How to interpret and prioritise a technical SEO audit
Technical SEO work, in particular for large, complex websites with long histories and ever-evolving inventories and resources, is paramount as a foundation to organic growth. As websites evolve and companies grow, designs may change and migrations to new CMS platforms or servers may occur. Involving technical SEO work to preserve crawling, indexation, visibility, share of voice, and rankings (among many other things) throughout this process is vital, and certainly not a one-off venture.
However, there are of course instances where large, overarching technical SEO audit projects that take a fresh look at things at a certain point in time are necessary. This could be after a big migration, a product launch, or simply when there is a requirement to improve organic performance if you don’t currently have the resources to do so in-house. Parachuting in a third party to help with a fresh pair of eyes can also be useful in finding technical SEO issues and opportunities you may not be aware of.
So let’s set a possible scene. You commission an SEO agency or a consultant to provide an in-depth technical SEO audit across your website. You have a rough idea of what some of the issues are, though you encourage the supplier to approach the audit with a fresh outlook. All relevant tooling access is granted and they’re ready to go full steam. You may even use the phrase “leave no stone unturned” when advising them on their approach.
After an allotted amount of time, you receive a large document with a whole host of findings, issues, and recommendations. The document may be an Excel spreadsheet with multiple tabs containing issue counts across thousands of URLs separated by issue type, or in an equally expansive PDF or Word document. Some of the issues may be prioritised based on impact and effort, though often the document may be open to interpretation.
As a stakeholder for a large website who is looking for consultation on direction from the technical SEO auditor, and not just a giant list of issues, it can be hard to know where to start. There can be a tendency in the industry to audit websites and note down issues using a checklist or template-based mantra, which simply won’t address the nuances or needs for individual websites to improve their organic performance.
With this in mind, we’re going to guide you through ways in which you can effectively interpret such far-reaching technical SEO audit documents and action them with the desired subsequent growth outcomes. While no website will be the same in terms of what fixes will objectively have the biggest impact on the site, there are some common crucial areas of technical SEO you should give attention to. If your audit document isn’t a prioritised list, there are also methods you can apply which can give you a steer on what will have the most impact, which we’ll detail later.
Yet spending your time digging up priorities from a third-party audit document shouldn’t be the case in the first place. Let’s look at what we can do to alleviate that from the offset.
Onboarding and providing the proper guidance
We’re all very busy, and it can be easy to hire a technical SEO supplier, give them a brief overview of what you want to achieve, and expect them to return with a list of actions that roughly falls in line with what you want commercially. Taking this approach, however, can often leave us with a “telephone book” of recommendations where we don’t know where to start. The areas covered in the audit may be unfeasible from a technical perspective (perhaps due to CMS restrictions) and may cover areas of the site that aren’t significant commercially.
Even if your chosen supplier has access to your Google Analytics and other tooling suites which provide data on traffic, conversions, and where things need improving, there can still be capacity for misfiring.
That’s why it’s crucial to onboard the relevant team members from the agency or consultancy at the kick-off stage, with all the relevant stakeholders from your side. This should be team members from the development or product teams, as well as marketing in general. Treat your supplier like an arm of your team and involve them in as much detail about your business and technical set-up as possible.
Here are some crucial nuggets of information you should provide them with from the start, to make sure you get the best out of them:
Has the website had any changes done to it (i.e. replatform, migration)?
What development cycle do you use?
Can we have a list of all of your owned properties (for data extraction)?
What are the key money pages and what products on the site generate the most revenue?
Are there any areas of the site that are particularly in need of growth?
Are there any areas of the site that shouldn’t be looked at and are deemed low priority?
Are there any restrictions in the CMS or codebase in terms of what can and can’t be implemented?
What dev resources are available to implement recommendations?
What is the overall SEO history of the site: have there been previous agency engagements? What about link building campaigns? Any previous Google algorithm hits or other penalties?
What are your business’s goals for the year for organic growth?
Are there any brand guidelines you can share that may impact some of the site changes that may be proposed?
