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Auditing an Existing Site to Identify SEO Problems (part 1 - Elements of an Audit

11/26/2010 6:14:32 PM
Auditing an existing site is one of the most important tasks that SEO professionals encounter. SEO is a relatively new field, and many of the limitations of search engine crawlers are non-intuitive. In addition, web developers are generally not well versed in SEO. This includes those who have developed CMSs, so there is a lot of opportunity to find problems when conducting a site audit.

1. Elements of an Audit

Your website needs to be a strong foundation for the rest of your SEO efforts to succeed. An SEO site audit is often the first step in executing an SEO strategy.

The following sections identify what you should look for when performing a site audit.

1.1. Usability

Although this may not be seen as a direct SEO issue, it is a very good place to start. Usability affects many factors, including conversion rate, as well as the propensity of people to link to a site.

1.2. Accessibility/spiderability

Make sure the site is friendly to search engine spiders.

1.3. Search engine health check

Here are some quick health checks:

  • Perform a site:yourdomain.com search in the search engines to make sure all your pages appear to be in the index. Compare this to the number of unique pages you believe you have on your site.

  • Test a search on your brand terms to make sure you are ranking for them (if not, you may be suffering from a penalty).

  • Check the Google cache to make sure the cached versions of your pages look the same as the live versions of your pages.

1.4. Keyword health checks

Are the right keywords being targeted? Does the site architecture logically flow from the way users search on related keywords? Does more than one page target the same exact keyword (a.k.a. keyword cannibalization)?

1.5. Duplicate content checks

The first thing you should do is to make sure the non-www version of your pages (i.e., http://yourdomain.com) 301-redirects to the www version of your pages (i.e., http://www.yourdomain.com), or vice versa (this is often called the canonical redirect). While you are at it, check that you don’t have https: pages that are duplicates of your http: pages. You should check the rest of the content on the site as well.

The easiest way to do this is to take unique strings from each of the major content pages on the site and search on them in Google. Make sure you enclose the string inside double quotes (e.g., “a phrase from your website that you are using to check for duplicate content”) so that Google will search for that exact string.

If your site is monstrously large and this is too big a task, make sure you check the most important pages, and have a process for reviewing new content before it goes live on the site.

You can also use commands such as inurl: and intitle: to check for duplicate content. For example, if you have URLs for pages that have distinctive components to them (e.g., “1968-mustang-blue” or “1097495”), you can search for these with the inurl: command and see whether they return more than one page.

Another duplicate content task to perform is to make sure each piece of content is accessible at only one URL. This probably trips up more big, commercial sites than any other issue. The issue is that the same content is accessible in multiple ways and on multiple URLs, forcing the search engines (and visitors) to choose which is the canonical version, which to link to, and which to disregard. No one wins when sites fight themselves—make peace, and if you have to deliver the content in different ways, rely on cookies so that you don’t confuse the spiders.

1.6. URL check

Make sure you have clean, short, descriptive URLs. Descriptive means keyword-rich but not keyword-stuffed. You don’t want parameters appended (or have a minimal number if you must have any), and you want them to be simple and easy for users (and spiders) to understand.

1.7. Title tag review

Make sure the title tag on each page of the site is unique and descriptive. Ideally, don’t waste your time (or limited space) by including the brand name of your organization in the URL. If you must include it, the brand name should show up at the end of the title tag, not at the beginning, as placement of keywords at the front of a URL brings ranking benefits. Also check to make sure the title tag is fewer than 70 characters long.

1.8. Content review

Do the main pages of the site have enough content? Do these pages all make use of header tags? A subtler variation of this is making sure the percentage of pages on the site with little content is not too high compared to the total number of pages on the site.

1.9. Meta tag review

Check for a meta robots tag on the pages of the site. If you find one, you may have already spotted trouble. An unintentional NoIndex of NoFollow tag  could really mess up your search ranking plans.

Also make sure every page has a unique meta description. If for some reason that is not possible, consider removing the meta description altogether. Although the meta description tags are not a significant factor in ranking, they may well be used in duplicate content calculations, and the search engines frequently use them as the description for your web page in the SERPs; therefore, they affect click-though rate.

