I recently started rewriting some of the templates we use for SEO reports at my company. I first thought that the task would be a simple one. Just rewrite all the SEO stuff to match the latest trends, add more diagrams, charts, and graphs, and make it more personal by increasing the number of client-specific sections. However, soon I started to question my motives (as I usually do when doing something independently). Are these reports really necessary? Who reads them? What use is the information within? Should I require that my clients fix all the issues I reported or are they just recommendations? Are SEO reports the final product of a project, or do they mark the beginning of a hopefully successful post-audit journey for the client? The questions just kept coming, and in the end I was pretty certain that I had uncovered at least some insight into the business of reporting.

The biggest revelation I came across was the most obvious one.

A good report is really important.

A good report turns data into prose, problems into opportunities, errors into fixes, troughs into peaks, and most importantly, it makes everything seem manageable. A good report doesn’t just suggest corrections, it educates and facilitates. Finally, it’s also my calling card. A good SEO report tells more about my professionalism than the results within.

This post contains a number questions you might want to ask yourself if you’re either a) the one who has to write the report or b) the one who has to read it. The questions might seem almost self-evident, but hey, simple revelations are usually the ones that have the biggest impact.

And yes, I know there are all sorts of SEO reports out there: keyword research reports, content analysis reports, comprehensive site audits, link profile analyses etc. I’m being intentionally generic here, and the following questions should be asked regardless of the report you’re dealing with.

For whom is the SEO report for?

A fundamental question, and one that is most often forgotten.

I used the concept of audience design in an earlier post on content strategy. The same credo applies here: know your audience! Or preferably, know your audiences. It’s very likely that your report is written for a number of target groups: marketing directors, content managers, ICT services, art directors, etc. The likelihood increases the more complex the report is.

Start with this question, and revisit it every time you start writing a new section. Make it obvious from the content that you’re targeting a specific audience. This way the client can distribute the report to the right recipients independently without you having to act as a mediator.

What are the most pressing issues?

This is something that every SEO report should begin with. Essentially you’re taking the entire body of the report and congesting it into a hit list of 5–10 most important issues which make the biggest impact with the least amount of work.

Clients will really benefit from this. It’s such a huge thing to see that there’s something you can do right away to make most of the problems go away. This is not only reassuring but also revelatory, as most clients don’t understand why traffic has plummeted or why certain keywords have lost their ranking.

Just make sure you’re not misleading the client. It’s perfectly OK to skip this step by noting that the issues within the report require more time and effort than can be expressed in a digested format. Honesty is always valued more than any quick fix lists that don’t deliver.

How did the website score?

I don’t like score cards which score each analyzed section from 1 to 10, since the scale is hardly ever scientifically founded, and the grades are just very, very subjective.

I tend to go for the traffic lights: red if something is critical and requires immediate attention, yellow if something is wrong but not catastrophic, and green if something is OK. This is usually enough, and it’s nicer to look at than just a matrix of labels and grades.

Just remember that it’s ok to have lots of greens (or 9s and 10s). A pass is a result as well, and you shouldn’t be a harbinger of doom just because you want justify your fee.

Remember to start each section with a look at the respective row in the score card. This provides more context for each section, and it also gives a powerful visual cue to the reader of the gravity of each problem you address.

Why recommend this? Why suggest that?

This is something again that you should return to in every single section of the report. Don’t just write about the problem and the fix. This is your chance to educate! If you add a proper introduction to each section, you not only provide the foundation for each fix you’re recommending, you’re also telling the client how to avert the problem in the future.

This is in many ways the meat and bone of the report.

Start with a description of the problem along with its symptoms. Do it academically: transition from the general to the specific. Provide the SEO context for each problem, so that the reader understands your motivation for suggesting the corrections. Then provide the details of how the problem manifests in the site you are auditing. Remember that you’ve been hired to fix problems. You can’t fix a problem without identifying its source.

Similarly, you shouldn’t report a cure without explaining how you came about it. You have to provide context for all the concepts, because part of your job is to consult and educate your reader.

I know it sounds noble and highbrow, but remember why you (hopefully) got into SEO in the first place? You wanted to make the Internet a better place, right? RIGHT? I know that years of fighting Google’s algorithms has made you cynical and battle-scarred, but that’s no reason to abandon your principles.

Does this look good?

Okay, I left the most important for last. Just kidding. But seriously, it’s important to make sure the report looks like a real SEO report. Don’t just stitch things together in a hesitant email that you send to the client in the last minute. Put some time and effort into it. This is how my ideal template looks like:

  • Cover page

  • Introduction (a personal note from you to the client)

  • Table of contents

  • Hit list of the most pressing issues

  • Score card

  • Report itself

  • Conclusion

  • Appendices

Presentation is important, because you don’t want to have to explain each section again and again just because of sloppy output. On the other hand, you do want to do some explaining, which brings me to the last question.

Are you prepared to present the report?

Don’t just send the report and expect that your work is done. Remember that you might be talking about a 100-page manual, detailing the heart and core of years and years of SEO research, and unraveling the infinitely complex machinations of a huge website with equally huge problems.

Call the client an hour after sending the report. Go over the table of contents, the score card, and the hit list. If the report is large, arrange a workshop for all stakeholders and target groups.

Make sure the message sinks in. Your report is a testament to the hard work you’ve put in. And remember: Internet. Make it a better place (for you and for me and the entire human rac… sorry).