For episode 199 of The Search Engine Journal Show, I had the opportunity to interview Brian Harnish, Sr. SEO Analyst at Bruce Clay, Inc.
Harnish talks about the common problem areas he encounters when conducting SEO audits, how to deliver an audit that drives the most business value, and more.
How do you approach SEO audits in today’s space?
Brian Harnish (BH): The way we typically approach audit at Bruce Clay, is we are looking at these client sites from the keyword traffic rankings perspective at first.
But we also look at the technical, under-the-hood kind of stuff, which is also very important.
We look at content, schema, and all sorts of specifics that are important to achieving high ranking.
If a site is suffering, looking at those in a deeper level can really uncover significant issues that the client would never have uncovered because they are not as technical.
So with audits, they are aimed at really delivering that specific value.
Brent Csutoras (BC): Do you feel like audits today really need to be focused in on like specific areas (for instance ranking or content)? Do you feel like the audits need to be focused or do you think that audit still should cover all aspects of SEO and marketing when it comes to a project or an analysis?
BH: Let me expand a little bit. When I do an audit, I am looking at really the entire picture.
But really in the end, if no issues are found, I’m not going to include a line that says, “I checked this. I checked this. I checked this.”
If everything’s fine in terms of that standpoint, what I’ll do is remove them from the audit.
But the overall picture of the site health is just as important as some of these other areas.
And if you have one area say like the robots.txt, for example, blocking everything from being crawled, you don’t want to ignore that at one point and then give a hundred of other issues that need to be fixed.
In that example, a hundred other issues are not going to be much of an impact if Google can’t crawl or index a site, right?
Looking at the totality of things and eliminating stuff, if everything looks good is the better approach.
Do you still touch on other areas done correctly in your audit so that they know you looked at them?
BH: What I tend to do is I won’t go through 100 lines and say, “You’re doing great. Doing great. Doing great.”
That’s repetitive, but what I like focusing on are some of the more impactful factors.
And if the client is doing good or bad, if they’re doing the job and we don’t need to do anything, then we tell them that.
So there has been an audit in the past at Bruce Clay where we have done just that.
We’ve been through the client site, and we didn’t find too many issues, but in that case, that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to just have 100 lines in an audit to say, “Checked this, checked this, checked this.”
BC: Sure. But you would say that having a summary that speaks to that would be beneficial?
BH: Exactly. Absolutely. As well as communicating the business value of it.
How do you handle clients’ expectations on audits?
BH: Well, audits are approximately 100-120 pages long or more depending on the website itself.
So we do the deep dive, the audits specifically our deep dive audits.
Not necessarily for getting clients onto other services or whatever it’s providing that value within the audit with those 120 points. Because we seldom get a client that actually doesn’t have significant issues with the site.
And one of the biggest issues that I always run into when it comes to a site audit, it’s PageSpeed.
They have some sense of PageSpeed but they have no idea how to optimize it.
They probably haven’t even checked Google PageSpeed Insights or any other tool on their site.
And we come back with 10-15 seconds load time and huge images on their pages, and that’s one of the issues that are generally uncovered by the audit.
The one thing that I’ve run into as well with these types of deep-dive audits is the fact that they help set a baseline of where the client’s at right now and how we can start moving forward with anything else that needs to happen in order to increase those results.
What are some of the key elements that have the most impact in making an audit valuable?
BH: Really, there are several.
Number one, keywords.
There have been situations where clients are not focusing on the correct keyword phrases that are going to bring in traffic and it would generally be fairly simple for them to actually find something like this.
But sometimes, clients are so in the weeds on the website that they haven’t checked out other alternative keyword phrases or have even been able to actually uncover those specific opportunities.
And that’s one of the first things that I’m looking at and what’s going to bring in traffic for them as a result of the efforts when everything’s done and completed.
Something else that I always find some issue on are links.
So one of the things that I do as part of almost every audit is the link is generally a surface level link profile analysis.
And it’s a basic analysis that will reveal how bad or spammy the client link profile looked compared to say a normal link profile should be according to specific best practices.
Another area that I also find issues on a regular basis is content.
You have a lot of the client’s sites that are designed by developers who want the pretty look they don’t like a lot of text.
And they don’t want to see all these words on the page that are going to have a negative impact on their visual creation, right?
Generally, they are very protective of that. And it’s up to us as SEOs, I think to really communicate the value of that content.
One of the things I do want to stress as well is that longer content is not necessarily the be-all-end-all, and can help make a difference in some cases, but a deeper analysis is necessary in those cases to really determine if that’s going to move the needle to not.
And then finally would be the deep technical dive into technical issues…
CEOs and business owners, they don’t have access to the back end of the website. So they can’t exactly do developmental oversight on some of the websites where major issues had actually cropped up that shouldn’t have because the oversight was not in place.
For example, stuff like redirects with .htaccess or like what I refer to as conditional redirect or things in Google Analytics…
Google Analytics, for example. Some common issues that arise from lack of developer oversight are UTM tags, URLs, creating duplicate content and things like no annotation being handled in Google Analytics.
So if you don’t have annotations, how are you going to know what changes occurred? What if somebody else takes over the site later?
They won’t know.
What’s the way to position the information so that somebody who’s not going to read it all finds that valuable information in a way they can read it and digest it?
BH: One of the things that I do in my audits is that they have an executive summary that’s probably 2-3 pages long.
That gives you a summary of the most critical issues on the site. And usually, that’s what people are going to read from a tactical standpoint.
It’s a bulleted type thing, that’s a story basically… It’s important to communicate the business value of it.
If you don’t have data with no information on the kind of impact that it’s going to have after implementation, then their eyes are going to glaze over basically.
How do you get clients into the right mindset to receive your audit in the most impactful way?
BH: I would say first of all it would be the delivery of the audit deliverables with the actual audit itself, any accompanying spreadsheet and data, and then do a presentation-style meeting that goes through the audit step by step.
It wouldn’t necessarily be going to every single issue since that would take all day for a 450-page audit.
It would probably be an hour-long presentation of slides that are distilled down to the most important parts – the most impactful ones that are going to drive the most business value, including things like keywords, content.
And probably maybe the first half of the technical issues that are the most important that are all going to drive significant value.
It really just depends on the client and how SEO-savvy they are in that regard.
If you’re delivering an audit to somebody who is a CEO, they are either going to glaze over something like that kind of a presentation.
So it’s really important to deliver an audit that speaks to business people, but also that doesn’t get too technically in the weeds.
Otherwise, you’re probably going to lose their attention and not get the thing that you want implemented at the end of the day.
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