Anatomy of a Hands-on SEO Site Audit – Part 1

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Anatomy of a Hands-on SEO Site Audit – Part 1

Welcome to part one in a series of articles on the anatomy of a hands-on SEO site audit!  This was originally just going to be one article.  But then my book-length article nature came up squarely against the awareness that true site audits can be extremely complex.

And as much as everyone just loves those cute little 9 steps to blah-de-blah, we all know already that such articles are rare for me to write anyhow.  And this particular topic is one that I think comes to the top of the list as far as importance in our industry.

Fifteen College Credits

This series of articles isn’t going to be a comprehensive how-to covering every single aspect of the process, since that could easily take up an entire fully matriculated college semester.  So what I share here today, and in future follow-up articles,  should be used as a foundation – more like a check-list of tasks with enough detail along the way to be like a nice succulent rack of ribs, slathered in the best seasoning you’ve ever had.

And where I believe it will be beneficial, I’ll also offer some insights into the broader mind-set of why I go about the audit process the way I do, based on the notion that a proper process will lead to a much higher level of success in business, and in turn, personal happiness.  Because the more successful we each are, and the happier we as individuals are, the better we, as an industry will become.  Both from a human perspective and from the added respect we gain from our clients and SEO h8ers.

So once again, I invite you to go get a large cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage, kick back, and enjoy!

The Value of Hands On Audits

Everyone goes about the process of an SEO site audit differently.  Some people rely on various tools or software to do the heavy lifting. Personally, I prefer to do most everything in a hands-on approach.  I charge anywhere from $750 for a small to mid-size site, $2,000 to $3,000 or more for a complex site in a highly competitive field,  and as much as $5,000 if it’s what I consider a “mega-site” -one that’s got (or will need) tens of thousands of pages.  So I figure the client deserves the kind of attention to detail that such a method brings.

Also, when relying on software or someone else’s tool, you may actually miss some very important information, or even be led to conclusions that aren’t necessarily based on real world fact.  This can be especially true when doing the competitive analysis, though it’s just as likely if you get lost in the hype that comes with some of those tools.

You may disagree with me on that concept.  Personally, I think things like keyword density percentages, KPI scores, and competitor intelligence that comes from software (either in a downloaded install or an online service) are only as accurate as the logic that went into it, and more important to me, I’ve never once found such a “solution” that I couldn’t bust wide open as being wildly inaccurate at least some of the time when running tests against some of my biggest clients.  (Sites that have hundreds of thousands or even millions of visitors).

In any case, I’ve consistently found that my hands-on approach gets stellar results, so until someone can show me a reason to do otherwise, I’ll continue to take the path that’s worked so well for me in the past.

Audits Are Useless Without Action Plans

In every audit I perform, I provide details on my findings – what works, what doesn’t.  And I always provide action items – literally laying out the map of how to overcome issues I’ve discovered.  That’s one of the reasons I charge the fees I do for my work.  Before I had the luxury of cherry-picking my clients, I charged my fee because there was no guarantee that the client wouldn’t then turn around and find someone else who would charge a fraction of my rate to execute my plan.

And in those situations, if I give away my audit/action plan for free or on the cheap, many clients would freak out reading the last couple pages of it where I detail the costs of implementing that plan. Usually because my “free” or “low cost” audit caused them to think or reinforced their already existing belief that SEO is easy.

These days, I get the rates I do because my audits and action plans are the lion’s share of what I do.  Probably 80% of  my work comes from agencies who hire me either exclusively for this work, or for this work followed by overseeing the team that does implement (either that agencies team or their end client’s team).  It also helps that I wasn’t afraid to charge the rates I do.  I no longer live in fear mentality when it comes to that topic.  Instead, I operate based on value pricing.

A Quality Audit & Action Plan Sets Healthy Expectations

By being as detailed as I am in this, it literally opens peoples eyes to what the causes were if they were in the SERP basement.  It’s also a reality check on what the true competitive landscape consists of, which is usually something most business owners don’t have a clue about.  And it also shows how many things need to be addressed, and the complexity of some of it.

