We do ton’s of SEO audits here at Elite Strategies. We do audits for new customers, we do audits for existing clients, for our friends & family…we even audit ourselves! Our audits range from a quick automated breakdown using tools to our classic 24-point inspection.

Regardless of how you do audits or who you do them for, as an SEO chances are you’ve run across some red flags when doing them.

Below you’ll find some of our most common red flags when performing an SEO audit. Of course this isn’t an all encompassing list. Do you think we missed something obvious? If so give us a shout on our Twitter or leave it in the comments. Here we go!

A brand new, or sketchy domain name

Having a brand new domain name isn’t necessarily a bad thing, after all we’ve all had a new domain name at one point or another. There is another reason why brand new domain names can cause issues with SEO audits: backlink tools such as Ahrefs and SEMrush haven’t had time to crawl their backlinks yet. When you go and run a report to see what kind of links, if any, they have it might show a big fat “0” when in fact they actually have 20 nice referring domains.

Last year Symantec ran a report on the 20 shadiest TLDs or top level domains (.com, .net, .nyc, etc). In their report they found that domain names such as .country, .download, .win, and .loan were much more likely to contain malware or other sketchiness than TLDs such as .com or .net. Again, not a hard and fast rule but something to watch out for.

If you’d like to learn more about how domain names play a part in SEO check the chapter on domain names in our on-page SEO guide.

A sketchy link portfolio

This is probably the huge-est red flag when doing an SEO audit. The longer you are in SEO the easier it is to spot. I can spot it fairly easy, usually from a quick look at referring domains but not until you start clicking into these links will you really start to get an idea of what type of SEO they are doing.

I’m going to randomly do a mini link audit on a NYC locksmith (sorry, generally a sketchy SEO niche):

boom – right away I see about 50 *.blogspot.com links from a whole bunch of different subdomains. This mean this website at one point bought a link “package” and is using it to try and climb the rankings.

Michael Bakovic, the leader of our SEO team here at Elite also stated that having no link hierarchy i.e. links aren’t nested properly to their appropriate destinations is a red flag for him.

It takes a lot of experience to spot a shady link portfolio. Personally, I stay away from sites with super sketchy link portfolios. No judgement whatsoever, but I don’t want to be on the receiving end of a Google penalty for someone elses work.

A whack theme or framework

When you run across a really old website theme or an odd framework, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing but some of these older frameworks can be a real pain in the ass to work with. Sometimes they have really awkward backends, or no backend at all. Other times they might use an unfamiliar scripting language like ASP.NET that not a lot of people are familiar with.

Jacquelyn, Elite’s co-founder wanted to weigh in on this factor as well:  “A site running an older theme or framework immediately starts to tell a story about the company behind that website. We see this all the time, websites that are so old they don’t even work. Some of them still use Flash! We did an audit on a Fortune 100 company with a national TV presence and their website was completely unusable due to old technology. I hate to say it but if we see sites built in older “site builders” such as Godaddy Site Builder, we’re not off to a good start. When we see an older or uncommon framework or an older style theme, its normally a red flag for us and a sign to keep digging.”

Same goes for a theme, be it a WordPress or a Drupal theme if you see a theme that appears as though its 10 or so years old it may be an SEO red flag.

An older looking theme won’t hurt you necessarily SEO-wise, but it can be a sign the site hasn’t been updated in a while. Older looking websites also might not be equipped with things like SSL certificates  and have things like Flash that could slow the site down.


You would be so surprised how many sites we come across that are hacked, or have some sort of malware. There are some nasty hacks out there and the crazy thing about some of the malware out today is that you won’t even know your site is hacked. They just want a few links on an older page, you may never know they are even there.

If you want to see something really cool, we did a full case study on a hacked SEO backlink network. When we started to dig deep we found dozens of effected websites and felt an obligation to notify the site owners about this.

And of course, its really bad for SEO. You might get the “this site might be hacked” notification from Google which is of course, not a good look.

It only took me 10 seconds to find an example of an actively hacked site, this one happens to be a police station in the mid-west:

Malware is obviously an issue, and definitely a red flag but 9/10 times we can help a business owner who has malware eliminate the malware, restore their website to working order, and come up with a solid plan to secure the website and back it up.

A shady niche

Would you believe we got a lead the other day for a site that was literally selling illegal drugs. Not legal or medical marijuana but actual hardcore drugs. Personally I stay away from porn, online casinos, and a few other niches just because the competition is so ruthless and its not a look we are going for.

