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Manual vs. Automatic SEO Audits

When I was a consultant, one of the first things I would ask a potential new client is if they’ve had an audit performed on their website. On more than one occasion, I was provided with a printout of the audit from a tool, usually proprietary, that just listed a bunch of stuff without much in the way of context, or consideration for how the client operates, or their short- and long-term goals.

This is not uncommon. Hell, search for “seo audit” and other permutations of the term, and you’ll find ads from companies offering free SEO audits or software companies like SEMRush and Ahrefs advertising their audit capabilities. Does this make them worthless? Of course not. They can actually be a pretty decent barometer of your site’s health, and can be used in various ways to effect change (as we’ll soon see).

Example of a standard site audit from Ahrefs

But can it truly have the same impact as good ol’ fashioned manual work performed by expert SEOs chained to a radiator in our basement? Well, let’s just say you should call the police soon, ‘cause they’re not feeding us and I can’t keep doing this much longer.

I mean no, of course not. Let’s find out why.

First of All, What is an SEO Audit?

An SEO Audit is a thorough examination and analysis of your website to uncover issues that can impact its ability to rank well in search results. They’re typically performed at the start of every new engagement and serve as the first step toward developing recommendations for clients. They can be comprehensive and include everything from technical SEO to content performance to linking, or they can be broken down into individual audits based on need.

Why Do I Need an SEO Audit?

The same reason you need someone to diagnose a problem with your car before they start working on it. Sure, you could take the car in and say “fix it,” but the lack of blinker fluid (hehe) is nowhere near as pressing as the brake pads that are so worn down the last thing you’ll hear before you go careening into the back of that semi-truck that just hit its brakes is the high-pitched squeal that portends your doom.

Manual vs. Automated SEO Audits

So we’ve established that your website is like a car. You know something is wrong, so you bring it into a shop. In this metaphor, an agency or consultant is the shop, and your intrepid SEO is the mechanic. Have you ever taken your car to a mechanic to get a weird rattle checked out only to have them tell you that your serpentine belt is starting to wear and your filter needs to be changed, and maybe you should also replace those wheels since you’ve had them for more than three months and hoo boy we’re coming into the rainy season and you don’t want to go skidding off a cliff?

This is sort of what an automated SEO audit does. It highlights all the things wrong with the website without prioritizing what should be addressed first. Agencies and consultants that rely on these to make recommendations see everything as a priority, when that is rarely, if ever, the case.

A manual audit, however, takes into consideration two important things:

  1. How real live human beings use a website.
  2. How to prioritize recommendations.

This isn’t possible with an automated SEO audit, unless the tool you used has gained sentience. And if that’s the case, you likely have much bigger problems on your hands. These tools primarily focus on the data and often pretty colors arranged in green, yellow, and red to indicate your website is about to explode. What they don’t provide are insights. What does the data mean? Which issues should be prioritized? How do you actually improve?

You can’t answer these questions without having an experienced SEO draw out the necessary insights and apply them to the website’s strategy. This is the foundation of manual auditing work. Automated audits look at websites through a very narrow lens. They don’t factor in human behavior. They don’t consider what the data truly means, especially within the context of the business’s wants and needs. And most importantly―at least from an agency perspective, where every dollar counts―they can’t prioritize. An SEO can take the insights uncovered from a manual audit, assign weight to each, and ensure the client gets the best bang for their buck.

Relying on automated SEO audits is a surefire way to miss out on critical opportunities that can only be uncovered via due diligence and an understanding of what the data these reports deliver actually means.

When Should You Rely on an Automated SEO Audit?

Does this mean these automated reports from SEO tools are worthless? Of course not. In fact, they’re actually pretty great as a form of triage―addressing common problems (especially for websites that publish a lot) and staying on top of lower priority but still necessary issues. To continue the car metaphor, think of it as a routine oil change. You’re topping things off, maybe giving the interior a quick vacuum and getting rid of that pesky tire inflation warning light that refuses to turn off even after you’ve filled the damned things with air.

Depending on the tool you use, you can have weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly reports sent to your inbox that contain a total number of 404s uncovered during the most recent crawl. Leveraging this automated process, although not perfect, can help you stay on top of issues that can compound over time, leading to more efficient manual audits in the future.

How Often Should You Perform a Manual SEO Audit?

How often you perform manual SEO audits depends on the nature of your business. At Portent, we perform a manual SEO audit at the start of every new client engagement. This is non-negotiable, as it sets the stage for and prioritizes a roadmap of work that needs to be done. Beyond that, a manual audit cadence will depend on the size of your site and your budget. A good rule of thumb is to perform a comprehensive manual SEO audit once a year, before site migrations or redesigns, or, if your website is particularly large, once every quarter.

One Final Note…SEO Audits Should Also Be Educational

It’s not uncommon for a business to know they need SEO but not have the knowledge necessary to perform it on their own. While it feels great to work our magic and show stakeholders improvements in their rankings and traffic, I believe it’s essential to educate them on not just what we’re doing, but why we’re doing it. How this is approached can vary, but simply saying, “You have a bunch of broken links and they should be fixed,” is doing them a disservice. Knowledge is power. By educating them on every facet of your SEO audit, you have a more informed stakeholder, and a more informed stakeholder is a happy stakeholder.

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