It’s a well-known fact of human development that adults struggle to learn new languages as well as the average 10-year-old.
And since few of us were reading Rand Fishkin in the fourth grade, it’s only understandable that we struggle with SEO jargon here and there.
Correcting the record is far from pedantry. Our understanding of key SEO concepts influences our ability to properly apply them. Today we’re exploring two of the most basic – and often confused – components of search optimization, SEO audits, and SEO tests.
SEO tests vs. SEO audits
The conflation of search testing and SEO audits is understandable given the field’s relative recency and numerous paradigm changes. What’s more, SEO testing is a new concept; even the prior evolutionary step, AB testing, is itself relatively new.
The two terms are often used interchangeably, especially by SEO platforms looking to market their tools towards this new trend. Yet,despite sharing some of the same goals, principles, and vocabulary, SEO testing and SEO audits are wholly distinct concepts.
SEOs perform audits to assess the historical performance of their digital marketing efforts holistically. On the other hand, SEO testing involves applying the scientific method to verify or discover the influence SEO variables have on search rankings.
Both are evaluation methods. One focuses on assessing past performance as a means of informing future marketing efforts – the other uncovering how individual SEO variables – that are often assessed in audits, like titles, image tags, and internal links may be altered to improve performance.
How does SEO testing work?
Testing is a process of optimizing SEO techniques and marketing messaging through a process similar to scientific experimentation. Practitioners isolate a single SEO variable, like meta tags, and measure performance variations between an experimental group of pages where that variable is altered and a control group where it remains unchanged.
Which variables are usually tested?
- Titles: Changing keyword-heavy headlines into narratives
- Meta tags: Optimizing for click-worthiness or keyphrases
- Content upgrades: Adding more descriptive content, relevant images, or video
- Internal linking: Improving density to create pillar-style content
- Readability: Optimizing towards skimability, breaking up sentences, creating tables of contents
- Conversion optimization: Improving conversion rates by customizing calls-to-action
We perform a high volume of SEO tests for our clients. Title and meta description tests are perhaps the most popular SEO tests (known to be the two most heavily weighted SEO variables, and are highly visible to searchers).
After performing this test across many pages, the site experienced a massive increase in clicks, impressions, and rankings.
Typically, marketers target a select range of metrics that they aim to improve with tests. We recommend going after the following:
- Search rankings
- Monthly web traffic
- Bounce rate
- Conversion rate
- Time on page
- Bounce rate
- Scroll depth
Why rigorous SEO testing is good for business
When Pinterest went about their site-wide optimization project, they described their efforts thusly:
“There are hundreds of different ways to do SEO, including sitemaps, link-building, search-engine-friendly site design and so on. The best strategy for successful SEO can differ by product, by page and even by season. Identifying what works best for each case helps us move fast with limited resources. By running a large number of experiments, we found some well-known strategies for SEO didn’t work for us, while certain tactics we weren’t confident about worked like a charm.”
Without SEO testing, you can’t effectively “know” that doing X with variable Y will produce a positive, neutral, or negative result.
It’s important to remember that Google’s search algorithm is not a known entity. In fact, it is so complex that no one, not even its engineers know how the more than 300 variables are weighted. What’s more, since these variables are weighted wildly differently based on the page’s industry and subject matter, it’s next to impossible to make these two vital projections:
- Knowing which variables impact search results most significantly
- Knowing how to manipulate those variables to make a positive impact on search rankings
It’s difficult for some to understand SEO testing’s true value. For one, the value of information is abstract. Secondly, many may be skeptical of a marketing concept framed as scientific, and, crucially, it’s hard to justify dedicating time and resources towards any “unproven” activity.
Despite any skepticism, the data one draws from these experiments are truly worth their weight in gold. Not only do they provide insights on techniques that will grow your traffic, they’ll show which techniques and variables aren’t worth your time.
In a field where best practices rest on the shaky foundation of educated guesses, certain knowledge is holy.
It’s difficult to find empirical research on the subject due to the recency of this trend–and the wide variance in testing results, but many public experiments have been highly encouraging.
