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Defining Your Website's SEO Quality Assurance Suite: QA for SEO

Published on: 
February 17, 2021
Updated on: 
October 14, 2021
by
Tory Gray
Tory Gray

"Move fast and break things" does, in fact, mean broken software. (All web software changes run this risk, even if your organization doesn't practice agile software development.)

Sometimes that means impacting critical search engine optimization elements of your website. When it goes wrong (and it inevitably will,) if you don't catch it fast enough you will see your SEO traffic drop, and possibly need an SEO investigation to find/resolve the issue.

Let’s avoid this, m’kay?

Companies love to focus on growing SEO traffic, but invest too little resources in maintaining the organic traffic they already have.

To avoid this issue it's critical to have a good SEO quality assurance (QA) process. That entails:

  1. Minimizing the chances of deploying critically broken code - with big SEO impact - in the first place.
  2. Building failsafe procedures to catch and correct the errors that do get released as soon as possible.

Some Website QA PROCESS Basics

seo-qa-checklist

These are the things everyone (with web software updates) should consider:

  • Have a staging environment(s) you can test on
  • Define what's import to check - critical pages, user flows, conversion points, etc. It's very important to communicate clearly in between teams, understanding the goals and deliverables.
  • Note that this list will be different from channel to channel and team to team (e.g. pages that are critical for PPC are not inherently the ones critical for SEO - but both likely matter for your business)
  • Use the "important to check" priorities you just defined to build out a checklist that works for you
  • Define the potential risks of big changes (e.g. if something breaks, work with your development team to understand _how_ is it likely to break, so you can make sure to check that piece in depth.)
  • Evolve your QA checklist as you make mistakes, and learn the ins-and-outs of your particular web stack, so you don't make them again.
  • That said, balance the time & effort you put into QA against your other work. Spend the "right" amount of time needed - no more and no less (granted, this will vary from org to org.) 
  • Automate what QA work you can to reduce the organizational "costs" of these efforts over time. 
  • Check for issues in stage AND your production environment (aka your live website) once any changes are released. Fix 404s before they go live, etc.
  • If/when GA or GTM tracking breaks, you’ll loss data - so you need to fix that as well.
  • Use monitoring tools to watch for issues, and move on fixes quickly.

With that in mind, let's start to talk about what's important to watch out for in terms of SEO. Keep in mind that these checks aren't about improving your SEO - they're about not the losing ground you’ve already earned. (It’s hard to grow when you are fighting to maintain the status quo!)

Accessibility

To state the obvious, don't block your website (or any critical pages/sections of the site) from search engines on accident. 

Despite how easy it is to check, many sites will accidentally push a stage (blocking) robots.txt file into production and not catch the issue until organic traffic drops dramatically. Here, the healthy structure of all things accessibility is provided.

Specific items to check: 

  • robots.txt file
  • meta robots tags (noindex tags)
  • canonical tags

Weird examples of things to watch for: 

GSC notified us that Googlebot was blocked via robots.txt, but the file we could see looked normal / did not match the blocking file we saw in GSC. As it turned out, 3 of the 8 load balancing servers were using the stage robots file on accident, and we only checked one that looked okay. Googlebot, unfortunately, checked them all.

Functionality/JavaScript/CSS Issues

Despite Google's insistence that they are totally, completely fine with JS and SPAs, issues can and do arise with accessibility to content, links, and core functionality.

Classic examples of JS issues include the following: 

  • On eCommerce websites, facets and filters that disappear, pagination that disappears, related products that disappear... you get the idea. 
  • Dropdown menus that can no longer be clicked, and therefore sub-categories (and sometimes categories) can no longer be accessed

In general, when possible, build in non-JS (and CSS, and cookie) dependent functionality, or build workarounds for when it's turned off. These workarounds do not need to be "pretty," but they should be functional. 

Turn off these features and browse your site and see how well it works. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect test plan, but it can be a helpful/visual overview. 

If/when something isn't accessible in this initial test, run the page in question through the Google Mobile Friendliness Test. Export the Googlebot-rendered code, and control+find for key content/links. If you can't find them, you have an issue. 

