How to Develop Actionable and Impactful SEO Audits: The SP2 Principles that Facilitate SEO Execution & Drive Growth
A few months ago, in preparation to my BrightonSEO presentation about “Why SEO Processes fail”, I asked SEOs to choose the top 3 causes for SEO processes failure through a poll that got 534 answers. The top 5 failure causes had all something to do with SEO execution challenges.
From my experience (and based on comments & feedback I’ve gotten from other SEOs too through the years), I believe these SEO execution challenges are caused by:
- A lack of client-SEO fit mainly due to positioning issues and lack of a solutions focused sales process.
- Non-personalized SEO audits that are not strategical, not prioritized, not solution focused, not easily actionable.
- SEO project management issues, especially an effective continuous communication and validation through a process that needs to be highly prioritized, relying in multi-department support.
You can see over here the presentation I did at BrightonSEO, where I also shared a few ways to tackle these issues.
Due to its importance (and because of the time limit I had in my presentation that made me to summarize a lot), I would like to dive into the 2nd challenge, the one focused on non-personalized SEO audits that are not easily actionable.
The main SEO audit’s execution challenges
How many of you have invested weeks developing an SEO audit going through all of the optimization challenges of a Website, making sure you haven’t left anything out from a huge SEO checklist, validating all the different areas to be analyzed, from a technical configuration to content optimization, and link popularity perspective just to deliver a huge list of SEO recommendations that end up not being implemented after months and as a consequence, you end up with a failed SEO process that won’t achieve the desired results?
Don’t get met wrong, SEO checklists are hugely useful to have as a reference when doing an audit to avoid forgetting to validate something that can be important, and there are a few great resources out there that I cannot leave out from this post so you can use in your next audit:
- 209 Point SEO Audit Checklist & Spreadsheet by Andy Drinkwater
- The Complete SEO Checklist For 2020 by Brian Dean
- Comprehensive Technical SEO Audit by Bengamin Estes
- SEO Audit Checklist: Our Ever-Changing List by Ian Lurie
- The Ultimate SEO Audit Checklist by Brian Harnish
- Annielytics Site Audit Checklist by Annie Cushing
As well as great guides to help diagnose SEO issues and establish recommendations for the analyzed areas:
- A 5-Step Guide to Diagnosing Technical SEO Problems by Alexis Sanders
- How to Do a Backlink Audit – The Step by Step Guide by Andreea Sauciuc
- How to Perform a Website Content Audit to Guide Your Content Marketing Strategy by Alina Petrova
These resources help to come up with the “pieces” of the SEO audit puzzle, that then need to be put together and fit well with the business and Website goals, restrictions, resources, etc. which is what I would like to focus on here.
Through the years I’ve found that based on the way you focus and format your SEO audits, you can maximize your chances to gain execution support towards your recommendations that will drive the SEO process or you can also end up challenging the understanding of the SEO recommendations importance, how critical they are, how they can impact the business bottom line, and how to correctly prioritize and allocate resources towards their implementation for a positive ROI.
Some of these focus and format aspects that can end up challenging your SEO audits and recommendations execution are:
- Not taking into consideration the site business and technical context, such as the business type, Website size, platform constraints, the SEO experience/maturity in the organization.
- Not showing how the identified issues impact the site revenue and business goals, making it harder for the decision makers to take action.
- Focusing on the identified issues without specifying their potential causes and steps to implement solutions.
- Not specifying the expected resources to implement the recommendations, providing alternatives to make them happen.
- Not prioritizing the SEO recommendations based on their expected implementation impact and difficulty.
- Developing a too long and difficult to understand document that takes too long to finish.
- Not establishing mechanisms to avoid the identified issues to happen again.
Developing an actionable SP2 SEO audit
To avoid these SEO audit “challenges” I try to follow a set of principles to develop the SEO audit for actionable and impactful SEO recommendations, what I call the “actionable SP2 SEO audit“, because of the 2 S’s and P’s of the principles to follow:
Using as an input the Website and business context and goals, that will both allow to better prioritize those recommendations that are more impactful from a business/conversion perspective as well as better communicate the value/impact of the proposed SEO actions to the decision makers to gain their support.
Taking into consideration that the outcome recommendations that will be defined in the SEO audit will be driving a continuous SEO process, that needs to be prioritized due to budget, resources availability and flexibility as well as time constraints and goals, that will end up being as a consequence needed to be developed following an iterative and incremental approach, and therefore, the recommendations need to be formatted to facilitate this.
