Give me a chainsaw and I will very quickly put it down and back away. I’m no good with power tools; I shouldn’t be in the same room with something as potentially deadly as a chainsaw.
Hand that same chainsaw to an expert, though? They’ll use it to make something like this:
They’ll make art.
Believe it or not, SEO tools aren’t much different, and they deserve the same respect.
Sure, an automated SEO audit or website grader may not cost anyone a limb (well, depending on your boss’ temper if you get a “failing” grade), but they do have something in common with carpentry tools. With the skills of a craftsman, both have infinite potential. In the wrong hands, though, they can be downright dangerous.
Always Wear Your Safety Googles
There is something intrinsically attractive about the efficient and time-saving nature of being able to automate a task. If I could automate getting dressed in the morning, I’d do it. But automated SEO? Not a chance.
SEO tools require trained, human oversight to bring value.
Relying on a tool report without properly scrutinizing the output can result in unnecessary anxiety, and wasted effort from addressing non-issues or chasing down “problems” that really aren’t problems at all.
For instance, your boss gets bored curious and drops your website URL into a grader tool to see how things are performing. The automated tool spits back a report that declares, “RED FLAG! No sitemap exists!” Your boss rages; “Where was the SEO team on this!” Your team drops what they are doing and gets to work generating one.
Except, it’s a false alarm.
The tool looked at the robots.txt or checked /sitemap.xml and found a 404, triggering the “warning”. It didn’t catch that your sitemap is located on sitemap_index.xml and is uploaded to Search Console. So, you’re fine.
But the tool said…
Nope. Don’t care. Believing everything an automated tool outputs is like believing everything you read on the Internet.
I’m not here to throw unadulterated shade. These tools can be a great jumping off point. They put several data points in one place and in some cases they provide a nice outline of what we should be reviewing.
But, these reports also have a habit of sending little chunks of intellectual nonsense flying at your face. If you’re not wearing protective gear made of context and awareness, someone could lose an eye. Or a job.
Wood Quality Varies By Tree
Let’s not forget that all of the individual automated site review tools use different systems and processes to evaluate websites.
As a little test, I ran the same site through three separate automated audit or grader tools The test site received the following scores:
Let’s review. That’s top marks, just above failing and a little above average. So which is it guys?
It depends. Obviously. Each tool looks at a different set of criteria and weighs them differently. So for example one tools considers title tags successful because they are 70 characters or less, while another says they are unsuccessful based on character limit of 55.
Of course, neither of these evaluates the actual merit of the titles as it applies to relevance or clickability.
Shall I go on?
In one tool the domain gets a “Great Job” for having keywords that rank in Google. Awesome. SEOs go home, your job here is done. But wait, another report says there is a problem with “Keyword Consistency” based on the keyword density of the homepage. Never mind, back to your seats guys.
In both cases the information is incomplete and out of context.
The tool fails, but it fails differently each time. Someone who doesn’t recognize the cracks in the very foundation of the premises on which these “recommendations” are based, could be misguided by them.
Who’s the Manufacturer?
These are just a couple of example of variations in how data is assessed, but let’s not forget every automated tool also comes with its own agenda.
You betcha. Some of these tools are not created to help people so much as scare them. Some people see a “failing” grade and a ton of bright red mark up and they panic. That reaction? That was the plan.
The idea is that dramatizing the severity of a situation can help increase sales. It works, too. We see it everywhere from skin care to smoke alarms. Our fear of the worst compels us to seek out new products that we may not actually need to solve problems we don’t really have.
The key is to understand what the tool is reporting and why. Is this a lead gen tool to which you had to surrender an email to get your report? Is this tool created by a company that just happens to sell the service to “fix” these problems? If so, take the data with a grain of salt. In fact, whenever a report is automated, automate your own response to integrate skepticism.
Expert Hands Wear the Right Gloves
Whether it’s a chainsaw or a site auditor the best thing to do is hand it to an expert. They are the best-trained and most-equipped to review your needs and the raw materials to determine the appropriate course of action. If you want an outdoor wood sign, an experienced carver knows to choose Redwood or Cedar over Oak or Pine. An experienced SEO knows that regardless of the little “warning” in the report that a .png being used as transparent slider overlay doesn’t need alt text.
It’s one thing to run these automated audits to get an outline of where to investigate further. Are there a few extra images that could use text, sure? But not all of them and it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of “Needs Attention!” in big red letters.
A professional can immediately determine which issues warrant attention and which don’t. Experts also know not to fall for false positives like a tool that determines a site to have zero backlinks. Zero. Really?
Follow Safety Procedures
The problem is not that these tools are intentionally nefarious. Manipulative perhaps, but not malicious. They are designed to help. But by their very nature they have to set and apply blanket rules that may be misleading. The thing is though, when it comes to SEO it’s hard to find hard rules that apply universally to everything all of the time.
Don’t get me wrong I love a good short cut. An overview perhaps, that serves as an introduction to a potential new client. An automated report that can provide a basic snapshot of checkpoints that don’t need further examination. These tools can absolutely help point you in the right direction of where to focus your manual review.
But they are not a substitute for that manual review, to be done by someone who understands the finer points of what they are looking at. Nor are they 100% actionable at face value. So go ahead, get your site graded. Maybe you’ll find something to look at more closely. But before you use any automated report as the foundation for your action plan, consult a professional.