The Internet Marketing Driver: Glenn Gabe's goal is to help marketers build powerful and measurable web marketing strategies.

Monday, September 28, 2009

SEO Technical Audits - A Logical First Step for Improving SEO Results


SEO Website Audits, Why Extensive Technical Audits Are Critically Important.When I begin assisting new SEO clients, I typically start each engagement by completing a thorough SEO technical audit. Actually, I believe technical audits are so important that it's rare for me not to complete one. The reason is simple. An extensive audit identifies the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities that a client has in natural search. It’s essentially a full analysis of a website and it takes into account several key factors that impact organic search. Needless to say, it's an important part of my seo services.

When speaking with new clients about natural search, I often refer to the four pillars of seo, including structure (a clean and crawlable structure), content (ensuring you have the right content and that it’s optimized), links (inbound links are the lifeblood of seo), and analytics (ensuring you track and analyze your natural search efforts). Then I typically jump back to pillar one and explain that without a clean and crawlable structure, you’re dead in the water. You can essentially forget about the other three pillars if your content can’t be crawled and indexed... For example, I was helping a site that already had over 1.3 million inbound links, yet the site ranked for almost no target keywords. The site had a massive structural problem, which was wreaking havoc on a number of important factors for SEO. The site could have built another 1.3 million links and nothing would have changed. The structure and architecture needed to be addressed before any impact would be seen. That’s a good example of when a technical audit was desperately needed (and you better believe I started one quickly to identify all of the barriers present on the site.)

The Core Benefits of an SEO Technical Audit
SEO technical audits yield several key benefits for clients looking to improve their results in natural search. The first benefit is that the audit yields an actionable remediation plan, which is a deliverable that documents each of the findings from the audit (along with how to address each issue.) To me, it’s one of the most important deliverables in SEO (especially in the beginning phases of an SEO engagement.) The remediation plan enables clients to fully understand where their website (or network of websites) stands SEO-wise. They get a lay of the land, understand the core problems impacting their website, and identify key opportunities in natural search (some of which can be tackled immediately). For example, I once helped a website jump from 250K pages indexed to 1.1 million in less than a month based on relatively painless changes to the site’s structure. That opened up a massive amount of content that was essentially hidden from the search engines. Without the audit, they probably would have stayed at 250K pages indexed and missed a huge opportunity…

Another benefit is that the audit helps build an SEO roadmap, which is a critical plan for how a client is going to achieve its goals in natural search. You know where the site stands, what needs to be addressed, what the key opportunities are, and how long each step will take. Working directly with a client’s team (executives, marketers, programmers, designers, copywriters, etc.) you can map out the necessary steps to remediate the site and expand your efforts. Everyone should have a solid feel for what needs to completed, and every person on the team is involved. In case you haven’t read my previous posts, I typically refer to a company’s team of developers, designers, and copywriters as The Critical Last Mile for SEO. Without their input and cooperation, you’re going to have a heck of time getting things done and seeing success.

What Can You Learn From an SEO Technical Audit?
Extensive audits produce a wealth of knowledge about the website in question. Although there are some people that might want to charge the (SEO) hill without conducting a thorough audit, I think that's a dangerous proposition. Thorough research and analysis are critically important when trying to determine obstacles in natural search. Without fully understanding what you are facing, you risk wasting time, a massive amount of effort (from everyone involved), burning through budget, and all while producing little results. Don’t charge the hill without a solid plan in place.

So, what can you find when performing a technical audit? To answer that question, let’s take a look at a hypothetical situation. Imagine you’re a VP or Director of Marketing that has a serious SEO problem. How important would finding the following things be for you?

Your SEO website audit revealed:

* Your company was using seven domains, and splitting your content across all of them. All seven have built up their own amount of SEO power (and none of them are very powerful).
* A website redesign was just completed, but without a proper migration strategy in place. This left thousands of pages, and possibly hundreds of thousands of inbound links, in limbo.
* Your website just added a killer web application, but that same application is hiding 90% of your content.
* Your website houses 750 videos across 30 categories, but none of them are indexed and ranking.
* Your navigation is half as robust as it needs to be, and uses several 302 redirects to link to each page.
* Every campaign landing page you launch disappears after the campaign ends (wasting thousands of powerful links.)
* Your new product pages are beautiful, but they contain a heavy amount of flash content and almost no text. And to add insult to injury, your flash content isn’t even optimized.
* 600 pages on your website are optimized the same exact way.
* Your site contains 200 pages, but over 2000 are indexed. Huh? What does that even mean?
* Your 404 page looks great, but it issues 200 codes (telling the engines the pages in question loaded successfully).
* At any given time, thousands of URL’s can change, wasting all of the SEO power they have built up over time.

