In the same way no two writers approach a writing project in an identical way, there is huge scope for individuality in the way that seasoned SEOs tackle the all-important site audit, without which you have no foundation for effective SEO. In fact, a thorough site audit is possibly one of the most important items in SEO best practices.
A good site audit will take into account every aspect of the site and will assess all that's possible to be assessed. From there you can go on to build a plan to transform a website's effectiveness.
I have to admit that I don't always follow exactly the same procedure with every website I look at. Mainly, it goes as follows:
- I take a general look at the home page and make a note about first impressions. How fast does it load? This is one that is both a usability item and something that can score you points, or lose you a great deal of ground with Google. Usability includes first impressions of the site's content. Here's an article I particularly like about how content should be.
- Fast loading is an important point, so back to that. Some of the things that can slow a site are huge files embedded in the site–and that includes images, third party tracking and analytics programs, and if it's a WordPress site or some other type of CMS, plugins can be a huge problem. A rule of thumb is to only use those plugins that are absolutely necessary. Everything else should be removed. Also, use plugins from a reliable source so that you aren't exposing your site to the horrors of dodgy coding. I like this article about the technical aspects of improving the speed of a WordPress site.
- Does the site look outdated? Uncared for? But more importantly, can you see at a glance what this website is all about? I try not to make sweeping judgments about design and style, because we are all different and what works for some, won't work for others. But having said that there are designs that should be consigned to the garbage–it's so easy to have an attractive, easy-to-navigate site these days that there's really no excuse.
- Is it easy to see where you are in the site? The Home page and contact forms should be easily accessible from any page on the site, preferably using breadcrumbs. No exceptions.
- Is the content interesting, informative, actionable, and importantly, are there spelling/grammar mistakes? Not only does sloppy writing put off human visitors, but the Google algos take into account blatant mistakes too. On the other hand, clean, well-written content will kick you up a notch on all fronts. I have observed that over the years the average surfer has become more demanding when it comes to quality of content. It's worth targeting the highest common denominator among your visitors.
- Is there any aspect of the site that could be misleading? Tricking visitors into performing an action (like signing up for example) or otherwise misleading them is a serious mistake. It will only cause disaster in the long run. Transparency is an important part of today's online business, and is an important way to foster trust.
- I take a close look at the HTML title tags. Are they functional, i.e. do they have a major keyword-or-two on each page? Title tag content should not be just an obscure brand name, as is the case with the vast majority of websites I see. It's important to realize that almost without exception, searches will be for keywords referring to the goods or services you offer–not for your business name. Yes, branding is important but it's important to know when your brand is not going to help you, and unless your Coca Cola or Apple, seriously it's not going to bring you business via search. I will also check to make sure that no two pages have the same title tags to avoid cannibalization. Google also penalizes for this.
- If I'm looking at a blog I will take a look at the comments. All spam comments and anything remotely dodgy should be slated for removal as soon as possible. Bad comments (that link to undesirable sites etc) come under the heading of negative SEO and are to be avoided. I'm not talking about comments that criticize here. Don't remove those because they can always be used to actually help your reputation.
- I will next check for redirects for alternative forms of the domain. If they're not in place, that will be added to to-do list. Canonicalization can be critical. If this is an issue with your site, I recommend that you allow Matt Cutts to have the last word!
- If the site has been added to Google Webmaster tools by the owner I will ask for access so I can check it out and correct anything that needs correcting (like no sitemap submitted for example. Otherwise I will add it to my own account to do the necessary.
- Analytics is critical so if the owner isn't using Google Analytics or some other major analytics software, I'll probably add it to that anyway.
- I will let Screaming Frog loose on the domain to check its status and to catch anything I've missed.
- Is HTML validated? If it's not I'll slate the worst offences for correction as a matter of urgency. Here's an HTML validator plugin plugin for Firefox that is easy to use.
- Once I'm done with a site audit I will typically also have a look at the top competitor-or-three to get a competitive analysis–see how far the target site has to go before it hits the #1 spot!