Disclaimer: Every situation is unique. This outline of the elements of a content and onsite SEO audit discusses the common first points I look at with unpenalized sites hoping to increase their traffic. If you have a penalty or other serious issues, this list is not exhaustive and will not cover all the areas you will need to research or methods to employ.
Last month, I started my three-part series on conducting an SEO audit on your website. The purpose of auditing your site regularly is to ensure that you’re not only protecting yourself against penalties or technical oversights, but that you’re taking full advantage of the content you’re providing (from an organic SEO standpoint in this context) and that you’re “forcing” yourself to keep updated on shifts in users and terms as well as changes in the overall algorithms.
As mentioned, this audit is divided into three parts of which this is part two. Part three will be available in four short weeks. The parts are:
- Technical SEO
- Content (or “on-site”) SEO
- Off-site SEO
In today’s installment, we’re going to be looking at content and onsite SEO. Last month we looked at technical SEO to help ensure that the content is given the weight and credit it’s due.
Of course, if that content is poorly optimized or if you haven’t taken the time to properly research what people want or how they’re looking for it a technically perfect site (if there’s such a thing) will still not do you much good.
So let’s dive right in and answer the question, “How do you make sure you have the right content optimized the right way?”
1. Understand the purpose(s) of your content
The first step of the on-site optimization audit process is to divide your content into purposes and develop a strategy around each. A typical product or service site should have content geared towards one of the following three purposes:
- Conversions. Obviously, the most important content on your site is that which drives your conversions. This content will primarily be focused on leading people down the conversion path, and the SEO strategy will generally revolve around terms a potential customer would use when they’re ready to jump into that funnel. If you sell blue widgets, for example, these pages would target terms like “buy blue widgets” or “blue widgets online.”
- Informational. Grabbing users when they’re ready to enter the conversion path is great, but also important is grabbing them before they even know what they want or before they are are aware of other solutions. For this reason, most successful sites will have content focused on informational queries, targeting terms like “what are blue widgets.” Content like this is useful for bringing users to your site early in the process of — or even prior to — considering purchasing a product or service. It also serves to address questions a user might have if he or she is already on your site and unfamiliar with all that blue widgets can do.
- Link & social baiting. I’m going to be getting into this in far more detail in part three of this SEO audit series, but it’s important to develop content for the purpose of attracting natural links and social signals. This purpose can occasionally be combined with the informational content, but you really need to consider the format that will appeal to each user. A user looking for information may simply want a page with direct answers and various use cases, whereas a potential linker or sharer would likely be interested in something a bit more dynamic. So while occasionally a single piece of content may appeal to the two purposes, you’ll often have to create two or more pieces with the same core information to appeal to the different motivations.
To this end, it’s the duty of every SEO or site owner to audit the websites they work on to ensure they have content geared to at least these three purposes. If you don’t it’s time to think about how to add it and what it should be. Which leads us to …
2. Keyword discovery
There is arguably no step in the SEO process more important than keyword discovery. Many SEOs will argue that we are not in a keyword-driven universe anymore, and whether that’s correct or not, understanding what core terms have the highest volumes will guide the overall tone and wording of your website.
Keyword research will inform the targeting of key pages as well as let you know what you may be missing by illustrating terms that are searched that you may not have pages for.
There are a number of solid tools out there that assist in the discovery phase. My personal favorite presently is Moz’s new Keyword Explorer; however, if you have a lot of research to do and you don’t have a paid Moz account, it could get a little painful. In that case, you’ll likely fall back to Google’s Keyword Planner (which is still free for all users, despite recent rumors).
I tend to begin the process by querying every core term I can think of. In our example above, I would query “blue widgets” and perhaps just “widgets.” I would then think a bit outside the box and query terms that relate to my subject but are outside the specific focus. In our example, that would be terms like “red widgets” or “imaginary products.”
You then combine all your keyword data into one list, sort it by search volume, and start at the top. As you work your way down, indicate which of the three main types of content the term would be best suited to (I like using color codes).