Inspect Element and View Rendered Source can be useful tools here as well. 

Content Changes

Ensure that all existing (SEO) content, as well as any new content a) still exist, and b) are what you expected to see (same or better than previously)!

Specific items to check:

  • Titles
  • Meta Descriptions
  • On-page copy
  • Links
  • Images, videos, other media types
  • Hreflang / internationalization features

Weird examples of things to watch for: 

A plugin updated their JS code for a related products widget, rendering once-crawlable links into something search engines couldn't see. This, in turn, impacted the link equity flowing to these critical products.

Mobile-Specific Issues

make-sure-to-check-for-mobile-issues

Even in a mobile-first world, so many of us keep forgetting to check non-desktop devices for issues! Crawl the site as mobile Googlebot using Screaming Frog or your crawler of choice:

Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; Android 6.0.1; Nexus 5X Build/MMB29P) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/W.X.Y.Z‡ Mobile Safari/537.36 (compatible; Googlebot/2.1; +http://www.google.com/bot.html)

For SEO QA on mobile, you are checking for all of the above sections, but specifically with a mobile-template viewpoint. 

Pay particular attention to:

  • Parity (with the desktop site, and compared with previous versions of your mobile site)
  • Accessibility
  • User experience

Weird examples of things to watch for: 

  • GSC notified us that critical pages were noindexed. Crawling the site normally saw nothing wrong. Eventually, we discovered that the mobile pages were meta robots noindexed (an unintended side effect of a plugin) even though desktop pages were fine.
  • Crawling in mobile Googlebot mode, we discovered that the meta description was missing from mobile versions of pages, and present on desktop pages. 

As you start to create your checklist, consider: 

  • Some changes are riskier than others (learn more about that in my guide to evaluating the risk of SEO migrations & ensuring they run smoothly)
  • Define the "always critical" items to check for, for all software updates. 
  • For bigger news changes you are deploying, work with your software development team to determine what might go wrong where  - and therefore your checklist of items to look at for a specific site release. This won't catch everything, but it will mean you reduce the risk of likely issues. 

Again: check these in stage, before the changes are released. Then check them again immediately upon go-live. Unexpected things can change between the 2 environments, and this is the easiest way to avoid these issues.

Even with a great SEO QA Checklist, things will inevitably fall through the cracks. As I mentioned earlier, your SEO testing list should evolve over time as you learn the ins-and-outs of your particular site and the things that commonly go wrong. 

After that, it's a good idea to set up monitoring tools to catch these issues as quickly as possible. Why? A faster fix means less work to recover from the issues the problem caused in the first place. 

Tracking Issues

It's incredibly common for websites undergoing migrations - or even normal, ongoing updates - to simply "forget" to get tracking set up. Either they neglect to implement a Google Analytics UA code altogether, neglect to add it to some specific pages or templates, or they forget to set up event tracking, eCommerce tracking, or Goal tracking. 

This can lead to a freak out when GA organic traffic drops overnight. If/when you see this happen, check Google Search Console first. If you don't see a corresponding drop there, chances are, you have a tracking issue. If you support figuring out or resolving this issue, help is available!

Monitoring Tools To Consider:

  • Post-Release Crawl - Your first line of defense
  • Automated Weekly Crawling - Use Moz, Ahrefs, Deepcrawl, SEMRush or, really, your auditing crawler of choice - to automatically notify you of new issues that arise weekly. Then pay attention to these emails and make fixes as needed.
  • DeepCrawl just released Automator, a tool specifically geared at finding & resolving SEO issues prior to releasing them!
  • GSC Notifications - Make sure you have your account setup, and that you get notifications when things go off the rails. 
  • SEO Change Monitoring Software - SEO Radar, Content King, etc. can automate this process for you, for a fee. 

SEO QA Testing isn’t rock science, but it is important to maintain and grow your organic traffic when your website changes over time. Equip your QA team with the right insights and tools to ensure success!

If you need help defining your SEO QA checklist to amplify your digital marketing efforts, The Gray Dot Company can help. Reach out!

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