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Introduction to Forensic SEO Investigations

Regardless of how complex or large a website may be, developing and committing to an action plan for full-scale SEO audits is no small task. With hundreds of checklist items to investigate, it’s easy for anyone to get stuck in a cycle of analysis paralysis and get overwhelmed with information overload. Through my experience, I’ve discovered a more effective approach to auditing that allows for the SEO investigator and the client to understand what’s preventing the website from maximizing organic visibility and what they need to do about it.
It starts by applying a four-stage organizational model that provides a high-level process used in computer forensics investigations. This simplified approach outlined below breaks up the otherwise complicated process and helps cut through boilerplate or checklist SEO audits. By taking a forensic investigation approach and creating actionable deliverables, you can fix what’s broken faster and reach a quicker return on your organic search investment.
The Four Stages to SEO Forensic Investigations

Stage 1: Investigation Preparation

It’s tempting to immediately skip stage one and jump right to stage two but try to resist! The first stage of investigation prep consists of getting access to the analytics platform, Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Tools, server logs, and any other third-party tools. While you’re waiting to gain security clearance, conduct an in-depth discovery interview with your key stakeholders. The questionnaire is designed to help the investigator understand the client’s past and current business and digital landscapes and should be customized.

  1. Who are the key stakeholders?
  2. What are your key business goals and objectives?
  3. What KPIs do you use to measure success?
  4. Who is your target audiences?
  5. Where are your target geographic regions?
  6. Who are your key competitors?
  7. What are your core value propositions?
  8. When is there any seasonality or cyclicality?
  9. What keywords are critical to your business?
  10. What are the known platform limitations?
  11. What are your past and present SEO efforts?
  12. When did any site relaunches, redesigns, or migrations occur?
  13. Are there any future site relaunches, redesigns, or migrations planned?
  14. What are your past and present paid search efforts?

Stage 2: Evidence Acquisition

After documenting all discovery Q&A responses and gaining a deeper understanding of the business goals and objectives you ultimately want to achieve, you’re ready for stage two. Before diving into a comprehensive SEO checklist, acquire key evidence through a series of preliminary assessments. These initial site assessments combined with the answers from the interview will allow you to understand what are most likely the top issues, or at least the places where you will need to dig deeper.
Start by identifying which resources and URLs verified bots are requesting from the server by analyzing log files. Once you’ve found the most and least requested areas of the site, continue by assessing configuration settings and reports from Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Tools, and the analytics platform. Identify top keywords and pages to protect and look for messages and warnings reported from both Google and Bing Webmaster Tools.
Pro Tip: If you’re questioning if Google Analytics is tracking across all pages, use Screaming Frog extraction to extract each page’s UA-ID or Google Tag Manager container and consider investing in a separate analytics audit.
Screaming Frog Custom Extraction Regex
Crawl the site using different user-agents and with text-only vs. JavaScript rendering to identify significant discrepancies as well as template-wide issues. Screaming Frog’s latest update makes JavaScript rendering assessments simplified with a new configuration that stores the static HTML and rendered HTML for side-by-side comparisons from the “View Source” console. Use this feature to help decrypt if JavaScript rendered content and links can be indexed and pick out contradictions similar in the example below.
Screaming Frog Original HTML vs. Rendered HTML View Source Console
Like any good forensic investigator, take detailed notes of your observations from each source and screenshots of clues. Look for any red flags and take appropriate measures to escalate what can’t wait if you have strong enough evidence linking to the culprit.

Stage 3: Evidence Analysis

Next, it’s time to process the collected forensic evidence from the initial assessments and audit checklist. Evidence analysis can be done from several perspectives, but for an SEO audit, the first and foremost should be from a search engine viewpoint. As you analyze and connect each clue, determine if there are any barriers or areas of concern that would prevent the page from being considered fully optimized. Consider how each area audited indirectly and directly impacts how search engines work from the initial page discovery to crawling, indexing, retrieval, and finally, ranking. Barriers that exist between any of these mutually exclusive steps should be considered a relative point of failure.

Stage 4: Results Dissemination

Presenting your findings in an easy-to-understand way and that’s actionable is the most crucial stage of the forensic investigation. Strong deliverables that cater to your stakeholders regardless of their SEO knowledge can make all the difference for speed of implementation.

  • Discovery Q&A – Provide a copy of the discovery questionnaire completed in stage one.
  • Google Sheets Action Items – Update the list of issues, recommendations, and priorities in real-time as a master record of everything that is and isn’t implemented.
  • Executive Summary – This is the first part of the audit Word document. Outline the 100-foot view of what was done, how it was done, the top areas of concern, and a prioritized list of the issues.
    • List recommendations that are low expected effort and high expected impact first.
  • Audit Word Document/PowerPoint – The audit Word document should be separated by topics with each beginning with a brief introduction and why it matters, then follow with subtopics for each issue. Subtopics represent a concern related to the overall topic and must outline the current state, recommended state, and priority.
    • Consider creating a PowerPoint deck to quickly highlight the primary areas of risk and opportunity to stakeholders who will only skim the Word document.
  • Appendix – Provide relevant crawls, report exports, and other supplemental resources in an appendix.
    • Reference each appendix item from the Action Items spreadsheet and throughout the audit Word document. This makes it easy for the auditor and developers to reference and can be valuable for C-Suite for visualization and additional context.

BONUS: Post-Audit Implementation and (Mostly) Free Tools

After going through the four stages of forensic investigation, collaborate with the client to commit to a short-term and long-term action plan. Since audits typically focus on technical SEO which can take up limited development resources, it’s important to understand the IT ticket workflow and current backlog. You may have no choice but to wait months or even years for anything to get done. Adjust and reprioritize tickets every few months or as needed.
If you’re looking for a list of mostly free SEO tools, Chrome extensions, and resources to guide your next forensic SEO audit, check out and my Pubcon Florida presentation here:  


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Renee Girard

Renee Girard is a Senior Organic Search Strategist and SEO Lead with nearly 8 years of agency experience at Perficient Digital out of the Milwaukee office. She leads SEO strategy for SMB to Fortune 1000 and Global 2000 enterprise clients and speaks at local universities and nationwide digital marketing events.

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