Essentially, you’re taking all the keywords relevant to your product or service (and related products and services) and choosing whether the content type would be best suited to a conversion, an informational or exploratory user, or link baiting.
The next stage is to simply prioritize your keywords based on their value to you, ensuring that you’re building out a strategy that spans the three types of content your site needs and that you’ll be working on all three constantly. You need to schedule the development of the new content and determine how it will be added to your site.
If it’s informational or link/social bait, you’ll need to map out how it will be deployed outwardly and how you will treat the traffic on arrival. (Is the content just there to provide information and reinforce brand, or is there a plan to move visitors into the conversion funnel?)
3. Ask around
Keyword discovery is excellent in the crafting of a content strategy, but there will be holes — things you didn’t think to look up.
Get your sales and support teams (even if it’s just you) to document the questions they get asked, and research how you’re addressing these questions on your site (if you are at all). If a prospect who picked up the phone to call or emailed is wondering about something, you have to consider how many people have left your site to find the same information (did they return?) or are leaving the sites of your competitors in search of the same answers.
Once you know the questions, it’s a simple matter of researching keywords that might apply to a user in that stage of the conversion cycle and working it into your site. You’ll generally want to make sure it’s not just added to the site into a blog post, but rather as a functioning page or set of pages (“FAQs” or “Resources,” for example).
This is because you’ll want to make these pages available at other points in your conversion funnel where you might be losing people who are in search of more information. You want to keep them on your site, and you don’t want them going to sections that will distract them from getting back to their task at hand (buying your product or service).
This stage of the content auditing process needs to be a constant work in progress. You can never be done listening to your users, and you can never rest from it.
4. Titles & descriptions
At this point, you’ve redone your keywords as part of the SEO audit process. After figuring out which keywords make the most sense to target on which pages, it’s time to get to auditing your on-site SEO. So let’s talk titles and metas.
In the technical SEO audit piece, I referenced a tool called Screaming Frog. If you use it to crawl your site you’ll be able to view in it all the titles and descriptions (among many other things) and organize them by length and view them all in a list. This gives you a quick-and-easy way to audit your whole site’s titles and descriptions at once (for most sized sites) and figure out which are too long or too short and which simply don’t read properly or attract the eye.
But how do you know which titles and descriptions are problematic, and how do you address them? Let’s look at each individually:
The title tag is the single most important element on your page from direct and indirect SEO perspectives. It’s a heavily weighted page element as it’s generally what appears as the title of a search result making it the most visible element from a search engine standpoint. Further, it impacts your clickthrough rate which there is debate over but I personally consider it an SEO factor.
The visible title tag length has changed over time but is currently 70 to 71 characters, up from roughly 50 to 60 depending on the character pixel width.
Ideal titles vary based on the content type but the quest should always be to limit the length to the visible length in the SERPs. Title tags that display in the SERPs ending with “…” drive me personally nuts as they’re a sign that your marketing message did not get across. There’s a reason American Express has selected the slogan:
American Express: Don’t leave home without it
American Express: Don’t leave home …
If you fail to get your marketing message or page subject into the character limits you need to rework the titles. Worth noting, I tend to make some minor exceptions for CMS driven sites that append the company name, especially if the company name is long. Not ideal but if your title displays with the incomplete “…” where the actual page title is fully displaying and just the full company name is not, that’s not great but if it’s the minority of site pages it’s tolerable.
Another key rule with titles is to include your main keywords in them and preferably close to the front. For my blue widget site, I would likely title the homepage:
Buy Blue Widgets Online | SELwidgets.com
For an informational page, it might appear more like:
17 Tips for finding and buying the perfect blue widgets for your love | SELwidgets.com
Which would appear as:
17 Tips for finding and buying the perfect blue widgets for your love …
Ideally, you’d get your brand in, too — but at least the searchers will see the full title of the post, and you can save the branding for when they get to your site.
While the description tag has no direct SEO value it has significant impact on SERP clickthroughs and thus can be counted as an indirect factor. You have roughly 155 characters to play with.
