Step 3: Let’s audit!
We’re ready to audit! We’ll work through each category in turn.
Check for Google penalties
If you or your client’s site is currently subject to a Google penalty, it is certain to seriously undermine your SEO performance. Therefore, before you move on to audit things like inbound links and Google My Business profile, it’s good to first understand if there are any penalties to be aware of. If there are penalties in play, you’ll need to make sure a process is in place to fix the underlying issue before you can move on.
Back in 2014, Matt Cutts said that Google took around 400,000 manual actions each month, meaning there’s a good chance your local site may have been subjected to a Google penalty. It’s thought that just 5% of those sites submit a reconsideration request after fixing the penalty-causing problem, meaning many local business websites are missing a huge opportunity to recover lost rankings. Conducting a local SEO audit with a check for Google penalties as your first port of call means you won’t make the same mistake.
A drop in rankings isn’t always an indicator that a penalty has been applied, though, so it can be a balancing act to determine if you’re simply falling behind a more proactive competitor, have lost out when a new algorithm update has rolled out or are in fact subject to a penalty.
If Google has dished out a manual penalty to the site, the site’s webmaster will receive a notification via Google Search Console, so you’ll need to be registered and have the site registered as a property within your account. There’s a step-by-step from Google on how to do that here. (Note that if you are an agency managing a site for a client, you can register up to 1,000 different websites via the one Search Console account).
Once logged in, you’ll see a link to ‘Messages’. If you have been hit with a manual penalty, you’ll have a notice from Google here. It will detail why this action has been taken, meaning you’ll have a good idea of what to do to remedy it. Don’t forget that once you have resolved the problem, you’ll need to submit a reconsideration request.
Google also provides a Manual Actions Report within your Search Console to detail any penalties being applied to your site. It’s worth reminding yourself here that a drop in rankings doesn’t necessarily indicate a penalty has been applied as they tend to be reserved for serious breaches of Google’s code of best practice.
Google issues a manual action against a site when a human reviewer at Google has determined that pages on the site are not compliant with Google’s webmaster quality guidelines. Most manual actions address attempts to manipulate our search index. Most issues reported here will result in pages or sites being ranked lower or omitted from search results without any visual indication to the user.”
The manual action report is very helpful if you have had a penalty applied. It will offer you a list of the pages affected by the penalty, and also give you a ‘learn more’ link to find out more about the issue and what you can do to resolve it. You’ll need to resolve each issue and then return to the report to submit a reconsideration request for entry back into the local pack rankings.
Google also provides a helpful list of manual actions it typically applies so it’s worth reviewing this to ensure that you aren’t contravening any of these areas and therefore placing your site at risk of a penalty being issued. This list includes having things like:
- thin content on your site
- using sneaky mobile redirects
- user-generated spam
- an unnatural link structure either to or from your domain.
If there isn’t a manual action warning showing in your Search Console, it may be that you have not fared well with a new algorithm update. Google was recently at pains to point out that a dip after an algorithm update isn’t a penalty; it simply means other sites which may have been under-ranked previously have gained ground.
Its advice was to focus on creating good content rather than making sweeping changes. Conducting this local SEO audit will also help you identify and fix any problematic areas.
Perform local keyword research
Search behavior changes regularly and new, breakout search terms appear all the time. Because the words and phrases consumers use to seek information and find local businesses evolve constantly, your keyword research needs to do the same.
Performing a local SEO audit is the perfect time to revisit your keyword strategy, whether you’re auditing your own site or that of a new local SEO client win for your agency.
There are a number of reasons for and benefits of doing this. You may discover, for example, that some of the keywords using up your SEO resources have been assumed rather than data-backed.
It could be the term is too technical, meaning the everyday consumer simply doesn’t use it when they turn to Google. You may find you’re missing keywords for some products and services offered by the local business because the keyword strategy hasn’t been updated as the business has grown. You may not have newer search phrases featured in your SEO plan, be missing out on higher search volume keywords or be trying to rank for irrelevant or unhelpful terms.
Performing local keyword research gives you an up-to-date, accurate base to build your local SEO strategy around. There are a number of tools you can use here but the objective is the same whichever you choose; to perform detailed keyword research on the market and location, to identify the most searched-for terms relating to the local business and its services or products from the local area.
