Jill Whalen’s Top Ten Questions She’d Ask a New Client

Here’s a selection of some of the questions I ask and why they’re important to the overall SEO process:

1. What web analytics program do you use, and can we have access to it?

Web analytics are the key to measuring the current level of SEO success (or lack thereof). They’re also the key to determining whether any future SEO implementation is helping to bring more targeted traffic. Therefore, it’s critical for me to have access to this information regardless of the level of SEO service I’m providing. If you use Google Analytics (GoAn), it’s very simple to add new users to the account and in most cases it’s fine to provide report-only access (rather than admin). Along with GoAn, I also ask for access to the client’s Google Webmaster Tools (GWMT) account. These days, if you have GoAn access, you can usually add the same website to your GWMT account as well, which makes the process easier.

2. What’s the purpose of your site and who is your target audience?

This is a seemingly simple question, yet it often stumps many clients. Some of them will cop out: “Well, the purpose of our site is to sell our product.” And your target audience? “Umm … anyone with a credit card?” Not very helpful. If you don’t have a good handle on who the people are who are buying your products, how will your SEO consultant help you bring those people to your website? An SEO consultant needs to have a clear picture of who you are because everything we do hinges upon this — from the keyword research to deciding what type of content needs to be written, to how you might want to attack social media marketing. If you’re an SEO consultant, I urge you to push for deep answers to this question.

3. Are there any other domains or sites that you own or control, or that you used to use instead of the current domain? (Please list them all.)

This information is important so I can assess any duplicate content issues. I need to know whether that other site I found that is using nearly the same content as yours is owned by you, or if someone scraped yours. I also need to know if you’re using multiple domains as an SEO strategy (so I can smack you!). I added this one to my questionnaire when I kept finding doorway domains or other sites that my clients *forgot* to tell me about. Even those who really do forget or who purposely don’t tell me about their additional domains aren’t getting away with anything. I usually end up finding them during my website audit process. So if you’re a client, do us both a favor and come clean from the start. This will save us all some time down the line! (And I was just kidding about smacking you :)!)

4. What have you done so far (if anything) about optimizing your site?

My favorite answer is to this is “nothing” because that means we’re starting with a clean slate and have nowhere to go but up! But most clients these days have done at least some rudimentary SEO. While I can usually spot any on-page optimization, it’s helpful to hear it from you. Sometimes, the things clients say they’ve done (e.g., created keyword-rich Title tags) don’t actually seem to be done when I look for them. That tells me that your idea of SEO and mine may be quite different, and it’s good to know this up front. It’s also good to know if you have already been through a string of SEOs and what each of them has done to the site during their tenure.

5. Is there anything that you may have done that the search engines may not have liked regarding previous optimization efforts for your site?

This one is sort of an addendum to the last one for those who may have *forgotten* to tell me any bad or spammy things they (or a previous SEO) may have done. While they may have not mentioned anything spammy in the last question, this gives them the opportunity to add anything that they weren’t quite sure was on the up-and-up. Very often, the client may think something was bad or caused problems, when it’s actually innocuous. Other times, there can be a big mess to sort out — e.g., all kinds of paid-for spammy-anchor-text links. As an SEO it’s helpful to know right away where to focus my efforts.

6. List the websites of your three biggest competitors. Why do you feel they compete with your site?

I like this question more for the second part than the first. It’s always interesting to see why people think another company or site is their competitor. Very often, the only reason people think it is that the other site shows up in the search results for the keyword phrase that the client wants to show up for! While that may make them your competitor, it also may not. It may simply mean that you’re shooting for the wrong keyword phrases. It’s also very helpful to look at competitor sites to see how they’re set up and whether they seem to have done much in the way of SEO or not.

7. What do you feel is your most unique selling proposition (USP)? Why would these clients come to you as opposed to anyone else who offers the same or similar products and services? What’s different or better about your product or service?

Hat tip to Karon Thackston for these questions, because they are ones she always asks before doing any copywriting for a website. Along with who your target audience is, these are some of the most important questions for any client to think about and answer. Sometimes a client will have a great grasp of this and provide lots of valuable information, but more often, the best they can come up with is that they are “more friendly” than their competitors. In today’s competitive marketplace and search results (especially since Google’s Panda Update), it’s critical to be able to differentiate your products and services from the rest. And even those who have an excellent grasp of this don’t always make it clear to the users of their website, which is something that will need to be fixed.

8. After a potential customer visits your site, what specifically do you want them to do?

This is a wonderful way to understand what the various conversion points of your website are. If your only answer is “Make a sale,” then you likely need to add some other smaller conversion points, such as signing up for a newsletter or updates, following you on social media, filling out a contact form, calling you, etc. As an SEO you need to know what all of these points are so that you can make sure that the client’s web analytics are set up to correctly capture all the conversions, and that the website is properly leading people to complete those conversions.