All of which puts them in the “this is more serious than we ever considered” frame of mind that’s critical to their not labeling me as either a wanna-be hack or as someone out to rip them off.  By the time we get through even a fraction of that final document, clients inevitably have a much higher level of respect for my expertise.  They’re much more open to trusting that they hired the right person.  And even if they went into this process with some ridiculously under-inflated expectation as to budgets, they’re then much more capable now of loosening those marketing purse-strings.

Not Everyone Can Afford Executing Every Recommended Action Item

The reality is that I often run into situations where clients have fixed-budget constraints.  Either because the cash-flow just isn’t there, or because their in-house number crunchers are more skilled at arguing against spending than they (usually a marketing department) are at arguing in favor of spending.

Alternately, some businesses are already in deep financial trouble and getting better results from their web presence is a last-ditch effort to salvage an otherwise failing company.  As much as this type of business owner / manager had already pinned their hopes on this process, they often learn it’s going to be impossible to do everything (you can’t take out a business loan for marketing when you’ve already lost all your investors or creditors).

Prioritizing Tasks Sometimes Saves The Day

Because of this, I will quite often assign a priority scale to each action item, with the tasks most likely to get the biggest bang for the buck getting the highest priority.  When I do this, however, I make it crystal clear, in writing, that for each task not acted upon, the results process will take that much longer, and under certain circumstances, may mean focusing on only achieving some of the desired goals at all.

Know The Situation Before You Commit

While we can’t always know when a prospective client is already beyond hope, there are some key things you can do to gauge how solvent a prospective client is or how likely they are to become that proverbial nightmare client.

For example, when first speaking with a prospect, I explain that I’m just so busy with existing work that it could be a month before I can perform the audit, and (depending on the size of the site or the depth of competition) that implementing the plan / seeing real results could take three to six months.

That dialogue is essential, because it’s the easiest way up front to find out if they’re in desperation mode already or not.  If the response you get is something like “is there any way you can do it sooner”, or “Really? That long?” or “We can’t wait that long”, or – “your rate seems too high”, my best advise to you, my industry colleagues, is to immediately ask for an explanation as to why they said that.

Couple that with a fee that is value based rather than desperation based (caving in and saying “I need this client, so I’ll charge them half my normal rate”), and the overwhelming majority of prospective clients who are already in business failure mode will show themselves.

Being Empathetic Without Being Codependent

Now just because I advocate what some might consider high rates, it’s not that I don’t empathize with such people.  In fact, most of us know what it’s like to have, at some point, been struggling in business.  So we can appreciate when someone needs a break.  And from time to time, I do discount my rates.  Yet I don’t discount them by more than 10 or 15% with a new client anymore.  Instead, if I’m in a generous mood, I may even offer to spread my payment structure out an extra payment.  I won’t, however, get lost in my compassion, because every time I have, I’ve paid the price on a stress level.

Remember – we’re not talking about pro-bono work now – which is something I do throughout the year.  Except in those situations, I will seek out the prospective client instead of offering that to someone who contacts me for help.

The Cost Of Failure To Assess

Failure to clarify such statements will, more often than not, result in your taking on a true nightmare client.  Someone who will pepper you with dozens of phone calls or email messages on a daily basis.  Or, in the worst scenario, blame you for every delay.  Even when they themselves fail to get back to you in a timely manner.  And eventually, those quite often turn into clients who start yelling and screaming that you’ve cost them thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars in lost revenue.

Some of you are nodding your heads in understanding.  You’ve been there, so you know it’s true.  Others of you may think “that wouldn’t happen to me”.

At this point I was going to get all philosophical, but instead, I’ll just say this – if you think you’re invulnerable to it, you’re probably even more vulnerable.

It’s Not Ego, It’s Good Business Sense

For every prospective client who will, from day one, appreciate, respect and value your services, there are many more who won’t.   That’s a result of human nature and the economy we now live in.

