I’ve been watching with great fascination as flocks of webmasters and business owners race to the latest website grader. They wait with eager eyes for the newest software widget to tell them why they aren’t ranking well in the search engines. I can understand why these tools are so popular. They play into the “magic bullet” thinking that is prevalent on every SEO forum. These people fall for the oldest pitch in the book: “With this magical pill, you can cure all your woes,” the website grader essentially tells them. So they dutifully type in their URL and pull the lever, like a slot machine in Vegas, hoping for that jackpot. But we all know the end to this story. Rather than a BIG WIN, they get a series of statements like “adjust your title tag,” “your H1 could be better” and “you should consider using your target keyword on the home page more.” Or my personal favorite, “Your website is not W3 valid.”

The Big Web Grader Myth (i.e., Don’t Waste Your Time)

The big website grader myth is that these tools really help people improve their rankings. Sure, on-site SEO technical details are important. You need to

  • Have a good title tag
  • Your H1’s help
  • The words on the page need to be unique

You also need to create engaging content that will resonate with your end-user, though this has more to do with time-onsite and link-bait than on-site SEO. Putting target keywords in your text is also an excellent idea–but this usually happens fairly naturally. Yes, on-site SEO is important. But SEOMoz tells us it accounts for only about 30% of why you rank. So where is the other 70%? Most website graders give the 70% only minor treatment, perhaps including a single stat of how many total backlinks you have according to Yahoo Site Explorer. This is a fairly useless statistic that is certainly not actionable. But armed with a website grader score, these business owners and webmasters go back to tinker with their websites endlessly, missing the forest for the trees.

What Really Helps Your Search Rankings?

70% of your rankings are driven by off-site SEO. Off-site SEO is essentially backlinks. While many have theorized that social media would soon join backlinks as a reliable signal in the search engine ranking algorithm, it has not happened yet. So why don’t the website graders give backlink analysis the time it deserves? For starters, it is a much more complicated topic. It’s fairly easy to tell someone to put a target keyword in a title tag. And the activity is short. Link building is a long-term activity that many businesses know is now a permanent line item in the marketing budget. But again, the average website grader ignores this fact. What about anchor text analysis to see what percentage of your in-bound links contain your target keyword phrase? Moreover, you could compare your backlink profile and anchor text profile to that of your competitors. If you really want to get deeper into what really matters you would be running your competitors through a keyword ranking tool to try to reverse engineer their rankings and discover which backlinks are most critical for maintaining those rankings. Yes, it’s fairly heady stuff. But this is where the real SEO war is fought. As you start to understand the importance of this off-site SEO analysis, you will start to see that most website graders are trivial.