Formatting it in a highly actionable way, by defining a clear scope and steps to take for each recommendation, facilitating the definition of the required resources and timings for their implementation by the different team members involved in the project.
Setting preventive measures to avoid the identified issues from happening again within the organization.
By following these principles when developing the SEO audit, it will have more chances to become actionable and impactful as described in the graphic below.
Here’s how you can apply each of these principles in your own SEO audits to help maximize their actionability and impact:
1. Context Aware: Take into consideration the site business and technical characteristics and restrictions
The context of each Website is a critical factor to be taken into consideration in your SEO audit, to focus your efforts on those areas that will tend to be more relevant based on the site specific situation.
You can’t expect to develop “standardized” SEO audits that address every scenario of very different types of Websites, of different sizes, business models, technical constraints, level of competition, budget, and SEO maturity and goals, that are also cost-effective and meaningful for all.
For example, the SEO audit and recommendations to be developed in the following scenarios will tend to be very different, prioritizing the validation and recommendations of different SEO areas and configurations:
- A recently launched, medium sized, national news site that is starting with its first SEO Process and therefore, has very low SEO maturity but a very high competition.
- A local B2B startup that has been already doing SEO for a while in the past and is looking for SEO support for a platform migration and redesign.
- A well established big multi-country/international marketplace looking to recover after a Web migration gone wrong.
All of these will help you to define the relevant scope of the SEO audit, especially if it’s the initial one of many, when starting an SEO process, that will be continuous and developed incrementally and iteratively over time, and therefore expected that you don’t include every single recommendation at the start, but provide them as the process progresses when relevant.
Because of all this the SEO audit should be targeted and prioritized for efficiency based on the site and project context, characteristics and goals. It’s then a must to gather and take into consideration these criteria when selling the audit to the client, to develop an SEO audit proposal that sets a right price for profitability as well as establishes the right expectation with the client regarding the scope, timing, input and resources required to develop it.
Remember that the goal of an SEO audit shouldn’t be to deliver a document of a certain length or with a specific number of validations, but to be a relevant and actionable source and driver of the SEO process to achieve the desired results.
Something fundamental is that to be able to do this effectively you will need the client/stakeholders input, feedback and validation when developing the SEO recommendations: don’t wait until you have finished to clarify existing doubts that arise when going through findings or data, as you might save yourself valuable time that can be allocated in developing other that would be more meaningful or feasible to implement.
2. Goal oriented: Validate and show how the issues impact the site revenue and results vs. competitors
Whether you’re analyzing something technical, content or link oriented, make sure to integrate rankings, traffic and conversions data to validate the impact of those configurations to the site business and project goal and show them in the SEO audit.
Although validating this will take a bit more of your time through the SEO audit -you can invest here the time you save by making them context aware-, it will allow you to:
- Better prioritize the recommendations that will have a higher impact to achieve results faster.
- Show the business and competitiveness impact of the recommendations to the decision makers -who will likely won’t understand about the technical side of the recommendations, but will about their potential revenue and being left out vs. your top competitors- and gain their support when deciding on the resources to provide for their execution.
This is now highly facilitated by the integration of rankings and organic search traffic and conversion data of technical, content and link analysis tools, like Ryte does below with its crawler.
Here are a few specific ways to first validate and then show the SEO recommendations impact towards the desired goals:
- Show all of the additional ranked queries -along their search volume- are being attracted by your competitors that you’re not because of non-optimized pages that are ranking worse.
- Show how much organic search traffic (you can use SEMrush) and potential revenue (use your own conversion data) your top ranked competitor is getting from their version of the pages you’re not able to optimize and are not ranking as well for.
- Show how much that organic traffic (the one attracted by your competitor with their version of the pages you wish to improve) would cost if you were running ads to get it by using AdWords CPC. Nothing better to show how expensive paid search is vs. SEO to get support for implementation.
- If you’re suffering from cannibalization issues as a consequence of pages not being optimized to target their relevant queries, attracting rankings/traffic w/ non-relevant ones: Show the poorer conversion rates vs. the ones attracting traffic w/ relevant keywords instead.
- If you have well optimized ranking pages similar than the ones you want to improve, featuring comparable type of information, targeting queries of the same nature, show the difference not only in rankings and traffic but also conversions between them.
- In case of structural changes that have caused a rankings drop: Show the traffic, conversions and revenue that the pages with issues used to get before and you’re missing now.
