An SEO’s Guide to SEO Audits Part 2: The Pre-Audit Preparation
Questions to Ask, Accounts to Access Tools to Use
This is part two in a series of articles where I’ll try to outline a process for conducting high quality, thorough SEO audits. As I mentioned in part one of the series on pricing an SEO audit, this is mainly aimed at SEOs who are just starting to take on side work, striking out on their own for the first time, and/or just starting to develop a small agency, but hopefully there will be some reminders and tips for anyone who offers SEO audits.
Now that we’ve covered some of the challenges and considerations around pricing an SEO audit, we’ll assume you did a great job scoping, pricing, and selling your proposal and that you’ve actually landed the audit. Before you really dig in and start the work to generate the report, there are three things you want to think about so that you’re well situated as you start to actually execute the audit:
- Which accounts will I need access to?
- What do I need to know about the client site to produce a great audit? (What questions should I ask?)
- What tools will I need to have handy as I walk through the audit?
By making sure you have the proper access, information from the client, and tools at your disposal you’ll be a few steps ahead of the game and will be able to make the most efficient use of your own time while also creating the best possible audit for the client. Let’s walk through some ideas for each of these areas.
Accounts You’ll Want Access to for Your SEO Audit
To get started with an SEO audit I like to make sure I have access to the following client accounts at a minimum:
- Access to Google Analytics Third Party Analytic Packages – This is clearly a must for any SEO site audit, and is pretty straight forward. I think at this point if you’re doing an in-depth audit and valuing your services properly, it’s unlikely your client wouldn’t have some sort of analytics in place.
- Access to Google AdWords – If the client is using AdWords getting access to this data and understanding cost metrics, conversion data, and account structure can be helpful in informing your suggestions around site architecture, keyword research and targeting, and in helping you better understand the niche and the economics of the business (ie how much are they paying for sales/leads via PPC).
- Access to their Webmaster Tools Account – We’ll walk through some of the specific uses of Webmaster Tools in a later section of the series, but this is an invaluable free utility for you in conducting your audit – if they don’t have an account, you should push (or even insist) they create one.
Google account access can be fairly messy in general, typically if you have a single account set up for access to both analytics and Webmaster Tools you should be able to easily have access granted for each of those (more information on that process for Webmaster Tools here, as people often have issues) and then create an MCC account for AdWords (even if you aren’t managing paid accounts it’s handy for accessing client PPC accounts) – unfortunately you’ll have to create a different Google account for this purpose, and even more unfortunately there may be instances where the client is already linked to an MCC (their current PPC agency, for instance) and you’ll have to actually create a separate Google account just for that client, independent of either above (since your company Google account will likely already be linked to an AdWords account somewhere – your own or possibly the first client site you worked on, etc.).
Head spinning yet? Here’s how the accounts break down, in a more digestible format:
- firstname.lastname@example.org – Use this for your company’s own AdWords account and to link client analytics and Webmaster Tools accounts to.
- email@example.com – Use this for your MCC
- firstname.lastname@example.org – Create this account specifically for the client’s account where you can’t get MCC access. Unfortunately you’ll have to do this again for any new client with the same issue
Beyond the Google accounts, you may also want access to some other data sources such as the client’s CRM. If the client does lead gen in particular you’ll want to be able to access “back of the loop” data so that you can better understand not just what drives conversions, but where quality leads and actual sales come from in terms of sources and particularly keywords.
Basically any additional account that may house data that would help you better understand the client’s business and the specific sources of traffic – particularly from SEO and PPC – could potentially help your audit be more informed.
Questions to Ask About Conversions, Financials, Goals
Towards that end, you want to make sure you’re asking the client about how their business works so that you can truly understand how your audit can help impact not only rankings and traffic, but also revenue and profit. Here are some good questions to get you started:
Is the conversion data in Google Analytics and Google AdWords accurate?
Believe it or not this is an important question – a ton of clients have known issues with conversion tracking that they may neglect to mention. Obviously if there isn’t any conversion tracking installed that will be obvious (and should lead the “recommended next steps” section of your report) but they very well may have it set but know (or suspect) that it’s not tracking properly – it doesn’t hurt to ask!
Is there any “back of the loop” data in regards to the value of a conversion not represented in Google Analytics/AdWords (ie are all leads represented as equal in Google Analytics while in reality some are worth more money to your business than others?) If yes, can you track that data at the keyword level, and can we get access to that information?
Again here you’re validating the quality of your data as you analyze the business impact of various tactics, keywords, etc. through Google Analytics or Google AdWords.
Are there any specific goals (ie a specific % you’d like to increase SEO traffic and/or conversions by by a specific date) you hope to achieve that we should be aware of in making recommendations?
Obviously you want to understand what the client expectations are, and you also want to tailor your recommendations to their specific goals. If they have specific business metrics they’re looking to hit by a certain date (maybe they need to show growth to potential investors, are looking to ween themselves off of other channels over time, etc.) this will impact strategic and tactical recommendations you may make.
Tell me everything you can about the value of conversions to your business – anything at all about margins, the value of a lead/sale, items or lead types that are more or less valuable to your business, metrics around value per visitor or conversion – anything at all about the way leads and sales actually impact your business would be extremely valuable.
Not a question in the strictest sense but this is the most important thing to understand – many of your recommendations in your audit will have hard costs. You have to understand the actual business impact (and be confident they’ll be a profitable tactic) before you tell the client they’re a good idea.
