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Update 2014 – This post was published over 2 years ago – and that’s a long time in seo. Google has since released aggressive spam algorithms to deal with some of the practices I discuss in this post. making some of my complaints less relevant in 2014. The subject of this post (at the time) annoyed me that much I put a cost on my own seo audit (which focuses on only the most important ranking factors). I also created this free seo audit tool for beginners to seo, so they can quickly give their own site a ‘free’ audit. If you are interested in learning about seo, your best bet is to start with my how to do seo guide, my link building strategies primer or my unnatural links advice, which is more up to date.


I sat in a meeting recently when a ‘newish’ client – showed me a free “seo audit” for the website I have been employed to promote for the last few months.

Apparently, it failed, just about everything.

It failed W3C validation tests. It’s H1-H6 elements weren’t optimised properly. Download speeds could be optimised. Some pages titles like the ‘About” page needed optimised more. Apparently I wasn’t hitting the correct keyword density on every page. Apparently I didn’t have the correct amount of text on every page. No Xml sitemap. No sitemap. Apparently also my meta descriptions weren’t optimised for click throughs. I hadn’t even went through the 200 pages and emphasised text in bold and italics.

In short – client site failed this seo audit.

Of course – a seo salesman doesn’t come around to your offices in the middle of nowhere to tell you your site is fantastic and you dont need him. All it takes is 1 hour and an seo audit and a seo salesman to make an ignorant client a bit nervous about what’s actually going on.

The person who ran the seo audit actually didn’t detect the last 4 months work that’s been done to improve rankings across the board – including making the website rank for the most valuable single-keyword term ( with 33,100 exact match searches a month – one of the top 250 transactional terms we have identified we need visibility on) to number 4 in Google – from a start position of nowhere in the top 100 results.

It will be tough to get to number 1 even with this legitimate site as there is at least 2 websites aggressively spamming search engines with assured stellar results. This one keyword captured - ranking progress illustrated below – is actually this month’s top performing keyword though.

I’m lucky the types of clients I have trust us to know what’s important.

A seo campaign goes something like this at Hobo. You pay us £XXX a month or employ us for 6 months or a year and we’ll do the above – i.e. improve the visibility of your site in the top trafficked keywords results pages – to lots of keywords in your niche. How much you spend with us will determine how many hours in the studio you get. We’ll get your site on the top ten listings for as many of the most valuable keyterms in your niche if it is at all possible within that budget. How competitive your niche is – and how hard the competition is spending – will determine how long it will take to win battles for top rankings on money terms.

The only thing we can promise is we will work hard and try to make your site accessible, relevant, trusted and ‘popular’.

Immediately after we’ve carried out keyword research, we’ll ADDRESS THE MOST IMPORTANT ON-PAGE ELEMENTS FIRST and we’ll start to get links to the site – as it is LINKS THAT MAKES RELEVANT PAGES RANK in competitive verticals.

Every site is different – every campaign start-focus is slightly different. We’ll follow search engine guidelines as closely as possible to ensure any improvements will be long-term.

For me the most important on-site aspects are PAGE TITLES - especially if they are terrible to begin with – (but often I might leave them till later – if they are relevant and reasonably well formed), visible and unique ON PAGE TEXT CONTENT & INTERNAL Links.

I don’t do keyword metatags – I dont bold keywords unless it seems natural – I don’t do H1 headers WHILE there are page titles to ponder or links to get. I dont do H2 + H3 – I wont make the site valid html at this point either – because even if it IS a small benefit to seo – this importance pales in comparison to getting some quality links – and I have tested both sides of the story etc – etc etc – I dont go near that stuff until I am sure the important stuff I highlighted above is rolling and the client is seeing keyword rankings improve and then traffic and conversions up.

Sure, there’s a time to look at minutiae, but it’s rarley this early in a campaign for me.

With over over a decade experience doing this sort of thing, if someone needs me to get a site ranking for certain keywords in a VERY competitive niche –  gives me £1000 budget – @10 hours work – I am NOT going to spend those ten hours making a site pass a validator test or some fancy online seo tool – or it will be a short contract indeed.