3. Solutions focused: Describe the cause of issues, how they are found and steps to solve them
For every issue or opportunity that you identify in the SEO audit, it’s fundamental to develop specific recommendations to tackle it, by describing and documenting not only what causes it and how it is found, but also how to solve it given the particular context of the Website in each of the identified scenario, to facilitate their execution.
This is also again facilitated -although not replaced- by a few tools -like Ryte in the example below- that prioritize the identified issues in the crawl, and explain what they are, why they are not correctly configured, their evolution over time and how to fix them in a general way, which can be used as a reference/input to accelerate your analysis:
However, to make the recommendations as impactful as possible for your own Website context and project goals, and easy to follow by the stakeholders in charge to execute them, you need to segment the issues based on the different scenarios and types of pages/areas where they are found and provide specific actions to take in each case to solve them, showing how to do it.
Here are a few steps to follow to make your SEO audits solutions focused:
- Detect how the identified issues/opportunities are generated and where they exist, in which pages they’re happening and the scenarios.
- Segment the analysis by area and type, to identify their role on the site and assess the required action to fix them.
- Describe what’s the ideal state of the identified issues vs. the existing ones on the site and how they’re generated and found across the different scenarios with screenshots, which are a must to document them, not only to facilitate their visualization, but also to leave proof they actually existed.
- Identify and show the importance and impact of the issues towards the site rankings, traffic, conversions and project business goals, if possible, also showing how the competitors who are doing it as you’re recommending at the moment are outranking you.
- Include a step by step to execute the desired recommendations, linking to support resources and search engine’s specifications, featuring examples of how each of the identified scenarios should be fixed based on their role on the site, and extra measures to avoid them to happen again in the future.
- Provide specific examples of how the provided SEO recommendations are already correctly implemented by competitors in the way that you’re specifying, to show that is actually possible to do it, and give an extra incentive to do it so.
- Attach all the relevant data that you have found in the analysis, segmented by scenario, to facilitate that the issues are fixed across all of the instances.
By following the previous steps, you will not only increase the chances of your recommendations implementation, but will also decrease the potential doubts and mistakes in the execution.
4. Resource specific: Include the expected resources to implement the described actions
Connect each of the established SEO recommendations with the expected types of resources required for their execution, in order to facilitate their:
- Viability validation with the client/stakeholders when they are delivered.
- Resource allocation and planning to implement them through the SEO process.
This can be highly facilitated by requesting the relevant Website technical and resource related characteristics and restrictions to the client/stakeholders before the SEO audit starts -when collecting information in the sales process when validating the fit/viability of the project-:
- What’s the platform used for the site? Is there a CMS used?
- What configurations can be changed through the platform CMS and what needs development support?
- What’s the flexibility of the configurations? What can be done in bulk?
- Are there any types of restrictions whether technical, content, business or legal wise to take into consideration?
- Are the technical/content/marketing/PR/etc. resources in-house or through another agency for which it will be required additional coordination?
Based on these already known site characteristics/restrictions and flexibility/availability of resources you can define for each given recommendation what type of “expected” resource will be needed for it: content, technical or link building related.
At this point, these should be a reference that will serve to see if for example, most of your recommendations will require technical or content support, to highlight it in case you already know that there are no content resources allocated for the initial months, or that if for example, you know that redirects cannot be implemented through the CMS interface directly, you specify that you will need development support to execute them.
It’s important to note that the specifics of the required resources will be define further later on, once you share the SEO recommendations with your clients/stakeholders and you can validate with them the actual number of hours needed for each, how viable it is to have these resources allocated for their implementation, how much time will it take based on that, etc.
Additionally, it’s also advisable that for known complex to implement recommendations, for example, hreflang annotations for multi-country sites, you mention potential execution alternatives and their connected resources in case they differ a lot, to be able to validate them with the client when delivering the SEO recommendations right away, to identify the best one in the specific case of the site. Like this the decision making process regarding their viability based on the required resources can be facilitated.
5. Prioritized: Focus the SEO recommendations based on their impact towards goals and difficulty to implement
It’s fundamental to prioritize each of the established SEO recommendations to start with those actions that on one hand will tend to have a bigger influence in the rankings/traffic/conversions/goal achievement of the project, and on the other, are also easier to apply given the site characteristics and restrictions, in order to bring the desired results faster.
To try to keep it simple although still meaningful, to prioritize, I use the relative impact and difficulty of each recommendation towards the SEO audit and project goals.
It’s usually easier to set the expected implementation difficulty of each recommendation based on the input of the client regarding the existing resources and platform restrictions -that should be later on validated with the client/stakeholders when delivering the recommendations-.