And just to clarify, just because you are in a shady niche doesn’t mean you have “bad SEO” but more often than not you’ll see a lot of sketch links or shady on-page stuff.

Shady niches for some reason attract shady SEO’s. Shady niches have a high domain and brand turnover rate. I knew of one supplement company that went through about 5 domains and brand names in 5 years because they kept getting banned by Google. It didn’t matter to them because the profit margins were so high, but in the end they had no brand, no loyal fans, and really not a stable company.

The Obama Casino? Possibly legit, but probably not.

Is it a coincidence they’ve been attempting to spam our blog with comment spam for the past 6 months?

I’m not hatin’, I’m just sayin’.

It looks jacked on your phone (i.e. responsive issues)

A lot of people doing SEO audits fail to open the site up on their phone. A lot of SEO’s use tools to mimic an iPhone or mobile device, but I find it useful to actually open the site up on an actual phone and play around with it. See how it feels, see if touch elements are too close together.

If the site looks bad on a mobile device, for us that is a red flag.

Older sites running older CSS themes are big offenders in this category. They don’t realize how much traffic they are missing out on and how many people might be bouncing from their website as a result. Responsive issues are a huge red flag. It is not something that can be overlooked and in my opinion accounts for 25% or more of the sites overall SEO health.

A really slow loading website

One of the first things I do when auditing a site is open a handful of images in new tabs. I look for the JPEG’s. I look to see if they blow up into a huge resolution like 4000 x 3400 pixels.

Sometimes you don’t even have to run a speedtest you just load the site up in a browser and it loads so slow. Or parts of the site will load slow.

I personally love it when a site I’m doing an audit on loads slow because I know I can improve its position dramatically. I’ve seen websites load in under 1 second, and I’ve seen sites take over 60 seconds to load. 60 seconds! Most of the time this comes down to shoddy hosting, bad plugins or huge images. If you’d like to learn more about site speed especially pertaining to WordPress, check out our mega guide on WordPress speed optimization.

A slow loading site is a red flag when doing an SEO audit. Google has come right out and said that website speed is an SEO factor when it comes to rankings, so it is not something you want to sleep on.


To take a page out of our SEO book (literally) let’s look at this example of good vs bad permalink structure:

My personal rule of thumb is this: permalinks should be ‘human readable.’ Meaning a URL like this:


Check out this example:

Not the worst thing in the world, but it wouldn’t take more than a few hours most likely to clean up this permalink structure. Another red flag is this is literally a freaking bank, and it does not have an SSL certificate. ?

Again it doesn’t mean you have “bad SEO” if you come across a site with a weird permalink structure, but it can be a red flag.

The meta keywords tag

This one might be a bit controversial, but it always creates a laugh in our office when we see a site with the meta keywords tag. Google basically abolished the need for the meta keywords tag a long time ago. So when you see a site that has it its kind of like “eeek.”

Again, not bad SEO if you have it, but when you spot it it might be a sign that your site hasn’t been updated in a while or the person or company who is doing SEO isn’t up to date on the latest tactics.

Even Yahoo doesn’t use the meta keywords tag anymore. So when you see it its kind of like seeing “stale code.” It may not be a red flag in all cases, but it is usually a sign the site hasn’t been touched in a while.

5 stars everywhere

One of the first things I do when I am doing a site audit is Google the brand name of the site I’m auditing. This can tell a lot about the company I’m auditing. It’ll tell me the number of indexed pages, how the sitelinks look, and in this case I will look for reviews on Google My Business, Yelp, Facebook and whatever else is available. If I see 50 reviews with all 5 star reviews, that is kind of a red flag. Most businesses have some sort of bad reviews even if they do amazing work.

Check this random company…pretty much all 5 star reviews out of 510 reviews. I’m sure this is a great company and it looks like they do great work, but something is definitely fishy here.

Be very, very careful of reviews these days. The FCC is all over people for this and there are private watchdog groups going after people everywhere for this, outing them on the web for paying for or even incentivizing for reviews.

Other red flags:

There are a lot of other red flags we thought of during the course of this post, a few of them being:

  • lack of SSL certificate. not the end of the world if you don’t have one on a non-eCommerce site, but it raises questions
  • a “links” page or a page dedicated to linking to other people
  • really, really long pages especially the homepage with huge walls of text, especially on small business websites
  • default favicon, or lackthereof
  • no sitemap
  • really bad stuff like site-wide no-index tag
  • Flash
  • mega-huge images

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