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SEO Audit Checklist for 2016

SEO is a complex and ever-evolving art-form that requires coordinated efforts across multiple disciplines. When they are joined in unison, the result is a campaign that produces high rankings and high profits. But how do you:

  • Determine where to start with a new client?
  • Determine what isn’t working on a current campaign?
  • And figure out how to free your website from the depths of the Google SERP dungeon?

If only there were a way to plug your website into a program and have it spit back actionable items that are key to success, and give you advice on how to improve them!

Lucky for you, that is exactly what an SEO audit is. Since the industry is changing faster than you can say 401 redirect, you’ve got to stay on top of what is important each year. Here’s the comprehensive SEO audit checklist for 2016.

First, what is an SEO audit?

For those who aren’t sure, an SEO audit is a rigorous analysis of the different factors that lead to search engine success and how well your website is doing in each category. Think of it as a health checkup for your site. The doctor, in this case the auditing software, checks how well the page is doing in many different categories, gives an overall evaluation, and even gives you a few suggestions for improving yourself. Once weaknesses are spotted, they can be worked on. All you have to do is actually listen to what the doctor is saying!

SEO audit checklist: step-by-step

SEO is like making a gigantic feast for the family: it is very complicated, involves tons of different ingredients, and gets a bit frustrating at times, but in the end it was worth all of the effort. The only way the resulting meal doesn’t get ruined is if you work hard at every single aspect(and your crazy aunt doesn’t spoil the evening). Let’s take it step-by-step.

Step 1: Evaluate your SEO in terms of your goals

Success isn’t always about winning or being the best; success is about achievement based on realistic expectations. A sports team that was the worst in the league the previous season but .500 the next is definitely a success, even though they haven’t actually “won” anything.

When you have a specific goal in mind, it makes it easier to evaluate your SEO. Too many companies and their marketing professionals get caught up in being the best, so they unfairly deride their results when they aren’t up to par.

News flash!  Google just returned 1.3 million results for “dog sitter New York”, and only 1 dog sitter gets the top spot. Create strategic objectives and evaluate your audit based on them. For example:

  • Do you want to increase your organic traffic by 25%? How about 50%?
  • Do you want to rank locally for long-tail keywords?
  • Are you trying to increase the amount of links pointing to your website?

Step 2: Evaluate your keywords

Keywords can be pretty cut and dry sometimes– like when a club wants to rank for nightlife or party in a specific city– but other times they can be nuanced, like when that club wants to rank for “trendy bar” or “70’s disco themed club”(disco will come back, trust me!). You need to evaluate the current set of keywords you are targeting and ask yourself if it is worth the trouble.

  • Are you reaching over your head at keywords that are out of your league?
  • Are you missing out on untapped potential?
  • Are you getting your foot in the door with easier keywords?

Going for long-tail keywords that aren’t as competitive is a great way to get some easy wins and

gain some confidence. From there, it’s time to assess the situation.

Are you targeting the right keywords?

That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? How does one know if they are going after the right keywords? In general, your keywords should be:

  • Specific- this goes without saying. A smaller list of specific keywords that your buy-ready customers are searching for is better than a 1,000 word list.
  • Attainable- don’t set goals that are way over your head, because if you do, then when you fail you’ll be crushed. How about trying “custom creative business cards” instead of “business cards”.
  • Measureable- measuring success is still important. If you aren’t measuring how Google is ranking you, then you’re doing it wrong.

Step 3: Know your enemy!(or competition. Whatever you want to call them.)

Scoping out the competition is a must in this business. It’s a copycat league, or so they say. You definitely shouldn’t be copying your competition(duplicate content gets punished!), but seeing what they’re doing and trying to outduel them at it is definitely recommended. A good analysis will help you determine if:

  • You can outrank them for keywords
  • You are producing the right type of content
  • Identify juicy link opportunities

A good first step? Google them. Query the words that you’re trying to rank for and see who pops up. What are they doing different than you? Is there anything you could improve on? What about something they are doing poorly. Can you exploit it?

Insider tip: want to get some easy wins and start bringing in traffic easily from keywords that aren’t heavily competed for?

