SEO is an often misunderstood term. It’s thrown around our industry on a daily basis as snake oil vendors try to take advantage of the unknowing broker/owner, spewing promises of “front page rankings,” “top Google positions,” “organic leads,” etc.
What is SEO?
SEO or Search Engine Optimization, simply put, is the practice of optimizing your website so it performs better in search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo.
An SEO audit (specifically, a good SEO audit) is a detailed look at everything about your website that could potentially affect your search engine rankings. It can take between 5 and 10 hours to complete, depending on your website’s complexity.
Let’s dive into the details, what they mean and why you should care.
When performing an SEO audit the right way, you’ll need to crawl before you walk, meaning that you’ll need to crawl the entire website to gather the data you’ll need before you dive into the analysis part (which I admit, is much more fun).
There are several free crawling tools that can give you the basics, but most of them aren’t suited for the level of detail you’ll want from a good audit. I personally use SEO Powersuite’s auditor to do the initial crawl. It can be painfully slow (I usually leave it running overnight on a separate machine), but it’s constantly updated and provides a ton of data and customizability.
Ideally, at this point you’ll want access to analytics and webmaster tools, which isn’t always possible if you don’t have them set up already. That’s something that I usually help with because these tools can help gather more useful data.
There are six key items to cover in an audit, which I’ll go through at a high level and some detail to show why each matters to a site owner.
1. Overall review and high-level findings
A number of factors can influence a website’s search engine rankings. Analyzing these high-level factors can help estimate the efficiency of your website optimization efforts and help discover future optimization opportunities if any exist.
Some of the things I look at here are domain age, page rank, number of pages indexed in search engines and whether the site is listed in popular web directories.
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If the search engines can’t access your site, it’s basically invisible on the web. In audits I perform, I’ll inspect the Robots.txt file (a file that provides instructions to search engine crawlers – sometimes used to block parts of a website you want to remain private) for issues, and check the data for any error codes (like a 404 page not found).
I then look for a good sitemap, and make sure the architecture of the site is such that it’s easy for search engines and human users to get around.
Finally, I analyze the overall site performance looking at things like page load time, use of Flash, redirects, etc.
Once I’ve determined that search engines can access your site, I look at how many pages are indexed (displayed in the search results pages) and whether there are any issues within that data.
One of the most common problems occurs when there are 10,000 pages on a website, but only 2,000 show up in the index, for example. In this case, it’s important to figure out why these pages aren’t displaying in order to fully optimize the site for indexibility.
An easy way to check this is to use the “site:” command in the search engine (Google specifically). To do this, simply type “site:yoursitehere.com” and hit enter. The results will show you a rough number of “results” or pages that are indexed. As long as that number roughly matches the number of pages your site contains, everything is usually fine.
In addition, I’ll usually make sure the site also ranks for the obvious search terms by searching for them in Google. Brand names are the easiest. If I were doing an audit for Willy Wonka Real Estate, I’d simply search for their name and make sure they display in the top results.
4. On-page factors
When looking at on-page ranking factors, I begin with domain level and work down to page-level factors.
Generally, I’ll start with the actual URL of the site. Is it short and friendly and does it include relevant keywords (but not too many)? Are there subdomains or subfolders? Are there excessive parameters or underscores in the URL? If so, they may be causing issues.
Then I’ll look at the page navigation again. Are there drop downs or hover states? Most of the time these are not “crawlable” by search engines and therefore not recommended. Are there “breadcrumbs” or links to get me back to where I came from? Are there links to get me to where I’m actually trying to go? If not, search engines can’t get there either!
Other factors I look at in this section include the HTML markup and any warnings that may be caused by sloppy code. Page titles, descriptions, keywords. Meta data for images (think the “alt=text” which is used to describe to a search engine what exactly an image may contain) and videos, and a quick overall analysis of the site’s content in general.
I’ll then check the number of outbound links (too many can be bad) and the site’s “social engagement,” which includes the number of likes, Google +1s, Tweets, etc. Social engagement is playing a much larger part these days in how well websites perform in search rankings.
If I have access to analytics, I’ll dive into those looking at number of page views, time on site, bounce rate, traffic patterns, etc. These are all factors that can potentially influence search results and actual conversion rates on your site.
5. Off-page factors
“Off-page” factors are those factors that we may not have direct control over. For example, if someone wrote an article about your brokerage, and included a link to your website, you have no control over where or how they link to your site.
Even though a lot of off-page factors are not within our control, there is still a lot of knowledge to be gained by understanding them.
I gauge things like popularity, trustworthiness and authority. While these are somewhat subjective factors, the numbers don’t lie! If you have a popular, trustworthy, authoritative site, you begin to see patterns in rankings and even the link analysis.
The most popular sites aren’t always the most useful, but their popularity allows them to influence more people and attract even more attention. Thus, even though your site’s popularity isn’t the most important metric to monitor, it is still a valuable predictor of ongoing success.
I’ll perform a keyword rank analysis, looking for opportunities to improve rankings to grow traffic. I’ll also perform a backlink (links to your site, from others) analysis to see what kind of digital footprint your site has and again look for opportunities to improve and expand.
Finally, I perform a competitive analysis on your main keyword. This is basically a mini audit where I compare your domain to your top competitors. It’s a great way to get a quick snapshot of some of the higher level findings and what can possibly be done to improve your rankings over the competition.
6. Summary of findings and recommendations
I try to sum up everything above into an easy-to-understand chart. Just like in school, a 70% (C-) or better is passing.
I know the last thing you have time to do is wade through 20 pages of SEO speak (and if you’re still reading this post, I commend you for following along) so if there was one section you could just skip right to and get an overall assessment and recommendations, this is the spot.
So, the next time someone calls trying to sell you SEO services, ask them whether they’ve done a detailed audit on your site. If they have, ask them whether they’d share that with you prior to signing up for their services. My hope is that with the above knowledge, you’re now at least able to weed out the snake oil salesmen from the legit SEO service providers. Hint: most snake oil SEO companies will never provide you with anything remotely close to this.
Please feel free to leave questions or comments about SEO audits here and I’ll respond.