What is SEO?
At its simplest, SEO, or search engine optimization, is the process of increasing traffic to your website or other online property by improving its ranking in search engine results. If you think about your most recent web search, you probably scrolled through the top few results in Google or your favorite search engine and selected one to explore.
Search engines like Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo use proprietary algorithms to rank and display search results, so SEO is part art and part science, since SEO companies are making educated guesses about what will improve a website’s rank in a search.
Usually, creating original content with appropriate keywords will elevate a site’s ranking. However, there is no “magic bullet” to improving results, and a change in a search engine algorithm could improve or decrease your ranking.
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There is a bit of a “cat and mouse” game when it comes to SEO, as companies attempt to influence search engine rankings through artificial means. You’ve likely come across websites that have strangely worded content and hundreds of links, which are often websites specifically engineered to elevate other sites in search engine rankings.
Since search engines want to provide high-quality results to avoid users switching to another search engine, they’ll regularly update their algorithms to prevent content designed more for search engine rankings than to provide relevant information to a human.
SEO tools provide metrics to help you improve your site’s search engine rankings, taking some of the guesswork out of SEO. The top SEO tools typically include functions such as:
- Site analytics: Assessing various metrics and viewer data for your website, including search terms or links that brought a user to your site.
- Keyword research: Identifying keywords that are likely to help elevate your site in search engine rankings that can be included in the content on your site.
- Content analysis: An overall assessment of the quality of the content on your site. After all, the search engines try to identify the “best” content to elevate their ranking, since that’s what makes them effective.
- Site speed analysis: Fast load times presumably elevate your site in search engine rankings, so many SEO tools include various methods for testing your site’s response and load times.
- Backlink analysis: Discovery and analysis of sites linking to your content. High rankings are generally awarded to sites that are frequently referenced by other sites.
- Social media analysis: Reporting of links to your site on social media, as well as tending topics and keywords from various social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
- Site health: Discovery of broken links, invalid HTML tags, missing images, etc. While not directly related to SEO, most search engines prefer “healthy” sites to those with broken links and other technical defects.
How do SEO tools work?
SEO tools generally work through a combination of two functions: Keyword research and site analysis.
Keyword research tools can provide a list of keywords associated with a particular topic or term. These tools allow you to research various topics and identify popular keywords that may be worth incorporating into your content to improve search results.
Site analysis tools target existing websites and are focused on analysis and recommendations for your current content. Most of these tools function by “crawling” your website or using site logs or tracking tools. Crawling is similar to how search engines function. An automated web browser starts from a URL you provide and “views” every page it can find, tracking performance and analyzing SEO metrics.
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Site analysis might also use web traffic logs, which provide information about who, when and where visitors originated from, or they may use a special embedded site element that allows them to capture views and other data when people visit your site.
One of the most popular SEO and general site analytics tools, Google Analytics, uses this approach by embedding a tag on your website that end users do not see. It allows Google Analytics to capture data about your site and how a visitor navigates it.
How to choose an SEO tool
Online content creation and sales is a huge business, and as such, there are dozens of SEO tools available at a wide variety of price points and configurations. Like many applications, it’s essential to start with your goal in mind when choosing an SEO tool and realize that even the best SEO tool will provide only a slight boost in rankings versus performing some sort of magic to elevate your site.
Suppose you’re deciding whether to invest in compelling content or complex SEO optimizations. In that case, content is usually the best starting point, and a more basic SEO tool can help identify site performance issues and provide keyword suggestions that guide future content creation efforts.
SEO tools can provide a competitive edge if you feel your content is unique and well-crafted or you’re running a commerce-driven site in a competitive market. A slight boost in rankings might put your site atop a competitor and ultimately get you the sale.
However, be aware that SEO strategies are constantly evolving, so an SEO-related optimization that works today may provide zero impact or even a reduction in search rankings later, all at the whim of the search engine provider.
When deciding on the best SEO tool for your company, first determine what functions are most important. A news site would likely focus more on content rankings and keywords, while a fashion commerce site might focus more on social media and backlink analysis.
With your required feature set in mind, the next thing to consider is price and technical requirements. Keyword research tools are the easiest to use, as they generally don’t require any changes to your existing sites and perform their searches based on a broad set of web data and crawling your current sites. In contrast, tools with deep site analytics will likely require some technical setup.
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There’s no harm in using multiple tools, especially since each is effectively guessing what will provide the most benefit to your search rankings. Like seeking a second opinion on a medical issue, performing an analysis with two or more tools before making extensive changes to your site in the name of SEO optimization is often a good idea.
Most tools offer a free trial or similar evaluation period. As they’re performing their analysis against web-based content, the vast majority are cloud-based and don’t require any software installed in your environment, aside from adding tags to your website or uploading web logs.
Best SEO tools and software
Semrush is perhaps the most advanced and comprehensive SEO tool in the market, with over 50 tools and a client list that includes some of the biggest consumer brands in the world. Semrush not only performs all the expected functions of an SEO tool, but it also has a broad suite of competitive analysis tools that help analyze how your site compares to similar competitive sites and offer suggestions to increase your rankings.
With all this power comes a degree of sophistication that can be intimidating. Determining which tools are helpful can be challenging, but Semrush breaks down their tools by area of interest and the task you’re trying to accomplish. For example, a user can select Content as an area of interest and then Content Creation as their interest to be presented with three tools relevant to this discipline.
Semrush offers a free trial like most tools, although it’s a relatively short 7-days. Be prepared to set aside some time to evaluate the tool’s depth (and complexity) as there is a lot to explore.
With over a decade in the SEO business, Ahrefs provides one of the best backlink databases on the web and an extensive keyword library that rivals that of Google itself due to a powerful web crawler that routinely scours the global internet.
