[ Updated Jan 31, 2023 ]
We often assume that search engines are far more precise and knowledgeable than they are in reality. As a result, we often unwittingly develop poor practices that prevent our sites from reaching our search goals. Catching and correcting SEO mistakes like these are what audits are for.
In our time as growth-minded technical SEO consultants, we’ve run audits on a wide range of client sites in a diverse array of industries. We’ll walk you through the process in the following ten steps, elaborate on our checklist, and provide a presentation template.
Navigate this post:
- The tools you’ll need to run a technical SEO audit
- The 10 steps of our tech SEO audit process
- Tech SEO audit presentation template
The tools you’ll need to run a technical SEO audit
Let’s help you get ready for the work by sharpening your tools first.
Technical SEO audits don’t require a prohibitively large and bleeding-edge tech stack, or a technical SEO agency. They require a few simple tools, some of which you likely already have (while the others aren’t likely to break the bank).
Analysis and testing
You’ll also need platforms for evaluating content performance. Google Analytics in combination with Google Search Console will suffice as we focus on analytics for SEO purposes.
SEOTesting.com will be your favorite for systematic testing of the growth you achieve by implementing the improvements recommended by the audit.
The 10 steps of our tech SEO audit process
We recommend using the steps below as your checklist. Sometimes you’ll find that a website has more issues in one area than another, and you’ll need to add steps there. But by following the below, you’ll always make sure that you cover all the important aspects of how well search engines can understand your website’s content thanks to clean structure, ease of crawling, thorough optimization, and speed.
1. 404 errors and redirects to verify your site can be indexed
Chief among the most damaging and easily fixed SEO variables are the outright URL errors that exist on your site. Broken links lead to 404 errors, which hurt both your customer experience and Google’s valuation of your authority.
Search engines only crawl a certain number of pages per day, which means that each redirect, broken link, or 404 error will lower the likelihood of the rest of your pages being indexed.
While extremely common, each 404 error page will count against you as well. In one case study from Blizzard Reports, fixing 1,000 broken links resulted in 286 keywords rising by an average of six spots.
So go identify each 404 error within your site via your web crawling tool. Then fix all that you can with redirects. Next, use Google Webmaster Tools to find external links that direct to pages that no longer exist on your site, and try to reach out to the site owners to have the links repointed to live pages.
Redirects are an essential SEO practice, necessary for making changes to your URLs. At the same time, they should be used sparingly if possible. That’s because they slow down page load time and can be counted twice by Google.
To implement redirects in a way that benefits your SEO, remember to:
- As often as possible, update the actual links as well. Internal ones matter of course, but if you keep up good relationships with your content collaborators, you can make a dent on the external ones too. The goal is to minimize the number of times the redirect will need to be applied.
- Have a neat structure for your redirect list. The goal is to be able to easily find the redirect that applies to the pertinent URL when you need to update it again in the future.
- Use regex that makes your redirects flexible enough. The goal is to cover different versions of the URL, e.g. the ones with query string parameters.
- Redirect to relevant pages. The goal is to give Google a new URL that leads to content about the same topic. Only redirect to the home page if absolutely necessary.
As you’ve guessed by now, your tech audit should look for problems with any of the above.
Additionally, if the website has gone through a domain name change or a platform migration, verify the proper use of Google Search Console’s change of address tool.
2. Crawling stats and issues
For many sites, this step can be quick, so we’re not putting it first. But it can indeed be the most important part of your audit.
Start by checking the robots.txt file. You’ll want to make sure that if parts of the website’s URLs are excluded, it truly only applies to those you don’t want showing on the SERPs. CMS areas such as /wp-admin is a good example. If your crawling exclusion lists are somewhat longer, be super thorough about reviewing them.
Next, check the crawling stats in Google Search Console. The tool gives you crawl error information that helps you make fixes. You can also look for crawl rate percentages, to ensure that you don’t have fluctuations that could signal problems with the code or other aspects of the website. Finally, look to see how your crawl budget is used — you may find that too much of your old or low-value content such as unused blog tag pages are taking Google’s attention away from your best pages.
3. Duplicate content
Since search engines see each URL variation as a separate page, they’ll count duplicate content as any instance where two URLs point to the same content. Hurting your rankings. This confuses the search engine by making it harder to understand which of the content pieces is the best one.
They may also consider pages duplicate content if they can be accessed with and without a “www” and the same for those that can be accessed with HTTP and HTTPS. The same also applies to duplicate title tags across different pages.
It’s super important to correct any instance of duplicate content, as Google penalizes sites with this issue by devaluing all instances of a given variable. For instance, frequent duplicate title tags will result in the devaluation of all of your title tags.
