You have a short period of time for checks and action to bring immediate value. What should you have in your SEO triage plan?
Picture this: A client – or perhaps your new employer – comes to you with a site that is in dire straits.
There’s clearly something wrong. Maybe traffic has taken a major dive, or it could be that pages aren’t even getting indexed.
Other SEO companies or professionals have been unable to pinpoint (or convince the site owners) of the problems and implement a fix.
You only have a few hours to find, diagnose, and present potential solutions.
Sounds like an episode of House, right?
While the stakes aren’t life or death, there could be a lot of revenue on the table – both for the site and for you, if you can produce some quick wins to earn the larger, ongoing SEO contract.
You need an SEO triage plan you can execute quickly. One you know will produce results.
An SEO triage plan gives you a diagnostic process to follow when a website has a clear problem with traffic or ranking, and it’s a time-sensitive situation.
You probably don’t have as much time to diagnose and repair the problem as you would like, so it’s a race against the clock to find the issues that will produce the most significant results as quickly as possible on your site.
The goal in SEO triage is to identify quick wins and low-hanging fruit that will benefit the site in the short term.
There may be many problems with the site and while some can be identified during SEO triage, others may need to be repaired during a longer engagement. More time might be needed to solve the bigger issues, but you need to stop the worst of the bleeding and win the confidence of your “patient.”
Speed and efficiency are a must.
Let’s take a look at the things you need to check in your SEO triage plan.
Make sure you have access to the following:
Make sure that you go over any potential snags you might run into as a part of SEO triage, and that they know that you are not doing an in-depth audit.
This should have all been discussed on the sales call (and if you’re doing your own sales calls, you know this). But sometimes things slip through the cracks.
With client or employer expectations in check, you can start working through this 11-point SEO triage plan to find the worst of the issues and your greatest opportunities.
Doing a basic competition analysis is a good idea for several reasons. The first thing is to make sure that you don’t have a situation where you’re up against impossible odds.
If that is the case, you need to explain ASAP that your efforts are not likely to bring premium results. Tell them how much time and resources are needed.
Next, identifying what your competition is doing can help you laser-target your SEO triage analysis on the things that will bring the results in the shorter term.
In less competitive niches, you can get away with strong on-page SEO and minimal link building.
But for more competitive arenas, it could take several years of effort in order to reach the top of the search results.
Either way, assessing your competition correctly is one of the first steps towards a successful SEO triage process.
This will help you identify issues that need to be repaired in the least minimal amount of time required.
One major issue that could be affecting the site’s overall ranking is a strategy targeting super low-volume, low competition keywords that are all incredibly easy to rank for. They aren’t longtail, which usually has a decent ROI.
These are keywords another contractor may have chosen to target to make themselves look good, and are likely not to create much of a return for the client.
In this scenario, casting a wider net and finding keywords that are more suitable could be a great move and drive better results.
You can set yourself apart from the SEO professional who chose the super easy keywords by being the one who made a more significant, but still low-hanging fruit return on that website’s investment.
Making sure the code on your web pages is not interfering with crawling and indexing is an important part of SEO triage.
If you have code that interferes with this critical process, Google may have a hard time ranking the site and may not find the page valuable enough to index at all.
You need to repair these issues as soon as humanly possible.
Check and make sure they aren’t using display:none for CSS code. John Mueller explained this in a recent hangout. If you use display:none on your links for any reason other than intentionally making them disappear, you may inadvertently be discouraging Google from indexing your pages.
Another one to watch for in these initial checks is that they don’t have “continue reading” buttons. While they may be fine for your users, they could cause crawl issues because Google doesn’t interact with buttons. They read link text.
If that content does not provide enough in the way of understanding, Google could pass over ranking your page at all.
When you do SEO triage, one of the top things you want to check is your on-page SEO. How strong is it?
Do they have a few keywords sprinkled throughout the page, and only doing the bare minimum?
Do they have an optimized page title?
Do they have any internal links (depending on the purpose of the page)?
Either way, making sure that they have their on-page optimization dialed in is a great way to uncover some quick wins and low-hanging fruit that you can take advantage of to increase their rankings.
See 10 Essential On-Page SEO Factors You Need to Know to learn more.
There are several reasons why you want to check your site’s link profile:
If you can’t find anything, that’s a good thing! But, if you have a messy profile, there may be only one or two things you can realistically check during such a short project.
If they have a bunch of random links that they’re not comfortable with, you may want to create a disavow file and upload that for them.