I can keep going here... and you can probably start to see why I think SEO technical audits are so important. :) You never know what you’ll find, and many times these little gremlins are severely impacting your natural search efforts. Without conducting an extensive audit, you might only identify a small percentage of the problems impacting the website. That could leave the most important, and deepest structural problems hidden and unaddressed. And those deeper structural problems might be causing 90% of your SEO issues. By tackling only 10% of your problems, you might not make a dent in your efforts and performance in natural search.

SEO Audit Details: Deliverables, Cost, and Length of Time
In case you are wondering what a technical audit looks like, the deliverable is typically a PowerPoint presentation. Using PowerPoint enables you to provide visuals, screenshots, callouts, etc. It also works well when you need to present to larger groups of people. There are times a Word document will suffice, but unless you're audience is extremely familiar with the technical aspects you will be referring to in the remediation plan, I recommend going with PowerPoint. The length of time for completing an audit (and subsequent cost) completely depends on the size and complexity of the website. For example, larger, more complex sites might yield a 70 or 80 slide deck where smaller websites might yield 25-30 slides. I’ve seen audits completed in less than a week and others that take 6-8 weeks to complete. It makes sense if you think about it. You might have one website that has fewer than 50 pages and another site that has millions of webpages… The two presentations might look very different.

A Critical Component: The Analyst Completing Your Audit
It’s important that you find a consultant or agency that matches well with your business, industry, and the type of content you provide. You definitely don’t want to spend time and money on an audit that produces little results. So it's important that you choose a consultant or agency that can produce a remediation plan that's technically sound, thorough, and actionable. Find out how many audits the agency or analyst has completed. Find out which verticals they have focused on, and then ask for results based on their audits. For example, if you're a small business, find out if the SEO focuses on SMB's and local search. If you have expanded internationally, then ask if the SEO understands international SEO. If you focus on video, make sure the SEO has in depth experience with Video SEO. If you have 10 million webpages, then find out the largest website the consultant has worked on. You get the picture.

A quick example: All technical audits are not created equally:
I was asked to analyze a website last year and give the site a score for SEO (0-100, where 100 was be the best possible SEO situation). Before presenting my findings, I was told that the site was previously audited and was given a score of 75%. I was pretty shocked to hear that score. I had given the website a score of 35%. From my perspective, the site needed serious help… There's a big difference between the two scores, right? But, there’s also a reason the company had chosen to have a second audit performed. They weren’t seeing results after the first was completed. A score of 35% was accurate and we quickly were able to identify projects to tackle and develop a roadmap.

Unfortunately, technical audits that provide a shallow or incomplete view of your website can be dangerous. That type of audit could yield what I call “the snake oil effect”. That’s when internal employees become desensitized to SEO, don’t believe it can actually work, and focus their attention on less powerful initiatives. Think about it, if you’re an executive that allocated significant budget for several SEO efforts but never saw results, then your view of SEO will probably be skewed. Don’t let that happen! Natural search is too important.

The Most SEO Bang for Your Buck
If you are unhappy with your natural search results and you are determining where to begin, don’t overlook the power of an SEO technical audit. As I mentioned above, an audit can yield a detailed remediation plan in a relatively short amount of time. The remediation plan can yield a roadmap for your efforts, which can include projects that improve your overall SEO performance (including crawlability, indexation, content optimization, rankings, and targeted traffic.) That’s why I consider technical SEO audits a logical first step for most companies. It can provide serious SEO bang for your buck.

GG

Related Posts:
6 Questions You Should Ask During a Website Redesign That Can Save Your Search Engine Rankings
The Critical Last Mile for SEO, Your Designers, Developers, and Copywriters
SEO, Forms, and Hidden Content - The Danger of Coding Yourself Into Search Obscurity

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

SEO, Forms, and Hidden Content - The Danger of Coding Yourself Into Search Obscurity


How forms and web applications can hide content from the search engines.When I perform a competitive analysis for a client, I often uncover important pieces of information about the range of websites they are competing with online. Sometimes that information is about traffic, campaigns, keywords, content, inbound links, etc. There are also times I uncover specific practices that are either beneficial or problematic for the competitor. For example, they might be doing something functionality-wise that could be inhibiting the overall performance of the site. If I do uncover something like that, I usually dig much deeper to learn more about that problem to ensure my clients don’t make the same mistakes. So, I was analyzing a website last week and I uncovered an interesting situation. On the surface, the functionality the site was providing was robust and was a definite advantage for the company, but that same functionality was a big problem SEO-wise. Needless to say, I decided to dig deeper to learn more.

