We’ve all seen them. The Free SEO Audit tools.
“Pop your URL in here for your free SEO review in less than 2 minutes!”
There are even some big ‘names’ in SEO using them on their sites.
At best these tools are easy data capture tools for SEO agencies.
At their worst, they’re plain misleading and could steer you towards either completely wasting your time on spurious ‘SEO activities’ or actually harming your site and making things worse.
I hate them. They don’t work very well. And I’m here to tell you why.
SEO audits are hard
An SEO audit – a proper SEO audit – is hard. It’s time-consuming. It is not a ‘one size fits all’, copy and paste tool you can just point at any site and bingo – an audit report pops out the other end like some fairground fortune teller machine.
Although, honestly, you may as well stick your website into one of those with 50p and see what comes out:
“The future brings… a spammy mark-up penalty.”
that’s how useful those free SEO audit tools are.
A good SEO audit
There are so many factors that go into a good SEO audit that these tools cannot and do not take into account.
If you’re just putting your URL in you’re not telling this ‘tool’ about your customers; your target market; your aims; your competitors; your business area or niche… the list goes on (and on and on).
All of that stuff is crucial to working out how to set-up your site and map out your content for a good SEO strategy – of which the SEO audit is just one of the first steps.
If you want to see just a taste of what a good SEO audit looks like I run them at some of the Cambridge SEO events I organise.
If you’re a charity or good cause, you can register your site for the chance of getting a free SEO audit for charities at one of the events.
For those I get an expert panel of three people to pick through the bones of a site and present back on what they find.
Honestly, I wavered on even doing that – for fear it would give the impression that this could all be done in half an hour. But I’m very clear on how much time the panelists put into the audits as ‘homework’ before presenting back at the events – and that it takes three people and several hours of work each to do even the fairly light touch audits we present at Optimisey events.
You get what you pay for with free tools
I don’t want to beat up on these free tools too badly (OK, that’s a lie, I do). What I mean is there is some merit in them, if you look hard enough.
Broadly, they do at least give you a flavour of the sorts of things you should look at or at least be aware of when considering your site’s search engine optimisation.
The real acid test for me though is this:
I have. And invariably they don’t do that great, even according to their own tool.
If they are not taking their own tool’s advice that seriously, why should you?
I should point out that for many of these free site audit tools the site they’re on doesn’t even own them. They’ve paid a few quid to white-label it from someone else purely as a way to capture leads.
What does this look like?
This is a screenshot from a typical free SEO audit too. The red ‘scribble’ is mine – to protect the (not so) innocent – I put their own URL into their tool.
(If you’ve seen enough of these reports to ID this particular tool from this image please don’t. It’s not my intention to bad mouth specific tools – there are a lot of bad tools out there. I don’t want to name and shame one or two but the whole flipping lot.)
This one tried to go a step further and, when you entered your target website’s URL, it asked what your “target keyword” was.
But I digress. You, usually, get a lovely, pretty, colourful report cheerfully telling you all about the SEO of your site.
This one got 86%. Not bad. But uh-oh… there are “13 issues found”. More importantly, if there are 13 issues why haven’t they fixed them?
Unless even they don’t believe the results of their own tool? *gasp*
Generic advice is worthless advice
Here are some of those issues.
This is another screenshot from the same report.
Yes, page speed is important. No 3.52 seconds is not a great load time. But again, there’s no context.
What if you’re a business that relies heavily on images – say a photographer? 3.52 seconds may not be too shabby.
Then again, if you’re a business whose target market is people on the move, on their mobile with patchy 3G (say, farmers? Or commuters?) then 3.52 seconds (measured on a speedy desktop connection is bloomin’ disastrous!
“Data without context is meaningless”
– Everyone that’s ever worked with data
Data: Did you know that after metal helmets were given to soldiers in the First World War, the number of head injuries recorded actually went up!
Context: Fatalities went down but those surviving being shot in the head went up – because they had helmets on.
Misleading or confusing advice
This is the advice on title tags. Again, important. Worth flagging up if you weren’t aware of their importance.
But “Title tag should begin with keyword”? Come on…
A good page title should tell users what’s on the page, not which keyword you want to rank for.