However, it tends to be usually harder to establish an expected relative impact for each recommendation, for which I try to balance both the purely SEO criticality and site business goal:
- The search popularity/volume of the queries that the pages with the issues/opportunities target: Giving more weight to those that target more popular/searched for queries.
- The role of the affected pages in the site goal: Giving more weight to those that play a direct role in the site conversion/business goal, for example: For an ecommerce/transactional site, optimizing category pages will tend to have a higher influence towards the business goals than the support pages.
- The criticality of the specific SEO opportunity towards the pages rankings: If it’s a fundamental SEO configuration that is not optimized at all -like, blocking the crawling of category pages of an e-commerce site- it will have a higher weight than others that although important might not be so fundamental and critical towards rankings -like implementing structured data for products ratings and reviews-.
The initial “ideal prioritization” using only impact
In order to facilitate the prioritization process what I do is to first list all the recommendations in a Google Sheet as you can see below, to first assess an ideal prioritization using only the “impact criteria”. So, for each recommendation I specify the following as columns/fields for each of the recommendations that will be included in rows:
- The affected areas: where in the site are the recommendations going to be implemented.
- The SEO effect: High, medium or low.
- The Business importance: High, medium or low.
- Current Optimization: How, medium or low.
The combination of these 4 will allow me to define each recommendation relative impact vs. each other, and based on that establish an initial “ideal priority” as an outcome for them, like if there was no difficulty at all to implement them, being the 1 the first to be implemented, in an incremental order.
I like to initially have this “ideal priority” to show to the client later on the difference between what the ideal implementation order would be vs. the one we end up having applying also the recommendations implementation difficulty -to update about the expectations on results and on what could be additionally done if all recommendations were viable-.
Additionally, in case you know the business development methodology and development workflow works, once you have an ideal recommendations priority using only their potential impact, you can also define the “Ideal SEO iteration to include each recommendation” too, that will serve similar purposes of the “ideal priority” described above, to compare how the ideal implementation iterations would look like in an “ideal, no difficulty/restrictions scenario” vs. the one you end up having.
Although we might want to define the “ideal” priority using only impact at the start, we need to also specify the needed support to implement them, to take them also into consideration for the difficulty later on: Whether from a content, technical and link building perspective, which should be included as additional columns/fields.
Note how even at this point, depending on the type/scope of SEO process that we’re working on, we might want to leave some SEO recommendations out of the priorities, if we realize when assessing their impact that it would be too low in comparison with others, and would only add noise and will complicate the implementation of the other much more impactful recommendations.
This initial “ideal prioritization” phase using only the impact is included in the SEO recommendations list -now matrix- below, within the black marked area.
The “expected prioritization” using impact as well as difficulty
After setting the “ideal prioritization” using only the impact of recommendations, we can establish the “expected prioritization” for which we will use also the expected difficulty to implement each of the recommendations.
So based on the required resources that we have already established for each of the recommendations, and known existing restrictions within the business and Website, we will establish an “expected implementation difficulty” for each, that will can be low, medium or high.
After the expected difficulty is defined for each recommendation, we can then use it and combine it with the previously established “ideal priority” (for which we only used the recommendations impact) to establish an “expected priority” and do the same with the previously established “ideal SEO iteration to include it” to define an “expected SEO iteration” for each too.
Note that the ideal priority (and the SEO iterations to execute the recommendations at) shouldn’t change much if the expected implementation difficulties are low, however, they will change in the relative priority order if they have a medium or high implementation difficulty.
For example, if the high impact, 1st ideal recommendation to implement has a medium difficulty, and the 2nd ideal recommendation to implement -that has also a high, but slightly lower impact-, has a low difficulty, their priorities will change, and the 2nd will become the 1st.
Note how the “expected priorities” are shown in the SEO recommendations matrix above within the blue marked area.
The “validated prioritization” established after delivering the recommendations along the client/stakeholders
Finally, it’s always safe to assume that even if we have a good understanding of the business and website restrictions and existing resources, we will tend to have yet another change in the SEO recommendations priorities: the one to be done after we deliver the SEO recommendations and we validate them together with the client/stakeholders, which will be the final one.
It’s also recommended in this case to leave the “validated prioritization” as new fields in the SEO recommendations matrix, since we can like this compare them with the expected as well as ideal ones.
Note how this SEO recommendations matrix including their prioritization will also serve to guide and coordinate their implementation.
