One of the challenges that plagues the search marketing industry is a lack of standards around the quality and scope of work. Different agencies and consultants will use similar words to describe very different deliverables and processes. One of the most abused of these is the SEO Audit.
Clients have told me bitter tales of ghosts of “audits” past that didn’t live up to expectations, like the big-brand shoe retailer that paid $10,000 over three months’ time for a two-page Word document containing weak, tactical recommendations. I thought my client was exaggerating for effect until he emailed me the product. To protect their investment, businesses need to understand what to expect from an SEO audit and which questions to ask to ensure they’ll receive the quality and scope required.
What Is an SEO Audit?
An audit commonly begins a search marketing engagement with a client. The goal is to identify the challenges and opportunities the client’s sites have for improving their SEO performance to drive more brand impressions, visits and conversions. The input is a client’s web analytics, access to search tools like Webmaster Tools or SEOmoz, the client’s own site and the search results themselves. When combined with SEO knowledge and experience, the SEO professional has what he or she needs to analyze the site and document a strategy to improve organic search performance.
A complete SEO audit will have at least three sections: (a) analyzing the challenges and opportunities for a site’s technical aspects, (b) keywords and content, and (c) link authority. Sometimes these are split into separate audit documents, but no audit project can be considered complete without covering all three areas because they’re all interconnected. Hundreds of ranking factors combine to form each search engine’s algorithms. As a result, thousands of decisions of all different sizes come together across those three areas of SEO — technical, content, and authority — to impact a site’s organic search performance according to those algorithms. For example, content relies on technical elements like platform configuration, architectural structure and others to amplify keyword signals and boost rankings. For link authority to be beneficial there has to be some sort of keyword signal to amplify. Ignoring one area leaves the other areas weaker – and in some extreme cases completely crippled – as a result.
The analysis documented in an audit is critically important for a couple of reasons. The first reason is trust: A detailed analysis of the current situation builds trust in the work done between the client team and the SEO professional. Also, because SEO is a combination of marketing and development disciplines, the client team needs to understand the underlying issues that impact SEO performance. Without this educational aspect of the audit, the team may implement a tactic to improve SEO today but undo its good work by making the same decisions tomorrow that caused the SEO issue in the first place.
In addition to analysis, an audit needs to contain a strategy to improve SEO and next steps to implement that strategy. Here we come back to the three elements of SEO. The strategy needs to address technical, content and authority opportunities in proportion to their value, with particular focus on the areas that will have the largest impact on the SEO performance of the site. Sounds reasonable, right?
Note the difference between a strategy and what might be called an SEO task list, which contains a list of recommended tasks to complete. Without the strategy, a task list conveys no priorities or comprehensive plan of action. Tasks may be taken or not, either way, because there is no sense of the importance each plays in the overall SEO strategy. However, without the task list the strategy is just a fluffy ideal that’s difficult to translate to actions.
Clearly, an SEO audit requires both a strategy and a prioritized action plan. The strategy builds off of the analysis to identify how the client can capitalize on the opportunities to improve their organic search brand impressions, visits and conversions. And the prioritized action plan breaks the strategy down into discreet projects or deliverables that can be put to an agreed upon timeline and executed against.
To be more confident that you’re getting what you need from a potential SEO firm, consider asking some of these questions in a request for proposal.
SEO Business Questions
- What is the firm's SEO philosophy? What makes them better than other SEOs?
- Who will be assigned to the project? Make sure to Google the team: Do team members speak or write about SEO; are they active in the industry; is their reputation strong?
- Will the firm outsource this project to other consultants or agencies? Consider who will actually be doing the work, and its reputation for ethical SEO.
- What SEO services does the firm provide or not provide? If you have a clear idea of the main SEO issues of your site, make sure they align with that SEO’s strengths.
- Ask the firm to describe its typical SEO audit. What input is needed from the client? What form does the output consist of? What is the audit’s purpose in the engagement? How long does it take to complete? What will it cost?
- Ask the firm to provide sample documentation or portions of an audit? This is a tough one because sample work is by nature confidential and can be difficult to sanitize sufficiently to give to a prospective client as a sample. But samples can be a very clear window into the actual product delivered.
- Ask the firm to describe its SEO approach to (a) technical and architectural issues, (b) keyword research, (c) content optimization, and (d) link building and social media.
- How does the firm measure SEO success?
Proof of Expertise
- What three recommendations would the SEO firm make to improve the site’s SEO? It’s not reasonable to expect from the firm hours of analysis and recommendations before a contract is signed, but the firm should be able to turn up at least three suggestions that go beyond “get more links” or “optimize title tags.”
- Ask the firm to provide two client references. Consider the source objectively. Make sure to ask the references about the firm's communication, responsiveness, and professionalism as well as its knowledge level and work product.
- Ask the SEO firm to provide case studies of past successes. For an audit, case studies are difficult. The audit represents the beginning of an engagement, whereas case studies are typically focused on documenting the successful implementation and performance improvements months down the line.