If you don’t have a keyword tool at your disposal already, Google Keyword Planner is a good place to start. You’ll need to open a Google Ads account to use Planner but, this is quick (and free) to do. This tool will suggest keywords relevant to your business and give you some insight into search volume to help you curate a useful list.
There are several other suitable tools for this job so try a few to find one you like. Popular options include Wordtracker, SEM Rush and Moz. Many of the paid-for tools offer a short free trial period, which allows you to evaluate multiple options without eating into your budget. If you’re new to keyword research, our definitive guide to effectively carrying out local SEO keyword research is a helpful resource.
For additional keyword inspiration, it’s also worth checking out Google Trends. Simply type in a category or subject and it will return interest by region, a list of related queries and related topics. For both of the latter, you can filter by rising queries – these are the breakout phrases that have spiked in popularity. This is a good opportunity to identify search terms that are quickly becoming popular with consumers and which your competitors may not yet have cottoned onto.
Once you have your keyword list, you’ll need to check that you also have a full subset of geo-modified versions of your keywords as appropriate (keyword + city / state etc.). You’ll need an easy-to-access copy of this list as you’ll be referring to it in several of the following categories.
As part of your audit, you’ll need to find out where your site ranks for the keywords you have identified in category two. An accurate ranking report will allow you to pinpoint where keyword performance needs to be addressed and where your site is riding high.
Use a rank tracker like BrightLocal’s Local Search Rank Checker tool to see how the business is performing for your identified keywords and download a report. Lower rankings than you were expecting underlines the need to revisit your local SEO strategy but it’s also a sign that competitors are leapfrogging your business.
While this is frustrating, it’s also an opportunity to learn. Which keywords are they ranking for? Where are they outperforming you? Are there keyword opportunities you hadn’t identified previously?
Another great tool to investigate how a business is really performing in local search is local keyword tracker Local Search Grid, which literally puts these rankings on the map, making it easy to see who’s winning and losing in rankings for your keywords in the local area.
Remember that local pack ranking functions differently to the main organic search results so you will need to seek out a tool that can replicate searches from a particular location. While you obviously won’t limit running a ranking report to those occasions when you’re completing a full local SEO audit, you should still record the positions on your audit document. You then have a benchmark to monitor progress made when you perform your subsequent audit.
Audit links and website authority
According to the Whitespark Local Search Ranking Factors survey, link signals make up 15% of key local ranking factors. Considerations such as how many links you have, how many different domains link to your site, what the authority of each domain is, and what the anchor text of the link is are all taken into account by Google when determining your search position.
We mentioned before that relevance and prominence were two of the three core pillars of local SEO. Your link profile speaks to both of these areas, making links a crucial factor in your organic search success.
When carrying out a local SEO audit, you need to develop a big-picture view of the links that your local business website currently has. This means:
- Researching the volume of links (this counts towards prominence)
- Deciding whether those links are from good-quality and authoritative domains relevant to your business location or its industry (this ticks the relevance box)
- Determining if you have very low-quality links which could be classed as spam
- Assessing the anchor text for use of relevant keywords and natural variety
- Identifying opportunities for organic link building to grow relevance and prominence
You’ll find a number of tools online which will check how many links you have pointing back to the site. Ahrefs is one such example and is free to use. From your link report, you can then check the quality of your backlink profile. Do you have a decent amount of links from a range of websites that are relevant to your location or your niche? If so, your link profile is in a pretty good place.
Keep an eye out for very low-quality websites which appear to send you masses of links. This could look like spam to Google. Nofollow links are fine, so don’t assume they are of a low quality just because of the nofollow tag. If you do identify links from very poor quality websites, flag them up. Your next step should be to contact the domain and ask for the link to be removed.
Once you know your own standing, try plugging a competitor into the link report tool. You can then compare factors such as number of domains linking back, volume of links and number of good-quality versus low-quality referrals. Using a competitor’s data alongside your own provides you with a benchmark – you’ll be able to see if you need to seriously ramp up your link-building efforts and confirm if you’re actually doing better than your rival.
What’s more, you can review the competitor’s link audit to identify new inbound link opportunities for your site, taking away their advantage.