  • Log into Google search console
  • Click on search traffic and search analytics
  • Select impressions and positions
  • Sort with the lowest ranking at the top

Behold! The low-hanging fruit with which you can nourish your SEO

Step 4: Technical analysis

The mechanics behind your site as just as important was what’s on it. Don’t believe me? Check out how loading time affects your bottom line. An SEO audit will tell you a few things that you need to know about your site’s technical side.  Here’s the skinny:

Loading time

Search engine optimization is all about user experience(UX). UX is Google’s ultimate goal, and a page that takes forever(who has 5 seconds to spare these days, anyway?) to load is going to miss out on a lot of traffic. The vast majority of users won’t wait more than 10 seconds for a page to load, and each second that passes by leads to a 16% decrease in customer satisfaction. Is yours too slow? Consider:

  • Using less video
  • Optimizing your images
  • Getting better hosting
  • Enabling compression
  • And Enabling caching

Mobile-friendliness

If you aren’t friendly to mobile users these days, then you will be ostracized by Google and forced to live as an outcast away from the rest of society. If you enjoy being a pariah, living off of of the land and spending your days in an isolated cave at the bottom of the SERP, then by all means, please continue; however, if you want to join the successful SEO companies at the top, you’ve got to be down with mobile. A few quick tips:

  • Utilize white space
  • Cool it on the videos
  • Make sure the space between links is good enough for everyone’s pudgy fingers

Thankfully, there is a tool you can use to check out your degree of mobile-friendliness, and it has been studied in depth by some pretty smart people.

Keyword cannibalization

Keywords are like a social group — they can only coexist and maintain order if they all have a specific purpose in the group — and, by the way, they shouldn’t eat each other. Keyword cannibalization is when two of your pages are competing for the same keyword. Your keywords must feed on outside food sources, not each other, so make sure to differentiate the pages. Check out this awesome tutorial.

Redirect issues

Redirects are when you forward one URL to a different one. This could lead to some confusion for search engines and some ire from users. For SEO purposes we will only focus on the 2 main ones:

  • 301 redirects- this is when a page has been moved permanently to a new page. Since it passes nearly 100% of your “link juice” to the new page, it is highly recommended for SEO purposes.
  • 302 redirects 302’s are only temporary, and don’t pass any of the juice along. This makes Google sad. They need to be changed to 301’s to pass your link juice. There are plenty of tools you could use to locate them.

Site Indexing

Google is like a giant library of the internet. A place that houses all of our collective wisdom. When you query, Google sends its librarians throughout the library in search of the most relevant material. So if your site hasn’t been indexed with a duey decimal number, then nobody will be able to find you. Some indexing issues could be:

  • Robot.txt file- if this is enabled, then you won’t allow crawlers to access your site. That’s bad. Turn it off!
  • Sitemaps- having a map is always helpful, and a sitemap will help crawlers index your site more easily. If you’re using WordPress, then Yoast has already made one for you. If you’re aren’t using Yoast, then start using it now. If you’re stubborn, then look for another sitemap plugin.
  • See for yourself- wanna see how well you are indexed? Google yourself! Type in Sitemap: your website, and Google will spit the results back. If you aren’t seeing it, then you could be blocking the website crawlers or have been penalized.

Duplicate content

If you rake, scrape, claw, fake, pull, or any other verb content away from another website and try to pass it off as your own, or worse, have the same content all over your website, then you are going to be penalized. You can avoid having duplicate content on your website by merging similar pages together and creating a unique description and content for each separate page.

There plenty of tools out there that will help identify duplicate content. Find one, and start fixing yours now.

Bad 404 errors?

404 errors aren’t inherently a bad thing, they are simply a way of telling Google that a page no longer exists, and that they can remove it from their library. Makes sense doesn’t it? Think of UX in this case: do you want someone finding your page on the SERP, only to find that the page doesn’t exist? Didn’t think so. But not all of them are good.

If you have a 404 error on a page with backlinks, then you have sprung a leak in your site’s plumbing, and letting all of that link juice leave the pipe and dry up on the floor. What you should’ve done is 301 redirected that page to another relevant page on your site or at least the homepage. Google Search Console can help you locate errors. Check it out here.

You site’s architecture

SEO is all about the user. Your site needs to be designed with the user in mind. Google is cool and all, but your SEO strategy needs to be focused around the people actually using your site, and not scary spider-like crawlers spinning webs throughout your site’s architecture. If yours isn’t up to par, then you will draw the ire of both your visitors and search engines. A few quick tips:

  • Nav bar- you could also your users to navigate by the sun and the stars, but most prefer a clean navigation bar. Keep it simple. If your nav bar is as crowded as Whole Foods in Beverly Hills, then users are going to skip town.
  • Internal links- the importance of internal linking cannot be overstated. When you effectively link relevant pages together on your site, UX, and therefor SEO, are given a huge boost. Are you using enough internal links, and, more importantly, are you using effective anchor text? If your page is about silly bands, then for god sakes man use silly bands as your anchor text.