I am NOT going to make sure each page is keyword stuffed in H1,H2,H3H4,H5,H6 tags.

If I saw anybody in the Hobo studio spending time working out the keyword density of a page I would be disappointed to say the least.

I am NOT going to spend the rest of those hours making a site download a second faster. I am NOT going to go through pages making the odd keyword BOLD.

In short – I am not going to waste a clients budget – especially at a time in the contract when the client is expecting to see some rankings changes. I am going to focus on the important stuff and the important pages.

A SEO who sits and wades through a site ticking all of these GRANULAR ‘seo factors’ is fooling themselves they are doing a days SEO work – or that these subtle changes will have a massive impact in a competitive SERP.

They might well be working hard – but ask yourself – what’s more important – a proper H2 tag or a link from another REAL website? I know what I would take. Why would I EVER waste time thinking of H2 tags or other minutiae if my job is to rank for an ultra competitive term or long tail variations of it when I know a link is better? Why twaek an H2 when I could publish a new post targeting a slightly different keyphrase?

I like to use my time better.

Some SEO may win business with a 5 minute seo audit and then proceed to make that websites seo ‘score’ perfect. Most of the tools available these days offer some sort of on page seo analysis – no doubt to give the perceived value of added benefit of paying their monthly fees) – and then the seo proceeds to make the site get a 100% score based on that audit.

The seo can then can say to a client – hey – look at your score! We have optimised your site! We have done what we said we would – this is industry best standards! Now pay up.

Problem is of course with an approach like this – the client’s primary keyword is often still on page 6 of that competitive serp.

WHY? Because the competition isn’t wasting time on the minutiae you have been slogging away on. And Google isn’t using the same seo score your seo is.

The type of seo who uses such tactics have probably fooled themselves into thinking they are working hard – or that the seo they are doing is “legitimate seo’ – and it suits search engines themselves to encourage this philosophy and encourage people to build a better site rather than spam their search engine. Do anything – just dont build links.

SEO deployed in this manner in a competitive niche is akin to putting a go-faster stripe on a ferrari to make it, ummm, go faster.

While you are bolding your keywords your competition is linkbuilding their way – and sometimes outright spamming their way – into top positions in search engines. Some seo know this – some don’t.

Not all seo tools are crap. But most seem to report back on lots of near-pointless stuff – JUST BECAUSE THEY CAN. It makes these types of tools ‘more valuable’…. they do ‘more stuff’.

Ask for INDEPENDENT proof why optimising H1 tags will make a page rank higher. Ask for documented proof why you should bold your keywords. Ask for documented proof why having valid HTML will outrank invalid pages ranking top in Google today. Ask just why a 300 word article outranks a page with 3 words on it - or in some cases – doesn’t. Ask why those competitors are ranking above you and what search engines are doing about it.

If you are in a competitive niche – ask where your primary keyterm will be in Google after you take an already reasonably optimised site and make all these seo tweaks which could suck the life out of an entire budget…. and see if your seo’s guess in six months is anywhere near accurate.

Google apparently uses over 200 factors to rank a page, each dialed slightly differently every day, to keep the search engine results an enigma to crack.

If I had a choice of being told those two hundred factors or have ONE SLIGHTLY KEYWORD STUFFED PAGE and the right 199 links…… I would take the latter every day.

SEO auditing as part of an ongoing campaign, focusing on the important aspects of SEO, with BUDGET in mind, that recommends the most cost effective course of action, to get the most reward quickest, is invaluable.

Beware of free seo audits – most can be run off in 5 minutes using or SEO Powersuite or SEOmoz - (which aren’t total crap it’s fair to say – SEOMOZ at least discriminates against important and less important factors).

What I AM saying is lots of seo tools will get you focusing on elements of your pages when your time is probably better spent getting some decent links to your site – some local quality links for a start – or just adding more pages of actual text content to your site.