So you’re going to need to be able to filter out those who won’t value or respect or appreciate your services.  So you can get to working sooner with those who will.

And if you’re going to show up with your integrity, and your skills, in a way that could potentially help your clients make tons of money by getting them high up in the search engines and through increased conversions from site visits, you will deserve that happiness and that success.  Because you’ll have earned it.

Beyond Psychology – Where To Begin

Okay so let’s say you get it – you understand the importance of doing your best to only take on clients who appreciate the work.  Where do you go from there?  Well, the audit, of course!  Now, every audit is NOT going to be the same.  Auditing a five page web site in a very niche market is going to be a lot less complicated than if it were a site that sells products and has competitors like Amazon.  Yet the fundamentals are the same.  So let’s start with the fundamentals.

The Focused and Methodical Mind-Set

A long time ago, I was in the Military Police.  And in our training, we were taught to be focused and methodical.  Of course that was important when I was facing down a suspect with my .45 in my hand, ready to shoot ( uh, that’s a 45 caliber pistol – ask me some time about what it was like in those situations…).

Yet even though a site audit isn’t that off-the-charts life-on-the-line intense, being focused and methodical always pays off.  During an audit it helps to better ensure you’re not going to be distracted – that you’ll notice patterns more readily, and that you’ll cover more, if not all, of the bases.

Curiosity Killed The Cat But Rewards The Consultant

As someone who ended up in charge of Crime Prevention, I also learned the value of being curious.  If something you’re looking at triggers an intuitive “that’s odd” moment, stop. Right there.  Whatever it is in your mind that you recognize as triggering that feeling, lock it in your mind.  Make a note of it in writing.

Even if it turns out to be nothing, it’s better to stop and check.  And the extra act of writing it down will ensure that you don’t just blow it off or get side-tracked and forget.  Worst case that happens is you scrap that notation afterward.

Curiosity Sometimes Pays Off Big

Later in this series, when I’m talking about evaluating inbound links, I’ll share with you a crime that was being perpetrated against one of my biggest clients, for an extended period.  A crime that potentially involves serious theft of business.  And how, in my beginning of the year audit this past week, I discovered it.  All because I had one of those “that’s odd” moments and locked it into my memory.

Well, maybe I won’t reveal that exact situation, because it’s currently going through the legal process, and I have not been given permission to discuss the exact facts of this case.  At least not yet.

In any case, let’s just say that paying attention to those bumps in the audit process can sometimes pay off in crazy-wow-holy-cannoli ways.

Documenting Your Findings

In order to keep proper records of my findings, I rely on a handful of resources.  Feel free to use whatever record-keeping method and resource that best works for you.  It’s important however, to take notes and gather data in one consistent manner each time. I use:

  • MS Word
  • Excel
  • Photoshop
  • ScreenGrab for Firefox

As I’m reviewing various aspects of a site’s optimization or lack thereof, and of competitor sites and keyword lists, by having each of these open from the start, I can quickly cut and paste, build lists, take screen-captures and annotate them.

Break It Into Groups

When I perform an SEO site audit, I don’t stay on one page and record all my findings for that page.  Instead, I split out optimization elements and look at that one element across multiple points.  So for example, if I’m looking at the home page Title tag, I’ll then jump to the next page’s Title, and another after that.

If a site has sub-directories or has funnels of content, I always check the Title on at least one or two pages in each section before I make any broad assumption.

Only after I’ve recorded my findings for that one element across multiple points will I then go back and take on the next element.

No Need to Go Insanely Overboard

Now some people might think that an audit that is thorough has to involve reviewing every single optimization element on every single page of a site.  Or every single inbound link.  Or twenty competitor sites.  And this may be why some people opt to use software or web based tools to do this work.

