How Your Audits and Backlink Research Fail

A picture of a laptop computer displaying a Website.

SEO audits and backlink research are fundamental SEO practices. But how reliable are they?

If there is a single “staple” function or service offered by the search engine optimization industry, it has to be the Website audit.  Everything begins there.  When a company takes on a new SEO provider, the first thing the provider does is audit the Website.  A few months ago we took on a client who had already hired two SEO agencies prior to us.  “What will you do for me?” he asked.  “We have to start with an audit,” I said.  “You’re the third guys who want to audit my site,” he complained.  “I think all the simple problems have been found.”

That’s true.  If two SEO consultants have already audited your Website they have probably found a lot of things to adjust, maybe even fix.  Of course, in an industry that refuses to adopt professional standards it’s hard to put one’s blind faith in the last guy to audit your Website.  But that isn’t why we start new clients with an audit.

No one practicing search engine optimization knows your Website before they have looked at it.  Like it or not, when you hire someone either in-house or in a consulting capacity to help you market your Website, they have to learn everything they can about it.  I have managed SEO for big sites and small sites, from an agency perspective and as an in-house SEO.  I never took on a project where I knew how the site was designed and what it was doing to manage its relationship with search engines before doing that first audit.

The SEO audit is the first fundamental process in the provider-client/employer relationship.  Much as I understand everyone’s frustration at having to pay for an audit before you can get the “actual service” (whatever that is), the auditing process is as close as the search engine optimization industry gets to a standard practice.

No one worth hiring will touch your Website without first auditing it.  So while five people may have turned in lengthy audit reports already, the best value you can get from the next SEO audit report is an idea of how much the SEO guy(s) learned about your site.

So Why Are SEO Audits So Bad?

As someone who has written more audits than I can remember, I admit I hate writing the reports.  My partner Randy Ray isn’t a fan of audit writing, either.  We have experimented with different audit formats.  One thing everyone complains about is the amount of boilerplate text that SEO audits seem to include.  One client (not the same as the guy above) asked how much boilerplate text he would be paying for.  I have to admit we kind of laughed at that.  But, honestly, you’re not paying for the boilerplate text in the audit report even if it feels like that.

You see, the Search Engine Optimization industry has no standards.  Industry standards would help employers and consumers of SEO services know what to expect before hiring anyone.  Standards would establish a baseline for terminology, too.  In our reports a lot of the boilerplate text (which we hope is reduced to as concise a text as possible) explains what we are talking about.  If you ask 50 SEO providers what a “search lexicon” is they’ll give you 50 different answers.

A search lexicon, in the simplest terms, consists of your site’s navigational anchor text and page titles.  These are the terms that search engines are most likely to extract from your Website.  If your navigational anchor text and page titles include the keywords you’re trying to rank for, the SEO auditor will understand that.  If the phrases you mention in the initial consultation don’t appear in your site’s search lexicon, well, the audit found something useful.

Still, most people just jump down to the last section in the audit and look for the SEO recommendations (and, if part of the deal, the SEO strategy or action plan).

We occasionally partner with another SEO agency who have settled on very simplified audits.  They take on clients (for the most part) who don’t care what you find “wrong”.  They just want to know what you recommend.  I have been tempted to switch over to their style of writing audits more than once.

But then I’ll be scanning Twitter on some days and I’ll see some old Timey Wimey SEO dude post something like, “Well, I just finished another 40-page SEO audit!”  Forty pages.  I’ve only written one audit that long.  I’ll never do that again.  You’d have to pay me a LOT of money to write a 40-page audit.

How Long Should the SEO Audit Be?

There are no industry standards.  No one has sat down with a group of SEOs and worked out the idea of minimum requirements for an SEO audit report.  That is what an industry standards committee would do for us.  Until everyone swallows their pride and agrees that we really do need standards, all our SEO clients and employers will have to take Pot Luck for $4000.

Paying for an SEO audit is a lot like playing in a lottery.  You’re buying tickets and the prizes that come back can be big or small, but they apparently have no connection to how long the audits are.

Should an SEO audit just return a list of action points?  Do you need any caveats and risk assessments?  Do you mind if we include some cautionary language that makes it hard for you to sue us for fraud or incompetence?

A good audit should, in my opinion, include a table of contents.  The table of contents should at least tell you how the audit is organized.  If you can put the entire audit into 2 pages the TOC may seem like overkill, but at the very least it needs good headers.