Next, you want to check Google Search Console and make sure that they aren’t under manual penalty. If they are not under a manual penalty, then you want to check for any signs that they are under an algorithmic penalty.
These signs could include:
There are even situations where traffic can drop 90% or more overnight.
If the site’s link profile is messier than a hoarder on eBay delivery day, you’ll want to leave this at “rabbit-hole” status and explore other, more realistic options.
You don’t want to waste your entire SEO triage project on something that’s going to lead to more hours and more analysis down the road.
Be smart about where you spend your time.
Looking in Google Search Console, it’s possible to check for underperforming keywords.
Set your date ranges for the past three to six months and really dig into the keywords and queries the site is ranking for.
By doing a deeper dive in this manner, you can likely find the odd gem or two that will help bring rankings and traffic back for that client.
Once you identify the underperforming queries and pages, you can move forward with quick optimizations and fixes (or redirects, if needed).
Has the business been successful in increasing conversions?
If they have, they most likely have a way of measuring this. Find out what this is. Perhaps they have Google Analytics goals setup, or some other third-party analytics solution.
Make sure that you are measuring what their conversions are now so you can identify any improvements you can make to their conversions during this project.
Oftentimes, tactics like this that improve conversions can be easy. They can be as simple as making sure that you have matching keywords above the fold, or ensuring that their phone number is trackable.
More advanced tactics can be complex, requiring more deep-dive troubleshooting. But again – triage. Stop the bleeding.
Quick triage checks that can provide good returns can oftentimes be found on the homepage.
Google needs to see the text content on the page in order to examine it and figure out exactly what that page is about.
Identify other code issues that could be affecting the website’s ability to rank. Look for things like links not being coded in the proper format.
Be aware of how this can lessen the effectiveness of any optimizations that may have been done.
Check whether or not the client has significant page speed bottlenecks, whether these are from the server or from the browser client-side.
Find out if third-party scripts are interfering with page experience by running the page through Google’s Page Speed Insights and Lighthouse, and checking these pages in GA and GSC.
Make sure that the phone number is readily clickable. This is something that is often neglected and could make a big difference in terms of how many prospects turn into actual sales.
This applies to many types of sites.from e-commerce to informational. Creating a clean, understandable URL structure can help your site tremendously in the search results.
If you are working with a WordPress site, you will want to check and see that blog categories are properly implemented.
For most informational websites, this takes the form of /category/page-name/. Creating categories in this manner creates context and a better understanding of what could be on your URLs for Google.
For e-commerce websites, Setting your site to have readable URLs means changing a URL from this:
Making sure that your URL structure does not introduce confusion in Google’s eyes is something that can also provide quick returns on results, especially if you have a website that is a complex spider web (pun intended) of problems.
In addition, these readable URLs are better for users, who may encounter them on the search results pages.
Page experience metrics are an important item to research during your SEO triage. When you look at page experience, you’re going to examine CLS (cumulative layout shift), FID (first input delay), and LCP (largest contentful paint).
These metrics are a core component of Google’s page experience update, and identifying issues with these metrics and repairing them can help your site’s performance.
This is especially true if they have 5MB (megabyte) images that take too long to long on all of their main pages.
Third-party plugins for WordPress can impact these core web vitals metrics significantly, along with any third-party page elements like Google Fonts and video embeds from video sharing sites.
Check for these to make sure that your page experience falls in line with any possible client expectations.
You would be surprised how common this is. Duplicate content issues can plague a site and prevent pages from showing up in the search results.
Don’t mistake this for a penalty – it’s not. It’s a filter.
If Google finds more than one page that’s physically 100% exactly like the other, or appreciably similar, they are likely to favor other more unique pages over your own that may be a potential duplicate.
Identifying whether or not your content has been stolen and duplicated across other sites is something you also want to check.
If you find that someone has stolen all your content and has duplicated it across multiple domains, then this is an opportunity where you can file a DMCA (digital millennium copyright act) request with their web host, and have that content taken down.
This is another task that should not take a whole lot of time on smaller websites.
As you can see, creating an SEO triage plan of attack allows you to tackle fast, high-priority tasks in as short an amount of time as humanly possible, while also providing high value to your client.
Depending on your specialization and the types of sites you deal with, there may be additional items you want to add to your initial diagnostic checks. But hopefully, this can get you started.
Featured image: Shutterstock/cryptographer
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Brian has been doing SEO since before it was called SEO, back in the days of 1998. Back then, SEO … [Read full bio]
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