The robust link analysis and keyword library make Ahrefs an excellent research tool. For content-rich websites, it’s an ideal starting point to determine trending keywords and identify keywords that are relevant to whatever project you’re launching.
While not exclusively an SEO tool, Google Analytics is one of the more ubiquitous options since it’s not only free but created and maintained by search giant Google.
Google Analytics requires that you embed a small piece of code into your website and presumably share your site data with Google, but it provides a rich feature set for no monetary cost in most cases.
Google Analytics provides a robust set of site analysis tools to see where your site visitors are coming from, keywords used to find your site and how they traversed your site.
You can also setup the “conversion” feature, which allows you to track when users follow a specific path through your site. This feature was historically designed for e-commerce sites to track sales or conversions but can also be used to test the effectiveness of various keywords, links and content on your site.
Majestic SEO Tools
Another long-timer in the industry, Majestic focuses on backlinks, which significantly influence your search engine rankings based on the simple presumption that the more sites link to your content, the better it is for the topic at hand.
Majestic can assess the quality of the links to your site, helping separate quality links from “link farms” and sites designed to game search rankings and evaluate the “freshness” of links to your content. A somewhat limited “free test” is available by simply entering a URL, allowing for a clear view of Majestic’s capabilities.
Moz Pro combines a variety of tools from keyword research to site crawler and optimization analysis. Moz Pro includes everything you need to build a comprehensive SEO strategy for your site, ranging from keyword research, link research and optimization, to identifying page health issues.
There’s also an ability to create automated, customized reports. This can be particularly helpful for larger organizations with dedicated marketing or content creation teams that may not understand or regularly want to access an online dashboard for SEO tools. You might customize a report for “hot topics” for your editor or a competitive report for your product marketing team that arrives in their inbox regularly.
SpyFu is focused primarily on competitive analysis and pay-per-click advertising. In addition to a typical set of SEO tools, including keyword research and backlink tracking, SpyFu also allows you to track your competitors by providing traffic analysis, SEO and PPC strategies they’re employing and identifying new market entrants.
SpyFu also offers scheduling reporting, and with the focus on competitive intelligence could have applicability in many areas of your organization.
More of the best SEO tools and software
Here are some more of the leading SEO tools and the features or capabilities that make them worth your consideration, in alphabetical order:
BrightEdge is squarely in the “enterprise” camp, with a rich and comprehensive SEO toolset that focuses on real-time research and analytics, targeted primarily at large digital marketing efforts.
BrightEdge maintains a large set of proprietary data it calls the Data Cube that allows customers to speed their keyword research using data that is constantly updated from the web. The Data Cube is integrated into other BrightEdge tools that are geared towards identifying an SEO strategy and then tracking and tweaking the results of that strategy.
The company has an impressive list of Fortune 100 companies based on its focus on tracking the financial results of SEO and has perhaps the richest set of executive reporting that would be relevant at a large organization concerned about tracking the results of SEO spending.
All of this functionality comes at a price, and the pricing is definitely “enterprise-grade” along with the functionality.
As the name implies, BrightLocal is focused on geographic SEO and is targeted at companies that have a presence in specific local geographies. Retailers, restaurants, community organizations, vehicle dealerships and other entities that are focused on local reputation would likely benefit from this tool.
Rather than focusing on driving broad search traffic and optimizing keywords, Bright Local focuses on local search results like Google Reviews, Yelp and Facebook, tracking and consolidating customer reviews and sentiment, and allowing customers to quickly understand trends, respond to reviews and manage their local reputation.
Bright Local targets both small, single-location businesses as well as large multi-location chains and offers free trials and variable pricing schemes that make the tool useful for companies large and small.
SEO PowerSuite’s unique proposition is that it’s a desktop-based application rather than a cloud-based service. The suite includes typical tools like a backlink checker, keyword research and ranking analysis, and can be installed quickly, assuming one is willing to install the required Java runtime environment.
The purported benefit of being a locally installed software package is that the company isn’t required to maintain a robust cloud-based platform, and according to SEO PowerSuite’s marketing, can essentially pass those savings along to the consumer and offer a completely free Personal Edition in addition to an annual license fee.
If you’re just getting started with SEO, or an occasional user, the free edition provides all the core SEO tools and does not limit the user to a specific time period.
SimilarWeb may be best known for the list of top-visited websites, Android and iOS apps that the company maintains, along with ranks of top desktop and mobile web browsers.
In addition to its comprehensive rankings and core SEO services, SimilarWeb also offers a unique set of tools ranging from benchmarking to Investor Intelligence and Shopper Intelligence. The company also provides industry-specific recommendations and pre-built reports, making SimilarWeb more of a targeted intelligence tool than SEO-focused toolkit.
SimilarWeb also offers a browser extension called TrafficMeter that provides visitor and engagement metrics from whatever site you visit, allowing you to research competitor or benchmark sites as part of your research. The “free” tool is not without an exchange of value, requiring the user to share their web activity with the company to power its analytical tools.
SimilarWeb offers a limited Free tier, allowing users to explore the tool and access historical data. The more interesting intelligence capabilities come with a price that varies depending on the tools selected.
UberSuggest is the brainchild of Neil Patel, and you’ll see his smiling avatar as well as links to his consulting and educational business sprinkled throughout the site. This friendly and personalized style extends through the tool, with clean reports and tooltips that make SEO less intimidating for beginners.
Despite the clean and friendly appearance, many of the reports contain sophisticated scoring algorithms and the ability to identify new content or backlink opportunities.
With a limited number of free daily uses of the tool, and visually clean yet highly informative reporting, UberSuggest is another great way to dabble in SEO. The company also offers multiple pricing options in addition to a limited number of free daily searches and reports, with three pricing tiers that each offer monthly or lifetime subscriptions.