I don’t know how long the audit report should be.  And I’ve been doing this for 20 years, give or take.  You tell me.  If you want an SEO audit in 100 words or less, I’m going to charge you the same as I would for a 50,000-word report.  I still have to do all the work analyzing your site structure and analytics data.  The written report is just the last part of the process.

Should Every SEO Audit Be the Same?

If, as I assert above, every SEO specialist who works on a Website should first study it and learn about it, then shouldn’t we all include the same stuff in our audits?  And if that is the case, then should the client judge our skills by who writes the longest, most detailed audit reports?

When a client asks if I can rewrite 50,000-100,000 page titles and meta descriptions (and I have done that), I don’t see a need to include meticulous examples in an audit report.  1 or 2 should suffice — depending on what I find on the site.  That’s easy to say, but sooner or later someone says, “You know, the guys before you gave me 3 pages of examples of titles and meta descriptions.”

Okay, but I was planning to give you a spreadsheet or XML file or whatever with our specific recommendations for all those entries in your Content Management System.

The problem here is that the client doesn’t know what to ask for, and so they are trusting that we’ll give them what they need.  But we may have different business practices from the last guy to work on the site.

And then there are the clients who point you to so-and-so’s Website where there is a blog post listing 50 points that should be covered in every audit.  I wrote “How to Do An SEO Audit” here on SEO Theory in March 2011.  Once I bring up my own recommendation for how to do an SEO audit it suddenly becomes unimportant.  “Just do whatever you think is necessary,” the client inevitably says.

And that is because no one knows what should really be included in an SEO audit.  So maybe they don’t all need to be the same.

One company hired us to audit their SEO auditor.  They made it clear from the start they were only practicing due diligence, getting a second opinion, and there was no chance we’d ever get the primary SEO contract.  We were fine with that.  It’s actually a good idea, in my opinion.  But not everyone can afford to pay for two SEO audits at the same time.

I’m not sure I want to make that my core business model.  And, frankly, without industry standards I would be reluctant to work with a client who insisted on second-guessing all my recommendations by hiring someone else to audit me.  Yes, that makes me a hypocrite, but I have read a lot of “how to do an audit” checklist articles.  Guess what?  No two articles are the same.

Backlink Analysis Is Even More Confusing

This may come as a shock to you, but I have a few things to say about how people audit and manage their clients’ backlink profiles.  Let me begin by saying I am finally putting my foot down about Zombie Links.  The short explanation of zombie links is that they aren’t doing what everyone wants them to do, but they are there, taking up space on the Web and maybe sending traffic nowhere.

The real problem with backlinks in search engine optimization is that we have no industry standards, so a lot of people are selling link creation services (they call it “guest posting” or “content marketing”) that inevitably lead to search engine penalties or algorithmic downgrades and then their customers have to hire someone to go out and audit the links.

Okay, there are a LOT of companies selling SEO services and some of them are not very good at what they do.  Half the people who build links for clients swear their links would never trigger those penalties (because they learned what really works the last time Google cracked down on manipulative linking).

When it comes to analyzing backlinks I see everyone using SEO tools and I have to ask WHY?  WHY DO YOU USE THESE DUMB TOOLS?

SEO tool providers, naturally, will tell you they go to great lengths to collect and validate their data.  They have read all the patent applications and research papers and they’re using algorithms like those other algorithms, so they are very confident they are providing good products.

You should NOT be using SEO link evaluation tools to evaluate links.  That’s the craziest thing I ever heard of.  I most likely contributed to the problem by reviewing and (sort of) endorsing some of these tools in their early days.  They have proven to be spectacular failures because inevitably their use leads to each new wave of search engine link penalties.

People trust the tools’ evaluations and take action on the basis of what those tools tell them,  Of course, naturally, the tool vendors are careful to disclaim their data, their algorithms, and their tools’ recommendations.  But (wink, wink) they still sell you monthly subscriptions so they can crawl the Web (without anyone’s permission, in most cases) and sell you data.

==> If we had real industry standards, I’m confident few if any SEO tools would be deemed acceptable.

Here is a hypothetical conversation between an SEO provider and a client.  See if you can guess what I find alarming:

CLIENT: We’d like to build up our backlink profile to improve our Google rankings.

SEO Provider: Great, we’re going to crawl the Web and find Websites where we can get links for you.

CLIENT: Will these links be acceptable to Google?

SEO Provider: Google will never know what we’re doing.  We’re just crawling the We to find links for you.

CLIENT: But how will you get links for us?  And what will Google think of these links?

SEO Provider: We’ll use “white hat” SEO practices to get links for you.  Google likes “white hat SEO”.