The management of local citations forms one of the basic tenets of local SEO. Although we acknowledge that having lots and lots of accurate citations doesn’t have as much of an impact on search position than it used to, every business needs to get the most important citations in place and keep them accurate.
Our own Myles Anderson explains in our research into the relevance of citations in 2019,
Today citations are seen as a fundamental element of local SEO. If you don’t have them you can’t compete locally, and awareness of this is high. Because of this, a greater percentage of businesses are getting this right first time, and so these signals don’t make as much competitive difference as they used to.”
That said, the Whitespark’s Local Search Ranking Factors survey still includes citations as a ranking factor, behind Google My Business, links, online reviews, and on-page ranking signals.
When conducting your local SEO audit, you’ll need to focus on a few local citation/business listing considerations. The first thing to assess is whether or not your business is benefiting from an accurate NAP (name, address, phone number) on each listing site it has a presence on.
Here, you’ll need to manually check the top citation sites for your business to ascertain whether or not they all show the same data. If there are any discrepancies, make a note of them, as you’ll need to go back and fix them later. A discrepancy could be something as simple as the business name being written differently, a change in address formatting or an old phone number being listed.
If you or your client’s local business has many citations, BrightLocal’s Citation Tracker can help you hunt them all down. Again, you’ll need to check each for consistency and accuracy.
Duplicate or inaccurate listings don’t just hinder your local search progress, they can also be an inconvenience – or a downright annoyance – to consumers too, directly damaging consumer trust and confidence in your brand. According to our Local Citations Trust Report, 93% of consumers are frustrated by inaccurate information online, while 80% lose trust in a local business if there are inconsistencies or in accuracies when it comes to online contact details or business information.
It gets worse, too, as it’s not just an inconvenience: 71% of local consumers say that incorrect information has resulted in a negative experience for them.
Conducting a local SEO audit is your chance to identify any of these issues quickly and put you on the path to getting them fixed. Ensure that all inaccurate, outdated or incomplete citations are fixed as soon as possible after your local SEO audit is completed.
Audit brand mentions and implied links
Have you ever considered the power of implied links or non-linking citations? If this is the first you’re hearing of implied links, let us explain. “Implied links are references or mentions of a brand and/or website without an explicit link,” says Forbes contributor and SEO expert, Jayson DeMers. He continues,
These references could be in the body of a blog post, citing out another brand’s expertise on a specific subject, in a comment referring to another brand’s coverage of a topic, or in some other form so long as the site’s name is specifically mentioned. Implied links, also called ‘brand mentions’ or simply ‘mentions,’ are becoming relevant to brand authority in new ways…”
While links are undeniably important, they are also open to spamming. Google’s Panda update introduced implied links to us, in order to differentiate third-party mentions (again, think prominence here) from conventional links. Implied links are almost, if not equally, as important as standard links (prominence once again), so you need to factor them into your local SEO audit.
To unearth implied links directed at your local business, head to Google and input the business name, placed within speech marks, as your search query, e.g. “BrightLocal”. This will return find all the instances where your brand is mentioned without a link. Make a note of each website that you encounter, being aware that the majority of results likely won’t come from directory-style sites as they would usually have a link associated.
Typically, implied links will be found in local news pieces, blog posts, reviews and perhaps event listings or ebooks, white papers and industry news. You’re looking for a a mention of the business name first of all, and then add a bonus point for each time the page displaying the implied link also mentions the business phone number or bricks and mortar address. The use of contact information is what turns a brand mention into an implied link.
Audit Google My Business
Your Google My Business listing plays a pivotal role in local pack rankings, making it worthy of its own dedicated section in your local SEO audit. Your Google My Business listing provides Google and local consumers with a wealth of information, from business address and opening hours to service information and images. The features change all the time, with Google regularly rolling out new tools and options. It’s important to keep up to date with these developments given Google My Business signals are widely considered to be the most important local pack ranking factor.
You’ll need to work through each element of your business listing methodically and double check that all best practice is being followed, all information is current and up to date and all information fields are completed in full. We’ve a great guide on how to optimize your Google My Business listing in 10 steps if you need it.
