What does an SEO audit for websites in development consist of?

As it happens with most professional disciplines, the key to providing the best solution to a problem is to establish an accurate diagnosis first. SEO is not an exception to this rule, so conducting the appropriate diagnosis task will be essential for any SEO project’s future. An SEO audit is the concept used to name such diagnosis task.

Search Engine Optimisation professionals face vast types of scenarios when auditing a website. Each project is plagued with its own peculiarities, making it more or less unique as opposed to others. Nevertheless, we can still classify SEO audits into several different types, using as our primary classification criterion the moment in time the website to be audited is currently in, in terms of its “lifecycle”.

In other words, the key to determining what the audit is going to consist in will depend on whether 1) the website in question is going to be made from scratch; 2) the website is going to experience a heavy transformation altering its URL structure (migration); or 3) it’s an already published website, whose managers simply want to see how well it is optimised for search engines.

The first two cases will entail some web development tasks, either to create a whole new site, or to implement some changes to an existing one. In both cases it will be crucial to consider the possibility of a professional supervision over all aspects linked to on-page relevance in terms of SEO. Such supervision will be carried out in parallel to web development tasks, which is why it’s been baptised accordingly, as SEO audit for websites in development.

In the following paragraphs, we are going to delve into the peculiarities and features generally defining this type of SEO audit, which can be divided into two variants: with or without URL changes.

SEO audit for websites created from scratch

Sometimes, web projects are born with a powerful handicap from the start: project owners or managers have thrown themselves onto creating a website, fully based on aesthetic criteria, or the simple goal of publishing as soon as possible, to start gaining profits off the investment, forgetting entirely about any aspect related to optimisation and later promotion.

In these cases, some days or weeks later, they find themselves in the situation of thinking “my new website is published, and now what?”. This sudden slap of lucidity, unfortunately usually coincides with the moment, in which the owner or manager of the website realises that “somehow” their account of results isn’t overflowing with income from this newly launched online channel, the corporate e-mail’s inbox or the telephone number aren’t on fire as a result of the exorbitant demand, and a brief look at the Google Analytics or Google Search Console accounts reveal an unexpected absence of traffic.

Such sad landscape is sometimes accompanied by the inaccurate belief that the person who was in charge of the creation of the new website was supposed to have sufficient knowledge on search engine optimisation, and that taking care of these aspects was considered as part of the set budget. This mindset couldn’t possibly be farther from the truth.

Regardless of the reasons which have lead to the situation described here, the good thing is we’re always in a position to correct the issue, but our budget will take a hit, and it will mostly be due to our lack of planning. This is because a considerable part of the required corrections to our site will imply additional expenses for correcting something, which had previously been done. O, in other words, it will result in hiring additional hours of work from the web developer.

Planning is key to your success. It is of essence to include SEO into your planning and investment budget from the start.

If you’re reading this post and you were thinking about opening up a new website, you’re just in time to avoid falling into the error described above. Planning will be the key to your success. Including SEO into your planning and investment budget will be essential. Therefore, from the moment of the web project’s conception we should start thinking about a double track of work, which will have to be in permanent symbiosis: the web development team and the SEO team.

There’s also the possibility that the owner of the future website might not want to use an external firm to create and design the website, with the task being assumed by an internal department. There might even be a scenario, in which a company has enough resources to fully take on all projects areas and keep them in house. In this case, we’d be talking about an interdepartmental coordination. Be that as it may, all parties involved will always have to coordinate, and both the development and the SEO teams will have to transmit the information to all the people involved in the project. The SEO audit will be the transmission belt, ensuring the work flows in the right direction.

The SEO audit will be the transmission belt making the work flow in the right direction.Click To Tweet

Everything will start with the appropriate briefing meeting, during which all the parties involved in the project will pool their points of view regarding the starting point, and how the upcoming work phases should progress. This meeting is important to reach a consensus on how the SEO audit’s phases are going to integrate with the website’s design and development. It goes without saying that not all web development firms follow the exact same methodology and phases. Keeping up with a flexible attitude, being open to consensus and understanding of the other party’s work flow will be very important, and will favour an optimal coordination from the beginning.

