What exactly is a manual SEO audit?

manual seo audit
We get asked quite often: what tools do you do to perform an SEO audit? The short answer: we don’t use any tools. The long answer: we use a bunch of different tools in conjunction to product a manual SEO audit.

Before we go any further, I want to clarify that when we talk about an SEO audit, this varies greatly from an SEO report. An SEO audit is generally done before we start working with a client, while an SEO report is something that is generated weekly, monthly, daily, etc.

There are many great tools out there to do automated audits, we’ve used a few different ones over the years. That said, there is truly no replacement for a manual audit. A good SEO audit will take at least 60 minutes for a website under 100 pages and progressively longer the larger the site gets.

Project Management and Organization

From the moment we make the first phone call or email, everything is documented in our project management system. We do this for 2 reasons:

  1. so that we can stay organized across our entire team
  2. so that we can give our client a proper report any time they wish

Many companies don’t keep all of their information, analytics, logins, etc in a central location. At the very least, at the end of our contract we will deliver a proper “package” of information in one central location..

Getting Access

In order to perform a proper SEO audit, we need access to the website, amongst other things. The more access we have, the more thorough we can be in our audit.

Ideally, in order to do a proper manual SEO audit you need the following:

seo info report

Sometimes, we don’t have any access. The potential client hasn’t been “sold” and we need to produce a report for them. Many times they will give us temporary access, but sometimes the trust just hasn’t been built yet. If we don’t have access, we’ll continue with the understanding that they know this report is a “limited access” report. If this is a current client, we normally send them an SEO questionnaire to fill out.

Step 1: Company Research

A lot of people skip this step. Learn about your client! At bare minimum:

seo company

This phase doesn’t really have much weight on how well a site will do in Google or how they will rank, but it is necessary information nonetheless.

Step 2: Keyword Research

Keyword research is an essential part of any SEO audit. During the audit phase of the game, we normally don’t do a full keyword research report, we do enough to cover a few sample keywords, normally the primary keywords they are targeting.

For instance, if our client was Apple, we would target:

and not the longtail keywords such as “black iPhone 7” or “buy Macbook Air.” For a local company, obviously we would attack this a little differently. The purpose of the SEO audit is to give a breakdown of how the website is performing, and how well it is optimized not necessarily how well it is doing for each of their keywords.

There are many, many ways to tackle keyword research, and many tools to help you accomplish keyword research both free and paid. We personally like a combination of Ahrefs and SEMrush, but Google’s Keyword Tool will do just fine as well. A sample keyword research report will look something along the lines of:

Step 3: Citation Audit

If the company has a local presence, we do an SEO citation audit. An eCommerce store that only sells online for instance, we skip this part completely as they do not want to drive people to their address. On the other hand, a local company looking for a presence in “Google Local” (as we still like to call it) we’ll put a heavy focus on this section.

Citations carry a ton of weight when it comes to local SEO.  During the SEO audit phase, we don’t do an exhaustive citation audit, but we will take a brief inventory of them and check for obvious errors. Examples include:

Once complete, we will add our findings to the report and make our recommendation. Local SEO is a totally different game than regular SEO, so we definitely want to pay attention to this phase. In the end, at the very least we’ll have a report that looks something along the lines of:

seo citation audit

Again, this isn’t meant to be a full citation report, only a basic audit. Here we are just giving a glimpse into the what assets the company has, and any glaring issues that might arise. For newer companies, you might not have any citations, so this section might be empty.

Step 4: Perform a Google Search

Performing a basic Google search for your target company is really the first step. Here, we will take a close look at their branded search results. This will reveal quite a bit of information about how well your SEO game is. We need to see not only where they are ranking but how they look within the SERPs as well. At the very least, we perform a 3 step process.

  1. Search for the brand name in Google – Knowledge Graph, How it appears in Google (Title, Description) site links. Penalty?
  2. site:example.com – how many pages does the website have?
  3. Search a few keywords they might be targeting

During the Google Search phase, we also look out for signs of a Knowledge Graph. Another lesser known (but growing in popularity) service we offer is Knowledge Graph optimization. A lot of companies and brands are becoming more and more interested in what we call “SERP sculpting” or “SERP curation” i.e. not exactly where they rank, but how they look.

serp report brand

In the above illustration we queried the brand name “Publix” a well known supermarket chain here in the South East. Publix has a very healthy SERP. A knowledge panel, sitelinks, even an app. While this might not seem like top secret SEO information, it will be really helpful in the future.

This is also the time you should be looking out for signs of bad and negative press. Keep an eye out for negative reviews also. If your client has tons of negative press, this might turn into a reputation management client instead of an SEO client. In most cases if we encounter tons of bad press, we’ll refer this to another company.

Step 5: Domain Research

A domain name can tell a long story about the website. We love doing domain research here at Elite Strategies. Other than a standard WHOIS query, one of our favorite domain research tool is: (aptly named) Domain Tools. Domain Tools does a great job of doing some undercover domain sleuthing. This tool does a great job of finding out private WHOIS registration as well, or at least making a good guess of who it is.

Let’s start by looking at the domain itself.

Domain Length and Readability

How many letters are in the domain? Can you take a quick glance at the domain and read what it is?



Domain readability is key, and while it doesn’t really play a huge part in SEO it plays a huge part in the overall UX of your website.

Where and by whom was the domain registered?

Is the domain “private” or is their a registered contact? Again, this may or may not be a ranking factor. At this point we are just “taking notes” for when we do the real SEO work.

When was the domain registered?

Has the domain changed hands over the years, or has it stayed the same? A domain that was registered in 2016 vs a domain that was registered in 1998 will be a huge difference when it comes to SEO. We always get a little excited when it comes to older domain names, because they are so much easier to get traction with Google than newer domains.

