Automated SEO Services like Website Grader - Thoughts
A few weeks ago, we received a concerned call from one of our clients. Apparently, they had been solicited by another company that offers similar online marketing services to Three Deep, and they were directly questioning the work we had done for them. The solicitors did a great job of undermining our efforts by simply putting the URL through a free service called Website Grader, printing a screen shot, and clicking send.
Frankly, they made a compelling argument; the grade the site received was not great by any means, and was a definite cause for concern at a surface level. Nobody wants to receive a poor grade. At the same time, I was equally concerned with the implications of these results, because I personally built much of the site, entered content, and did a quality job of making the site search friendly for the their local market and the services they offer.
It looks bad, but it's not really THAT bad
I have spent many hours with this client over the past several years, working hard to make sure they were happy and that we were meeting their objectives. So when the work that we had done on this website came into scrutiny, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Were we not properly servicing this client? How much work will it take to fix?
Rather than dwell on the poor score we received, I spent the next 45 minutes skimming through the criteria that this site used to grade SEO scores (honestly, I feel the criteria is very out of date and I don't agree with much of it). I then found the elements of the site receiving poor grades (90% of the grade comes from home page only) - "fixed" it - and reran the grading program.
Voila! In no time I had increased the score by 51%! Now the site was no longer a laughing stock, but actually a leader among its sitegrader peers.
But what exactly changed on the site during those 45 minutes to actually make this site better for SEO?
Not much in my opinion. I really don't think these changes (mostly cosmetic and structure based) will have a big effect on the search rankings of our client... but we will surely be monitoring Analytics to prove that this is the case.
There are clear lessons to be learned from this story by SEO's and clients alike. Taking this advice will surely help you achieve better results and more meaningful client/agency relationships than any "grade":
1) It's easy to poke an SEO agency in the eye, because there is always room for further optimization. Just as soon as a site becomes fully "optimized" toward a certain set of search engine algorithmic criteria, the next set of changes will occur - rendering these recommendations less than optimal. True optimization of a website is an iterative process, and should be treated accordingly.
2) We are often pulled in several directions trying to satisfy all of the objectives that a client wishes to achieve on their home page; and many of these elements trump SEO focused recommendations. As a result, your client may be very happy with the service you provide, but the site is still achieving a less than optimal grade.
I like to think of this give and take the same way as the famous Joel Spolsky quote about usability (which can easily be applied to search):
"Usability is not everything. If usability engineers designed a night club it would be clean, quiet, brightly lit, with plenty of places to sit down, plenty of bartenders, menus written in 18-point sans-serif, and easy-to-find bathrooms. But nobody would be there. They would all be down the street at Coyote Ugly pouring beer on each other."
3) For incumbent SEO agencies, it is imperative that you defend your turf. Even if you can easily debunk the merits of a service like websitegrader.com, you should still spend that extra hour during development time grading your site against this service. A little effort on the front end will save you hours of client frustration in the long run. Your services can only be called into scrutiny so many times by your client (no matter how valid), before their perception of your agency begins to go south.
4) If you are on the client side, we highly recommend that you run your site through these tools to get a better perspective of how your agency is performing. At the very least, a good agency will do whatever it takes to promptly rectify any issues you bring up.
While I personally take the rankings provided by websitegrader.com with a grain of salt, I have also learned a very clear lesson: spend an extra hour running your site through these tools before you launch. It may seem like a tedious use of time while you're doing it, but it will save you many more hours in frustration in the future and help give your clients peace of mind and keep them HAPPY!