Now you may be thinking: in an ideal world, these are the type of questions you’d expect any agency worth their salt to be asking themselves during the kick-off phase. This might not always happen, however, and given it’s your investment there is some degree of onus on you to ensure you’re providing the right guidance to your supplier.
The last thing you want in your inbox is a list of technical SEO recommendations that you either can’t implement due to website restrictions, or that cover areas of the site whereby there’s no buy-in or commercial appetite to apply resources to. Worse still, you certainly don’t want the recommendations provided to eventually have little-to-no impact on your site. There are a lot of areas under the technical SEO umbrella that can be easily flagged up as “errors”, though fixing them may not always make much of a tangible difference. Achieving a perfect health score on a third-party SEO tool isn’t the way to proceed.
Each site will differ in what may have an impact, though next we’re going to look at some common, high-priority technical SEO issues that should be covered in most audits.
What areas should technical SEO audits usually cover?
There are lots of elements of technical SEO that could be touched upon in any given audit, and it can be overwhelming. Outside of familiar areas such as response code errors and broken links, you have things like:
crawling and indexation issues
under-optimised internal linking
missing alt text tags
mismatched canonical URLs
broken HTML elements
The way in which you approach a technical SEO audit, whether your supplier has prioritised or categorised the list of issues or not, should be looked at through the lens of several key areas.
Crawlability and indexation
When actioning a technical SEO audit, the final objective should always be to improve performance in rankings, traffic, and revenue. However, before jumping ahead to areas that sit more on the “front end” of these improvements, we need to get under the proverbial hood. A website that has major issues that prevent certain areas of it from being properly crawled and subsequently indexed by Google will never rank well in SERPs, regardless of how good your content is and how good your backlink profile is.
The backbone of any technical SEO audit should always be focused on optimising for crawling and indexing friendliness. There are a number of areas that affect this, some of which can be simple fixes to files and code across the website, while some can be more complex overhauls, particularly for large sites.
Robots.txt and other noindex directives
Many websites may have certain sections they don’t want search engines indexing for various reasons. This may be to hide gated/paywall content, or perhaps even manage crawl budget optimisation, which we’ll touch on shortly.
There may, however, be areas that are inadvertently being blocked from the index using certain robots.txt rules or through the use of on-page noindex tags, for whatever reason. If this is the case, a quick priority fix from a technical SEO audit should look at lifting these embargos and making these pages or resources crawlable by Google and other search engines.
Sitemaps & site architecture
Part of this section of the technical SEO audit should include a review of your sitemap set-ups. Sitemaps are XML files. They sit on domains that are submitted to Google via Google Search Console to encourage crawling and to provide hints at priority pages. Quite often for large sites, it’s common to have multiple sitemaps that cover different areas of the site that may be all linked under one master sitemap index.
These can quickly become difficult to maintain as websites change and pages are removed and redirected. They can also be a hotbed for crawling and indexation issues for international versions of your pages if you’re uploading your hreflang tags to them, and the localised versions of your sites differ vastly.
A good sitemap audit should look at things like the removal of response code errors, redirecting pages, and a general listing of up-to-date priority pages that are in line with the website’s architecture.
On the topic of site architecture, a technical audit should look at ways in which crawlability can be optimised by how the website’s URL structure is mapped out. Is there a clear hierarchy of pages and does the website follow a nice, clean folder structure with good internal linking and breadcrumb journeys? While suggesting an upheaval of a site’s overall URL layout can be a mammoth task in terms of planning and implementation, it may be recommended for the long run if the current URL structure isn’t crawl friendly.
Crawl budget is a term you’ll often hear in SEO channels these days, and it should be a theme that runs throughout any good technical SEO audit. The topic is particularly relevant for large sites, where some areas are deemed more important than others when it comes to courting Google’s attention.