Yes, get keywords and phrases you want that page to rank for in there – often the earlier in the title tag the better – but this sort of broad brush “should” advice is misleading.
Stuffing keywords into your title tags for search engines is a quick way to wreck your site. People don’t want to see: keyword1 keyword2 buy now | Yourbiz.com as your page title.
This is even more true when considering long-tail keywords or if you’re targeting questions like “How do I…” or “When should…” or “What’s the best…”.
That’s why the keyword only approach and focus is outdated and misleading. You need to cover topics, phrases and entities not just one or two high volume target keywords.
And smart SEO (and page titles) is considered site-wide not on a page-by-page basis – else you risk canabalising yourself. Do you want this page to rank for ‘keyword x’ or that page? Shoving keywords in to page titles will confuse you, the search engines and (most importantly) your customers.
Plain wrong advice
The idea that you “should have 2,000+ words on this page” is bunkum, pure and simple.
If I search for “What is Bob’s Widgets address” I do not want to read Bob’s life story before I get to his address. I want to find his address.
Google’s cottoned on to this. If you search for “How old is [celebrity]” almost invariably it’ll pull that data right into the SERP (search engine results page). It knows what you’re after and gives it to you.
No, you don’t want your entire site to be filled with thin, weak good to no-one content but should every page have 2,000 words plus? No.
And why stop at 2,000? Why not 3,000? Or 30,000? How do you know when enough is enough?
The answer is: ask your audience. Or at least know your audience. What do they want? When do they want it? Where are they when their searching for that?
If they’re on a long train journey perhaps a lovely, long in-depth read it just what they’re after. If they’re stood next to their car as it pours smoke and oil all over the place no they do not want a 20,000 word essay on the history of the combustion engine to pad out your piece on fixing the radiator in their car.
And that part about “Bold, italicize or underline exact keyword”? For heaven’s sake. That stuff hasn’t worked in SEO terms for years.
By all means make words bold or italic – for the benefit of your readers – if it helps make your content more readable or your point clearer. Don’t do it because you think it will give you a rankings boost.
There’s more just from that part of the ‘report’ but you get the gist.
SEO school report
Here’s a screenshot from another familar ‘free SEO audit’ tool. Note the school-like grades again:
Some A and Bs though, so clearly this site is doing OK, right?
Until you check it on a more credible SEO tool like SEMrush and you find that, in fact, they’re ranking for just eight keywords and not one of them on page 1.
Hey, we’ve all been there. Optimisey.com is still very much a work in progress. I still struggle to rank for competitive keywords but I’m getting there and I’m trying to ‘eat my own dog food’ as the saying goes.
But I don’t give myself an A+ for SEO. At least, not yet. For effort maybe – but results? Not yet.
And that’s what SEO should be about. Results.
What’s the use in ranking well (even at the top of page 1) for a term no-one searches for or, even if they do search for it, they don’t want what you sell?
In my time working at Lord’s Cricket Ground, we ranked pretty well for some odd terms… some related to reptile food.
We’re back to context again.
What’s your business? What are your aims? Who are your competitors? What keywords do you rank for now? What keywords do you want to rank for? What’s realistic? No, you probably cannot outrank Apple for searches for “Apple iPhone”.
A good SEO audit takes all those factors into account.
So how did this tool come to give the site it was hosted on an A+? I dug a little deeper.
I found this:
Woah. 18,220 external backlinks? Crikey.
As in: “Crikey that’s more horribly out of context data”.
“Not all links are created equal”
– Good SEO’ers
18,000+ links from the BBC, Washington Post et al and from high authority sites in your niche? Magic!
18,000+ links from a load of spammy blog sites that have zero traffic and are about as much use as a chocolate fireguard? Chances are those links are doing you more harm than good.
Context is key, again.
Let’s look at those links this tool says its owner has. I turn to my personal tool of choice, SEMrush, again:
Oh look… it’s getting links alright but from just six referring domains.
This means they’ve got a lot of links sure – but almost all of them were coming from just one site.
It didn’t take much digging to find that the site in question had a footer link on a site they’d built for them, so a link to their own site appears on every page of that site. If the other site so much as posts a funny cat gif that’s another link.
