Why you should take automated SEO reports with a grain of salt


It would be nice to have the search engine optimization of your site boiled down to a simple score from 0-100, but SEO isn’t as simple as a green checkmark or a red X.

And while it can be helpful to run your site through an automated analysis tool to help point out things you may have overlooked, you shouldn’t take all the information those tools provide as the be-all, end-all of the site’s optimization.

In the end, it takes a human with detailed knowledge of SEO, web design and marketing to properly weigh the trade-offs between optimization, marketing messaging and usability.

Here are some things to look out for in automated reports:

Automated reports can’t think critically

All automated reporting systems function on a pre-set series of criteria. They’re looking for very specific items on the site and have specific guidelines they’ll follow to determine whether or not the website is optimized correctly.

The problem, however, is that there aren’t any hard-set rules in SEO. Yes, there are “best practices,” but in some cases, following them might make you worse off; conversely, breaking those guidelines sometimes provide better results.

Here’s a common example:

The generally accepted guideline for page title tags is that they should be 70 characters long. Beyond this, Google truncates your title tag in the search results with an ellipsis, like this:

Therefore, most SEO tools check the character length of your title tag. If it’s under 70 character, you get a passing score; over 70, you fail.

However, there are cases when having a title tag under 70 characters isn’t good for your site. Here’s an example in which the website’s homepage title tag is just “Home” and the company name.

The site received a passing score, but the title tag is actually terrible for SEO. It doesn’t include important keywords and doesn’t do anything to tell search engines what the page is about.

This site is almost certainly ranking lower today because of this poorly constructed title tag. But the automated tool counts only characters, so it can’t tell you how to properly optimize this.

On the opposite end, here’s how our website looks within this tool.

Oops, we went over 70 characters! But I’d argue that going over this limit has allowed us to include an additional important keyword that positively impacts our site’s performance. Having weighed the pros and cons of deliberately breaking the guideline, we’ve determined that a 77-character title tag is ultimately better for us.

We often see this with content analysis tools as well.

These tools aren’t reading your content. They’re just counting words, not providing a detailed analysis of what you’ve written.

The word “marketing” appears 12 times on this page, but that’s because it’s a page about marketing and “marketing” is in our company name. There isn’t a specific threshold whereby repeating a word makes it too spammy for search engines.

You should use your keyword naturally as often, or as little as necessary. Again, it takes a human to decide when using a certain word too often has become damaging to the content.

Automated reports make mistakes

Again, this stems from these tools being programed to look at very specific items on a site. It’s not uncommon for a tool to tell you that you failed something on their checklist even if you know that’s untrue.

We sometimes see this with sitemaps.

For a long time, the standard location to keep your sitemap was at example.com/sitemap.xml, but over the last couple of years, sitemap indexes have become more popular, and they are usually located at example.com/sitemap_index.xml.

However, many tools are still looking only at /sitemap.xml. So if your sitemap is located anywhere else, you get this:

This doesn’t mean that Google can’t find your sitemap. It just means that the tool looks only in one location and doesn’t know where else to look. As long as you have a sitemap and have submitted it to Google through their Search Console, you’re in good shape.

Automated reports can be too simple

The example below breaks down your website’s entire on-site optimization into just four items.

I can understand why tools do this, though. SEO is complicated and most website owners don’t have the time to learn the ins and outs of it. They just want a report that will tell them whether or not their site will do okay.

The problem is that there is no clear point to draw the line when simplifying SEO. There are no rules about what should or shouldn’t be considered when developing a simplified SEO report. And in this case, they’ve become far too simple. A site could easily pass all four of these items and still perform very poorly in search results.

Keep in mind that just because a report says you passed, doesn’t mean you’re in the clear.

Automated reports can be too complicated

On the other end of the spectrum are reports that go into a ton of detail. Although these reports can actually be very useful, they typically require someone with expertise in SEO or websites to interpret them and determine what steps need to be taken.

A great example of this is Moz’s website crawler. The report dumps a huge, multi-tab spreadsheet in your lap, and if you’re not familiar with technical SEO terms, you’ll have no idea where to start.

Similarly, there are tools that can go into more detail than necessary. A good example of this is Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool. This essentially lists every single item you could update on your site to make it load faster.

However, not everything listed is actually feasible. Or in some cases, items are so small that updating them won’t have a noticeable impact on your site’s performance.

It’s not unusual for website owners to ignore Google’s suggestions because they know that implementing them isn’t worth the development time it would take.

Automated reports aren’t all bad

All that said, automated reports can still be useful. We use them as a tool for opening a conversation with our prospects and clients. These reports aren’t meant to be viewed alone. They’re supposed to be a starting point for you to go through your site’s optimization with our team.

Just make sure that you take the results with a grain of salt and that you have an expert walk you through them. Not every warning means your site has an urgent issue that needs to be fixed, and not every passing score means you’re doing things correctly.

Above all, remember that your scores in these reports are not your key performance indicators. They are just arbitrary numbers assigned by the people who developed the report. A higher score from a report won’t necessarily mean better performance in search results.

What you’re really after is more traffic and leads. Although these reports can give you a good starting point, you ultimately need an expert to help make sure your site and your marketing are on the right track.


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