Written by Justine Rabideau on Feb 6 , 2020

Because ranking on the first page of Google can bring significant traffic, raise brand awareness, drive conversions & more

Here, you’ll find:

  • The steps to conducting an SEO audit
  • Why an SEO audit is important for your site
  • The tools that’ll help you audit your site
  • Common SEO missteps to avoid

Google and other search engines are a huge source of opportunity for businesses. That’s where an SEO audit comes in. Having a site with strong SEO is key, since 75% of people never scroll past the first page of search engines. The core of an effective SEO strategy is about improving your rankings and trying to appear on page one.

HawkSEM: SEO Audit 101: What You Need to Know

The three pillars of an effective SEO strategy are on-site structure, content, and your link profile. (Image via Rawpixel)

Conducting an SEO audit helps you pinpoint missing parts or areas of improvement in your current strategy. It also gives you a helpful framework you can refer to down the line to ensure you’re doing everything you can to rank as highly as possible in organic search results.

The three pillars of an effective SEO strategy are on-site structure, content, and your link profile. What do all of those terms mean? Keep reading to find out.

On-site structure

Because Google crawls millions of web pages per day, a clean on-site structure is crucial to any SEO strategy. On-site structure refers to:

  • Technical issues
  • Mobile performance
  • Page speed
  • User behavior

Not having the proper structure in place can seriously hinder your ability to rank on page one. For example, users will get frustrated and leave your site without taking action if it doesn’t load fast enough. Let’s dig into the elements of on-site structure.

Perform a technical audit

There are lots of different tools out there that will help you audit your site and uncover any technical issues that might be going on during your SEO audit. We often use SEMrush: it gives users a high-level overview of errors (which are more serious issues), warnings (which should be addressed, but aren’t as pressing), and notices (which are mostly for awareness).

When you run a site crawl, there are dozens of technical issues these tools are looking for, such as:

HawkSEM: SEO Audit 101: What You Need to Know

But don’t be alarmed! If the technical jargon overwhelms or confuses you, working with an SEO expert and a web development team can do wonders to ease your mind. After all, they work with this type of language every day and know how to address and correct these issues.

Pro tip: Crawling your site for technical issues isn’t a one-and-done exercise. This is something that you should do regularly (ideally once a month or more depending on the size of your site). After all, new issues can pop up anytime.

Check indexed pages

Once you run a technical crawl, a good next step is to check and see what pages are indexed in search engines. As Google explains, a page is “indexed” if it has been visited by the search engine’s crawler, analyzed for content and meaning, and stored in the search engine’s index. 

To check indexed pages, head to the search engine, then type “site:” and your domain into the query box. The below example shows this for our site, hawksem.com. 

HawkSEM: SEO Audit 101: What You Need to Know

This allows you to see if there are pages that should not be indexed because you don’t want users visiting them. For example, development or staging pages from a site redesign should be removed immediately.

You also most likely don’t want landing pages solely used for paid efforts to be indexed. (To deindex a page quickly, you can leverage a tool like Google’s Remove URLs Tool.) You should also ensure these pages contain a “noindex” tag so Google crawlers knows not to index that page in the future.

On the other hand, you could have pages that are missing from the index and missing out on a huge portion of traffic. If for some reason the crawlers aren’t getting to your blog content, you want to look into why it’s not crawling and indexing as it should be.

Review mobile friendliness

Mobile accounts for 58% of all Google searches, meaning more than half of us search on our phones. Not only are people using mobile more frequently but, in early 2018, Google announced that they’re crawling the mobile version of your site first. 

You’ll have a hard time ranking well if your mobile site isn’t fast and easy to navigate. Even if most of your website traffic is currently coming from desktop users, it’s still extremely important to pay attention to your mobile site and mobile experience.

To know if your site is mobile-friendly, you can use a tool like the Google Mobile Friendly Test. If your results say your site has issues, the tool will give you suggestions for how to fix them and improve the mobile experience.

Pro tip: It used to be a best practice to have your regular site and your mobile site be separate, perhaps with a different or modified URL. That’s not the case anymore. Ideally, you want a website that’s responsive to all devices and sizes (since device sizes can vary).

Test page speed

Some people think mobile friendliness and page speed are tied together. While it’s true they’re closely related, page speed is a separate (but equally important) ranking factor. 

The fact is, 53% of users abandon a site if it takes more than 3 seconds to load. While 3 seconds sounds really fast, most users today have been trained to want things faster. And if a site seems sluggish, users will probably bounce and seek out another site that will give them the information they’re looking for in a flash.

Resources like Google’s PageSpeed Insights and HubSpot’s Website Grader will tell you your average load speed. They also offer recommendations and more information to help improve speed.

Analyze on-site user behavior

Google Analytics is one of the most important tools to measure your organic traffic and engagement during an SEO audit. It can offer you huge amounts of data to measure things like user behavior, site flow, and more. 

HawkSEM: SEO Audit 101: What You Need to Know

In the Audience Overview section of Google Analytics, you can segment the traffic by organic only. Then, you can see how many users and sessions organic traffic drove over a certain time period. It’s also possible to segment all organic traffic, which includes other search engines like Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo and more, vs. just Google traffic. 

You can also view engagement metrics like bounce rate, pages per session, and average session duration. This can help determine how engaging your content and website design are for users.

Don’t panic if the bounce rate looks high or your average session duration looks low! It’s all about looking at this in context. If users are bouncing but spending two minutes on your page, it means they’re likely reading the content but not taking further action like clicking to another page. 

The homepage is usually the top driver of traffic. It typically has the most  backlinks and ranks for branded terms, so this is to be expected. As you continue your SEO efforts, your goal should be to get more traffic to some of these internal pages instead. This way, users get to the content they’re searching for as quickly as possible and don’t have to land on your homepage and navigate to it.

HawkSEM: SEO Audit 101: What You Need to Know

Focus your content strategy

Once you’ve identified crawling or technical issues and reviewed how users are behaving on our site you can move on to content strategy. The content on your site has huge impacts on your ability to rank well in search engines. It also affects how your users navigate your site.

Determine your personas & audience

When you’re defining your content strategy, the first step is to understand who your audiences are through personas. Personas help you understand your audience in-depth: their goals, pain points, and what they’re looking for. Once you understand your audience, you can appropriately write content that meets their needs.

The No. 1 rule of content writing for the web is to write for the user, not search engines. Google’s goal when ranking pages is to give the user the most informative results that will answer their question or query. Satisfying that requirement is what’s going to help you rank. 

Pro tip: When developing a content strategy, don’t forget about video and images. These types of content are very engaging and can be shared on social media as well. 

Conduct keyword research

Keyword research is crucial to understanding what keywords your target audience is typing into search engines. Ideally, you want to use your content to answer these queries as thoroughly as possible. Everyone has their own tools and methods for doing keyword analysis, but the guide below is a great place to start. 

HawkSEM: SEO Audit 101: What You Need to Know

This SEMrush example graph illustrates how a website has ranked over time. SEMRush is a great tool to use for this part of your SEO audit because it also shows where Google algorithm updates happened, which may have affected performance. You can also add notes in Google Analytics (called annotations) to be able to quickly reference historical changes, like a site redesign, and identify patterns. 

Next, you want to dig into which keywords you’re currently ranking for and which pages are ranking for those queries. Perhaps the most important place to check your current keyword rankings is Google Search Console. You can also view how many impressions you’re getting for certain keywords, average position, and what your clickthrough rate (CTR) is for those keywords.

After analyzing your list of keywords you’re ranking for, tools like Moz, SEMRush and Ahrefs can show you the search volume, competition, and related keywords for the terms that are worth targeting. One of the best ways to find keywords and related questions is by doing your own search engine query and seeing what comes up. You can review SERP features like “People also ask,” Featured Snippets, and the related searches at the bottom of the results page as well.

Pro tip: Don’t forget long-tail keywords. There can be significant volume on keywords with four or more words. Plus, competition is generally lower for these terms vs. more broad terms.

Audit your content strategy

Once you’ve done the keyword research and determined what pages are ranking and which are not, the next step is to conduct a content marketing SEO audit.  This process can help uncover pages that could be hindering your performance and opportunities to revitalize and improve existing content.