Although each project will be a different challenge, and each team will follow its own work paths, we could say there are, at least, some common work points that are usually followed to a greater degree, in most web projects. For this purpose, we are going to use as reference the phases described by Fernando Maciá Domene (Human Level’s managing director) in Chapter 4 of his book Advanced SEO techniques:

SEO audit for website in development: work phases

As shown in the above timetable, the three most common work blocks are the tasks, which begin with the aforementioned briefing meeting, up to the definition of the information architecture. Then, the development team takes over and starts with the prototyping, ending with a pre-production. At this stage, the intervention of the SEO team is key to verify the indexability, to ensure the different search engines can access all the information we want them to see, without any obstacles, whenever the site is published.

The final block of work will be the insertion of content. We will replace the automatic filler texts by real and optimised texts, before finally proceeding to the long-awaited moment of publishing the website.

The final block of work will be the insertion of content on the website.Click To Tweet

SEO audit for websites in development with a migration

The other type of SEO audit for websites in development are those where the scenario becomes a little bit more complex. We won’t be working with a website created from scratch now, but a website that is either going to be moved to a new domain, or is going to stay on the same domain, but will experience massive changes, which will end up affecting to a greater or lesser degree how its URLs are formed.

Below, we are going to group the reasons for which a website may be moved, into three major points:

  • Domain change: while it’s not the most frequent scenario, sometimes a company might decide to acquire a domain, which is more commercially interesting. It can also happen when a domain is acquired by another company, different to the original owner, and it chooses to change the domain, without giving up the existing content on the original website.
  • URL changes due to a CMS upgrade: a rather common situation where the CMS on which a website has been developed doesn’t allow the generation of user-friendly URLs, and a CMS version update, or even a full CMS upgrade can result in this scenario. Undoubtedly, the URL change will be for the best, but the process must carried out carefully, if we don’t want to end up turning our website into a bunch of 404 error pages for search engines and users. In this case, we’ll need to count on professional advice to minimise all possible negative effects this URL change can cause.
  • URL changes due to a server system change: sometimes, even if our domain and CMS stay the same, we might end up with our URLs being altered. This situation may arise when we see ourselves forced to change our server, to improve its download speed, security level, geographic proximity to our target audience, economic reasons, etc. In this case, we could face the issue of the previous server’s language not matching the language of the new one. Something as simple as a change in the server programming language can lead to changes in URL extensions (from .aspx to .php, for example). We will, therefore, face a secondary effect as a result of server change, if the two don’t use the same language.

A website migration will always require some additional effort to minimise possible negative effects resulting from this change. And in the proposed scenario, it will be up to the server admin team or company, who will need to coordinate with the client, the design and development team, as well as with the SEO team.

The primary goal will be to try and preserve the current visibility levels already reached by the website, minimise the hypothetical traffic losses, as well as maintain the current popularity.

These will obviously be the most immediate goals, but any changes we make are aiming to improve the current situation, so in the mid to long term we’ll expect for the rates prior to the migration not only to be preserved in terms of SEO, but also to see our results grow, thanks to monitoring our on page and off page improvements, after completing the migration process.

A migration will always have its own peculiarities, associated to each specific project. Nevertheless, alluding, once again, to the Advanced SEO techniques book by Fernando Maciá Domene, we can establish the following work points for any project of this nature:

SEO audit with a migration: work phases

Just as in the previous scenario of an SEO audit for a website in development, in this case the first step will also be a briefing meeting, where all parties involved in the project will work on a common planning and schedule.

Moreover, at this stage it’s highly recommended to prepare a document putting together all the best SEO practices, to put in force in the coming weeks, with regard to the website’s programming, which will serve as a common reference guide for all parties involved.

Another task we should not overlook during this initial phase of the SEO audit will be the collection of all key performance indicators’ data prior to the implementation of changes. This KPI measurement will allow us to clearly see the situation before the migration, and be able to compare this valuable information with the data we get once the work has been completed. We should get data on the following indicators: indexed pages, rankings for existing pages in search engines, search terms for which the website is ranking well, inbound links, qualitative and quantitative traffic indicators, etc.