9. Do you have social media accounts (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Google+) and if so, what are your user names?

This is important to see if and how they’re using social media. If they’re not using it at all, as an SEO, you must determine whether they should be. If they are using it, a quick review of their accounts will show you exactly how they’re using it. For instance, you’d want to look at whether they are simply tweeting out links to their own content via an automated feed, or if they are also interacting with their audience. This will help you devise an appropriate social media marketing strategy for them down the line.

10. Is there anything else you may have that you think will provide a more complete picture of your site?

It’s always a good idea to have a final, open-ended question such as this in case the client forgot to tell you anything within their previous answers. You may learn all kinds of things that you would not have otherwise learned without asking this question.

Those are the most important ones that should get you started. While you can ask all these in person or on the phone, I find it extremely helpful to have it all in writing. It also provides the client with the opportunity to think about their answers and get additional input from others within the company, as necessary.

SEO Audit Checklist

This checklist is extremely comprehensive and can aid new and existing SEOs on preparing a technical audit for their clients.

The checklist goes through the following areas:

  • Content
  • Duplicate Content
  • Accessibility
  • Site Architecture
  • Technical Issues
  • Canonicalization
  • URLs
  • Internal Linking
  • Title Tags
  • Meta Tags

 This might be a great start for those looking to really tear apart their site from a technical and web developer point of view, when considering SEO challenges.

We all want to deliver actionable site audits, but doing the research can be a bit overwhelming if you don’t have a process in place to systematically go through a site. I have created a site audit checklist that will walk you through how to do a site audit. This will work for most sites – in many cases you will need to customize the checklist a bit as some aspects won’t be relevant or are unable to be changed.

Make sure to look at really important pages (high priority landing pages, pages with a lot of links, pages flagged by crawl tools, or pages that the client has specifically asked for help with) in addition to the template pages.

At the end of your audit, don’t write a document that says what’s wrong with the website. Instead, create a document that says what needs to be done. Then explain why these actions need to be taken and why they are important. What seems to be really helpful is to provide a prioritized list along with your document of all the actions that you would like them to implement. This list can be handed off to a dev or content team to be implemented easily. These teams can refer to your more thorough document as needed.

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Quick Overview

Check indexed pages
•Do a site: search
          •How many pages are returned (this can be way off so don’t put too much stock in this)?
          •Is the homepage showing up as the first result?
          •If the homepage isn’t showing up as the first result, there could be issues, like a penalty or poor site architecture/internal linking, affecting the site.

Search for the brand and branded terms
•Is the homepage showing up at the top, or are correct pages showing up.
          •If the proper pages aren’t showing up as the first result, there could be issues, like a penalty, in play.

Check Google’s cache for key pages
 •Is the content showing up?
          •Are navigation links present?
          •Are there links that aren’t visible on the site?

PRO Tip:  Don’t forget to check the text only version of the cached page.

Content

Homepage content
•Does the homepage have at least one paragraph?

Landing pages
•Do these pages have at least a few paragraphs?
          •Is it template text or is it completely unique?

Site contains real and substantial content
•Is there real content on the site or is the “content” simply a list of links.

Proper keyword targeting
•Is the intent right?
          •Are there pages targeting head terms, mid-tail, and long-tail keywords?

Keyword cannibalization
•Do a site: search Google for important keyword phrases.
          •Check for duplicate content/page titles in the SEOmoz Pro Campaign App.

Formatting
•Is the content formatted well and easy to read quickly?
          •Are H tags used?
          •Are images used?
          •Is the text broken down into easy to read paragraphs?

Good Headlines on Blog Posts
•Good headlines go a long way. Make sure the headlines are well written and draw users in.

Amount of content v ads
•Since the implementation of Panda, the amount of ad-space on a page has become important to evaluate.
          •Make sure there is significant unique content above the fold.
          •If you have more ads than unique content, you are probably going to have a problem.

There should be one URL for each piece of content
•Do URLs include parameters or tracking code – This will result in multiple URLs for a piece of content.
          •Does the same content reside on completely different URLs?

Do a search to check for duplicate content
•Take a content snippet, put it in quotes and search for it.
          •Does the content show up elsewhere on the domain?
          •Has it been scraped? – If the content has been scraped, you should file a content removal request with Google.

Sub-domain duplicate content
          •Does the same content exist on different sub-domains?

Check for a secure version of the site
          •Does the content exist on a secure version of the site?

Check other sites owned by the company
          •Is the content replicated on other domains owned by the company?

Accessibility

Check the robots.txt
           •Has the entire site, or important content been blocked? Is link equity being orphaned due to pages being blocked via the robots.txt?