1.10. Sitemaps file and robots.txt file verification

Use the Google Webmaster Tools robots.txt verification tool to check your robots.txt file. Also verify that your Sitemaps file is identifying all of your (canonical) pages.

1.11. Redirect checks

Use a server header checker such as Live HTTP Headers to check that all the redirects used on the site return a 301 HTTP status code. Check all redirects this way to make sure the right thing is happening. This includes checking that the canonical redirect is properly implemented.

Unfortunately, given the non-intuitive nature of why the 301 is preferred, you should verify that this has been done properly even if you provided explicit direction to the web developer in advance. Mistakes do get made, and sometimes the CMS or the hosting company makes it difficult to use a 301.

1.12. Internal linking checks

Look for pages that have excess links. Google advises 100 per page as a maximum, although it is OK to go with more on more important and heavily linked-to pages.

Make sure the site makes good use of anchor text on its internal links. This is a free opportunity to inform users and search engines what the various pages of your site are about. Don’t abuse it, though. For example, if you have a link to your home page in your global navigation (which you should), call it “Home” instead of picking your juiciest keyword. The anchor text of internal links to the home page is not helpful for rankings anyway.

The search engines view this particular practice as spammy, and it does not represent a good user experience. Keep using that usability filter through all of these checks!


Note:

A brief aside about hoarding PageRank: many people have taken this to an extreme and built sites where they refused to link out to other quality websites, because they feared losing visitors and link juice. Ignore this idea! You should link out only to quality websites. It is good for users, and it is likely to bring ranking benefits (through building trust and relevance based on what sites you link to). Just think of the human user and deliver what he’d want. It is remarkable how far this will take you.


1.13. Avoidance of unnecessary subdomains

The engines may not apply the entirety of a domain’s trust and link juice weight to subdomains. This is largely due to the fact that a subdomain could be under the control of a different party, and therefore in the search engine’s eyes it needs to be separately evaluated. In the great majority of cases, subdomain content can easily go in a subfolder.

1.14. Geolocation

If your concern is more about ranking for chicago pizza because you own a pizza parlor in Chicago, make sure your address is on every page of your site. You should also check your results in Google Local to see whether you have a problem there.

1.15. External linking

Check the inbound links to the site. Use a backlinking tool such as Yahoo! Site Explorer, Linkscape, Majestic-SEO, or Link Diagnosis to collect data about your links. Look for bad patterns in the anchor text, such as 87% of the links having the critical keyword for the site in them. Unless the critical keyword happens to also be the name of the company, this is a sure sign of trouble. This type of distribution is quite likely the result of purchasing links or other manipulative behavior.

On the flip side, make sure the site’s critical keyword is showing up a fair number of times. A lack of the keyword usage in inbound anchor text is not good either. You need to find a balance.

Look to see that there are links to pages other than the home page. These are often called deep links and they will help drive the ranking of key sections of your site. You should also look at the links themselves. Visit the linking pages and see whether the links appear to be paid for. They may be overtly labeled as sponsored, or their placement may be such that they are clearly not a natural endorsement. Too many of these are another sure trouble sign.

Lastly on the topic of external links, make sure that there are enough links, and that there are also enough high-quality links in the mix. How does the link profile for the site compare to the link profiles of its major competitors?

1.16. Page load time

Is the page load time excessive? Too long a load time may slow down crawling and indexing of the site. However, to be a factor, this really needs to be excessive—certainly longer than five seconds, and perhaps even longer than that.

1.17. Image alt tags

Do all the images have relevant keyword-rich image alt attributes text and filenames? Search engines can’t easily tell what is inside an image, and the best way to provide them with some clues is with the alt attribute and the filename of the image. These can also reinforce the overall context of the page itself.

1.18. Code quality

Although W3C validation is not something the search engines require, checking the code itself is a good idea. Poor coding can have some undesirable impacts. As we previously discussed, use a tool such as SEO Browser to see how the search engines see the page.

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