Your site might look great and have really nice content – and yet not rank well enough on Google. The culprit is usually poor SEO. But to understand what’s wrong with your SEO, you need to conduct a real investigation, known as SEO audit.
Almost all digital marketing agencies offer SEO audit as one of their core services. It can easily cost you $5000 or more. But don’t despair: you can easily do your own audit and fix most common SEO issues. In this simple guide, I’ll list all the key steps for you.
Start with a crawl
Before you can fix any SEO issues on your site, you need to know what they are. So you’ll need to run a couple of tests.
The first one is known as a SEO crawl. There are many good crawling tools available, including Screaming Frog SEO Spider (500 free URLs), SEO Web Crawler, and Rob Hammond’s SEO Crawler (350 free URLs). A crawler can identify many SEO issues, such as broken links, duplicate content, multiple header tags or large page size. Here’s a sample results page for Rob Hammond’s tool – see the issues marked in red?
The second thing you need to do is to check your page load speed. The easiest way to do it is with Pingdom’s free speed test tool. It will tell you how many seconds (and HTTP requests) it takes to display a page, as well as its size. According to statistics, 25% of users will leave the page if it takes more than 4 seconds to load. As you can see, this sample Lonely Planet page didn’t do well at all – note the massive load time of 7.59 seconds:
Remember that load speed is a crucial ranking factor, especially on mobile. If you find that your pages are slow, work on that first, before passing on to other SEO issues.
Image optimization can work wonders here, as well as removing some plugins. However, slow server response time can be the culprit, too.
The second part of any SEO audit (after the tests) is the so-called technical SEO analysis: it includes all the things that happen behind the scenes.
A sitemap provides search engines with a full structure of your site. This can seriously improve how your pages are indexed and help your SEO. To create a sitemap in the XML format, you can use any free online generator. They include XML Sitemaps, GlooMaps, and SEO Utility. Here’s a sample sitemap preview:
When you have several versions of the same page, you need to tell Google that they are actually the same. This is done using so-called canonical tags. Canonicalizing links prevents search engines from getting confused and improves your SEO.
Robots.txt is a file that tells search engines which pages to index and which to ignore. Some pages shouldn’t appear in search results – for example, the Thank You page a user sees after making a purchase. But sometimes important pages end up blocked in robots.txt by mistake, so make sure to check it thoroughly. If you don’t have a robots.txt file, you can create one in the Site Configuration section in Google Webmaster Tools.
SSL security certificate
Google penalizes sites that don’t have an SSL certificate. If you have one, your URLs will begin with a https://. If you don’t your page addresses will begin with just http://. Luckily, it’s very easy to get an SSL certificate for free nowadays. You might be able to get one from your hosting provider. Alternative, use a service like Let’s Encrypt, SSL For Free, or ZeroSSL.
Content, keywords and links
Once you are done with the more technical part of the audit, you can pass to the more visible parts of your site.
Well-written URLs can help your SEO, though it’s not a major ranking factor. Adding keywords in your URLs can be a boon, too. Make sure to use dashes to separate words, not underscores. Google views something like “cooking-pot-reviews” as three words, but “cooking_pot_reviews” is just one long nonsensical word for the search bot.
Optimizing a site for target keywords is a veritable art. Luckily, there are some very good free tools to help you master it. Google Keyword planner is the best place to start. You should also take a look at Rank Tracker, AnswerThePublic, and Keywords Everywhere. One thing you must definitely avoid is keyword stuffing. Having too many keywords on a page won’t just annoy your readers – Google will penalize you for it.
A part of AnswerThePublic search results for “black pudding”
When you try to rank for the same keywords on several pages, Google gets confused. It will just index the page it considers strongest – and ignore that others. So one page sort of “eats” all the others – thus the term “keyword cannibalization”. To avoid this issue, select different sets of keywords for each page.
The links to your page published on other sites affect your rankings a lot. The higher the authority of the site containing a backlink, the better it is for your SEO. By contrast, you want to avoid disreputable sites linking back to you. Popular backlink analysis tools include Ahrefs Backlink Checker, Serpstat Analysis Tool, and Monitor Backlinks. Here’s what a sample results page looks like with the Ahrefs tool:
As you can see, you don’t have to pay thousands of dollars for an SEO audit. It can seem complicated at first – and your first audit will probably take you several days. But it will be much easier the second time around, I promise. I recommend that you repeat the audit once every three months or so.
I suggest that you treat SEO audit as a game – an exciting investigation or a quest. You can learn so much AND improve your site’s rankings – isn’t that amazing? So dare – and have fun with it!