Firstly, part of a technical SEO audit should include an analysis of the website’s log files and server requests. This will provide priceless insight into where search engine crawlers, namely Googlebot, are spending their time. Continuous crawl hits and server requests from Googlebot on unimportant web resources, or perhaps 404s and 301 redirect chains, or indeed in areas of the site we don’t care about compared to others when it comes to rankings, can be indicators of where improvements to crawl budget can be made.
Fixes on aforementioned areas such as 404 errors, 301, 302 response codes, duplication issues, and multiple internal redirects can be made to aid this, though to encourage a more optimised use of crawl budget there may be a need for managing indexation or even cutting down on content and resources that are causing indexation bloat.
Other critical areas that affect indexation
While we may have gone into some detail on the above three points, there are plenty of other critical areas of technical SEO that may impact your site’s crawling and indexation prowess. They are also deserving of your attention.
Missing canonical URLs: if a URL is missing a canonical tag then this may impact on its indexation by Google. Canonical URLs are also an important part of managing crawl budget and potential duplicate content issues on large sites.
Orphan URLs: does the audit show a large number of URLs that aren’t linked to across the site? This can be a major factor in deciding indexation and indeed ranking.
Invalid elements that break the <head>: if there are invalid HTML elements or tags in your site’s <head> document, it will be difficult for search engine crawlers to render content and important meta tags on the site.
Redirect chains: a common feature of large sites that may chop or change their content or move product inventories over time. These can deter search crawlers from reaching the final destination page at the end of a chain, which can impact indexation.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, though it reiterates the need for technical SEO audits to have crawling and indexation as key themes throughout. While certain technical SEO tools may inform your suppliers of a whole host of issues, one other theme they should look at is what Google itself is saying. How are pages being indexed by Google around certain search terms using advanced search commands? Do the recommendations align with errors and reports shown in Google Search Console?
Fixes by realistic ranking potential
Again, we want to ensure that technical SEO audits aren’t simply extensive checklists that cover all areas of the website that result in huge effort with smaller comparable reward. If you’ve steered your agency or consultant in the direction of areas of your site that are important commercially, then it’s up to them to unearth a list of recommendations from a technical SEO perspective that result in the target pages realistically performing well in the SERPs.
For example, if there’s content on the site that has large search volume opportunity tied to it, though the page in question isn’t performing well on Google, then technical SEO fixes (be it improved internal linking, page speed optimisation or improved title tags) should be moved up the priority chain.
Similarly, if there’s a selection of key money pages or high search volume pages that currently sit on the second or third page of Google, then look at optimisations from the audit linked to those pages and get fixing. If the technical audit recommendations extend into content tweaks based on keyword insights (outside of title tag and meta description edits), then these types of quick fixes are worth going for.
Fixes by technical effort and resource requirement
As part of the onboarding process, the third party should be clued up on what your development resources look like and what restrictions you might have in terms of changes. Along with expected improvement metrics for certain pages that follow a theme of priority, fixes should be provided with an estimation of resource and effort too.
Instead of looking at individual fixes traversing an endless list of pages, fixes should be consolidated together and assigned to individual pages so that they can be tackled in bulk.
A good technical SEO audit should take into account efficiencies and quick wins across the site, while dealing with some of the meatier, resource-heavy recommendations that are vital to improvement.
There is no silver bullet when it comes to technical SEO audits
If we haven’t made it clear enough, then it’s important to remember that while there are plenty of checklist type lists for technical SEO audits that cover far-reaching areas of SEO, these won’t take into the nuances and required focus areas of individual websites.
Still to this day, you may come across the occasional technical SEO audit that is simply a repurposed export of a Screaming Frog crawl, lumped on a stakeholder’s desk with little context or direction.
The onboarding process is paramount to avoiding this and ensuring you’re getting the best out of your time and money with your chosen supplier. Do everything you can to make sure that the audit you receive hones in on crawlability and indexation as an overarching theme, considers realistic outcomes from its recommendations, and is smart in suggesting fixes that can be tackled in bulk when considering your tech stake and resources. Suggested implementation timelines are also important elements of a good tech SEO audit, and should follow a logical pattern in ensuring optimised crawlability from the offset and throughout.