The goal with description tags is to include the keywords in it to help ensure it’s selected to be displayed as the description in the SERP result and keep it to the visible 155 characters. Past that, the only goal is to write compelling copy that describes the subject of your page and entices the user in.
Remember always to consider where the user is at in their decision cycle when writing descriptions. If the page is targeting informational or early-query terms, like “what are blue widgets,” you want to invite users in with information, not a hard sell. If the page targets queries like “buy blue widgets,” then the description should have a harder sell and focus on value propositions. A good description for each would be:
Query: “buy blue widgets”
Description: Buy blue widgets online directly from SELwidgets.com. Free overnight shipping. Made in the USA. 10% Off until July 4th.
Query: “what are blue widgets”
Description: What are blue widgets? Blue widgets are a fictional product with a rich history of use. Find out the origins, uses and evolution on SELwidgets.com.
Titles and descriptions have always been and continue to be a balance between keyword use and SEO and click-throughs. They need to focus first on the clickability and second on their SEO value. Without both the user approval and the search engine approval, neither will be fully successful, so a balance must be struck.
5. Heading tags
Let me get a major pet peeve off my chest: Heading tags are not formatting elements.
Let me repeat and be very clear for all the theme developers and designers in the house who don’t yet know this…
Heading tags are page elements meant to separate content into sections. You can think about them like sections of a book. Here’s how they break down:
- H1 – the title of the book
- H2 – the chapter titles
- H3 – the sub-section titles
There is one title of a book, just like each page should have one H1 tag. It has one purpose and is there for one reason. Give it an H1 that makes sense, put it prominently above the fold, and make it the first heading on the page. The title of a book does not come after chapter 2.
The additional heading tags should be nested inside each other according to their position in the hierarchy. Again, visually consider how a book is organized, and do the same with your heading tags. Here’s an example of a proper setup:
Each tag nested inside one higher in the priority.
Headings should contain keywords where appropriate, but more important is to define each section. Let’s look at a scenario relating to the informational blue widget page above:
- H1 – What are blue widgets?
- H2 – The origin of blue widgets
- H2 – The different types of blue widgets
- H3 – Why blue widgets are more popular than red widgets
- H2 – The history of blue widgets
- H3 – Pre-computer use
- H3 – Post-computer use
- H2 – Blue widget manufacturing
- H3 – How blue widgets are made
- H3 – Why imaginary machines?
There’s a good use of “blue widgets,” but the focus is on dividing up the page into sections.
For those wondering about the initial rant — many designers and theme developers use heading tags as formatting elements. That is, they create a style for a heading tag and then use that tag when they want text in that style, regardless of whether it’s a heading of not.
This is a miserable thing to undo. So to any developers and designers in the crowd … please don’t do this. And if you already don’t (which explains why you’re on Search Engine Land), please accept my sincere thanks.
6. Content optimization
Interestingly, the actual optimization of the content has gotten more logical and dare I say “easier” over the years. In the early days of SEO (let’s call that any time before 2008) we targeted keyword densities. I still remember in 2004 knowing that 3.5% was an optimal level and if you hit it you were pretty much guaranteed a decent ranking as long as you had some type of link strategy in place. This made for horrible copy.
Thankfully Google’s understanding of language has evolved to a point where it’s not necessary nor desirable. This has made it easier for SEOs to write copy for visitors that the engine’s will like. There are still guidelines to follow but they’re far more natural.
When optimizing your content you need to obey a few specific rules. They are:
- Include your keywords where they make sense. There is no optimal keyword density at this stage however the engines do need to be aware that your page is relevant for the keywords and thus, they do need to be used.
- If you don’t have 250 words (and ideally at least 350) you probably don’t have a page. Consider combining pages or extending the content to be more complete. Pages with less than 250 words on a large scale can cause significant issues related to thin content.
- Think about words that would also be on page targeting those terms and make sure to include them. Take for example a page on “A complete history of New York City” targeting “history new york city”. This page would almost necessarily have the words “Queens”, “Brooklyn”, etc. If it doesn’t it’s likely not complete and Google will be expecting to see them. Your odds of ranking will go up even though the query doesn’t include those words – those words are simply deemed necessary based on their existence on other ranking authoritative pages.