Slick Web Application Yielding Hidden Content
As part of the competitive analysis I was completing, I came across a powerful web application for finding a variety of services based on a number of criteria. The application heavily used forms to receive information from users. The application included pretty elaborate pathing and prompted me to clarify answers in order to provide the best recommendations possible. After gathering enough information, I was provided with dozens of targeted service listings with links to more information (to more webpages on the site). So you might be thinking, “That sounds like a good thing Glenn, what’s the problem?” The problem is that the web application, including the robust form functionality, essentially hid all of the content from the search engines. In this case, we are talking about more than 2000 pages of high quality, high demand content. I say “high demand”, because I completed extensive keyword research for this category and know what people are searching for. Unfortunately for this company, the application yielded results that are simply not crawlable, which means the site has no chance to rank for competitive keywords related to the hidden pages. And by all means, the site should rank for those competitive keywords. For those of you asking, “but isn’t Google crawling forms?” I’ll explain more about that below. For this application, none of the resulting content was indexed.

Losing Visitors From Natural Search and Missing Opportunities For Gaining Inbound Links
Let’s take a closer look at the problem from an SEO standpoint. Forms often provide a robust way to receive user input and then provide tailored information based on the data collected. However, forms can also hide that content from the search engine bots. Although Google has made some strides in executing forms to find more links and content, it’s still not a perfect situation. Google isn’t guaranteeing that your forms will be crawled, it limits what it will crawl to GET forms (versus POST), and some the form input is generated by common keywords on the page (for text boxes). That’s not exactly a perfect formula.

Using forms, you might provide an incredible user experience, but you might also be limiting the exposure and subsequent traffic levels to your web application from natural search. I come across this often when conducting both SEO technical audits and competitive analyses for clients. In this case, over 2000 pages of content remain unindexed. And if the content is not indexed, then there is no way for the engines to rank it highly (or at all).

The Opportunity Cost
Based on the keyword research I performed, a traffic analysis of competing websites, and then comparing that data to the 2000 pages or so of hidden content, I estimate that the site in question is missing out on approximately 10-15K highly targeted visitors per day. That additional traffic could very easily yield 300-400 conversions per day, if not higher, based on the type of content the site provides.

In addition to losing targeted traffic, the site is missing a huge opportunity to gain powerful inbound links, which can boost its search power. The content provided (yet hidden) is so strong and in demand, that I can’t help but think the 2000 pages would gain many valuable inbound links. This would obviously strengthen both the domain’s SEO power, as well as the power of the specific pages (since the more powerful and relevant inbound links your site receives, the more powerful it is going to become SEO-wise.)

Some Usability Also Hindered
Let’s say you found this form and took the time to answer all the questions. After you completed the final steps of the form, you are provided with a list of quality results based on your input. You find the best result, click through to more information, and then you want to bookmark it so you can return later. But unfortunately you can’t… This is due to the web application, which doesn’t provide permanent URL’s for each result. Yes, the form is slick and its algorithm is great, but you don’t have a static page that you can bookmark, email to someone else, etc. How annoying is that? So if you want to return to the listing in question, you are forced to go back through the form again! It’s another example of how SEO and usability are sometimes closely related.

SEO and Forms, A Developer's Perspective
I started my career as a developer, so I fully understand why you would want to create a dynamic and powerful form-based application. This specific form was developed using asp.net, which utilizes postback (where the form actually posts back information to the same page). The URL doesn’t change, and the information submitted is posted back to the same page where the programmer can access all of the variables. Coding-wise, this is great. SEO-wise, this produces one URL that handles thousands of different pieces of content. Although you might have read that Google started crawling html forms in 2008, it’s a work in progress and you can’t guarantee that all of your forms will be crawled (to say the least…) On that note, you should really perform a thorough analysis of your own forms to see what Google is crawling and indexing. You might be surprised what you find (good or bad). So, the application I analyzed (including the forms) isn’t being crawled, the URL never changes, the page optimization never changes, and the content behind the form is never found. This is not good, to say the least.

If I were advising the company using this application, I would absolutely recommend providing another way to get the bots to all of this high quality content. They should definitely keep their robust web application, but they should also provide an alternative path for the bots. Then they should optimize all of those resulting webpages so they can rank for targeted queries. I would also disallow the application in robots.txt, blocking the bots from crawling any URL’s that would be generated via the form (just in case). With the right programmer, this wouldn’t take very long and could produce serious results from natural search…

The Most Basic SEO Requirement: Your Content Needs to be Found In Order to Rank
It sounds obvious, but I run into this problem often as I perform SEO technical audits. Your killer content will not rank just because it’s killer content. The content needs to be crawled and indexed in order to rank highly for target keywords. In this case, the site should definitely keep providing its outstanding functionality, but they should seriously think about the search implications (and provide an easy way for the bots to find optimized content.)

The bad news for my client's competitor is that I believe they aren’t aware of the severity of the problem and how badly it’s impacting their natural search traffic. However, the good news for my client is that they know about the problem now, and won’t make the same mistake as their competitor. That’s the power of a competitive analysis. :)

GG

Related Posts:
6 Questions You Should Ask During a Website Redesign To Save Your Search Engine Rankings
The Critical Last Mile for SEO, Your Copywriters, Designers, and Developers

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