the content from the first tab just carrying over the individual page names, or their re-assigned page names (from a topical focus perspective) – separating things out for better or more refined topical focus, and designate which of these is truly the most important content, which should be consolidated into other pages, and which can be relegated to lesser importance.
Keyword Assignments Tab
This tab typically includes the following columns:
- Page Name
- Topical Focus
- Existing URL
- Top Two Phrases
- Secondary Phrases
- New URL
Now depending on how big or complex the site is, or how much time has been allocated for this audit, I’ll usually only include information in this tab for the top ten, fifteen or twenty most important pages as revealed through processing the first two tabs.
Optional columns I sometimes include in the keyword assignment tab include:
- Page Title
- Meta Description
- Paragraph Content
- Sectional Navigation Re-write
- Breadcrumb Navigation
I’ll include these optional columns if the client prefers I take it this far, such is often the case when they want to ensure the actual final step optimization is better served by being performed by me. Otherwise I leave it to their team or 3rd party vendor.
In these optional columns I do the actual work of re-writing the page Title, meta Description, actual on-page content, and if appropriate, I will also provide the new recommended section level navigation, and individual page level breadcrumb trail, though these elements typically only come along when I’m performing specific section level tactical audits.
How Far You Go is Up to You
By this point, I’ve expended anywhere from five to fifteen hours, the most I’ll put in for any single client tactical audit in any given month. This alone usually gives site owners, content managers and/or developers enough work to deal with in actually implementing and applying my recommendations in between all the other work they’ve got on their plates. If you want to do more at this point, feel free to have at it.
Subsequent Tactical Audits
Once that first round is completed and the work has been applied, I then go into sectional audits – taking on one section of a site at a time. If it’s a complex and deep section, I’ll break it down, starting with the most important content in that section (or the most perceived important content) and go through the same tactical evaluation and refinement process I’ve described above.
The beauty of this multi-stage or multi-phase approach to tactical audits comes from the fact that we’re going to see improvements right away – and with each additional tactical audit being implemented, it’s a building-block process to success.