How to Skillfully Take Over a Messy SEO Project

photo credit: Silvia Jansen via iStockphoto
photo credit: Silvia Jansen via iStockphoto

All web promoters dream of starting an SEO project from the very beginning, but that’s usually not the case. SEOs inherit projects with some background, and they would often be messy from various standpoints: keyword strategy, tracking techniques, link building ways, social media in connection with optimization and what not.

This article is not only for people who do SEO for customers. It’ll be also of interest for those who join new teams and who happen to be the only guys with some SEO knowledge, so other team members expect them to clean up the mess. So where do you start?

Each situation is unique, but I believe there’s a pattern. There are certain steps webmasters can take to approach every new SEO project they start.

Clearly articulate SEO goals

Make sure you and the site owner or other people in the team are on the same page regarding web optimization incentives. Most often, there would have been some goals and metrics defined at the previous stages of optimizing this site, so have those articulated for you. However, take them with a grain of salt and speak up about redefining them if necessary at this stage.

For example, a site owner or other team members might want their site ranking for particular keywords. These might be keywords that haven’t been properly researched from the SEO standpoint: just random keywords that seem relevant when describing the niche. As a result, they are hard to compete for or not often searched for by the targeted audience, so this first stage is your perfect time to say: “We shouldn’t focus on these particular keywords. We might come back to them but only after my keyword research shows they make sense.”

Talk to the one previously in charge

You’ll analyze SEO data yourself later, but at this stage you really need taking first-hand knowledge from a person who did this before you stepped in.

Site owners might not give you a complete picture, so you’ll need the previous SEO to give you as many details as possible.

How many keywords did the semantic core consist of? What keyword research methods were used? Were keywords classified by semantic groups or landing pages? What was the on page strategy? Were there any warnings from Google? If so, were there any reconsideration requests sent? What was the link building strategy?

At this stage it’s worth soliciting all project-related contacts: advertising partners, editors who gave coverage and such. Also ask for historical data, spreadsheets, reports – whatever was used as part of the SEO process. You might not go through them A to Z at once, but you’ll have those at hand in case of an emergency or if you have questions.

Run your own SEO background check

Now that you know what goals your employer has in mind and have a first-hand testimony of how the site has been optimized previously, it’s time to take an unbiased look at the data available.

There’s a lot of things you might want looking into, but I suggest starting with three main aspects since these are the starting points of any web optimization strategy:

  • keywords that actually brought traffic
  • referrals that brought the right and the wrong type of traffic
  • actual backlink profile

Below you’ll find each of these aspects taken one at a time.

A.      Keywords that actually brought traffic

Harvest data about keywords that work from three crucial sources: Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools and SEMrush. Following the steps below, you’ll get all important keywords accumulated in one spreadsheet for further analysis and building the right strategy.

In Google Analytics, check keywords that actually brought organic traffic over the last 3-6 months. You’ll find this data in Traffic Source -> Search -> Organic. Export the report to CSV.


While in Google Analytics, check out if you have Traffic Sources -> Search Engine Optimization -> Queries option available:


This data will let you see which search queries returned pages from your site.

If Search Engine Optimization option is not available in your Google Analytics account, it means that Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics are not properly associated. Hence, you’ll need requesting integration and in the meanwhile you can check and export the same data from Google Webmaster Tools:


Ok, now you have two important data sets in your spreadsheet: keywords that brought you Visits (Traffic sources -> … -> Organic in Google Analytics) and queries that return pages from your site (Queries in Google Analytics or Search Queries in Google Webmaster Tools).

As a next step, go to SEMRush to find and export keywords your site already ranks for in Google:


As you can see from the image above, according to SEMRush, ranks for “youtube seo”, “website platforms”, “seo test” and a number of other phrases.

How might these data be helpful? It points out on partially-missed opportunities.

For example, the data shows that a site ranks 11 for “youtube seo”. It means that there’s very little effort required to move it to the first page of search results, where Google users are mostly concentrated.

Now that you have keywords from Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools and SEMRush in one spreadsheet, you can find even more keywords where you have some opportunities for growth.

B.      Referrals that brought right and wrong types of traffic

Opposed to organic traffic, which should be the only focus of search optimization efforts, referral traffic might seem irrelevant in shaping SEO strategy. Still I’d recommend including it to the mix because otherwise you might be missing the sight of the big picture.

Have a close look at referrals that brought traffic to the site previously, paying special attention to user behavior, i.e. bounce rates, time spent at the site and such.


This way you’ll see which sources bring the right and the wrong type of traffic. With that in mind, you’ll know which partners to target in the future.

For a start, differentiate between paid and free traffic. For example, you might reveal that an expensive ad is bringing very few visits with a high bounce rate, which suggests it’s not a good investment.

Or you may find out that a highly-relevant website (a free traffic source) is bringing fewer people it potentially could have brought and the reason is that the link is placed on a wrong page with a misleading anchor. Make a note to fix that.

Or you might see that most loyal visitors come from social media so you should be really looking into that direction more, enlarging the scope of network and working on engagement.

C.      Complete list of your backlinks

A valid backlink profile will give you an idea of what link building practices have been used in the past for the SEO project you’re inheriting. It is especially vital in the face of Penguin 2.0 that has been recently announced. You need data to see if you need urgent actions like requesting link removal are crucial for keeping your site afloat.

Google Webmaster Tools will provide perhaps the most complete list of backlinks for your newly inherited SEO project. You can find them in your Google Webmaster Tools account: Traffic -> Links to Your Site.


This list is as complete as possible because it contains most links your site ever had, so you can get the gist of what was happening to your site in terms of link building since its launch.

Some webmasters find going through Google Webmaster Tools list enough at this stage. Others prefer creating a relevant backlink list either manually or with the help of software.

One of the options here is importing Google Webmaster Tools list into SEO SpyGlass (disclaimer: SEO SpyGlass is one of the tools produced by my company).


When this check is complete, you’ll have a complete list of webpages that are currently linking to your site, with details like anchor text and link value specified.

Set a final SEO plan

At this stage, you’ll probably have some ideas why the SEO project is messy and it’s time to sum up all your findings, identify the required steps as a part of the final plan, prioritize and track.

  • What in the project needs the most attention? Analyze keywords, identifying non-performers and low-hanging fruit revealed with SEMRush and Google tools. Bind your keyword strategy with what you’ve found about your backlinks. One of the keywords was heavily abused in anchors? Diversify as much as you can, using different types of anchor texts.
  • Most importantly, align your SEO strategy with the marketing and business strategy of the whole project. Now that you have all the data at hand you can see the big picture.
  • Twist Google Analytics to account for your final goals. These might be site visits, newsletter sign-ups, downloads, orders.
  • Set KPIs to measure effectiveness of your SEO efforts: max CPA, conversion rate, cost per click, cost per conversion, traffic growth rate, etc. Your employer and you most likely have certain expectations with respect to your activities, so make sure you have a consistent method of tracking how you’re doing.

Do you have any experience in taking over SEO projects that are on a messy side? Did you take any of the suggested steps to sort things out? Or did you approach that differently? Share your ideas in the comments!


*This is a guest article by Aleh Barysevich*

Aleh Barysevich
Aleh Barysevich is Marketing Director at Link-Assistant.Com, the company that makes SEO tools(SEO PowerSuite) and social media software (BuzzBundle) for bloggers, webmasters and online marketers.
Aleh Barysevich

There are 8 comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *