Keyword audits assess existing keyword rankings and identify gaps in your keyword strategy. Learn how an award-winning marketing agency audits keywords based on SERP rankings, website performance, competitive analysis, negative keywords, conversions, and more in this guide.

Here, you’ll find: 

  1. What is a keyword audit?
  2. How to perform a keyword audit: step-by-step guide
  3. Free keyword audit checklist

Imagine all the thoughts, desires, and beliefs that run through your audience’s minds in a day. Our job as marketers is to find windows to those thoughts through what we see them type into search engines. Two words: keyword research.

Only problem? We have billions of possible search queries and keywords to sift through. Pair that with the human nature of changing one’s mind, and keyword audits become vital to any marketing strategy. 

We chatted with Jackie Hazlett, SEM manager at HawkSEM and ad analytics extraordinaire. She shares the details about HawkSEM’s keyword auditing process, ranking factors, and performance metrics to inform your strategy. 

First, let’s lay the foundation: 

Text KEYWORD and drawing image of key. Search engine optimization, web search concept.

(Image: Adobe stock)

 What is a keyword audit?

A keyword audit is a search engine optimization (SEO) process that analyzes existing keyword rankings, keyword performance in traffic and conversions, and opportunities to optimize your keyword strategy for search engine algorithms. 

It’s similar to a site audit, but more specifically measures keyword performance as opposed to broader site elements like loading times, page speed, link building progress, or technical SEO aspects. 

But why is it important to keep tabs on this data? Because keyword audits fill you in on crucial details, like:

  • Which keywords your web pages currently rank for
  • The ones you should rank for
  • Keyword rankings that drive (or limit) your revenue

This is a high-level picture, but the nitty-gritty of keyword audits covers tons of metrics like keyword difficulty, volume, and performance mixed in with your business objectives and audience personas. We’ll dig into those in a bit, but first:

Ready to rank for the right keywords and watch your brand rise through the ranks? Keep reading. 

 How to perform a keyword audit: step-by-step guide

Whether you’re brand new to organic search marketing or have active Google Ads campaigns on your roster, you always need keyword audits to keep you on track to achieve your marketing goals. 

Hazlett breaks down HawkSEM’s keyword audit process, starting from initial keyword research upon onboarding our clients to review schedules and performance insights to monitor over time:

  1. Use business offerings to inform keywords
  2. Examine existing keyword rankings and metrics
  3. Conduct keyword research with helpful SEO tools
  4. Optimize rankings for greater visibility
  5. Maintain a regular SEO and ad audit schedule

No time like the present; let’s get started.

 1. Use business offerings to inform keywords

You know your business inside out, but even with a strong grasp on your offerings, we recommend putting key details on paper. The clearer you are on your business offerings, the easier it is to understand your audience’s pain points and subsequent keywords. 

HawkSEM always asks clients the following questions preceding initial keyword research: 

  • What products or services do you offer, and which ones are the most popular?
  • Who is your core audience?
  • Are there seasonality trends?
  • Do you offer anything other businesses in your industry don’t offer?
  • What are common questions people ask about your services/products?
  • Who are your core competitors that are doing well online? 

So, why would a business with over 10 years of experience in the market answer questions like this? Hazlett says it’s because no competitive landscape or audience stays the same forever:

“Keyword demand can vary based on seasonal factors, events, and more,” explains Hazlett. “Ranking can vary depending on how users interact with your ad after being triggered by various keywords.”

Let’s see where you stand on the SERP.

 2. Examine existing keyword rankings and metrics

How close are you to your audience? SERP position is one way to find out. Keyword audits assess the keywords each of your web pages rank highest for, and their top positions in the SERP. 

Hazlett says your existing rankings reveal a lot:

“This is a great way to see what the search engine already thinks the site is about,” says Hazlett. “Looking at rankings per page that are currently in top positions can give you ideas for other keywords you could type into Semrush or Ahrefs (more on those later).”

But SERP position is only one element of your keyword performance. Keep reading for more stops on HawkSEM’s keyword auditing list: 

Compare traffic and conversions for keyword rankings

The Google Search Console (GSC) is a comprehensive set of analytics tools to measure your site’s performance based on the sitemaps you submit. A sitemap breaks down your website infrastructure, listing all of your web pages, URLs, internal links (including anchor text keywords), files, and relationships between all these elements (which pages link to where).

Web pages and keyword rankings speak to your content marketing, which focuses on web, social content, blog content, and overall content strategy. 

Once you have an accurate sitemap uploaded, Search Analytics can assess keyword performance for each page. You’ll see:

  • Top keyword rankings for each web page
  • Web pages with highest organic traffic
  • Highest-converting web pages
  • SERP position for each web page

Now, what can this information tell you in your SEO audit? 

Say you have top-ranking keywords bringing in clicks, but very few conversions coming in from those keywords. 

This might indicate you’re paying for informational intent keywords from an audience who wants to learn but isn’t quite ready to buy. In this case, perhaps your budget is better spent on higher purchase-intent keywords. 

This will help you target a specific audience sub-set of people who already trust your brand and need a little nudge to make a purchase. 

Compare cost per click (CPC) 

CPC tells you how much you pay for a web visitor to click on your ad with a specific keyword. And there are several variables that influence this. For instance, your maximum bid, competitor ad rank, expected clickthrough rate, and Google’s assessment of your landing page. 

So what if you see a skyhigh CPC right off the bat? Before hitting the panic button, remember your ROI.

At HawkSEM, we’re all about the returns. So, if you’re paying a premium for keywords that bring you consistent traffic, conversions, and repeat purchases? That’s an ROI worth paying for.

Review negative keywords

Negative keywords help you avoid paying for keyword phrases that are irrelevant to your target audience and product offerings. 

Say you offer comprehensive, premium project management software for enterprise businesses. So you placebroad match keyword bids on “project management software.” 

But you start to notice traffic from smaller business owners who can’t afford your software yet. It’s pretty clear this isn’t your target audience. 

To mitigate the irrelevant traffic, you might include “project management software for small businesses” in your negative keyword list.

Assess rankings for branded keywords

If you type in the exact name of a store into Google, chances are you’re ready to buy something from their website. Meaning? You should rank in top spots for keywords that contain your brand name (branded keywords). 

But Hazlett raises a great point: 

“If you have a specific branded campaign, you can use the brand as a negative keyword within other campaigns to ensure traffic is being directed where you want it,” explains Hazlett.

Examine competitor keywords

Most brands have a few competitors on their radar. Hazlett encourages you to keep a close eye on not only their social media posts and news updates, but also their keyword rankings:

“See what they’re doing well,” says Hazlett. “If you have existing pages that are trying to accomplish what the competitor pages are accomplishing, what do you need to do to your page to make it rank better?”

Competitor analysis also helps you discover potentially profitable target keywords. For example, we conducted deep research on competitors for our SaaS brand TimeWarp Trading

Amid the competitive market, we identified a few low-cost keywords the competition missed and capitalized on them in our client’s ad campaigns. The result was an average 1.7 position in the search engine results for those keywords, which contributed to a staggering 471% return on ad spend (ROAS).

Now that’s how you ride the slipstream to take first place.

Business vision and analysis concepts with person hand and or planning

(Image: Adobe stock)

 3. Conduct keyword research with helpful SEO tools

Raise a glass and get ready to toast, because the bulk of your keyword audit is complete! You know now where you stand on the SERP and which keywords bring you revenue. But before you revel in that satisfied clink, you notice you’ve fallen short on your marketing goals. What can you do? 

Discover more high-performing keywords, of course! Luckily, you can often use free tools (at least free versions of regular pricing plans) to identify top contenders. 

Let’s check out the keyword research tools in Hazlett’s arsenal and see how she uses them to find new keyword opportunities:

Ahrefs for traffic

Wondering which keywords actually bring you website visitors? Ahrefs is Hazlett’s SEO tool of choice to find out:

“Sometimes, the keywords with the highest search volume are too competitive and don’t have the types of clicks you’d want to see for such high search volume,” explains Hazlett. “With this tool, you can drill down and see which keywords actually capture traffic and which ones don’t result in clicks at all.”

Google Keyword Planner for local SEO

Do you have brick-and-mortar locations? A larger, conversion-heavy audience in certain geographical areas? Google’s Keyword Planner can help you assess average monthly searches based on: 

  • Search volume differences by location
  • Location-related keywords
  • Local customer keyword phrases

Semrush for related keywords

HawkSEM uses Semrush to discover related keywords and review important keyword metrics like search volume and competitive density. 

“The sweet spot is to look for keywords that have relatively high search volume and medium to low competition,” says Hazlett. “Competition score is more important to pay attention to when the website you’re optimizing does not have a high domain authority (DA) or a large keyword footprint.”

But what if you wanted to see all these insights plus more website metrics in one spot?

ConversionIQ for revenue attribution to all your keywords and tactics

HawkSEM’s proprietary tech ConversionIQ reveals key metrics from one easy-to-access dashboard in a flash. We can toggle filters and segments to view real-time keyword performance across multiple channels, web pages, ads, and more, depending on your needs. Plus, our clients have free access to these dashboards at any time.

For example, you can assess performance by clicks and conversion type for different keywords within your website, search engine ads, or social media platforms. On top of that, you can attribute any dips or influxes of revenue over time to those keywords. 

 4. Optimize rankings for greater visibility

Armed with the insights of your keyword audit, you can now confidently update your keyword strategy. For example, you might revise ad copy to match your new keyword priorities, or optimize on-page seo for certain landing pages. 

Hazlett walks through her to-do list of adjustments: 

Change landing pages

Imagine you’re craving some over-easy eggs for breakfast. The first one has a perfectly intact golden yolk, but the second one breaks when you flip it in the pan. 

You’d be disappointed, right? Google’s crawlers would feel the same if your ad copy and primary keywords didn’t align with your landing page. 

That’s why any changes to your keyword bids must migrate to your landing pages. And while you’re at it, assess and enhance any Core Web Vitals relating to your user experience to optimize conversions and reduce bounce rate. You can easily view these metrics on Google Analytics. 

Need a little motivation to update your landing page? 

If higher keyword rankings aren’t enough, how about a doubled return on ad spend (ROAS)? That’s what we achieved for our insurance agency client Peninsula General Insurance with a landing page revamp. 

Update ad assets

Ad assets include headlines (titles), meta descriptions, and business information. If you prioritize new primary keywords after an audit, you’ll need to update your assets accordingly. 

Pause low-ranking keywords

Notice a good chunk of your daily budget going towards keywords that your website simply doesn’t rank for? A couple of factors could be at play, like high keyword difficulty and overwhelming competition. Until you decide how to proceed, it’s best to pause low-ranking keyword bids to retain your budget and ROI. 

You may want to focus on long-tail keywords with less competition that are most relevant to your audience.

Review and update negative keyword lists

As mentioned, negative keywords help you eliminate irrelevant traffic. But Hazlett says you can’t always predict negative keywords from the get-go:

“Google can help detect if negative keywords are conflicting with keywords within the campaign,” explains Hazlett. “You should be adding irrelevant search terms to the negative lists as they are discovered.”

That’s why you should update your negative keyword lists after every audit. 

She also points out that negative keyword audits are especially important for shared keywords across multiple ad campaigns: 

“Make sure traffic is being sent to the appropriate ad group/campaign,” says Hazlett. “If you have a specific campaign with a target but terms that could apply to that campaign are being tracked to another campaign, you can use negatives to direct traffic, even if they would seem relevant to your account’s overall goal.”

Hazlett’s final to-do item for negative keywords? 

“Add competitor brand [names] as negative keywords if you find they are monopolizing your budget or not delivering results (or if you have a specific campaign to target competitors you want traffic directed to),” says Hazlett. 

Now the question on everyone’s mind: how often should you do a keyword audit?

 5. Maintain a regular SEO and ad audit schedule

You might not need to update landing pages or conduct new keyword research weekly, but there are certainly weekly check-ups you’ll want to do:

“After going live, keyword and search terms are generally reviewed weekly, especially when new campaigns are launched,” says Hazlett. 

Once you have your initial optimizations down pat? Extend your audit to entire campaigns every month. If you have a solid account structure, Hazlett says you shouldn’t notice too much fluctuation in key metrics: 

“Campaigns should be audited at least monthly to weed out irrelevant traffic and avoid terms with very high costs that aren’t resulting in conversions,” says Hazlett. “It’s still important to review in case irrelevant or low-quality terms are being triggered by phrase match (or broad match if you’re using it).”

Say you wait a whole quarter to assess keyword rankings on a campaign and only after all that time you notice a tank on the SERP? That’s a recipe for wasted ad spend that could have easily been mitigated if you caught it sooner. 

The good news? Plucking out those weeds makes room for potential keywords to blossom. 

Think of it all as necessary maintenance to prevent any costly mishaps. 

 Free keyword audit checklist

The takeaway

Change is woven into our fabric the way that seasons inevitably change, and crops die out and make way for new growth. People change their minds all the time, meaning search queries and keywords change, too. 

That’s why marketing teams must stay on top of it all with regular keyword audits. But negative keywords, rankings, volume, metrics, landing pages, site audits, and the technical SEO intricacies that contribute to your digital marketing strategy are a wild beast to tame. 

Website audits alone are a massive undertaking but crucial for search engine success. We dive into your backlink profile, site architecture, user experience, broken links, and much more to ensure your site is firing on all cylinders.

Businesses small and large need a little support to keep rankings sky-high. Lean on HawkSEM’s seasoned PPC and SEO strategy experts. All our clients get their own dedicated account manager, access to ConversionIQ’s dashboards, and see an average of 4.5X ROI from working with us. 

Let’s preen your strategy and watch those keyword rankings flourish

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