How To Win SERPs with Surfer’s Audit — A Complete Guide
SEOs are constantly looking for tactics that will be a perfect balance between time and effort.
Whether our page suffers from under-optimization or over-optimization, we want to know it fast. Without jumping from one competitor’s page to another. Without big Excel sheets that only you can understand.
This is a tedious process that doesn’t guarantee success. Sigh.
A few years back, following good practices was enough. 2-3% keyword density, nice meta title and above the fold section, long content, and an image here and there with relevant alt text… That used to be a recipe for a decent on-page optimization.
But Google is evolving and there are no universal rules that will bump your page to the top.
So here we are: manual work with Excel is too time-consuming. Good practices are just not working as they used to. With the rise of on-page tools, like Surfer, we have the third option—automating our work with smart algorithms.
Surfer’s Audit identifies all critical problems that stand in your way to successful on-page optimization. If you know your keyword and location, it will uncover essential data on things like:
- Content length
- Relevant phrases to use in your content (based on natural language processing—NLP, and their popularity on competitors’ pages)
- Page speed
- Number of structure elements like paragraphs, headings, and images
- Meta tags
- Keyword density
Pick The Right Keyword
The first step to start on-page optimization is to choose a subpage you want to wound up higher and a phrase to target.
Focus on pages that rank on positions between 12 and 20 first. It’s the easiest way to gain more organic traffic in a short time. If the page already ranks on the second page of Google, it shouldn’t be hard to get to the first page. It is definitely more likely than optimizing page from 5th Google page or the one that doesn’t rank at all in the top 100.
My favorite way to find them is to analyze the average position of keywords I already rank for in Google Search Console.
This is my process:
Go to Google Search Console and choose “average position”. Filter results by “position” so you see queries that you rank best for.
Set the value to “greater than 12”. That way we will spot the best opportunities for optimization.
Sort phrases from the highest position.
Once it’s done, click on the phrase that you want to work with and go to “pages”. That’s your list of pages with the biggest chances for the first page.
You can use the same technique for pages that ranks in other ranges (for example between 7th and 9th position).
Create Your Query in SERP Analyzer
Once we have selected a keyword and a page, it’s time to dive into the analysis. Since Surfer’s Audit is a part of SERP Analyzer, this is where we start.
You can create a few analyses at once if you work with multiple keywords, but today we want to work with just one target phrase.
Enter your phrase to the input and select a location.
You can also select a country or a city if you work with a local website. Note that Surfer supports only left-to-right languages like English, Polish, German, Spanish, etc.
Once you have your keyword and location, customize the rest of your query:
- Select mobile or desktop device—Surfer will scrape the pages from the SERP you chose. I recommend using mobile scrape because in the mobile-first indexing era it will give you the most relevant results.
- Choose if the analysis should be enriched with NLP-driven data (entities/sentiment). I recommend you to select it for the most competitive keywords.
- Add screenshots— if you want to check how your website or competitors are rendered by Google, go with this option.
Pick The Right Competitors To Your Audit
The right prep-work is a key for quality on-page optimization.
Not every first page in the SERPs is the same. Depending on the search intent, they can be a mix of e-commerce and review articles. Other times there are service pages and directories of local providers. Or maybe Wikipedia and high authority pages with bazillion links.
If your page is a product page of an ecommerce, you should compare only to other product pages.
Skipping this step is one of the most common errors some SEOs make.
Don’t just blindly rely on the top five results. They may not be your organic competitors.
Based on the URLs of your choice, Surfer suggests the content length, phrases to use, and all other factors that may make or break your content.
This is how to pick the right competitors from the top 10:
- Define your content type. Even if you’re going for a “research” search intent, you need to know if you’re writing a blog post, creating a video, or a landing page.
- Exclude pages that serve different intent.
- Exclude pages that rank because of their authority and backlink profile (e.g., Amazon, eBay, Wikipedia, etc)
- Pages that are left are the organic competitors you should include in your analysis in Surfer.
You can exclude all pages and include just your real competitors. Look for the “Exclude all pages” under the graph.
Once you click it, you can handpick pages for analysis. Just make triple sure you’re comparing oranges to oranges (or blog posts to blog posts if you prefer).
Add Your Page in Custom URL Panel
Once we have a perfectly prepared environment (well-chosen competitors), we can finally focus on our website. If your page already ranks in the top 50 (and I hope it is!), you can find it in organic results below the graph. You can do that manually or with the “Filter by URL” option.
There’s the Audit icon next to each one of them, so you can create your Audit from here.
