Search Engine Optimization is like a black box experiment—you don’t know the exact details of how search engines rank your site. You take actions; observe the outcome; you try to find success. Having access to the best SEO tools possible can help reveal some of the mysteries of how search engines are assessing your website.
Premium vs. Free
As with most industries, SEO tools come as premium and free options, though some are a blend of both. It’s important to realize that free sometimes just means “let’s you create an account and then start showing your signup pages” while other times it actually means “free to use.”
We’ll start out our discussion of SEO tools with some of the time-tested free options that deliver powerful results. Some of these are no-brainers that every site should be using while others might not always be needed. You should always consider your short-term, medium-term, and long-term SEO goals when considering adding a new tool to your workflow.
Free SEO Tools
Every website that is serious about ranking well should set up a search console account. This verifies ownership of your website, allows you to add a sitemap so Google knows exactly where to discover your site’s content, and can help you monitor things like which websites are linking to you and which keywords your site is ranking for. Should be step number 1 for every website.
Google’s Keyword Planner tool is invaluable for keyword research. It’s evolved into a limited-version of its former self (now requiring a monthly Google Ads’ spend for full data granularity) but is still useful. Speaking strictly with regards for SEO (not CPC uses) the Keyword Planner is 6/10 useful. It’s been my experience that the data is valuable but gets manipulated by Google based on what keywords you’re searching for, how many searches you’ve made, etc. For a free tool—it’s still very useful.
NOTE: You have to create an Ads account to use this tool, but you don’t have to actually spend money.
Search engines care about your website’s page speed because users care about it. How many times have you clicked “back” on your browser because a site took too long to load? Everyone else does that too! GTMetrix is among several enterprise-grade page speed testing tools that are all excellent choices—but GTMetrix is my favorite. It shows a detailed breakdown of what steps to take in order to improve your website’s speed.
For some, the search analytics provided by Search Console are enough. For those interested in learning more about how their users interact with their website, where they’re coming from, and what they’re doing—Google Analytics is a staple. It’s free and provides an incredible amount of data. You can use it to simply see how many monthly users your site has or to create complex goal-tracking. In my opinion, there are few legitimate reasons not to have Google Analytics on your site.
Google’s Tag Manager tool allows a much more programmatic and granular use of Google Analytics. You can set up custom rules to track behaviors and traffic patterns on your website. Want to know how many users from California clicked the green button on your call to action split test during the hours of 3am to 5am? Google Tag Manager. I’ve used it to track affiliate link clicks, newsletter signups, and funnel progressions with great success. It can help avoid using annoying goal-tracking parameters for urls in many cases.
There’s nothing more frustrating than devoting a year towards creating a niche website just to realize that it’s no longer popular (what’s up fidget spinners?!) Google Trends helps illustrate the progression of search-based interests in different topics over a given period of time. If you’re considering launching a new site to target a keyword you think is a no-brainer you should check Google Trends to make sure that it isn’t just the flavor of the week.
Google uses Schema.org-compliant data to help recognize the content of websites. Historically, this type of data has been included in the
Ok, this one is going to cause a lot of grumbles. WordPress is not an SEO tool. There’s plenty of WordPress SEO Plugins out there that are SEO tools (many of which are free) but, in and of itself, WordPress is just a framework for creating websites. The thing is—Wordpress is so insanely popular and has so many developers working on it—most themes come with a LOT of consideration for SEO. If solid SEO were like a fast and powerful car, and building a website with solid SEO is like building a car from scratch, then WordPress is like CarMax—they’ve got a lot of already built cars to choose from. Sure they’ve got some shitty cars but they’ve also got some really damn decent ones. WordPress allows one to use themes that are quite similar—some will save you a lot of time in getting your SEO right.
For those that tinker—Google’s Schema markup testing tool is priceless. This tool let’s you copy/paste code into a box and see how Google sees it or will analyze a live web url for you. For out-of-the-box solutions like WordPress, this tool is great to ensure there aren’t any conflicts when several SEO plugins are used and that one’s theme is generating proper Schema.org markup. For developer’s, this tool is even more powerful in that it helps guide their development process and asserts their code is providing the required info. This tool is also quite useful to research how your competitor’s websites appear to Google.
Premium SEO Tools
When it comes to backlink analysis Ahref’s reigns supreme. This premium tool starts at around $99/mo. for starter plans and allows one to see all the backlinks to your website. It also features keyword discovery tools, content marketing tools (via popular
Semrush is the king of keyword research. The tools entire workflow is set up to make researching your competitor’s organic search results and your website’s keyword rankings easy. Of all the included rank-tracking features of premium SEO tools, Semrush is my favorite. They all the purchase of additional projects for plans without necessitating full-own plan upgrades. It’s the little things that matter, and Semrush continues to respect the wallets of their customers. Their backlink analysis tools are pretty shit—but they are getting better.
Moz is the premium SEO tool for local SEO. It offers keyword research tools, backlink discovery tools, and everything else one would expect from a premium tool. They gained their spot in the limelight by pioneering the Domain Authority (DA) and Page Authority (PA) metrics used by damn near every internet marketer to discuss a website’s ranking potential. After these metrics devolved into little more than broad guesses (in response to Google updates largely) the company decided to quit updating them and moved to greener pastures. Personally, I don’t use Moz much but if you’re a local SEO guy they should be on your radar.
I don’t use majestic, though have used them some in the past. The selling point of Majestic (at least to me) is
Whitespark is a local SEO toolkit for discovering opportunities to promote your local business, in such a way that will help Local Pack rankings. Honestly, a large aspect of their business model falls into the category of what I’d consider buying backlinks. I’ve got no philosophical issue with it and it seems to work well-enough for them. The sites I’ve used their services for in the past definitely seemed to benefits from them. However, I’d certainly not go so far as to say Whitespark will give you the edge you need in a competitive SERP.
I honestly don’t use this tool because it’s too expensive for me, and I don’t manage an SEO department with a multi-million dollar quarterly budget. Outreach is a vital part of SEO, even if it’s one of the most resource-hungry and annoying. Finding, connecting with, and starting a conversation between other websites similar to yours is essential to any long-term SEO strategy. If you’re managing teams of contractors or employees, simple email applications might not cut the butter. Pitchbox helps create granular reports to assess the return-on-investment of large outreach campaigns, comes with tools to help less-than-specialized employees be effective at outreach, and even let’s one A/B test pitches. If you’re looking for an enterprise outreach management tool there’s few out there as qualified as Pitchbox.
So What’s the Best SEO Tool Out There?
Gun to my head—I’m probably going with Semrush. Ahrefs’ superior backlinks database makes it hard to pass over but, at the end of the day, monitoring backlinks isn’t as important to me as discovering what my competitors are writing about, ranking for, and missing out on. Full disclosure—I use Semrush + Ahrefs and wouldn’t have it any other way. Ahrefs also gives, at least in my opinion, a better assessment of keyword difficulty considering they have better backlink data to draw from. That’s not a metric I really use though so I don’t consider it a huge attraction. I suggest anyone new to SEO rely only on the free tools until their site is profitable enough to pay for a premium tool.
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