SEO Audits Longer or Shorter?

There was a Linkedin post last Friday ranting about some SEOs still providing long (100 to 200-page audit reports) to clients.  The poster stated long audit reports were a waste of effort since everyone was too busy to read them.  The poster suggested instead providing an easy-to-digest checklist of action items based on priorities. His rationale was recipients don’t want details, just clear and actionable recommendations.  He also suggested a short presentation and a call to discuss high-propriety action items.   Interestingly, all the comments supported this, with some going further with brevity, suggesting picking a few key findings tied to revenue that will maximize the dev team’s time.  Nothing else was required.

I can totally agree with the detailed list of priorities and a top-level presentation on the critical focus items. I have seen people’s eyes glaze over, almost in a state of shock, as they flip through the massive reports, but I do think you need both and what and how you present to each stakeholder.

I am very much for the more extended audit reports, and this poster may have come across one or more of mine in the past.  First, I totally agree with breaking out key actions and opportunities to highlight them.  In my audits, In addition to the long report, I would take every action point and find and put it into a matrix that is sortable by business benefit and estimated effort to implement.  Each item is cross-referenced to the appropriate section of the report for details, clarity, and reference.  It is a lot of work, but my audits were never cheap and were not just a form of consulting by the pound.  While I love the idea of just the facts approach, there are often other reasons for the longer documents.

A few key “experiences frame my approach to audit reports.”  When I was in the Marine Corps, I was on a pre-audit team that audited each unit’s performance in a number of critical areas before the actual audit.  My job was to find as many “defects” as possible and try to determine why they occurred, and develop corrective action to fix things before the actual audit. As most know, the military has a manual and rules for everything, and little is left to interpretation.  Defects occur for one of three reasons. 

1. When the unit members either did not know the requirements

  1. Care about compliance with the requirements
  2. Felt there was a different way to implement it. 

My job was to identify which reason and help them fix it.   For each defect, I was required to cite chapter and verse explaining the rule and, where necessary, provide recommendations for workflow or attitude correction.  This document allowed the recipient to clearly understand the defect, why it was incorrect, and the exact steps and references to correct it.  This solved defect reason 1 and set in place the potential for correcting defect reasons 2 and 3.  When the next set of auditors found the defects uncorrected, they could use a variety of corrective measures to adjust the attitudes and performance of those in charge to fix the problem. 

As I transitioned to civilian life, I found similar problems within organizations and kept up a similar format for my consulting documents. It was working primarily with enterprise companies you had to change processes and educate those in the workstream that are unfamiliar with SEO.  This required a method to educate the various stakeholders and provide the reference for the element and defects and how to change the process.  This requires documentation and is not something that can be done in a few PPT slides.  Yes, you often have to do multiple stakeholder-specific documents and training sessions, but that was easy to parse out of the master document. 

Due to the needs of the enterprise, I broke the audits into key segments that aligned to crawling, indexing, relevance (scoring), authority (links), and clickability.  This was followed by an assessment of 10 work-stream areas of the organization that contribute to the success/failure of these elements.  For 25 years, I have had no shortage of clients and many repeat clients wanting this type of detailed output.  I also had at least a dozen situations where the person became CMO or the head of the website management and wanted a detailed assessment of the web infrastructure they just inherited. 

Key elements of these “longer” audits and why they added value:

  1. Every segment explained, with citations to key sources, why it was essential to monitor, what the expectation was, why it was correct or incorrect, and how to correct it.  This with the business benefit and, where possible, how implement the recommendations at scale. A significant section of my audits was an audit of each webpage template so that any page using that template would be improved.
  2. The logical flow showed the importance of key areas across Google’s workflow and why it was essential to integrate them at the point of creation.  Why are SEOs fixing title tags or suggesting JavaScript be improved when title tags should be created efficiently and correctly by the teams and formatted correctly via template rules when created?  
  3. The educational value of the document, for those that did bother to read it, helped change minds and did establish a greater awareness of the challenges.  It was not just a pontification on a concept but very matter-of-fact, citing Google directly or another trusted resource on why it should be a specific way.  Often this document explained defects in their CMS or, more frequently, their understanding of the CMS and how to work around them.  I once was engaged by the CTO of a major brand because a few years earlier, he was a lead developer tasked with implementing my audit findings.  He told me that the document helped him understand where and how SEO integrated with the content and technology workflow of the organization, and many things can be eliminated from being a problem with even that fundamental understanding.
  4.   The legacy value of the document – any new person could come in and read the document and understand the context and legacy of the issue.   

There are a few other things I learned along the way that encouraged me to keep my process.  I once had an SEO manager that after seeing my audit, told me to condense the findings to just a 10-page presentation of the most critical elements. Similar logic that no one would read it, so he did not want to present it. I also found out later he did not want management to know the extent of the problems.

At the end of the readout meeting, the CMO asked if that was all the material. He further stated that for what they paid assumed there would be a bit more in the deliverables. I pulled out the more significant report in a binder to show there was actually much more that would be left behind for their review. I have had some “consulting by the pound” experiences.

On another engagement, the documents were used for training and process change, and all of the reasons for each review item were integrated into other training manuals. I totally agree with the original poster that you want to keep things simple and easy to digest, and that is where your value as a consultant can shine. Get them to focus on the critical items but also be able to support your findings and provide steps for corrective action.