You can check this for yourself. Pop a URL in here:
And yes, I appreciate the irony of me saying “try this free SEO tool” in a piece savaging free SEO tools – but SEMrush is very much not free. Free to try? Sure. Want to run audits, track your keywords, analyse your backlinks etc. That’s not free.
Want to try it for free, please do. Here’s my affiliate link try it for free for a week. After that prices start at USD$99 a month and it’s worth every penny.
Anyhow, footer links like that aren’t necessarily bad per se (depends on the context again) but the fact is Google pretty much ignores them. SEMrush did too, as you can see from the screenshot above.
So, are 18,000 links from just a handful of domains enough to give your site’s SEO an A+? Not likely.
Sitemap and Robots.txt
Surely, even with a free SEO tool we can agree on sitemaps and robots.txt, right?
Here’s the report (again the obscuring/mosaic is done by me):
So, it would seem this site reports its own robots and sitemap are fine. Big, green affirmative ticks. Phew. Dodged that bullet, right?
All this tool (and dozens of others like it) are doing is checking if you have a robots.txt file and if you have a sitemap.
So, as you would/should expect from a good SEO audit, I checked the robots.txt and sitemap for this site.
The robots.txt was the standard WordPress out of the box stuff:
User-agent: * Disallow: /wp-admin/ Allow: /wp-admin/admin-ajax.php
Disallow the admin page and that’s it.
Would the tool recognise if the robots.txt accidentally (or even purposefully) disallowed search engine crawlers from the whole site? No, it didn’t. And yes, I checked.
How about the sitemap? The big green tick, A-OK sitemap? Well, I tried to check it:
So that A-OK sitemap? Not looking so hot. The tool basically checks if there’s something, anything at the sitemap URL.
To be fair, there is. An error page.
Guess what Google sees if it looks at this sitemap? Not a whole lot.
Again, a sitemap is not the be all and end all of SEO – but if you’re a company selling your SEO ‘expertise’ and your sitemap does that (and still does a week later – again, I’ve checked) then something is serious amiss.
It’s not just me spotting this stuff too.
When I mentioned on Twitter I was writing up a piece about #freeseoauditssuck I got a note from an SEO’er with over 17 years of experience, Andy Drinkwater of iQSEO:
“About 14 months ago, a past client hired me to conduct an SEO Audit after they took a cheap option on their SEO with a different agency.
This agency performed an ‘audit’ that was clearly just something they had run and printed out. However, they suggested that the client should block access to over 800 pages of content, which is fine if they are trimming back on thin content – but it wasn’t!
The net result was that over the next four months, the traffic dive-bombed. I was contacted a bit further down the line to see what was going on as the agency was unable to correct their mistake – not that they ever told the client to back out of what they did.
I completed another audit myself and found all of these blocked pages, unblocked them and within two weeks, traffic was back to normal.
In this life, you really do get what you pay for.”
Neatly summed up I’m sure you’ll agree.
Any SEO agency worth their salt should know these free tools are worthless, often worse than worthless. If they’re using them anyway I would seriously question the level of their expertise – as the client Andy rescued can attest!
Free SEO audit tools are rubbish.
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. When was the last time you got something of any value for free?
Imagine if a competitor cropped up in your niche offering to do something you do for free. You’d probably expect the quality to be pretty poor. A free bricklayer? Not going to be great. A restaurant giving away free food? You wouldn’t be expecting an amazing dinner, would you?
Exactly. You get what you pay for.
I get it. Not everyone can afford to hire an SEO expert. If you’re a small business or start-up, aiming to keep costs low anything free looks pretty good.
If you want to use one go ahead. But do it under advisory. Take everything it says with a pinch of salt, question it – as you should do with any SEO advice free or otherwise. Why does it suggest that? Why would doing ‘x’ make things better? How does doing ‘y’ improve things?
And test the tool yourself first by putting the host’s own URL into it and see how it does itself. I’m willing to wager they won’t do so well.
Want to see what a good audit looks like? Come along to the December Optimisey MeetUp where an expert panel will be doing this for real.
What do you think?
Have I unfairly maligned free SEO audit tools? Have you used one with some success?
Or have I not gone far enough? Have you seen a site wrecked by following terrible SEO advice?
Share your thoughts and examples in the comments below.