Turn off JavaScript, cookies, and CSS
          •Use the Web Developer Toolbar
          •Is the content there?
          •Do the navigation links work?

Now change your user agent to Googlebot.
•Use the User Agent Add-on
          •Are they cloaking?
          •Does it look the same as before?
          •Check for 4xx errors and 5xx errors.

Site Architecture

Hierarchy
          •Are category pages set up in the appropriate way to flow link equity to key pages?

Landing pages
          •Do they have landing pages high enough in the architecture to receive enough link equity to compete for competitive terms?

Number of category pages
•How many category pages are there?
          •Have they been scaled out too much?
          •Category pages should be built out only when there is enough demand for new or sub category pages.

Pagination/Faceted Navigation
•Is pagination or faceted navigation more appropriate? Or, should they be used in tandem?
          •Does pagination exist to help long tail content get indexed?
          •Is the pagination prohibitive to crawling (uses JavaScript).

Number of clicks to content
          •Pages targeting really competitive head terms should be one or two clicks from the homepage.
          •Pages targeting moderately competitive keywords should be 2 or three clicks from the homepage.
          •Pages targeting the long tail should be 5 clicks away (obviously exceptions must be made here for sites with a ton of content).

Prioritized content
          •Most important content should be higher up in the pagination

Proper use of 301’s
          •Are 301’s being used for all redirects?
          •If the root is being directed to a landing page, are they using a 301 instead of a 302?
          •Use Live HTTP Headers FireFox plugin to check 301s.

Use of JavaScript
•Is content being served in JavaScript?
          •Are links being served in JavaScript? Is this to do PR sculpting or is it accidental?

Use of iframes
•Is content being pulled in via iframes?

Use of Flash
•Is the entire site done in flash, or is flash used sparingly in a way that doesn’t hinder crawling?

PRO Tip:  Flash is like garlic. A little bit of garlic in your food can make it taste better. Eating a plate full of garlic would be quite terrible. Likewise, Flash can be added to a site in a way that improves the user’s experience, but creating the entire site in flash is not a good idea.

Site Speed
•How long does the page take to load – Is it significant for users or search engines?
          •What improvements can be made?

Alt text
•Is alt text present?
          •Does the alt text use keyword phrases?
          •Does the alt text reinforce the topical themes presented in the content?

Check for Errors in Google Webmaster Tools
•Google WMT will give you a good list of technical problems showing up on your site that they are encountering (such as: 4xx and 5xx errors, inaccessible pages in the XML sitemap, and soft 404’s)

Canonicalization

Canonical version of the site established through 301’s

Canonical version of site is specified in Google Webmaster Tools

Rel canonical link tag is properly implemented across the site
•Make sure it points to the correct page, and every page doesn’t point to the homepage.

Uses absolute URLs instead of relative URLs
•This can cause a lot of problems if you have a root domain with secure sections.

URLs

Clean URLs
•No excessive parameters or session ID’s
          •URLs exposed to search engines should be static.

Short URLs
•115 characters or shorter – this character limit isn’t set in stone, but shorter URLs are better for usability.

Descriptive URLs
•Get your primary keyword phrase in there.

Internal Linking

Number of links on a page
•100 is a good target, but not a rule.

Vertical Links
•Homepage links to category pages.
           •Category pages link to sub-category and product pages as appropriate.
           •Product pages link to relevant category pages.

Horizontal Links
•Category pages link to other relevant category pages.
          •Product pages link to other relevant product pages.

Links are in content
•Does not utilize massive blocks of links stuck in the content to do internal linking.

Footer links
•Does not use a block of footer links instead of proper navigation.
          •Does not link to landing pages with optimized anchors.

Good internal anchor text

Check for broken links
•Link Checker and Xenu are good tools for this.

Title Tags

Unique title tags
•Every page should have a unique title tag.

Keyword rich
•Pages should contain the primary keyword phrase.
          •Is possible to use the secondary keyword phrase in a non spammy way?

Primary keyword phrase at the beginning of the title tag

Page titles include branding
•In most cases the brand should be included at the end of the page title to help build a brand or entice users if you are a well known brand

65 – 70 characters in length
•If the title is longer than this, the entirety will not be displayed in the SERPs.
Have they been keyword stuffed by someone else?

Meta Tags

Meta keywords tag used
•This data should be removed as competitors can scrape this data.

Meta description is appropriate
•Each page has a unique meta description.
          •Meta descriptions are representative of the content and entice users.

Rewrite meta descriptions for key pages
•For key landing pages, write meta descriptions by hand instead of systemically implementing.

Meta robots tag
•Noindex pages only appropriate pages.
          •Not blocking important pages.

Compliments of Geoff Kenyon