In case you want to analyze a page that is outside of the top 50 or you find it a faster solution, just use the “Custom URL” field.
Optimize Your Page with Audit
Audit is a predefined set of factors that challenges your page against other websites of your choice. It will tell you where you are off in comparison to others, and how to fix it.
Right away, it gives you a good sense of how much work needs to be done. Sometimes you need to add or remove some content. Other times, you’ll be fine just by adding relevant words and phrases.
Whatever needs to be done, you’ll see it here. Audit is the most actionable report you could imagine for your on-page SEO.
The whole report consists of nine sections:
- Missing common backlinks
- True Density
- Exact keywords
- Partial keywords
- Number of elements
- Time to first byte
- Load time (ms)
Does it mean you should go section by section and analyze each of them?
Well, no. I will describe each section in detail in a moment but I want you to know that there is one section that will have the biggest impact on your rankings: True Density.
Missing Common Backlinks
Surfer is mostly known for its on-page optimization capabilities but it has a nice off-page feature too.
In “missing common backlinks”, you will find domains and specific URLs that link to your competitors, but not to you.
It is useful in the process of building a link profile that will strengthen your subpage and the whole domain. If your competitors managed to get a link from those pages, chances are you will get it too!
Export the data and then work on it in a spreadsheet or outsource it to a link building specialist. Find some quick wins, like directories or Quora, and then move on to more challenging links.
This is the most powerful section of the entire Audit, which allows you to instantly complete the content so that it covers the entire subject comprehensively.
Depending on whether you’ve chosen NLP-driven or plain analysis, a little different data will be presented here.
True Density is a metric you can use to assess the gaps in content, but also check whether you use specific words too often or too rarely.
Plain True Density algorithm is powered by the calculation of popular and common words in the analyzed pages compared to yours. It’s similar to the famous TF*IDF algorithm but TD’s data are much more relevant for the given query.
Why you will ask?
Based on the length of the competitor’s content, we determine the density of each word and phrase from the list.
For example, if your content is 5,000 word-long and your competitors have 2,500 words on average, Surfer will suggest you to use phrases twice as many times as your competitors.
The suggested range of word use is based on the length of your text and the value between the average and maximum density of the competition.
The minimum value is just the average density on the analyzed pages, and the maximum is the concentration of the content of the page that used the phrase most often.
True Density Powered by NLP
In the case of True Density powered by NLP, the situation looks a little different: Surfer analyzes content from the top ten ranking pages also with the Google NLP API. That way we obtain a set of terms that are important to rank for the search query.
The whole topical segment fetched this way is crossed with terms used on pages that you picked for the audit.
The ultimate goal for implementing the NLP is to provide you even more relevant terms to use within your content.
Remove the content gap by adding the words and phrases from True Density. You don’t have to add all of them at once. Start with the most critical ones and update your page. Wait a week or two to see if your page moved up or not.
If you’re not satisfied with the result, go back to this report and continue your optimization. Just remember—your content should be user-friendly and not stuffed with phrases in random order.
This is how to squeeze the most out of this section:
- Optimize as many phrases as possible—try turning as many of them green as possible
- Switch to words and optimize words with relevance equal or above 60%. You can try to work on more of them if you have time.
- Keep in mind that all phrases and words are coming from the algorithm. You shouldn’t follow the recommendations if you see something odd (like the name of a competitor’s brand).
- Fix as many errors and warnings as possible
- Update your page and refresh audit (for double check)
- Submit the URL in the GSC for re-indexing
- Wait for the results!
Don’t be afraid if the position will drop quickly after the update. Google needs some time to re-index your site on every data center. However, those fluctuations shouldn’t take more than two weeks.
To simplify your work, you can also use Content Editor. It’s powered by the same algorithm but presents the data in a different form (of course if you select the same parameters and competitors as you did with SERP Analyzer and Audit).
If you want to learn more on how to generate and optimize with Content Editor, check out this in-depth article.
This section is dedicated to the content of the site. You can check the following things here:
- whether your content is optimal (i.e. whether it is too short or too long compared to the competition)
- Did you use bold enough words (<b> and <strong>)
- as well as the length of lower-level headers (from <h2> to <h6>)
Make sure you’re not an outlier in comparison to other pages. If your page is way longer or shorter—adjust the length. Note that changing the word count will affect suggestions in True Density.
Here you will verify the optimal density of the keyword phrase in the middle of the <body> tag.
Some keywords will require you to add the exact phrase to different elements. Other ones, like long-tail keywords, make it impossible to add them without making it sound weird.