Where does the domain point?

If the domain points to Godaddy we know its not on the best hosting environment whereas if it is hosted on Rackspace we are dealing with an expert host. A host in and of itself isn’t a ranking factor, but it can help answer some questions later on such as website speed issues and more.

If you are serious about this step in the process, I’d highly recommend using DomainTools for research. It is one of the most thorough tools when it comes to doing domain research, and will give you a serious glimpse into the inner workings of a domain.

Step 6: Backlinks / Off-Page

This is where things can get truly arduous. If a website has 20,000 backlinks from 14000 different domains, it is going to take a long time to sort things out.

One solid tip is to look for clues your potential client is running a private blog network. Last year we wrote up a guide on identifying private blog networks, and how to find them.

You can go deeper and deeper down the backlink rabbit hole if you want. Our recommendation for a report is to be thorough, but don’t spend all day analyzing every last backlink. It is most important to focus on the referring domains not every single last link within them.

We realize the title of this is “manual SEO audit” but even in a manual audit we must use some tools. For backlinks there are a few tools that we recommend:

The best way to go about doing an off-page SEO audit is to let one of these tools do the initial work for you. There are a few metrics we like to look at when doing off-page. Mainly what we are looking at here are backlinks. We look at backlinks, the IP diversity, the anchor text diversity and everything in between.

Step 7: On-Page

For the bulk of our on-page SEO reporting, we use Screaming Frog. The great thing about Screaming Frog from an SEO perspective is you can export it to Microsoft Excel, where you can then turn it into a chart, graph, or just a pretty set of columns.

What we are looking for here: basic inconsistencies:

In our audits, we will export the information from Screaming Frog and beautify it in Excel. For quicker reports, we’ll simply paste different aspects of the report into our audits.

Screaming Frog has oodles of different options, ripe for the picking.

If it is a deep audit, we’ll do a full scrape and interlink scan.

In addition to this, we look for signs of other SEO stuff such as an optimized robots.txt file, a properly made sitemap.xml file and more.

Step 8: SEO Penalty Risk Assessment

Let us be very upfront about this part. We do a penalty risk assessment just as much for our benefit as it is the clients benefit. We need to make sure the website doesn’t have some sort of Google penalty attached to it. This way there are no surprises when it comes time to do the job.

The first part of our penalty risk assessment is the Penguin test. This test basically checks for spammy backlinks. The output usually looks something along the lines of:

manual penalty assessment

Nice and pretty. It is just meant to be a basic test. The next part of the penalty assessment is the Panda check. This test checks for Panda related are really easy to spot. Stuff like keyword stuffing, doorway pages, affiliate links, and spammy advertising is what we are looking for here. By this point in the assessment we’ve probably already spotted this stuff.

There really isn’t a graphical representation of a Panda risk assessment, so normally what we do is insert some sort of statement along the lines of:

“During our process, we’ve found several instances of web spam that could be a risk factor for Panda in particular URL1, URL2, etc.”

If we didn’t find any risky pages for Panda, we’ll leave this part out of the process completely.

Step 9: Framework Audit

As an SEO in modern day world wide web world, you’ll most likely be working with a system such as WordPress, Magento, or even something non-ideal such as Weebly or Squarespace.

Here, we’re looking for basic things:

For a quick audit, we like browser extensions such as Wappalyzer and Built With, but we also use good old fashioned source code browsing to verify this. Identifying the framework of a website can unlock a lot clues about the SEO worthiness of a website. For instance if the website was built using an older version of Joomla, we know there is most likely going to be some challenge. Same goes for plain HTML websites last updated 10+ years ago using Flash.

Putting it all together

It doesn’t matter how much work you’ve done, or how much research you’ve completed, if your audit doesn’t come in a pretty package chances are no one will care. I know many of you are looking for an SEO audit template but the truth is, we simply don’t use one. Each audit we do is different from the next. On average they come out to be about 10 pages including images. We do them in Microsoft Word, and save them as a PDF. Some audits for new websites are 2-3 pages while others for more established websites are dozens of pages, it all depends.

If you are interested in a manual SEO audit, let us know!

Patrick Coombe
Hello I'm Patrick Coombe and I'm the CEO and Founder of Elite Strategies, an agency I started in 2009. One of the main reasons I love blogging about SEO is the research it takes to come up with the posts. It allows me to not only write about what I love, but to learn more about the industry in the process. I hope you enjoyed this post, if you did consider sharing it or even better linking to it!
Blog Elite Strategies Search SEO
  • Written by: Nick Stamoulis

    I completely agree with this approach. Every client is different which means that every SEO audit is going to be different. Automation and tools are great but it’s a manual review that is the most thorough.

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      thanks Nick! yea I think the people that automate the hell out of everything are the ones wondering why their clients are always cancelling on them. 🙂

  • Written by: Carol

    I’ve been looking for a good way to produce manual audits for a long time now, but have come to the conclusion that the only way to truly do them correctly is manually like you said. I like your process, thanks again!

    • Written by: vignesh

      Your manual SEO audit post very useful. good SEO audit for a long time!

  • Written by: Andrea

    Fantastic template – I’ve been on the lookout for a good SEO audit for a long time!

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      thank you! and thanks for coming by!

  • Written by: Bill Debrash

    Hi Patrick – I’ve been a long time reader of your blog since you started years ago and cannot believe how far your blog has come. I just found this post in the search results when looking for “SEO audit”, so it looks like you’ve been doing a good job! Just wanted to say, keep up the good work!

    • Written by: Patrick Coombe

      Thanks Bill! You truly made my day by saying that, it is so nice to see people coming back and reading our posts!

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