URL’s

Your URL can also be SEO-optimized, but it needs to be done the right way. Keywords can and should go into the URL is possible. Keep them clean, crisp, and easily readable. And never stuff the URL’s with keywords! If you’re a pizza blog, then a URL like WWW.BestPizzaBlog.com/TheBestPizzas/BestPizzainNewYork is stuffed more than stuffed crust pizza, and not good for SEO. Why not cut it down and try BestPizzablog.com/BestPizzaInNewYork(even though we all know that best is really down I-95 in Connecticut!).

Step 5: on-page factors

Ahhhh, on-page SEO optimization. Now the fun begins. You need to convey your value, hook your customers, and pry their business out of their hands with catchy, informative content that is fully SEO-optimized. But how? It is definitely easier said than done. Doing it the right way is a delicate balance between providing the kind of content that users love and the kind that Google can’t get enough of. First things first, though.

Copyscape

Before getting into the finer details, run your content through a program like Copyscape. This neat little program will help you weed out the rebel scum on the web trying to steal your stuff. Let sheriff Google know, and they will lay down the law.

On-page SEO factors to consider

The science behind SEO that dominated much of the past decade has slowly given way to a more nuanced artform. Modern SEO is a much more complex dish made from more exotic ingredients than its ancestors. That being said, past SEO generations have handed down some of their traditions, genes, and wisdom to the modern incarnation. On-page SEO factors that need to be taken care of are:

  • Keyword in the title- let me try to put this plainly: put the keyword in the title! Rant over.
  • Meta description best practices- put the keyword once in the meta description, and make sure it’s toward the front.
  • Url’s- keyword not in the URL? It should be. And make sure it’s clean(see above!)
  • Images- put the keywords in the alt tags of the images and caption if possible. The first is the most important.
  • Internal links- are you linking internally, and doing the things you were told to do above? Hope so.
  • Where are your keywords- are your keywords in the introduction, first paragraph, your headers and the last paragraph?

On-page SEO is still important. Don’t let these factors be forsaken.

Step 6: Content

Your content, that is, the words on your web pages and the totally awesome blog posts that you are churning out regularly(you’re doing that, right?), is your key to success. Content is the most in-depth, time-consuming, and nuanced aspect of SEO, which comes as no surprise, because it also happens to be the most important. Don’t believe me? Then listen to what Google said:

“The key to creating a great website is to create the best possible experience for your audience with original and high-quality content”

Capisce?

The good thing is that if you’re a great writer who understands your target audience and knows how to choose the right words to get the desired response, then content is simple! Still with me?

Here are a few rules of thumb to help you assess your content:

  • Is it unique?- If everyone is posting articles about how to fix a leak, then posting an article about fixing a leak isn’t going to do much good(still will help, though!). You need to find your niche. Do you have a personality? Do you approach things from a different angle? Are you offering something that nobody else is offering? When one guy noticed that everyone was doing vegan chef YouTube channels, he slapped some face paint on, wore black leather clothing, and screamed his recipes to black metal music. Ladies and gentleman, I give you Vegan Black Metal Chef, a man who understands that uniqueness is your ticket to success.
  • Is it helpful?- does your content provide something that can be used? I like to think of two separate uses for content, and neither of them have to do with sales. Content should either entertain/inform or it should people solve problems. Answer questions your customers might have in your content or offer solutions to problems in your industry.
  • Is your content engaging?- unless you are writing about caravans traversing the Sahara en route to a lonely desert oasis, I don’t want to see anything dry about your content. Users have trillions of choices, so they won’t stick around. Make it fun.
  • Are you writing enough words- short-form content will always have its place in the world, but the trend toward longer-form content is already in full swing. Longer posts not only appeal to a more targeted audience, but they also are more informative and rank for more long-tail keywords.

Also, don’t forget that interacting with your audience is key! If they are commenting, then don’t leave them hanging!

Step 7: UX

You can’t go through life worrying about what people think of you. But when it comes to your website, then you best believe that what people think about you is important. User experience is the be-all-end-all of the whole shabang. Lucky for you, Google Analytics serves as a social barometer where you can see what the general populace thinks about you. The most important aspects to consider are:

Bounce rate

This place is boring; let’s bounce. I’d expect to hear that at some trendy nightclub that plays terrible music, but not when people are visiting my website. Nobody really knows what a good or “ideal” bounce rate it, but everyone is in agreement that it needs to be low. It really depends on your niche. If yours is over 90%, then you probably have some serious content issues.