  1. Pull a list of all blog URLs on your website into a spreadsheet (Hint: you can use the site search method discussed earlier, or your sitemap)
  2. Use Google Analytics to see how many site visits each page has had over the past six months, and use a tool like Ahrefs or SEMRush to see how many backlinks it has (this process will take quite a bit of time, depending on the amount of pages on your site)
  3. Identify pages with “thin content” that don’t satisfy user intent. The exception to this would be press releases or event pages, which are naturally going to be shorter pages
  4. Look for any posts that have duplicate content or topics and decide if they should be combined into one long-form pillar post or removed from your site
  5. Identify posts with outdated content and make a plan to update that content as needed — it helps to keep a running list if posts need to be updated on a regular basis
  6. Repeat! (Ideally, on an annual or bi-annual basis)

Analyze your link profile

When you’re reviewing your link profile during an SEO audit, you want to focus on backlink analysis, disavowing spam links, and internal linking. 

Many digital marketers have a love-hate relationship with backlinks, because getting quality backlinks (which are links to your site that originate on another credible website) can be a difficult and tedious process. But it’s an important part of your SEO, as are the other strategies below.

Audit your backlink strategy

Many digital marketers have a love-hate relationship with backlinks. Getting quality backlinks (which are links to your site that originate on another credible website) can be a difficult and tedious process.

The first step in a backlink audit is to use a tool like Ahrefs or SEMRush to download a list of your existing backlinks. From there, you should review and assess each individual link to determine its quality. Depending on how many links you have, this could be a long process, but we promise it’s worthwhile. 

While each tool has a different way to assess link equity, like Domain Authority vs. Domain Rating, it’s worth noting that Google has its own proprietary way to measure link equity. Remember, these metrics don’t mean anything in a bubble. They’re mostly helpful when comparing your site to competitors and others ranking for your keywords. Pick whichever tool you feel comfortable with and use those metrics to measure the quality of a specific link or website.

Don’t immediately disavow a link just because one of these tools says it has lower Domain Authority or Domain Rating than yours. Relevancy is more important than these metrics.

To assess link quality during your SEO audit, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the site seem completely irrelevant to your industry? 
  • Are there a significant amount of ads? 
  • Does the website feature “unsavory” content? 
  • Is the anchor text clearly spamming to get keywords into the link? 

If there’s a link you don’t actually want associated with your site, you can disavow it, which tells Google to ignore that link. This tool should only be used if you’re highly confident the links could be hurting your ability to rank, otherwise you can drastically harm your SEO efforts.

Pro tip: Don’t pay to have your site listed somewhere for the purposes of increasing backlinks. You’ll almost definitely get caught and penalized. It’s not worth the short-terms gains it might bring, so focus on links gained naturally by creating valuable content.

Review your internal linking strategy

Internal links (links on your site that link to other places on your site) are often overlooked, but are just as important as your backlinks. It’s difficult to control which sites are linking to you and what anchor text they use, but you have full control over internal links.

Make sure the internal links you add in your content are relevant. Links higher up on the page are crawled first and are therefore considered most important to Google. You should also use external links to relevant, authoritative sources to help Google understand your website is legitimate. However, you want to use an internal link over an external link as much as possible.

There are some common mistakes you want to avoid when it comes to internal linking, such as:

  • using generic phrases in anchor text like “click here” or “learn more”
  • excessive linking via images instead of text (though it’s OK to link via images once in awhile, text links are preferred)
  • linking to your homepage — this is almost certainly your highest authority page already and doesn’t provide any use for the user, who could just click on your logo to go back to the homepage

The takeaway

A deep-dive SEO audit like the one described above takes time, effort, and dedication, but the knowledge and insight you’ll get in return are immeasurable. By getting familiar with these tools, following these best practices, and committing to regular SEO audits, you’ll start to see your organic rankings climb — and what’s a better feeling than that?

For more on this topic, check out our webinar, SEO Audit 101: Take Your SEO from So-So to Stellar

Need more SEO help? We’re here for you.

Justine Rabideau

Justine Rabideau

    Justine Rabideau is HawkSEM's Lead Strategist. She's in charge of leading and executing marketing strategies across the digital spectrum including PPC, social media, and SEO. She has worked with clients of all sizes and budgets across a variety of industries. In her free time, she enjoys running, cooking, reading, and Netflix.

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