Imagine adding “eCommerce SEO strategy agency” keyword naturally to your heading. Nope, just don’t.
Make sure you use the target phrase in the title and the first-degree header if possible. If you noticed your competitors added them to other elements too, follow their lead.
Partial keywords are words that could be created from the first three letters of every word taken from the main phrase. For example: if the main phrase is ‘best mountain bikes” the partials will be any words started with: bes*, mou* and bik*.
Those words can be synonyms—it helps you understand how to cover the content gap and rank for multiple keywords with similar intent.
In this section, you can check if you have a good balance between given partials.
Add partials to your content. Use the suggested range from your competitors.
Number of elements
This section is devoted to elements of the site structure such as:
- paragraphs <p>
- <b> / <strong> tags
- <h2> to <h6> elements
If you notice that your competitors’ structure is much more advanced, try to add some headings and paragraphs to improve the experience of the users.
In this section, you can quickly check how many characters your title and meta description have and compare this result with your competitors.
Remember that if a competitor uses more than 60 characters in the title, you shouldn’t blindly follow their lead. This number of characters means that Google is not able to display the entire title and displays the three dots “…” which can potentially lower the CTR.
Make an educated decision about your meta tags. If you’ve already worked on them, there won’t be much to be done here.
Time to first byte
Here you can check the server response time. It is worth keeping this ratio as low as possible. The faster the page the better.
One of the easiest ways to decrease your TTFB is to utilize caching on your WordPress site. You can do it by adding, for example, W3 WordPress plugin. You can find advanced tips here.
Load time (ms)
Here you can check the server response time. It is worth keeping this ratio as low as possible.
The easiest way to decrease load time is to speed up TTFB and keep the size of images at the lowest possible level. Remember to reduce their weight before publication!
Optimizing Page with Surfer’s Audit—An Example
Click to see full Audit.
For this example, I created a query for “the best mattresses for back pain” keyword. Then, I excluded pages that are not my competitors, and created the Audit report.
For that given case Surfer discovered 5 errors and 5 warnings.
The easiest thing I can do to improve the current position is to remove as many errors as possible and then look into warnings. After that, optimize my page with the True Density metric by adding or removing phrases or words.
It’s good to see details to make sure that warning is not caused by an outlier—someone with content much shorter or much longer than the others, for example.
It should always be YOUR decision if Surfer’s suggestions are relevant (and ready to implement), or not.
The difference between errors and warnings
Errors indicate that your page is off by far from the optimum, while warning requires smaller changes to fix. Those two examples illustrate it pretty well:
Here our page has 6x fewer characters in meta description than the suggested range. That’s why Surfer identifies that as an error.
Here our page has just a few more words bolded than the suggested range so it’s not such a big deal. It’s up to you if you want to solve the warning or leave it like this.
True Density Optimization And Its Impact on Rankings
Case studies from well-known SEO experts show that optimization with True Density, especially enriched by NLP, impacted significantly the rankings.
1. Colin Ma, Digital Entrepreneur & SEO, website: Nimble Made
I added almost all of the terms Surfer NLP Analysis suggested, but I added a little less for the first-page update. For example, Surfer suggested adding the word “dress” 5 times and I added it just 2 or 3 times.
I didn’t want to change the content too much since, in this case, it was clearly doing quite well already. Overall, the additional entities allowed me to add in some extra keywords by allowing me to see product names, and names of other items related to the article.
I was impressed by the large boost I got from the NLP optimization as I moved up 5-6 spots on page 1 within 2 days.
2. John Pinedo, CEO of Freedom Bound Business
The Surfer team wasn’t lying when they said the new NLP-enabled Surfer beta would be a game-changer.
I had a keyword stuck at position 5-6 for months! A week after running an audit (NLP entities enabled) my target keyword, along with the secondary keywords, moved up in the SERP.
Aside from the better rankings, I really like the new NLP column that’s included in the audit. It shows examples of how competitors use phrases/words without having to go to their page which just makes optimizing for true density a lot easier!
3. Matt Diggity diggitymarketing.com
A small teaser of ranking boost on one of the blog posts from Matt Diggity. Pure NLP optimization using Content Editor.
I hope that with this extensive guide on Surfer’s Audit you’ll be able to finally break some of your pages to the top 10 and enjoy loads of additional organic traffic.
Using correlation SEO and reverse engineering on what already works in SERPs is the best thing you can do to upgrade your content. Audit gives you those powers in the most accessible way possible.
Have you spotted some nice results by optimizing with Surfer’s Audit? Let us know in the comments!