The Technical Audit Checklist for Human Beings: September 2017 Update

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Updated September 13, 2017. Changes include:

  • Made each line easier to understand
  • Added pointers for going straight to the relevant reports in each tool#
  • Changed which tool to use for some rows
  • Added more Google references
  • Removed a couple dubious lines (site speed, HTTP/2)
  • Removed superfluous timing column
  • Removed whole sections that made the audit less MECE
  • Fixed cases where some cells would say “Incomplete” and others wouldn’t

Thanks everyone who has provided feedback over the last year!

Technical audits are one of the activities that define SEO. We’ve all done them. But audits are only as valuable as their impact. Whether you’re a practitioner or an agency partner, your job really begins when you finish the audit. You must take your recommendations and make them a reality. Distilled thrives on this “effecting change” mindset.

Yet the (long, laborious) audit has still got to be done. We sift through crawls, consider best practices, analyze sitemaps—the list goes on.

But we’re committed to the technical audit. So if we’re going to audit a site, why not do the audit in a way that makes the fun part—making change happen—much easier?

The challenge

With that in mind, we asked “Can we design an audit that helps make real change happen?” The result is an aware technical audit checklist. It considers the underlying problems we’re tackling (or trying to prevent). It makes technical audits faster, more effective, and more impactful.

Read on for more about how to put the checklist to use. Many on our team find it self-explanatory, though, so if you want to get cracking have at it! And then let us know what you think.

Every great audit starts with a checklist!

There are lots of technical checklists out there. A good technical audit inspects many things in many places. Checklists are perfect for keeping track of this complexity. They’re simple tools with lots of benefits. Checklists are:

  • Comprehensive. Without a checklist, you may still discover the obvious technical problems with a site. Using a checklist ensures you remember to check all the relevant boxes.

  • Productive. Working without a checklist takes more effort. At each stage you have to decide what to do next. The checklist answers this question for you.

  • Understandable. Unfortunately an intern can’t osmose your intuition! Rigorously defining your work with a checklist lets you delegate audits.

This checklist is better

Technical SEO has one purpose: ensure site implementation won’t hurt search visibility. Everything we uncover leads back to that point. This defines the scope of the audit.

Beyond that, many folks break down technical to-dos by where they need to look or what tool they need to use. They might look at all on-page elements, then move on to all sitemap issues. That’s a valid way of approaching the problem. We’ve got an alternative.

We look ahead to the conversations we’ll have after we’ve done the audit. Consider this (realistic) statement: “We’re concerned that important content isn’t indexed because URLs aren’t discovered by crawlers. Submitting a sitemap to Search Console might help fix the problem.”

This is a coherent technical recommendation. It explains why to make a change. It has 3 parts:

  1. Outcome - important content isn’t indexed.

  2. Cause - URLs aren’t discoverable by crawlers.

  3. Issue -  we haven’t uploaded sitemaps to Search Console.

That’s the difference: you’ll see this is exactly how we’ve structured the checklist. Take a moment to jump over and inspect it with this model in mind. By now you’re probably getting the idea—this isn’t just a technical checklist. It’s a also a tool for communicating the value of your work.

The structure encourages completeness

Each row of the checklist represents a problem. By including the right problem at each level, we also make it as complete as possible, without adding redundancy. The principle of MECE (“Mutually Exclusive, Comprehensively Exhaustive”) is what makes it work. At each level of analysis, we:

  • include all possible problems, and

  • ensure problems don’t overlap.

Let’s illustrate, using the highest level of analysis. The checklist as a whole is investigating whether “we have a technical problem with our site that is reducing search visibility”. There are 3 reasons we could lose search traffic because of a technical issue:

  • there is a technical reason good content isn’t indexed, or

  • there is a technical reason indexed content doesn't rank for desired terms, or

  • there is a technical reason site content isn't well-presented in search.

These represent all the possible problems we could be dealing with (“comprehensively exhaustive”). They also don’t overlap (“mutually exclusive”).

By applying the same way of thinking recursively, we expose all sub-problems in these areas. Then we list all issues that could be causing these sub-problems. This makes the checklist as thorough as possible, without redundant checks that could slow us down.

A few pointers

Getting started

This checklist template is available to the public. When you open it, you’ll discover that you only have “view” permissions for the master document. To use it, you’ll first want to create a copy:

Marking status

Mark each issue with Pass, OK, or Fail:

  • Pass means you have no concerns.

  • OK means the issues doesn’t seem relevant currently.

  • Fail means something appears to be wrong.

When you update an Issue, the grade for the Cause and Outcome will also be updated. If any Issue’s score is Fail, the Cause and Outcome will also Fail.

Find what you’re looking for quickly

People new to search engine optimization can still start using this sheet. We’ve now added a “Start Here” column to make it faster than ever to get started.

For new users of some of these tools, it might not be clear where to find relevant information. The “Start Here” column points you to the exact place you can find the details you need.

Understand what’s at stake

If you’re the person analyzing the audit after it’s done, you want to get a high-level picture quickly. Use the structure of the sheet to simplify that view by filtering the Issues rows.

Filtering for Outcomes and Causes gives you a quick-and-dirty summary of a site’s strengths and weaknesses. This is the first thing I look at when I see a completed audit!

Filtering related tasks

If you’re the one doing the audit, you want to get it done as quickly as possible. Take advantage of the structure of the sheet to group things

Take advantage of the structure of the sheet by showing only the issues you’re inspecting right now. Try filtering by the “Where” column—for “Google Search Console”, for instance. This will let you grade all Issues for that tool at once.

We want to learn from you, too

This checklist is a living document. We appreciate any feedback you have. Feel free to jump in the comments section here or find me on Twitter: @BenjaminEstes.

Interested in working with us?

This audit is an example of the way Distilled approaches consulting. We aren’t limited to SEO—we also help our clients with marketing strategy, content design and production, paid search, and more. If our approach sounds interesting, please reach out!

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About the author
Benjamin Estes

Benjamin Estes

Ben is a Principal Consultant who joined Distilled in 2010. Now he focuses on leveling up our team. Through group training and internal consultation, he guides team members as they effect change for our clients.   read more