This might seem simplistic but it works. Focus on complete content that uses your keywords and terms related to your subject matter. Don’t focus on keyword density, focus on the completeness of subject matter and user experience.
Now, we know how to optimize content but how do we audit it? That, unfortunately, is a task of time. You’re going to need to visit each page and read it as though it were your first time there. Think about being a user and what they would expect following a link to your page and question whether you’ve fulfilled their expectations or just your own (and hint: you’re not the person you’re trying to win over).
Auditing content is arguably one of the longest individual stages of any campaign and in some cases where the site is too large, can’t be fully completed.
If you have a very large site that makes auditing each page individually unreasonable or you have a blog with content that’s a decade old and not visited then you’ll likely want to focus more on auditing your relevant and visited informational and conversion oriented pages. Then you can simply let these rules guide new content pages as they are developed.
7. Image optimization
Using your images to both build relevancy for general organic search and rank on image search is a fairly straight-forward but too-often-overlook area of SEO. Screaming Frog is again a fine tool for pulling image information quickly and putting it all in one place though you could audit your images manually one-by-one as you’re visiting the pages to audit the content.
What you want to make sure you have done with your images is:
- Include your keywords in your filename but keep it to a few words. The file name should include any keywords that relate to the image. For example, the featured image of this post has the file name content-seo-audit.jpg. It’s simple and logical and matches the content of both the page and the image.
- Use alt text. The alt text is designed for screen readers so treat it that way. Assume your visitor is blind and describe as simply as possible what an image is of. If you want to use your keywords and it doesn’t make sense to, rethink your image selection as the alt text should always describe the image it represents.
- Optimize your images for size. Images tend to be larger in kilobytes than they need to be and this slows down page load times and impacts rankings. Most image editing programs have size optimization capabilities but if not simply ensure the image is the same size as it will appear on the page and shrunk as much as it can be. If you don’t have software that will shrink your images and strip out extraneous code there are free online tools like TinyPNG that do the trick. They tend not to be as effective as good software but far better than not optimizing your images at all.
8. Content repurposing (not really part of an audit, but worth mentioning)
I mentioned above that at times a specific piece of content can be used for multiple purposes but often needs to be reproduced in a different format to do so. Take for example a piece on the history of blue widgets. If you were looking to add an informational and authoritative piece to your site on the subject it would probably look a lot like a Wikipedia article. Essentially you’d be creating a page with a lot of information structured effectively.
If you wanted to create social or link bait content out of this subject matter however you would need to create something simpler to digest and more visually appealing.
To that end you may turn the raw facts and data into an infographic or slideshare or, if you’re Rand Fishkin, explain it in a Whiteboard Friday video and enjoy the default few thousand shares and links it’ll get. Either way, you’ve only had to do the research once then produce the content multiple times which is generally the faster part of the process.
The purpose here is not to rank both for the same query but rather to rank each for the phrases their audience would be searching and further, to appeal to a different audience and purpose entirely. The video or SlideShare or infographic, for example, may never rank organically and may need to be nudged forward with some paid social or other manufactured push to start the ball rolling on acquiring the links and shares you’re looking for where the informational piece would be more likely to rank organically.
In the end however, you’ll have additional content that appeals to a different segment of your content purpose and because it’s based on past research it tends to be faster to produce. When you can get wins across the board on user experience and SEO value you’re in luck and provided the initial subject applies to more than one content segment/audience – repurposing is a highly effective method for getting more done faster but keeping the quality up when done right.
As mentioned above, specific scenarios require specific solutions but the points mentioned here tend to work across the board and apply to virtually every site.
Properly auditing, reviewing and rethinking your content isn’t a silver bullet to the top positions but with the technical SEO squared away and now the content taken care of, next month we’ll discuss link building and with all three in place you’re well on your way if not already there.
I invite your comments and questions over on Facebook. If you have additional points you believe should be added that apply to everyone looking to optimize their onsite copy feel free to make note of it.