The fact is though, even at the rates I charge just for my audits, I’m not going to review every single element on every page, or every link or every competitor.  There’s no need to do so.  Well, there’s no need that I’ve personally ever felt.  Maybe because I see patterns better than others, or I’ve just been lucky in making assumptions after seeing what I believe to be a pattern.

Yet the bottom line here is that since this is ONLY an audit, if I’ve reviewed ten page Titles across ten different pages, at least one or two in each section of the site, and I’ve noted that there are flaws in the optimization of all or most of those, then it’s a good enough indicator to me that the whole site has page Title problems.

And THAT is what I need to document.  The fact that I’ve found a consistent issue with less than ideally optimized page Titles.

Record Your Findings In Digestible Chunks

Okay – so lets say I’ve found a flawed page Title issue.  When I record that finding in my audit doc, I’ll provide a brief description, and then the URL for two or maybe three of those, but no more.  Just enough to show the client “hey – I believe this is a problem and here’s the proof”.

With things like Titles, I also like to then show examples of how I would change them, given the opportunity.

So in this situation, the entry might end up like this:

Being Specific Without Teaching SEO

Note in the example above, I don’t bother to explain how I determined that recommended page Title?  That’s because a site Audit isn’t supposed to be an advanced course in SEO.  It’s to point out problems and recommend methods of solution.

If a client is curious to know how I came to my recommendation, we’ll discuss that during the phone or in-person review of the audit, but only in broad terms.  Because I expect my clients to trust that I know what I’m talking about, not teach them my business.  That’s not why they’re hiring me.

Building Your Case, Not Giving Away The Farm

By using these methods, what I’m doing is building my case as to the fact that there are clearly flaws in the existing optimization, and that there is a clearly defined plan of action to resolve these.

And because I show enough depth, and a few actual examples, I then set the scenario for later on, where, at the end of the audit, I drop the line-item proposal on the client.  Like:

  • Thorough Keyword Research – 15 hours
  • Implementation of Proper Page Title Seeding across all top tier pages – 4 hours
  • SEO Category title Automation (CMS Change) – 15 Hours
  • Training Client in selecting proper implementation of keywords at the Category and Product Level – 4 hours
  • Follow-Up Review of Client implementation – 2 hours
  • After-Implementation Evaluation of Action Plan Success – 4 hours
  • Etc
  • Etc

Only The Beginning

Of course, this is only the start of the SEO Site Audit process that I’ve consistently used to great success for the last few years.  In Part 2, I’ll offer more insight and methods that I use in my audits, but hopefully you’ve found this a great start.   And please – let me know what you think!

Super Extra Special Bonus Revealed

Now for those of you who hadn’t followed the comment thread in my last how-to article, Taking Front End SEO to the Next Level, I need to congratulateMichel Leconte one of the geniuses behind SEO Toaster,  for having discovered the answer to that article’s “Super Extra Special Bonus SEO Technique #739challenge.

In that article, I included a next-level method I use within the illustrations but hadn’t revealed it as far as a description in the article itself.

Michel guessed “i guess variations of the last sentence qualifying size, resolution is not simply a coincidence, each/all/this depending on nav level.”

He was referring to the fact that in a product catalog online, whenever possible, I like to include one or more sentences within the descriptive content for each category, sub-category and product, where that text is automatically inserted and uses a pre-determined keyword seeding process.  Doing this ensures that even when the client tasks a 10 year old to manually write the product descriptions, we get at least some well-written text that has the keywords in it.  And also, we vary up the writing from category to sub-category to product level as well, to reduce the likelihood of duplicate content.

So kudos to Michel!

Alan Bleiweiss has been an Internet professional since 1995, managing client projects valued at upwards of $2,000,000.00.  Just a few of his most notable clients through the years have included PCH.com, WeightWatchers.com, and Starkist.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AlanBleiweiss , read his blog at Search Marketing Wisdom, and be sure to read his column here at SearchEngineJournal.com the 2nd and 4th Tuesday each month.

 

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Alan Bleiweiss
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... Read Full Bio
Alan Bleiweiss
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