SEO is constantly evolving. Search engine algorithms update multiple times a year (and that’s just the big updates) to emulate user behaviour more and more. This means, moving away from focussing completely on keywords to understanding how audiences interact with your page. In this blog post we want to give you a guide on conducting your first on-page SEO Audit.
On-Page vs Technical SEO
You will have noticed that we are talking about on-page SEO in this post. It’s important to understand that SEO breaks into two overarching sections: technical and on-page SEO:
Think of technical SEO as the underlying map and corresponding infrastructure that will guide search engines but also helps users find and navigate your website. It’s four main elements are flexibility, URLs, structure and indexing.
Here, we will focus on on-page SEO. It concentrates on how the information on your individual pages is structured. All your pages should act as a signpost to Google telling it at important crossroads what a page is about. In turn, readers expect to see the terms they used in search repeated on a website as reassurance.
Your inbound marketing strategy should start and continuously refer back to your buyer personas. Who is it that you are marketing to? What do they care about? What problems are they trying to solve? What does success look like?
In order to define your keywords and ask yourself whether each page of your website is speaking to the right audience, you have to have your personas completed. This is your first step in the audit.
The free tools to support you
There are many great paid and free SEO tools out there. As you kick off, we recommend you work with these three free ones to start:
Even if you don’t want to run paid ads on Google, go ahead and sign up for Adwords. This gives you access to their Keyword Planner. You can research terms that you think your persona(s) would search for, how popular they are and see alternatives. Results can be based on regions which is handy if your audience is confined to Ireland or even a particular city / region.
Google Search Console will mainly support your technical SEO but it does have a few handy tricks up its sleeve to help you identify duplicate page titles and meta descriptions.
Screaming Frog shows you every URL associated with your website (including image and page URLs). Put in your domain and get a full view. For the audit, you only need to look at your page URLs.
Today, we are not going to look at handling errors (part of technical SEO), but just a side note here, Screaming Frog will also show you pages that are not resolving for you.
Go ahead and install each of these before you start your audit.
Keywords still matter
While search engines want to move closer and closer to rewarding pages that offer great user experiences, they are not quite there yet. This is why keywords still matter and why we place emphasis on these in the first part of the actual audit. Let’s get started!
Create a spreadsheet
Open a new spreadsheet and begin by adding each page URL from Screaming Frog that resolves with a 200 code (you’ll see these listed in the results easily). These are all the pages we need to use in our on-page SEO audit.
You might want to add a second column describing the page so you easily know what it is (e.g. Home, About, Product 1, Service 2 etc).
With your persona(s) in mind, select the one focus keyword for each page and add it in the next column. Work with the Keyword Planner to make the right call.
Have a look at the URL of each page. If possible include your keyword (don’t crowbar it in). Your entire page should stick to one type of URL structure (e.g. company.com/name-of-page rather than mixing company.com/name_of_page and /name-of-page and /nameofpage).
Warning: if you make changes to existing URLs ensure that you set up redirects from the old URL to the new one. Otherwise pages will disappear.
Your page title appears in the browser bar. It is not the Header 1 (we’ll get to that of the page):
Your keyword should be included early in the page title and you need to keep it 50-60 characters. Screaming Frog will have pulled all your current page titles for you, so copy them in to your spreadsheet in a new column and mark the ones you need to work on.
Google Search Console under the Search Appearance section and HTML Improvements will show you whether you have any duplicate titles. Each title should be unique.
While your Meta Description doesn’t directly influence your search authority, it is what will show in search results as your description. You can use up to 320 characters, include your keyword and make the copy enticing to click.
Copy your current meta descriptions into your spreadsheet and update these if needed. Check in with Google Search Console (Search Appearance > HTML Improvements) to ensure you don’t have any duplicates.
H1 (Header 1)
This is the header on your actual page. It should be encased in so called H1 tags. If you are unsure whether this is the case, check with your web developer. H1 headers should be unique in copy and you should only have one on your page. Include your keyword in these.
Look at your current H1 headers, copy them into the spreadsheet and update them where needed.
Subheaders (H2, H3, H4 etc)
Subheaders are a great way to break up a page and make it more readable for the user. Be descriptive, use variations of your keyword and ensure they are encased in the right tags (H2, H3, H4 etc). Again, your web developer will be able to help you with this.
In your spreadsheet note the current subheaders and where you need to add / update.
Keyword stuffing is a really bad idea. Use your keyword in the first 200 words and after that only if it’s appropriate.
In your spreadsheet mark any pages where this is not the case so you can easily update.
Anchor Text / Internal Links
We’ll talk more about this under Pillar Content, however you need to outline whether your pages have internal links (anchor text is the copy that they sit under). It’s a positive ranking indication for Google to see that you are providing paths to readers and have pages that something in common (relevancy comes into place here: how relevant is the current page to the rest of your website?).
Alt Text / Image Files
It’s important to note that while both deal with images they are not the same thing. The image file name is what you saved the image as on your laptop or desktop. Ensure that you are descriptive here. So instead of using “logo.jpg” as the image file name, save as “YourCompanyName”.
Each image on your website should then have Alt Text. This is the text you see when you hover over an image and the way Google really understands (together with the image file name) what the image is about. Use your keyword here.
These are the initial basics to look at. We are going to hit briefly on three additional topics for those of you who want to take things one step further!
Double Check with Analytics
If you are working on your first audit, it’s likely that the website you are working with hasn’t been updated in a long time (refreshes are good for search engines) or you see a decline in organic visits to your site.
While we base keywords and how personas search on some knowledge, some information is based on assumptions. So before you make any changes, check in Google Analytics whether the page you want to update is driving results or not. You might think a particular page on your site is not delivering but the numbers might tell a different story.
Topic Clusters and Pillar Pages
The simplest way to explain this is by looking at website structures.
*Image source: HubSpot
Here we see the example of the busy HubSpot blog. It had a hierarchical approach and search engines were likely to understand it to the third level. Everything under this level (all the shapes) are not clear to search engines and what to associated it with.
In the second image we can see the content restructured into just two layers. The main URL and then topics (orange, red, green pink and yellow). This is simpler for search engines to understand.
*Image source: HubSpot
Search engines want to see relevancy. This means it wants to see how the content on your site relates to each other. Imagine you are selling fruit. One content pillar is “Apple” and linking to it are pages that describe different apple types, recipes, how to make Appletinis and your blogs about apples. The next pillar is “Pear” etc.
As you start building internal links on your website, think about what your topics are and define the pillar pages for each topic. Then ensure that pages talking about that topic link back to the pillar page and create the clusters.
This is really a blog post in itself and an advanced topic. However, in even a basic audit you are looking at your internal links and this makes it a great opportunity to start thinking about linking in a smarter way.
Read more about content clusters here.
The last topic we want to cover today is stickiness. There is nothing worse on a website than looking at a great page, wanting to find out more about the topic and not knowing where to click. Stickiness refers to ensuring you keep visitors on your website.
Bounce rates and time spent on site are both ranking factors. So we want to ensure visitors don’t jump right back off our page and spend a decent amount of time with us.
A great tip here is to work with clear links and call-to-action buttons to always give people options to continue on their journey on your website.
Complete your work
The final step is to go back over your spreadsheet with all its columns and ensure that you have all issues resolved and each page speaks to your persona.
SEO is a big topic, so be sure to keep reading about it and get training if you need it. Even if you outsource your SEO audit, you still need to learn about on-page SEO in order to maintain your efforts.