If your site isn’t performing in Google or Bing – try some keyword research, followed by optimising your page titles and internal links based on this and then beef these pages out with a little more relevant content – all the while – adding NEW content –  and then try and get some links to your site.

I stepped back from blogging in 2011 to concentrate on work – but it would take a sh*tload of tweets to pump this out……

All the best for 2012. :)

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24 Responses

  1. Dave Doolin says:

    Awesome. Seriously. While I’m a huge believer in getting all that other stuff handled (and I use meta keywords for my own purposes), I also believe the site owner or blogger or whoever should handle that stuff themselves. It’s just basic website operations. Passing the html/css validators makes sense regardless of SEO, for a whole raft of reasons.

    • Shaun Anderson says:

      I am very interested in W3c code from an accessibility point of view – not ranking in Google. :) THat reminds me – I should really check this site – not done it in a while……

  2. Brian Mathers says:

    Hey Shaun A good post to start off 2012, and I agree with some elements of what you say not to spend too much time on. But, I am little confused when you make reference to the audit tools which you say you should not trust in this article, yet in your post that reviews the seotools of 2011 these same tools are listed as being ones you think are good to have around and ideal for the small business owner. I have experienced during 2011 some technical SEO issues that saw a site with some really bad coding causing W3C errors, CSS errors, 404 errors etc, and through a chat with some friends over at Google Webmaster Tools and then getting the website agency in question to ‘fix their code’ improved the site’s performance. In amongst this, there was also an issue of having too many ‘tabs’ on 1 page. For example a description of a product, followed by a specification tab, followed by a testimonials tab etc. and so the page was trying to fly with 4+ tabs associated with 1 URL page. Part of the exercise therefore was to reduce back to 2 tabs and fix the other lines of code, and wallah, the page done much better. This post of yours is good and like I said it covers things I agree with, but sometimes if us or the Hobo team are forced to work as SEO online business growth specialist’s with 3rd party web design teams then the problems could be that we are faced with a shoddy CMS platform that was badly coded from the outset. So apart from what we know works to make a website fly, we could be up against it of the platform does not make the grade. What do you think?

    • Shaun Anderson says:

      But, I am little confused when you make reference to the audit tools which you say you should not trust in this article, yet in your post that reviews the seotools of 2011 these same tools are listed as being ones you think are good to have around and ideal for the small business owner.

      Yes. Most seo tools I mentioned report on the important stuff – and the unimportant stuff. I am try to say focus on the important stuff – not getting a 100% on these tools scoring charts. :) Regarding your second point about getting an agency to “fix their code” – yes. I do as well. But a web page in competitive niches rarely makes a big jump in Google rankings because of minor code tweaks. UNLESS these code tweaks focus on very important – hitherto unaddressed – aspects of SEO process. :) I hope that makes it a little clearer…… :)

  3. George Thomas says:

    Great article. SEO without the BS at its best!

  4. Alex Newell says:

    Funny really how ritualistic and unscientific most peeps are with their “SEO”. You reminded me of Jill Whalen who explodes with irritation from time to time about SEO trivia. :-)

    • Shaun Anderson says:

      I respect Jill. When she is not moaning about White Hat SEO stuff…. but I do like her moaning about other stuff :)

  5. Froggystyle says:

    Can you please clarify what you meant with: “Ask just why a 300 word article outranks a page with 3 words on it – or in some cases – doesn’t. ” Are you saying that 3 word pages can do as good as 300 words?

  6. Sandra Newton says:

    Great read, thanks for telling it like it is! Although somewhat discouraging when trying to beat competition that is using tactics that Google supposedly penalizes.

