One of the first actions I take for a client – whether I’m providing SEO services or simply writing or editing copy for them – is to perform a search audit. In addition to doing the thing they ask me to do, I want to know, where do they stand today in a search, and how can I build on that (and certainly not make it worse)?
When you decide to make changes to your website, you should know where you stand in a search, too. And you should take actions that will do it no harm. The best way to know where you stand is to do a search audit.
What is a search audit?
Like any kind of audit, a search audit is an analysis. In this case, it looks at the basics of your website and attempts to see what results a basic search returns and how your website contributes to it. Here is what I do in a basic search audit.
My basic search audit
First, I set my search tools to “any time” and “all results.” I also clean out my browser cache, history, and cookies; these, plus location, can affect results. (See Google’s Search Settings for more details.)
Next, I do a basic organic search using the relevant keywords and phrases for my site and see where my site shows up and how my site compares with my competition. This isn’t an exhaustive search, more of a cursory search to see if my site shows up in the very important first three pages of returns, how I’m competing with others whom my potential customers may also find, and for my most critical keywords and phrases.
Afterwards, I look “under the hood” of the site – in the “source code” to see what optimizes the site or what acts as roadblocks to search. I’ve talked about these before, but to summarize:
- Meta tags: Does every page have a unique page title, description, and list of keywords? Does every image and graphic have an alt tag?
- Positioning of elements: Is the top of the page code heavy, or are indexable heads and text at the top?
- Head tags: Do headlines and subheads use the H1, H2, H3 (etc.) head tags to add weight?
- Strong tags: Are keywords bolded or italicized with “strong” and “emphasis” tags on first use to add weight?
- Links and anchor text: Are keywords given authoritative links using a variety of external URLs and anchor text that tell search engines they are meaningful and highly relevant to your page?
To look at source code in a Windows browser, right click on the page and in Chrome scroll to “view page source”; in Internet Explorer scroll to “view source.”
I also verify that there isn’t anything “black hat” in the source code that could earn penalties, including hidden text, keyword stuffing, link stuffing, and so on.
More robust audits
If I’m doing SEO work for the client, I do a more exhaustive audit including more keywords and phrases, identifying and searching for specific competitors (a competitive site analysis), and searching through greater results depth. For very competitive industries or for clients where local results are particularly important, I focus more on local results.
I also look at inbound and outbound links more thoroughly. Search engines penalize for linking to spam and sites that aren’t relevant to your topic, so it’s important to ensure you don’t accept link exchanges or links with no real connection to you or your organization, including links further down the link matrix. One way to review links is through the links reporting in your analytics program (Google Analytics includes this feature, which also allows you to disavow negative links).
This is also a good time to consider how you approach social media interaction. Facebook, LinkedIn, blog, and other social networking likes, retweets, shares, forwards, and other interactions that indicate an acceptance of your content add value to your site, and if what gets passed on includes a link to your site, all the better. So be sure to add links to interior pages to your site and a way to pass them on.
Also good to check is whether your site is registered with certain professional and industry directories, which provide opportunities for links, and listings like Yellow Pages, Maps (Google, Yahoo, and Bing), Google Place, and Local First.
After the NSA PRISM surveillance revelations, some people looking for additional privacy have started using less prominent search engines, such as StartPage and Ixquick. Google and Bing remain the dominant search engines, but for the immediate future, don’t forget to account for this shift in source of traffic.
It’s all about building traffic
All these elements and more can affect how search engines view your site and, thus, your search ranking. Your whole purpose should be to optimize your site for searches so people who want your product or services can find them. Performing an audit will help you find where you come up short and improve your site. That is your goal, right – bringing in more traffic?