Use your web crawling tool, or the free service Siteliner, and identify each instance. When you’re done, set up redirects to ensure there’s only one way such pages can load.
You’ll also find instances where you have two or more pages that are too similar and compete for too many of the same keywords. In such cases, tell the search engine which one is best by setting up canonical tags in page code, or in a tool like the one and only Yoast SEO if you use WordPress.
4. Core Web Vitals
Core Web Vitals are ranking signals that Google is going to begin considering May 2021. They’re composed of three signals that will evaluate the user experience of a given page — specifically around the areas of load time, responsiveness, and visual stability. They are:
- Largest contentful path: This essentially equates to page loading time but more specific to any page’s main content. LCP scores are considered good if they last 2.5 seconds or less.
- First input delay: How long it takes for a page to become interactive to users. Less than 100 milliseconds is ideal.
- Cumulative layout shift: This measure counts the time it takes for pages to shift the visual layout based on the user’s devices and settings. (Designed to measure how-mobile friendly your site is.)
It’s unknown precisely how impactful these changes will be, but Google has already been using speed and website performance as ranking signals. Some have raised alarm bells, while Google has played down such concerns, as Google’s Public Liaison for Search, Danny Sullivan, explained to concerned users:
“So, maybe you don’t have the best page experience,” he said. “But if [you’ve] still [got] the most relevant content, that is going to, you know, [factor] overall on various things we’re looking at.”
Sullivan added that these metrics will gradually gain weight over time, giving site owners time to adjust. But as others have pointed out, it’s rare for Google to inform the public about it’s algorithmic changes, much less do so nearly a year in advance of those changes taking place.
Get your Core Web Vitals report on via Google’s PageSpeed Insights, sit down with your developer, make improvements. If the amount of work is overwhelming, do it in phases and improve your key pages first.
5. Content performance
Your aim for search-driven content should be to create the best possible piece on any given subject. With that in mind, sort your content into the three categories, by performance in pageviews, organic traffic, links, and conversions engagement:
- Content that makes you look good: These require no additional effort, they’re well-trafficked, frequently shared, rank on the first page of search results, and generate conversions.
- Content that’s good but below-average in results: These posts either generated consistent traffic at one time, they’ve garnered links and shares, rank on the second or third page, they bring a few conversions. These should require brief to moderate updates to information. Use keyword research to identify common questions associated with your page’s main keyword, and re-optimize for them.
- Content that’s actively hurting you: Gets very little traffic, doesn’t get linked or shared (anymore), ranks below the third SERP. If the content quality is solid, offering valuable information on relevant topics, they may be either totally rewritten or consolidated into meatier, longer, better-optimized posts.
Adding noindex tags to your low-potential content
If, however, your low performing posts feature low word counts, are thin in the content they provide, feature low word counts, and waste opportunities for search optimization — you’re better off not indexing it at all.
For these posts, apply noindex tags. If the content is not even relevant or close to applicable anymore, just remove it.
6. Internal link strategy and cornerstone content structure
Google wants to see that users can easily navigate your site, regardless of where they enter. That means that your cornerstone pages should have the highest volume of internal links, with that volume decreasing as you fan out to the rest of your site.
Our favorite way to optimize internal links is to:
- Organize all website content into 3–6 main topics
- Find or make 1–2 cornerstone pages for each topic. These will often be your service pages. Each cornerstone page can link to a few relevant supporting pages or posts.
- Find or make articles, case studies, niche service pages, and other content formats relevant to the pillar page. These will be your supporting pages. Each and every one of them should link to the pillar page.
- Bonus: Publish guest blog articles about other subtopics of the same topic. Backlink to your cornerstone pages from those.
To make it more specific, here’s what we’re doing for our own site, chosendata.com as we’re writing this article. The site and brand are new and we’re adding cornerstone content clusters gradually. The next topic we’re covering is tech SEO.
Here’s the cluster we’re working on launching right now, and its internal links:
- Tech SEO agency, service page
- Home page links to it
- All pages and posts in the cluster link to it
- 2–3 guest articles on other sites link to it
- The service page links to the top 4–6 pieces of content in the cluster
- Two blog articles on our own blog about tech SEO, one about our internal CTR optimization tool, one about a case study of ramping up Core Web Vitals scores
- Both link to each other and they both link to the service page
- Two guest articles about tech SEO, one about tech audits and one about domain migrations
- Both link to the service page
Use your tech SEO audit to identify clusters like these or the potential for clusters. Then optimize the links on content that already exists, and recommend new content to complete the ideal cornerstone structure.