After Pinterest’s aforementioned test to improve their pin descriptions, they experienced a 30 percent increase in traffic. Meanwhile, Hubspot’s extensive optimization tests on archived blog posts doubled monthly lead generation and grew organic search views by 106 percent on average.
It’s also important to point out how vital organic search is to overall site traffic and your bottom line. In 93 percent of cases, users arrive at a site via search engines. What’s more, SEO’s ROI is uncomparable – 25 percent higher than PPC.
SEO testing tools
Despite appearing technically sophisticated, SEO testing isn’t the most challenging task, nor does it require many specialized tools. You may already have what you need. Those are as follows:
- General-purpose analytics
- Web scraper
- Keyword research
Note that if you’re looking to perform tests regularly, you may need a dedicated testing tool. However, an analytics tool should suffice for now.
What is an SEO audit?
The goal is to gather a high-level view of your page – architecture, performance – and fix the obstacles between your site and better search rankings. Your task is to look for SEO errors and inconsistencies, such as broken links, poorly-optimized headers, internal links and backlinks, non-indexed pages, and many other variables.
You can break down the problems audits seek to fix in these three broad categories:
1. Indexing and crawling
Google’s search spiders aren’t perfectly intelligent, and as such, they rely on web administrators to structure pages in a way that they understand.
A report detailing the distribution of errors across one client’s site.
Issues arise most frequently within XML sitemaps and 404 errors. Fixing them improves the spiders’ visibility.
2. Poor rankings for critical keyword content
Often, Google crawlers miss pages that contain too many redirects, broken links, or an insufficient volume of internal links. Rankings may also suffer from poor page performance. Fixes include improving page performance, fixing canonical tags, and establishing redirects on pages reachable by multiple URL variations.
3. Search snippet and content performance
Finally, we get to Google’s interpretation of your content’s quality and relevance to searchers. Generally speaking, one should aim to develop the best piece on any given topic if you seek to rank highly in the long term. Frequent signs of unoptimized content include thin pages with low word count, unoptimized headings, and title tags and meta tags that are either too long or brief.
Why thorough SEO audits are good for business
To say SEO is a detail-oriented profession is an understatement.
On top of the general awareness that one needs to be continuously building traffic, many SEO tasks are repetitive and time-consuming. That includes embedding backlinks, dreaming up keyphrase- and click-friendly titles, scouring for broken links, and filling out more fields than corn in the midwest.
It’s a lot to manage.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many companies struggle to apply SEO best practices evenly. In the SEO world, t’s are frequently uncrossed, and i’s undotted.
An analysis from SEO platform Serpstat found that 70 percent of sites with the “.com” domain had many of the most common SEO problems. Of those, 38.93 percent contained meta tag errors, 20.24 percent had markup errors, and 10.67 percent contained link errors.
SEO audits are also much more well-known and widespread practice. Above all, SEO audits are about understanding how marketing spend translates to marketing results.
By effectively measuring results, adjusting, and showing the proof of good practices and effective work, you not only justify your company’s marketing efforts, you provide a strong argument for further investment.
Like SEO testing, SEO audits vary so greatly that it’s hard to put a number to their direct impact. At the same time, it’s not just evaluating variables; it’s about identifying errors understood to hurt rankings and hurt the user experience.
For instance, when SEO firm Blizzard Reports fixed 1,000 broken links, their site’s rankings grew an average of six spots for 286 of their targeted keywords.
SEO audit tools
The SEO audit is a much more extensive project than SEO testing, and as such, requires a broader slate of tools.
- A web crawling tool for effectively gatherings and analyzing raw data (Should also have flexible visualization features).
- A general-purpose SEO platform to help automate audits and verify results (On top of tracking keyword progress).
- A content optimization tool focused on on-page optimization (Hugely helpful but optional).
- A Google Analytics account paired with Google Search Console should suffice for analysis and testing.
For modern SEO, either or isn’t an option
Both SEO testing and adults are designed to bring clarity to a very uncertain practice. Although the goal may be more humble than the scientific record, it is the same: trustworthy knowledge we can use to move forward.