A task we should never overlook during the first phase of an SEO audit for a website in development is the collection of key performance indicators before any changes are made 📋☑Click To Tweet

The next work block after the briefing meeting will be to identify the pages, for which we need to set 301 permanent redirects. To do this, we’ll look over pages with good rankings in search engines, pages getting the most organic and direct traffic, as well as pages getting the most traffic coming from quality inbound links.

Similarly, we will need to identify the target pages for our 301 redirects, that we talk about in the above paragraph. We’ll have to choose pages, which are as similar as possible to the original page. Same as in the previous stage, we have to choose and prioritise target pages based on their similarity:

  • Same product or service provided on both pages. This would be direct link between the original page and the target page.
  • A relationship between substitute products or services, when there isn’t a direct link, like the one described in the previous point.
  • If there are no substitute product or service links either, we could redirect to a page belonging to the immediately previous level in the architecture hierarchy. It could be a category or subcategory in which the original product or service appeared.
  • If neither of the previous conditions is met, the target page for the 301 redirect will be the root page of the domain. This way, at least some possible inbound links to the original page will lead to the root of the domain. But this should always be our last resort, and it should be applied on a low number of pages. The reason for this is that we could be creating a huge amount of redirections to the root of the domain, which in Google’s eyes could be seen as a soft 404 errors. The search engine doesn’t like that at all. Therefore, when we can speculate that the volume of redirects to the root of the domain is going to be high, we should opt to make 410-type redirects, which will indicate to Google that the URL is not available, and it’s never going to be. In this case, the original URL will simply cease to exist forever.

From there on, we will enter a phase, where we’ll have to supervise how the old domain’s deindexing is working out, and how the new domain’s indexing is progressing. If the migration didn’t imply a domain change, but a change of CMS or programming language instead, we’ll still have to keep a close eye on how things gradually evolve in terms of indexing/deindexing. We can use file name extensions or subdirectories to compare the volume of indexed or deindexed pages in each website version. Here, the use of Google Search Console will be very helpful, regardless of our particular scenario, to see how the volume of indexed and deindexed pages varies.

In the following phase, we’ll have to ensure that we’ve been able to preserve our previous popularity levels. 301 redirects programmed up until this point will allow us to preserve the popularity obtained from external websites to a greater degree through inbound links. Nevertheless, it’s highly recommended to create a list of all backlinks we have had previously, and order them by their importance. This way, we will identify the most relevant ones and see how these are currently linking our site, to verify whether an update should be in order.

If we detect that, for example, the anchor text can be improved, as well as alt or title attributes (when it’s an image), or that the current link would benefit from a URL update, we can contact the linking site’s webmaster or owner, in an attempt to request an update to the external link, specifying the exact changes we consider necessary for them to carry out.

There are different criteria we can follow to establish which inbound links are more valuable to us. While it’s true that the PageRank of the website of origin have become difficult to determine, the thematic correlation between the linking website with our own site continues to be a very relevant aspect. Obviously, links originating from websites with a presumably high level of credibility will also be extremely valuable (TrustRank). Same thing will apply to links coming from websites, which contribute a significant traffic volume with their referrals, and in that sense, Google Analytics can will be our most important source of information for getting this data. Moreover, if our company belongs to a large corporate group, or we have strong ties to businesses, whose websites link our own, we should strive to update these links, and thanks to this very convenient relationship, it should be relatively simple to do it.

All this criteria will allow us to elaborate this ranking of inbound links ordered by their importance, to be able to thoroughly review and update them. This way, we will be fully able to continue benefiting from their popularity juice with our new website, as we did before.

Finally, if our domain has changed, a few months later we will have to remove the redirects from the old domain. Albeit each project is unique in its own way, we could be talking about a period of between 4 and 6 months before being able to safely remove these redirections. Nevertheless, regardless of the time that’s passed, we’ll never go through with this, unless we’re certain our SEO indicators are correct. Here’s where our pre-migration KPI measurement will come in handy, because now we’ll be able to compare this data to the parameters registered by the new website.

This arduous but important process will grant us the assurance that the changes have been carried to term successfully, and with minimal penalty risks from search engines. From there on, we’ll be ready to take on the next challenge, which will consist in getting our SEO indicators ready to experience a stratospheric rise.

Miguel Ángel Culiáñez
Autor: Miguel Ángel Culiáñez

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