Let me rephrase that conversation for you:

CLIENT: We’d like a lot of links [that influence our rankings in Google].

SEO Provider: We’ll create those links for you by publishing lots of blog posts.

CLIENT: Will Google trust these links?

SEO Provider: We don’t have any information about how Google finds or treats links, so we’re going to substitute this other service’s link data and algorithms for Google’s link data and algorithms.

CLIENT: Does that mean Google will accept these links and we won’t be penalized?

SEO Provider: Let’s all just hope for the best because we don’t have a clue what Google will do until Google does it.

To be fair for people who pay for “white hat SEO” it’s more complicated than that.

There are Web marketers who create great marketing campaigns that don’t result in search engine penalties.  I can’t tell you who they are because one of the dirty secrets of our industry is that he who brags is he who gets tagged (with angry clients whose sites have been penalized).  Honestly, not every guest post is bad.  But without industry standards to help you differentiate between good and bad guest posts you have to decide whether you want to take the risk.

I have a few more things to say about guest posting over on this blog.  In short, the endless cycle of creating links through guest posts, triggering penalties and algorithmic meltdowns, has led to a huge number of “zombie links”.  And now everyone who has ever paid for “white hat SEO” linking services should probably be thinking about seriously auditing their backlink profiles.

That isn’t to say that everyone who got links for you did anything wrong or that you’ll be penalized.  If they asked for links and links were given editorially (without incentive or compensation) you’re probably okay.  You got a list of the links they acquired for you, right?  I mean, for accountability, so you know what you paid for.  And maybe for a future disavow file.

When people ask me to help them clean up their backlink profiles the first thing I ask is, “Do you have a list of the links the last guys built for you?”  They rarely do.  In fact, anyone who does have such a list has already disavowed all those links.  I’m supposed to find any other links that may not have been reported.

So how do you tell the difference between the people who help you earn good links and the guys who pepper the Web with cheap, smarmy guest posts?

I dunno.  We don’t have any industry standards.

These Are Not the Bad Backlinks You Should Fear

If you spend any time in SEO forums (and I probably spend way more than I should) about once a month someone will drop by and ask a question like, “How do you know if a link is good or bad?”

In my experience that usually means one of two things.  Either they see a lot of links coming from Web forums, business intelligence sites, and RSS feed pages (all perfectly good links that should not cause any problems for any sites) OR they just got caught publishing a lot of guest posts for links.

Sure, there are the geniuses who pay for turnkey Private Blog Networks only to find that the search engines quickly identify and delist these sites.  And then there are the guys who make the mistake of paying for low budget link building services (I won’t suggest they come from any specific country, but there are a few countries where these services seem to comprise the majority of “SEO services”).

Once in a while the person asking the question is someone who just started offering SEO services.  I feel great empathy for these people for I have walked that well-trodden path.  Sometimes they get good advice and feedback from the more experienced members of their communities.  Sometimes people ridicule them for not knowing the difference.

Of course, without industry standards to guide us, how is anyone supposed to know the difference between good and bad links?  I’ve seen videos where John Mueller (and Matt Cutts before him) wasn’t sure how to answer that question.  If the people who work at the search engines struggle to give you clear, concise examples, I can only imagine what passes for knowledge among the “Nyuck, nyuck” condescending crowd who believe THEY know better.

If you ask me for my opinion on whether a link is good or bad, I’ll give it to you.  But my opinion doesn’t come with any guarantees, not even if you pay me for that opinion.

Link Analysis Is Very, Very Hard to Do

If Google isn’t always sure about a link the no one else should be, either.  Yes, some people get a few (maybe a lot of) manipulative links past the algorithms.  How do you know who is truly doing this?  I scanned a Web forum discussion from a couple years back where a guy offered a great deal on link blasts to cold-hearted Web spammers.  This was definitely a black hat forum discussion.  It didn’t take long for people to start claiming they had been ripped off.  Out came the claws.  Out came the passionate defenses and the offers of refunds (along with accusations of refunds not happening, but that’s a different story).

This stuff happens all the time.  The people who create spammy links come in all shapes and sizes.  Some of them are very good at what they do.  I suspect the best link spammers don’t sell their services.  After all, if they can make money with a secret formula for success, why share the gold?  That makes no sense.

The old adage “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” usually applies when it comes to SEO link building.

And yet, many people who decry the use of spammy link services turn to and place their full trust in third-party link analysis tools.  They don’t just trust these services, they bank on them.  And year after year I see many of these people complain about the latest Google algorithmic changes, or how Google changes the rules, or whatever.

