All about technical SEO audits
To the uninitiated, SEO audits can be complex, jargon-filled, processes that seem fairly daunting. In this article, I’m aiming to reduce some of that tension and outline what is involved in a technical SEO audit. The steps necessary to resolve some of the issues and expand upon suggestions it will bring to light.
To perform SEO at an accomplished level, you will first need to develop a strategy that gets the most out of what you currently have. As well as that, you’ll need to be able to create a pathway for future development, setting goals and user journeys.
SEO audits open your eyes to what you are doing right and identify areas that can benefit from improvements. Your audit task list will contain many items and it’s important to know which are high priority, and the ones that can be addressed at a later point.
So, without any further delay, let's move on to what is involved in your technical SEO audit.
Perform a crawl of your website - high priority
To uncover the parts of your website that require attention you will need to perform a whole-site audit. There are many tools out there, free and paid for, that will perform this task for you.
The whole-site audit will ‘crawl’ your website and return data such as how many pages are on your website, if there are any broken links within it, along with a range of positives and negatives related to your website performance.
If you’ve not done it already, set your website up in Google Search Console. This free tool will give you insights such as the keywords you are currently ranking for, as well as any errors encountered whilst indexing your website.
Run a Page Speed Test - high priority
Google has focussed a lot of time and effort outlining best practices for the web. To give you an idea of how your site is performing in the real world, they put together Page Speed Insights.
This tool will rate your site out of 100 for both mobile and desktop on subjects such as speed and accessibility.
If there are any faults, or areas you can perform better in, Page Speed Insights will list them along with guidance to resolve the problem.
Take note, the website’s speed is now considered a ranking factor.
If your site is performing well on a speed test, Google will give you a rankings boost related to that. What the boost is actually worth to a site is unclear. It is less valued that content, but enough for people to take notice and change the way websites are being built.
Including a Page Speed test on your technical SEO audit is of high importance.
Checking for indexing issues - high priority
Next, you will need to check if there are pages on your site that have not been indexed.
This is a huge issue and if there are any that are currently not indexed because of underlying issues, you’ll need to fix them quickly.
Indexing is when a search engine crawls the contents of your website to include that content within its results. If you have page indexing issues then it is likely it will not be found under any search term. Not until the error has been indexed.
As your site grows over the years you will have added new content, or removed old pages.
When you create new content, are you submitting those new URLs to search engines? Or are you just hoping the pages get found?
If you have removed a page, are you setting up redirects so both search engines and users don’t experience 404 errors?
Monitoring indexing issues in a technical SEO audit can be broken down into the following parts:
Checking for index errors
Confirm the sitemap is being indexed correctly
Ensure there are no issues with your Robots.txt file
Let's break these down:
Checking for indexing errors
An indexing error is often categorised using a number system. During your time on the web you will undoubtedly encounter a 404 error. A vague error that basically says the page you requested cannot be found. Sometimes, this error is down to the URL (address) changing or the page being removed.
To create a successful website you need to identify pages that have these types of errors attached to them. If a search engine sees your website is producing a number of errors and they are not being resolved, it will rank the website lower as it delivers a poor user experience.
You can find the pages that have indexing issues in Google Search Console, under ‘Indexing > Pages’.
Most, if not all websites, will have some form of indexing issue. Spotting these in time and implementing fixes for them is where the technical SEO audit comes in.
Checking the sitemap
Not a concept that is well known to the average user, but a website’s structure is laid out using a relatively plain sitemap. This file tells search engines what every URL on the site is, and its hierarchy.
When checking the sitemap you need to ensure important pages you want search engines to crawl are included. If one or more of your pages are not included, it's likely they will not be indexed by search engines. Therefore, not found in a search query.
Checking the robots.txt file
The robots file tells search engines what URLs they are allowed to index and lists those you do not want indexed.
