Indispensable SEO Tools, from Free to Expensive
Search engine optimization is rooted in data: technical data, analytical data, and contextual data. The tools you use to access that data fuel your ability to make smart SEO decisions, to keep your performance moving in the right direction.
In this post, I’ll recommend SEO tools in eight categories. Some of the tools are free or low cost. Others are more expensive, with many more features. It’s generally true that you get what you pay for, and that holds true for SEO tools. The more expensive ones are easier to use, contain more features, and enable you to work more effectively and efficiently.
However, a scrappy SEO professional can wage a perfectly good SEO campaign by cobbling data together in Excel from multiple datasets. It will take longer, but the results will likely be similar.
Enterprise SEO platforms. These all-in-one tools offer the convenience and scalability of monitoring and predicting natural search performance across hundreds or thousands of keyword targets and pages and against many of your chosen competitors — for a price. They’ll even recommend targeted optimizations for different pages, though in my experience you should take any auto-generated recommendation with a grain of salt.
Top contenders in the enterprise SEO platform category include BrightEdge, Searchmetrics, Moz. Each will set you back thousands of dollars per month. But they’re a favorite of SEO agencies and large companies.
Webmaster tools. Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools should likewise be cornerstones in your SEO toolbox. Both are free. They give access to performance data that can’t be acquired from any other source. They enable the two largest search engines to send you messages regarding issues on your site that impact your rankings.
Keyword tools. Google AdWords Keyword Planner is still the go-to source for keyword data, though the SEO community is increasingly ambivalent about it. Unless you’re in an account that runs a campaign above a minimum threshold in spend, today’s Keyword Planner provides only data rangesfor keyword values instead of actual rounded numbers, making finer optimization decisions very difficult.
If your company runs AdWords campaigns, access that account to use the keyword planner. There’s no cost beyond what you already spend on AdWords. If you don’t have access to an actively bidding AdWords account, try one of the other keyword tools, such as Wordstream, SEMrush, and Ahrefs. All are subscription-based and range from tens to hundreds of dollars monthly.
Rankings trackers. It’s hard to find a standalone tool that only tracks rankings. The best rankings trackers are part of larger SEO platforms or bundled with broader tools like SEMrush and Ahrefs. Don’t forget, though, that Google Search Console offers rankings data for Google search results for free.
Web crawlers. To understand how search engine spiders encounter the basic meta elements of your site, you’ll need a crawler. Use it to find errors, check for duplicate title tags, test a new site launch, create an XML sitemap, and much more.
The top two names in crawlers for SEO purposes are Screaming Frog’s SEO Spider and DeepCrawl. Screaming Frog offers a free version that crawls up to 500 pages at a time. The full version, for unlimited crawls, is £149 per year. It’s a good place to start.
DeepCrawl is more expensive — hundreds of dollars per month depending on the subscription type — but it packs additional features like backlinks and site architecture analysis.
Backlink tools. Links to your website are the lifeblood of natural search performance. These tools identify the links to your site and, also, links to your competitors’ sites, which you may want to woo. They can also help determine which links to your site are doing more harm than good, and whether you have been the victim of a negative backlink campaign.
Majestic is the most frequently used standalone backlink tool, with supposedly the largest link index in the world. The cost ranges from tens of dollars per month to hundreds. Google Search Console also offers backlink data for Google for free. Ahrefs and SEMrush are the more full-featured and higher priced alternatives, offering many more features and a slicker interface.
Spreadsheets. Anyone who says Excel is not a core SEO tool isn’t deeply invested in data-driven decision making. There are so many disparate datasets in SEO that need to be crunched into a single view to make optimization decisions. Even if you have access to the most expensive tools, you’ll still have to export data into a spreadsheet to merge it with other datasets to diagnose issues and make critical ad hoc decisions.
Get comfortable with at least the basic Excel formulas, such as VLOOKUP, SUMIFS, COUNTIF, IFERROR, and CONCATENATE.
Web analytics. Why are web analytics packages SEO tools? Because if you’re making SEO decisions that aren’t based on current performance and the potential to increase that performance, you’re not optimizing. You’re merely changing things haphazardly.
Google Analytics is the undisputed SEO favorite in the analytics space based on its ease of extracting data at the URL level. And it’s free unless you need an enterprise version. If you don’t have analytics on your site today, stop everything and mount a campaign to implement Google Analytics immediately. Adobe Analytics is another package often seen in large companies. But its powerful capabilities come at the expense of ease of use.