  7. Bill Kruse says:

    Trouble is, quality links aren’t easy to get. You can blow that grand’s worth of your time easy and have nothing to show the client for it. Well, you tell them, the secretary of the footie club’s on holiday, the chamber of commerce said they’ll come back to you after meetings and haven’t, the guy who runs the local directory says they’ll give you a link but haven’t and you can’t get hold of him… etc. etc. If the site’s not had any on-page done then you can take a rank check, then some pointed on-page will see it rising in the rankings and then you can show the client you’ve done some work and they can see visible results too. That builds trust and you can do it on your own. You aren’t reliant upon third parties as you would be trying to follow your linking advice. Many clients simply don’t have time to create content to order (they’re a Godsend when they can though :-)) , many clients won’t be interested in buying links from the local football club or while they sorta might be they’ll be too busy to actually ever get back to you about it. While you’re waiting for everyone you’re sitting on your hands. When you’re working with a busy small client, you’re on your own and on-page is one way you can get on with something. Sure we all know the value of a grail link but I’d lose clients right left and centre if I ignored obvious on-page in favour of link-chasing. Note I say chasing, which is what proposed link-building often turns into.

    • Shaun Anderson says:

      Hi Bill – you must be spamming toO many blogs for links – your name is sh*t in Akismet lol….. :) You make very good points. You’re referring of course to my local links advice – that was to get ideas juices rolling…. and in fact – tactics I have used for various clients in the past. Quality links by their definition are hard to get – but sometimes even the smallest sites can pick up the good links they deserve. If not – I see lots of sites ranking very well indeed with zero quality links and lots of crap.

  8. Tyler says:

    How much stock was your client putting into this free SEO audit, despite the very real and tangible benefits you’d provided? In my experience, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, and a FREE REPORT is even more dangerous, in the wrong hands.

  9. gerheart says:

    Thanks for the info. It really helps an SEO newby who is overwhelmed by all the statistics that seo tools are throwing at him to concentrate on the important stuff first.

  10. Miguel @TallerSEO says:

    Sí señor. Se puede decir más alto pero no más claro. It can be said louder but not more clear. You’re right on those magazine readers SEO clients but it’s the time and the situation we are working every day. Just a little more acknowlegde and experience will show clients to focus on real important things.

  11. Rich says:

    Great rant Shaun and nice to have my own opinions confirmed by someone with your wealth of practical experience. I especially love the bit debunking Google’s so called SEO advice, which is basically advice on how to build a search engine friendly page and gives no advice at all on how to rank well, it’s all stuff any competent webmaster should be doing anyway. Just reposted this on Sitepoint where there are plenty of people who could benefit from this post, keep up the good work! How about a post on how to analyse a competitors backlink profile ;) Rich

  12. Palla Ramarao says:

    Though I’m not a SEO expert, but I really like your article. But somethings you said like “bolding, italicizing keywords etc and putting H2-H6 headings” might not help. Well, just from innocence I’m asking do they really do not help? Bcz, many SEO tools say to do it that way! Also what about the Panda Update? Can you rank for keywords even after that update? Please loot at my site and can you give me SEO suggestions you think can increase my traffic (apart from quality content). Of course free! If I like your suggestions, I’ll think of doing business with you.

  13. James Holden says:

    Plenty of good points here, and it’s how we play it too. Our first month typically includes some on-page recommendations, usually brain-dead things like making sure the page title includes the product name and category, but only the low-hanging fruit is worth doing. I’m not going to land my client with a £1500 developer bill for a load of pointless fiddling. As long as the obvious on-page stuff is done and we have access to the CMS, we’re all set. Then it’s content and links.

    • Shaun Anderson says:

      Exactly. If I was paid the years budget in one month – or an unlimited budget – I would sure as hell make it valid html etc but that’s not the way real world works.

  14. Illiya Vjestica says:

    Shaun you’re a legend! I couldn’t of said it better myself. You are 110% correct, god do I wish every SEO and digital marketer had this view point on providing their services. I agree that links are one of the most important factors and certainly there is no benefit at all in wasting a clients budget fixing every single page on their website so it’s perfectly optimised. I educate my clients so they are aware of what areas we are working on and most importantly why. I don’t think I’ve ever just done optimisation work without some form of link building. I must also read your blog more often. It’s great stuff. Happy New Year! Hopefully see you around at the conferences.



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