Images are important to Google and so it encourages you to add as many images as possible, across a number of different categories, to your listing. After verifying that your listing has images associated with it, you’ll need to then go a step further and visually audit the images to ensure they look good. If new images haven’t been uploaded in a while, or some of the images are out of date, make a note to rectify this by taking new images when your SEO campaign gets underway.
Next, review the business description for clarity, use of keywords and completeness. This text tells consumers about your business and what you do.
Your listing’s category and sub-category is an important part of your profile so check that the most appropriate ones have been chosen. Google advises, “Categories are used to describe your business and connect you to customers searching for the services you offer.” This means that getting the category right is a big part of being visible in the local pack.
Google My Business offers a whole host of specific features for certain types of business. Restaurants, for example, can submit their complete food and drinks menu. If you’re a service business, such as a spa or even a digital marketing agency, you can provide a list of your services to Google via the profile.
Take bookings? Confirm the booking button has been activated.
Other housekeeping tasks include:
Once you have been through your own Google My Business profile with a fine-tooth comb, check out a competitor or two. Review how their profile appears in local search to identify if there is anything you could do better.
Audit reviews and ratings
Whether you are a local business owner or a digital agency, you won’t need reminding of the importance of online reviews. Prioritizing review acquisition and being proactive about reputation management is essential for attracting consumers, establishing trust and driving traffic to your site – but review signals are also a compounding factor in local pack visibility.
As your first port of call for this part of your local SEO audit, you’ll need to create a shortlist of the top review sites as well as local and industry platforms. With this in hand, check each review site in turn and note the average star rating being displayed for your local business.
While reviewing each of the review sites, note down how many times a business is asked a question by a reviewer without a response being provided.
Look, too, at how many reviews don’t have a response and what the proportion of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ reviews are. Our Google Reviews Study handily breaks down average star ratings by industry, for benchmarking purposes.
When auditing reviews and ratings, ask yourself whether there any reoccurring negatives which need to be addressed such as slow shipping, slow check-in, untidy stores. Note them down as you proceed with your review of these reviews.
Fake reviews are a concern as they can erode consumer trust in the genuine reviews earned. Our research suggests that more consumers spotted more fake reviews recently, with 33% saying they spotted ‘lots’ in the last 12 months, versus 25% the previous year, although fewer consumers overall spotted fake reviews in the same period. If you aren’t sure how to spot a fake review, check out our advice on how to identify them and what to do to combat them here.
As your final task for this part of the audit, list any review sites you come across where you’d expect the local business to have a review profile but they don’t. These are review opportunities and something you can factor in to your local SEO strategy moving forwards.
Audit social media
The final thing we’re going to tackle in our local SEO audit is social media. While your local business doesn’t need to be present on every social network, it should have a profile on the ones that are a good demographic fit for the consumer base. A law office, for example, won’t need to prioritize Instagram, but you would expect an active LinkedIn profile.
Check if your local business is present on each network that makes sense for them. Facebook is more than likely a given. Instagram and Pinterest are highly recommended for particular visual brands and retailers, while Twitter is a good match for any local business creating regular content to share with the time to engage with users and build a following.
When you have tracked down the existing profiles, verify if bios, usernames and logos are consistent across each network. Does each profile include an engaging description and website link? Is each profile being regularly updated? Are questions being responded to?
To really gauge performance, check out a few local competitors. Are they using a feature that your business isn’t to great success? Do they deploy tactics you don’t, such as giveaways or Facebook/Instagram/YouTube Stories? Anything you can pinpoint should be recorded, as this will form the basis of your social media activity when your marketing gets underway post-local SEO audit.
If you have worked through steps 1-9 in turn, you have now completed your first local SEO audit. You should have extensive insight into your local SEO performance and have identified a few opportunities for improvement.
As we noted at the beginning, documenting your findings is crucial as you’ll need to refer back to them when creating your local SEO strategy and check in again at the next audit to measure improvement.
If you’re presenting your audit findings to a client, pull your findings together in a slide deck, and rate each section from Good to Bad in order to provide an overall picture of health for the site. For each section, provide a summary of areas where improvements can be made and what the benefits of this work are likely to be.
If conducting a local SEO audit manually seems like a whole lot of work, try BrightLocal’s Local Search Audit free for 14 days. It will complete all of the above tasks for you in a matter of minutes.