7. Image optimization
Image searches can offer a significant amount of supplementary traffic. However, they can only do so if well-optimized.
In your audit, you’ll want to examine whether your images lack alt texts, whether the image files are titled with keywords, or are so large that they may slow down their associated page. You also want to do some manual digging here and evaluate whether the images add value to the searcher and their intent.
8. Title tags and meta descriptions
Title tags and meta descriptions play an outsized role in both rankings and clicks. And that’s for good reason, as these bits of information are what searchers have to go on while attempting to find what they’re looking for.
In effect, your title and meta description are competing against that of your closest-ranked competitors. The more relevant and attractive yours are, the more likely you’ll draw eyes and clicks over that of other search results, which can result in a snowball effect that further raises your rankings and your clicks along with it.
It’s in your best interest to put your brand’s best foot forward. You’ll want to be sure you’re not wasting this valuable real estate. As such, you’ll want to fix the following common errors, placing the highest priority on top-performing pages:
- Empty meta descriptions
- Title tags significantly under the character limit
- Title tags and descriptions not optimized for clicks
- Title tags and descriptions that are over the character limit
Also, note that Google only allows you so many characters for your headlines. Don’t stuff your titles with extraneous words, but also don’t miss an opportunity to say a little more.
Now, what do you think is the best way to find out which meta title and description are best? The hint shows throughout this article — testing it. Let us give a shout-out to our good friends at SEOTesting.com and their guides such as the one on CTR optimization. Using CTR as the metric to test and improve for increases your rankings because Google wants to show high-CTR content, well, higher.
While conversions don’t directly influence rankings, they are a function of your content management practices. SEO audits are the perfect occasion to reexamine conversion optimization.
First, if you’re not already offering gated content offers, you’ll want to consider it. While many companies aim for direct purchases, content offers generally feature much higher click-through rates for the large swath of visitors who may not purchase upon their first visit to your site. Such rates may reach as high as 12%-20%.
Next, take a look at your top performing blog posts. Establish whether they’re conversion optimized. See that they offer clearly visible calls-to-action that link to gated content on a related topic.
Finally, ensure that you’re properly tracking conversion rates. If you haven’t already, you can start by creating conversion goals and tracking goal values.
10. Implementation and testing
How do you measure the impact of your SEO audit? How do you, and by extension, your management team, know that you’re on the right track?
Proper measurement is the foundation, as described in the in-depth SEO analytics guide. As a part of it, adopt the culture of SEO testing. Our SEO testing guides published on sites such as WordStream will give you a slew of ideas for what to test. Adopt the best practice, and confirm that the execution of your recommendations truly led to growth. Where that’s not the case right away, reiterate until it is.
Tech SEO audit presentation template
SEOs often experience the pain of bringing great recommendations, and then not getting the green light to go act on them. In our opinion, it is the responsibility of the SEO expert to be thorough about selling the recommendations well enough. For that reason, it is key to present the recommendations in a digestible and appealing way. This final step is just as important to the success of your audit as running the crawling tool.
We have a high success rate in shifting our audits from recommendation to execution stage when we present it as a deck. We have data sheets too and we make them available to the team, but the deck is really what people actually look at. You’ll notice it has explainers, it walks through the areas we check, it’s appealing to the eye, it’s succinct.
Feel free to use our template as a way to improve the audits you deliver to your own agency clients, or to improve your pitches for increases in SEO budgets. You can even get creative and use the template to justify making SEO improvements into an essential part of a web dev sprint.
Over to you
In medicine, the diagnosis is key to the success of a treatment. In SEO, where improvements also take time and can be hard to measure at first, you also need to diagnose issues early and correctly. SEO audits enable you to do just that.
Please let us know how this guide served your own process. And if you make use of our audit deck template, we’d be thrilled to see your take on it.
About the authors
John Reinesch is a Co-Founder and SEO Director at Chosen Data. Living on Long Island, he’s data-driven, loves a complex Google Sheet, and goes deep in his research. The resulting strategy files, automations, and execution quality have led to just as many snowballing charts about revenue from organic traffic as the amount of lifetime AppSumo deals he owns.
Branko Kral is going to analyze data on how you engaged with this article and use that insight for his future content. He’s a director of analytics and content, after all. He is also a linguist from Slovakia with an international background, entrepreneurial spirit, and passion for community building. Based in the highly delightful Mammoth Lakes, CA, and part-time in the High Tatras of Slovakia, he builds Chosen Data, spends his fair share of time on a hill, and helps enable fellow remote professionals.
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