More SEO audits prioritization systems
It’s important to note that as with mostly everything in SEO -and in life- there isn’t a single way to prioritize SEO recommendations, and there are many useful SEO audits prioritization systems. In fact, the awesome Chris Green recently published a post about What we Learned from 1,000+ Tech SEOs About Tech Priorities going through a few of them, in which I had the pleasure to share mine and I highly recommend you to take a look at it so you can also see other potential systems to use.
6. Concise: Fast development and delivery of an easy to understand document
All the SEO recommendations established as an outcome of the audit, should be included in a document that you should share and present to your client/stakeholders when delivering the recommendations.
To facilitate going through it, the document organization should be also prioritized, using the “expected recommendations priority” set before, starting with the most impactful and less difficult recommendations that you expect that are implemented first.
You can leave out those that you haven’t included in the SEO recommendations matrix, that are whether not impactful or too difficult to implement -you might want to mention this when going through the SEO recommendations priorities, to let know the client/stakeholders that there’s much more to do, just not as critical of what you are delivering to be done at that point to maximize results-.
The SEO recommendations document should be concise, self-explanatory and easy actionable, reflecting the “solutions focused” approach described before, specifying along each recommendation:
- Why it is important?
- How does it affect the site rankings/business goals?
- Where it has been found and how is generated?
- How they can be avoided to happen again in the future?
- Which are the steps to execute them in each scenario?
- The expected implementation impact
- The expected implementation resources
- Its priority within the SEO process
It’s suggested to include a summary “table” at the start of each recommendation, that should address the questions above, thinking that anybody involved in the project can read it and should understand what the recommendation is about, why is important and have a clear view of the steps to take.
You can use the SEO recommendations matrix as a summary/index of your SEO recommendations document including the page number of where each recommendation can be found within the document.
You can also additionally leave the page information in the SEO recommendations matrix to have as a reference for the project coordination, and add also other relevant information to plan and manage their execution, like the person in charge and implementation testing and launching dates.
Like this your SEO audit deliverables will facilitate to go through and understand the recommendations, as well as to facilitate their execution process later on.
It’s also highly recommended, that instead of just sending the SEO recommendations documents to your client/stakeholders, you present the findings and recommendations to go through them together, clarifying directly there any existing doubt, especially if there’s no or little SEO experience within the organization.
7. Preventive: Establishing mechanisms to avoid the identified issues to happen in the future
Last but not least, there’s something critical to establish across all of your recommendations: how can you avoid the same issues to happen again in the future?
Whether these are caused by a platform bug, previous restriction, non-supported functionalities or an editor mistake, are there any measures that can be taken to prevent them to happen in the future? Validation or filters to be included within the system or editors workflow? Specify them in each of the SEO recommendations as preventive measures to take to avoid them from happening again once they are fixed.
It’s also recommended to do SEO trainings to the team involved -you can even record it as a webinar so it can be rewatched many times as wished by them- and develop manuals and guidelines for them to follow -besides doing automated validations within the system- whenever there’s any change that can generate the already fixed issues.
Moreover, once you agree on an implementation process schedule, it’s critical that you set on-going SEO validation mechanisms that are aligned to the existing development workflow, so you can validate the changes before they are released, after they are released and at a continuous basis.
Many SEO crawlers, provide also features to schedule automated validations at an ongoing basis, that you can set to use and align with your implementation launching schedule.
Additionally, you can also use SEO alerts tools like ContentKing and LittleWarden for real time monitoring of the most critical SEO related configurations, that you can also connect with your own project management system, and be alerted whenever there are configurations changes that affect important areas of your site, so you or your team can take actions fast.
By doing all this you’ll be able to proactively identify SEO misconfigurations before they generate any negative effects.
What next? The SP2 SEO audit resources for you to copy and use!
By following these principles when developing your SEO audits they will become more strategic, prioritized, solutions focused and proactive (the SP2 approach), becoming more easily actionable and impactful, to help you achieve the desired SEO process results and success.
To help you to start with the SP2 SEO audit, I’ve documented the previously described resources in a Google Sheets that you can copy here.
Here you fill find a summary of the SP2 SEO Audit Principles:
As well as an example of the prioritized SEO Recommendations Matrix:
And more SEO audit Resources, with the Checklists and How-Tos I mentioned before and SEO Tools you can use for your analysis:
If you have any questions, doubts or would like to share your own SEO audit approach, feel free to leave a comment! My best wishes for your SEO audits and process in 2020 🙂