If the robots file has been set up incorrectly it could mean none of the pages are being indexed. Depending on when you decided to carry out a technical SEO audit, pages on your site may not have been indexed for months, or even years.
You also have the option of including meta tags to instruct search engines on a specific page. By adding a ‘noindex’ attribute to the page you can prevent search engines from indexing it.
Configure your robots file correctly to make sure pages that have little value on their own are not indexed. For example, ‘thank you’ pages.
Check and optimise on-page elements
During your technical SEO audit, keeping on top of the website's structure and content will help maintain your site and keep it ahead of your competitor’s.
This section next is broken down into the following parts:
Improving meta descriptions
Optimising page titles and title tags
Adding canonical tags
Including hreflang tags
Adding structured data to your pages
Improving meta descriptions
Although a low priority task, improving your meta descriptions can increase the chances of a user clicking on your link ahead of your competitor’s.
The meta description is displayed within search results below the title of the page and is a short piece of text to entice users. It is not a ranking factor, so you will not receive any SERP boost for including specific keywords, but this is your chance to ‘speak’ to prospective customers. Use this space wisely and you can increase your daily clicks.
Optimising page titles and title tags
Title tags grab the attention of whoever is performing the search. When you perform a search query they are likely to be one of the first things you will see.
Writing the perfect page title is a skill. You need to think about the audience you are looking to connect with for each target query. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to page titles, so take your time composing them.
There is an optimum length for page titles of 60 characters. If you have gone over, there are occasions where Google will amend your page title for you. To avoid this situation it is best to optimise your titles to fit within the 60 character limit.
Adding canonical tags
If there is duplicate content on your site, or pages very similar to another, it is advised to set a canonical tag (rel=”canonical”) on the primary version of it. This tag notifies search engines of the primary page you want to be crawled and any duplicates are to be ignored.
Including hreflang tags
If your website has multiple language versions you will need to include a hreflang tag. This indicates to search engines what country each page’s content is aimed at.
For example, separating your English language based content from French speaking will provide you with better ranking distribution in the targeted countries.
Adding structured data to your pages
Your technical SEO audit should be testing, and including, structured data.
Structured data, or rich snippets, inform search engines how to understand your content. As an example, providing hints of who the author, or content creator is.
Structured data gives you a better chance of being chosen for Google’s knowledge panes. The inclusion of structured data can improve your website’s expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. In simple terms, search engines will prefer the most trustworthy content over content which appears to be thrown together, or lacking structured data.
Optimise images and resolve issues
Optimising the delivery of images on your website will not only improve the user experience, it will also increase the chances of gaining traffic through image searches.
Checking that your images are being served in an accessible manner will also grow your chances of additional traffic through image searches.
Fix any broken images
If you have any broken images, fix these immediately. For users and search engines, broken images indicate a poorly maintained website. It can also give the impression the website is not legit, or ‘spammy’, and overall a bad user experience.
Focus on image compression
Make sure the images you are serving are not too large. Most websites are accessed through a mobile phone on a data connection and serving large image sizes not only slows the performance of your site, it wastes data connections.
When running your website through Google PageSpeed you will see a suggestion to serve your images using WebP. This delivers high quality, compressed images, often better than JPEG. Depending on your web hosting setup, you may be able to activate this conversion through a plugin or CDN.
If WebP is not available you can compress your images manually through an application like TinyPNG. This will compress your images in batches and give you the option to download the newly compressed assets. If your website runs on a CMS, such as WordPress, you will be able to run this from the dashboard using a plugin.
Avoid mixed content warnings
During the technical SEO audit there may be mixed content warnings. This is when a website is served on a secure (HTTPS) connection, but an image resource is served via an insecure (HTTP) connection.
Update your image resources and ensure they are being served through the same connection.
Adding alt text to images
Alt text is a (sometimes) short description of an image. Its intended use is improving accessibility for those utilising screen readers and describing an image if it does not load correctly.
Composing stronger alt tags will increase your chances of gaining traffic through image searches.