Questions to Ask About Available Internal Resources
In addition to understanding business metrics, you’ll need to have a good grasp of what’s actually possible for the client so you can make sound recommendations. Here are some good questions to get answers to to help inform your recommendations:
Who will be reviewing this audit? What’s their knowledge of/experience with SEO?
You want to understand your audience – if your report is only going to be seen by a super-sharp in-house SEO just looking for an extra pair of eyes, you can structure your report much differently than if you’re presenting this document to a CMO with no background in SEO.
What types of content resources do you have available (who has the ability and bandwidth to write a blog post, an in-depth article, etc.)?
Given the increasing importance of sound content marketing strategies in effective SEO it’s key to have a good handle on content resources. Here you’ll likely want to ask follow up questions and push for examples of writing where the client feels they have resources so you can appropriately suggest what to do with their content resources (ie do they have great expert quality content capabilities that would churn out awesome in-depth guide content? Is there a social media savvy associate who also writes well, but doesn’t have domain expertise? You’ll want to push these different types of resources in very different directions content-wise in your recommendations).
What types of outreach resources would you have available (in the event that we identified a list of sites to promote a contest/piece of content/etc. to who could carry out contacting those sites, if anyone)?
Similarly you want to understand who within the company could promote content. Do they have a killer PR company with great relationships in their space? Do they have a great SEO team with some experienced link builders, or are their resources junior level types with limited experience building links and promoting content?
Do you have any graphic resources available internally?
What kind of experience does their team have creating data vizualizations, formatting guide content to be linkable and visually appealing, etc.?
Do you have any programming resources available internally (someone who could potentially build a simple widget designed to attract links)?
If you have some great ideas for widget-bait, can they build them? Similarly, who can implement things like recommended mod_rewrites, 301 redirects, site-wide title tag enhancements, etc.
What sort of budget could you make available for a third party to execute SEO activities such as those outlined above?
What can they allocate to filling in these gaps? Personally I think it’s best to work hard to structure your audit to be completely sales-agnostic: I want to charge appropriately for the value I’m delivering, so that the audit itself is a valuable project that I’m not relying on as a lead-gen tool or loss leader. This allows you to make completely unbiased recommendations about what to outsource, what to keep in house, etc. By charging fairly for your services you mitigate the risk of “giving away” value (you’re charging for it, after all) and you also position yourself as an expert who does good work, which is a better sales pitch than under-delivering and offering to bridge the value gap for a price after the fact.
Tools to Have At Your Disposal During the Audit
Now that you’ve gathered lots of great data about the client’s business and their internal resources, it’s time to dig in and get to work. Before you start to crank out invaluable insights, you’ll want to make sure you’re situated with the proper tools. We’ll walk through my personal list, but there are some other great resources to find out more about handy auditing tools, such as this great checklist on SEO Moz or Outspoken Media’s look at SEO audit tools so have a look at those and start to build your own list.
- Google Analytics or Alternative Analytic Tool – Again this is a bit of a no brainer and a must have for an in-depth audit.
- Google Webmaster Tools – Fantastic tool for your SEO site audit (you could do an entire site audit using Webmaster Tools alone, really, and add a ton of value for most sites) which we’ll get into more in the next installment of the series.
- Screaming Frog SEO Spider – For me and a lot of other SEOs this has basically replaced Xenu as a must-have tool for crawling a site and diagnosing various site issues. There is a free version, but the paid version allows you to crawl much larger sites and is extremely affordable (the license cost more than pays for itself in a single audit).
- SEO Moz Pro – I use SEO Moz as a supplement to Webmaster Tools in diagnosing technical site issues like 404s, duplicate content and title tags, etc. as well as for the link data available via Open Site Explorer. The technical audit functionality is very helpful as you want to know about any issues a site is having that Google may not be aware of yet that aren’t showing up in Webmaster Tools. Alternative options here are things like Website Health Check (again Rhea Drysdale had a nice run-down of SEO auditing tools as well). For link data I find things like analyzing competitor backlink profiles and popular content as well as looking at the most linked to pages on a client site very helpful. Other options for this functionality include Majestic SEO or Yahoo Site Explorer.
- Fire Fox – Many of the plugins I use work best in FireFox and generally this is my “deep dive SEO browser” (similar to this SEO tip), but Chrome is becoming pretty comparable in terms of SEO plugin availability.
- SEO Browser – This is a nice tool for quickly viewing a page the way engines see it, to help you diagnose problems on a specific page or template.
- Robots Checker – There are a few of these with similar functionality, but the main idea is to have a solid tool for quickly analyzing the impact of a site’s robots file.
- Web Developer Toolbar – This is one of my favorites – it allows you to do all sorts of things like quickly check alt attributes, link information, meta data, and a number of other great work-arounds that will keep you from digging into source code and help you spot issues quickly.
- SEObook Toolbar – Another “couldn’t live without” for me – great for getting a quick picture of a number of different metrics at once such as page rank, YSE backlinks to a page/domain, cache date, page age, SEO Moz backlinks to a page/domain, and more. SEO for Firefox is another must have for analyzing search results as you think about the competitiveness of a niche.
- FireBug – A great HTML analysis and debugging tool.
- SnagIt – You’ll want to take lots of screenshots where appropriate to quickly and intuitively explain issues with a visual.
As I said this is by no means an exhaustive list – there are a ton of great free and low cost SEO tools that can help you audit a client site, but the tools above should be more than sufficient for you to get a look at every angle of the site in question.
Now you’re finally ready to actually audit the client’s site! In the next installment we’ll talk about how to approach the audit process, and some general rules of thumb around how to lay out the audit that you’ll want to consider applying to your audit overall.