Average time spent on site

Some people can be on your site for a short time and have great experience, others can spend ages and not sign-up or buy anything; however, the average time spent on site is a good indication of your general UX. The more awesome stuff there is to see or read, the more time people spend on your site.

Goal completions

Goal completions are like the be-all-end-all of the be-all-end-all. They are the best indication of UX. I don’t care if users are spending their whole vacation on your website, if they aren’t converting to leads, then you’re doing something wrong. SEO, business, and maybe life in general(deep!) is a means to an end. The end in this case is making money. If your SEO isn’t bringing in more money, then it’s worthless.

Exit pages

A cool thing is that if you track which pages users are leaving through the most, you could start patching up those exit pages. It might sound like it’s against building code, but don’t worry. Evaluate your pages and see if they are helping customers solve problems, providing good content, entertaining the customer, or offering a way for them to convert.

Branded searches

Want a good indicator of whether or not you are providing good UX? See how many branded searches you are bringing in. When people are searching just for your brand and your brand alone, then you know you’re doing something right.

Social signals

The debate is still raging about social signals in terms of how they affect SEO, but what can’t be denied is that social signals are a good indicator of great UX. Know how to get good social signals? Like the great O’Jays said: GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT! Provide awesome content, make everyone happy, and they will share their love for you.

Remember, if there is a problem with your UX, it is probably with your content. If you have dull, boring, basic stuff, then nobody is going to care; however, there could be some other issues. You could easily improve your UX with:

  • More video
  • More images
  • Faster load times
  • And simpler navigation

Step 8: Link analysis

When people think you are interesting, informative, and, in general, useful for their audience, they link to you. Links are a key part of your ranking, and search algorithms love the sweet nectar known as link juice.

Analysing backlinks is a key part of an SEO audit. Use the program of your choice to get down to the nitty gritty, but make sure you are looking out for the right things.

Link relevancy

Link relevancy is the new pagerank, or so say the high-ups at Google. Want something that is long-lasting and full proof against algorithmic changes? Then you need to link relevantly(for the most part). Are you linking within the same industry to trusted sources? Are people in your industry linking to you(irrelevant links could be a problem)?

Link authority

Coming in a close second to relevancy is link authority. When someone in a position of perceived authority within your industry links to you, then they have in essence vouched for you to Google. There are plenty of programs across the web that you can use to identify your link authority. Chances are that the better your content, the more people will trust linking to you.

Link diversity

A diverse linking profile is more natural and much harder to fake. Google likes this.

Different “types” of backlinks include

  • contextual links
  • site-wide footer/sidebar links
  • directory links
  • resource page links
  • niche profile links
  • forums links
  • relevant blog comment links

Link targeting

If you’re doing your job right, then most of your links should be “deep links”, I.E, links that are going to deep pages on your site, and not just homepage links. If you are producing good content, then that’s where the links are going to go.

Anchor text

Anchor text abuse is a rampant social ill on the web, and that’s why you always need to monitor yours. Exact match anchors, where you link the text matching the keyword you’re targeting, should be relatively small in %, and branded anchors,where your brand is hyperlinked, should be relatively high.

Links are the way that the web conveys interest to Google. The search engine is built on your reputation. The more sites that value your input, the more that Google perceives you to be a reliable result. Examining your links is a great way to boost your SEO.

Step 9: citation analysis

Local SEO is all the rage, and with the vast majority of local users turning to search engines to make purchases(local searches lead 50% of customers to visit within 1 day!), it’s easy to see why so many have turned to locally focused SEO to get business.

A citation is any reference to your business’ name, address, and phone number on the web. Google uses it to determine your authority in the area. Making sure your citations are in line is an effective local SEO tactic. All businesses need to be aware of:

  • Consistency- if you Name, Address, Phone number, and Website(NAP-W) are not consistent across the web, you will confuse Google and lose out on a valuable boost.
  • Directories- like the ancient Stone Age practice of using telephone books, local directories on the web are a great place to go to see who is doing what in the local area. Making sure you are listed in all of the possible directories(including your local chamber of commerce) is a great way to help your local SEO out.

So that’s it. That is all that you have to do! Simply performing an SEO audit is not enough. You really need to dig into it, and make sure that you are doing it right. This comprehensive SEO audit checklist for 2016 will ensure that you have dotted all of your i’s and crossed all of your t’s. At least for this year Remember, hard work and attention to detail are the best way to run a great SEO campaign.

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