My philosophy has always been that if you complain about Google that much, maybe you should change how you optimize for search.  It shouldn’t be that hard.  We don’t earn all these penalties and algorithmic problems.  That isn’t to say that everything runs perfectly for us.  I know how to screw up a Website just like everyone else.  In fact, over the past few weeks I have been regaling subscribers to the SEO Theory Premium Newsletter with updates on how I’m finally getting around to fixing a Website I screwed up royally last year.  Shit happens.  We take it in stride and set our priorities appropriately.

If I mismanage a client site I’ll fix the problem right away.  If I mismanage one of my own sites it will probably sit in the background for a few months or years until I decide to get back to it.  Either way, I don’t blame Google for my mistakes.

Third-party link tools use their own indexes.  This is the first red flag when it comes to doing link analysis.  What are you hoping to find when you turn to backlink reports from third-party tools?

Randy and I use a couple of these tools on occasion, usually when someone asks us for link reports.  We explain our reservations to the client and pull the reports for them anyway (because that is what they pay for, along with our opinions of the links we find).

If you’re looking for links that Bing and Google may not have indexed, third-party link research tools make a lot of sense  You’re not going to find these links by searching in Bing or Google.  And you shouldn’t be crawling the Web without permission (that’s unethical).  Bing and Google send traffic to millions of Websites.  Their crawling is ethical.  You’re just trying to make money without doing anything for the Websites you crawl without permission.  That crawling is unethical.

So if you want to know where links exist that haven’t been indexed in Bing and Google, you need to pull the Ahrefs, Majestic, etc. reports.  They’ll show you a lot of links (sometimes) that Bing and Google don’t index.  I would work on getting THOSE links into the main search indexes (if someone hired me to do some hopeful link building).  Of course, you can’t guarantee anything.

Third-party link tools use their own algorithms.  Naive link researchers and builders always, ALWAYS mention that they are only interested in links with “high” D(omain) A(uthority) or T(rust)F(low), as if these third-party metrics have any bearing or relevance to Bing or Google.  The search engines don’t use these metrics.  And if they did, they would be computing those metrics from their own indexes, which means they would miss a lot of the links that the third-party tools are using to compute their scores.

==> Proprietary algorithms are not an acceptable substitute for undisclosed search engine algorithms.  EVER.

If you just want a list of links with some informed opinions about whether they might be good, the third-party link tools can easily accomplish that for you.  Their opinions are as valid as anyone else’s but no better.  And whereas link spammers probably won’t spend any time trying to fool you or me, they do invest time and resources into fooling the third-party link research tools.  That is because they want to sell Websites (or links) to people who perform due diligence by looking at backlink profiles through third-party link research tools.

==> Third-party tools are vulnerable to the same faults as Bing and Google

If you’re sensing there may be a vicious cycle of manipulation here, now you’re getting it.  Third-party link research tools are written by very smart people who do a lot of research.  Unfortunately for them and their clients, they have to deal with the same manipulative link spammers that Bing and Google cannot fully defeat in the SERPs.

If the two companies with the largest, most well-funded link research systems in the world cannot filter out all the link spam, rest assured no one else is filtering it all out, either.

While I am sure the companies that offer link research services won’t be happy with this post, they’re not going to give you any better information than Bing or Google have available.  And, frankly, the third-party tools cannot tell you what you really need to know:

  1. Which links do Bing and Google index?
  2. Which links pass positive value in Bing and Google’s rankings?
  3. Which links pass negative value (if any) in Bing and Google’s rankings?

Honestly, if I could tell you that, I wouldn’t squander my knowledge by selling subscriptions to a tool that could be abused by people who insist on pissing in the pond all day long.

Concluding Thoughts

If you bought stock in the SEO industry yesterday, don’t worry.  Your investment is as safe as any other risky investment.  The SEO industry still lacks standards and the people (companies) who pay for SEO expertise are still gambling they’ll be successful despite the lack of standards.  There are some very smart, very experienced, very honest people in the SEO industry.  They speak at conferences, write blogs, and help a lot of clients.  And there are some real charlatans who speak at conferences, write blogs, and sell their services to a lot of clients.

All you have to do is figure out where to draw the line and on which side you want to be (as either a provider or consumer of SEO expertise and services).

A good audit may help you figure that out.  Truth be told, until this industry adopts some real standards, SEO audits and backlink analysis are about the only consistent practices you can count on.  But no one can really tell you how good and reliable they are.

Follow SEO Theory

A confirmation email will be sent to new subscribers AND unsubscribers. Please look for it!