Check your internal links
Internal links, the pages within your website that link to one another, are very important when it comes to technical SEO audits.
Creating a logical structure is vital to delivering an improved user experience. By optimising the website’s structure you deliver an experience that matches the user’s expectations. This makes the task of navigating the website far easier. If your website is simple to navigate there is less chance of user frustration developing, and as a result, bounce rates increasing.
If you have recently taken over a website tasked with an audit, reviewing and optimising the internal structure should be one of your first tasks. If the internal structure of the website is a mess it will make your task of performing a successful audit more difficult.
Fix any 4xx errors
Improve the overall user experience by fixing any 4xx errors. These can be errors such as 404, meaning the requested page cannot be found.
If the page has been moved, or removed, you can fix this error by creating a permanent redirect to a different URL. This ensures both the user and search engines do not encounter errors when requesting the missing URL.
Identify orphan pages
If you have indexable pages with no internal links pointing to them, unless added to the sitemap, they are unlikely to be found through search engines. Resolve this by checking all indexable pages have internal links pointing to them.
Check all external links
External links, those pointing to another website, are an integral part of the internet. The intricately woven web has grown over the years because of site owners pointing to other sources.
This is particularly useful when you are looking to add weight to quoted text. When supplying outbound links you offer an enhanced user experience by supplying extra context, giving search engines an indication your content has been researched.
With external links you can encounter some of the issues with internal links. It's important to:
Check for broken links
Just like your website, content in other parts of the web gets moved or removed. In some cases no redirect has been put in place. This could mean the document you once linked to now returns an error.
Although fixing that error is not your concern, improving the user experience on your own site is.
Check if the original source content you were linking to is still available, or using a different URL. If it is no longer available, identify a similar document to link to. If that is not possible, remove the outbound link until a new source can be found.
Check for dead ends
You want to verify indexable pages on your site have both internal and external links.
Supplying neither on an indexable page is effectively creating a ‘dead end’ for both users and search engines. Not a great user experience and one you should fix.
Focus on improving the website’s speed and mobile performance
The majority of traffic on the web is consumed using a mobile device. This fact indicates there is a very high probability the people using your site will be on a mobile data connection. Depending on their location, this connection speed could be very slow.
Websites that are optimised for desktop or fibre connections will likely deliver a poor mobile experience, with frustration developing because of slow-loading content. As well as the overall speed of the site, if it's not optimised for mobile devices, with easy-to-use content and large tap targets, you will frustrate the user even more.
With that said, it should be noted that Google now uses mobile performance as a ranking factor.
If you have a poor mobile experience your rankings will suffer because of it. By how much is uncertain, but still enough that you should dedicate plenty of time to resolving any issues.
Part of Google’s key measurements for website performance are their Core Web Vitals. Made up of Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS), and First Input Delay (FID). Focus on delivering great results in these areas and improving the overall user experience of the website and gain a rankings boost in the process.
If a website is particularly slow, focusing on improving your PageSpeed rating can see significant changes in your overall ranking.
If the site is already performing well, the gains from this will not be as drastic. However, it's good practice to keep on top of delivering great website performance as the goalposts are always changing.
Deliver a great mobile experience
By some estimates, 60% of traffic on the web is now through a mobile device. Because of this weighting, Google has switched to a mobile-first indexing policy.
Delivering a great mobile experience should be included at every stop of your technical SEO audit. You want to make sure users can navigate the website effectively, as well as being offered a near identical experience to desktop users.
Your desktop designs may be the ones that win clients over, but your mobile designs are the ones that gain you the traffic. Don’t neglect this key area.
This brief introduction to technical SEO audits hopefully gives you an idea where to start and areas to focus on. However, it’s only the beginning, but to gain a true understanding of SEO and its benefits you’ll need to have a great understanding of the basics. Use this guide to propel your website up the rankings and you will be gaining more traffic in no time.
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