In a recent interview with SEO and Credo founder John Doherty on Dan Shure’s excellent Experts on the Wire podcast, he mentioned the positive response he’d gotten to a post he’d done this summer on the SEO Tools he uses. He mentioned that it seemed like a pretty simple post idea, but it made sense to me that it would get traction, because John is a smart writer and marketer. As I listened, I was curious what tools he was using, and I took a look at the post. I’ve also taken a page from his playbook in the following column.
I like comprehensive lists of things as much as the next guy, but in a space where tools and software are relatively fragmented, and the applications for those tools change rapidly, it’s especially helpful when experienced practitioners give you a peek at different tools they pay for, what they use them for and how they think about those tools. My consulting company pays for and uses a variety of SEO tools (possibly a few too many, and likely some of the wrong ones — let me know if you have a better approach!), so I thought putting together a similar post would be helpful.
Generally speaking, I tend to err on the side of having access to a tool if we’re likely to get any significant value from it. My business partner Ken and I own and operate both a consulting company and a web publishing company. A tool will probably pay for itself if it costs $50 to $100 a month, and it can:
- save ~10 hours of work we’d need to do manually over the course of a year
- or unearth a handful of valuable insights a year.
The test for more expensive options is similar, but, of course, the higher the price, the more it should be delivering in time savings and/or insights. Obviously, the tools you’ll use will depend a lot on the problems you’re trying to solve, the size of the sites you’re working on and so on, so your mileage may vary.
OK, on to the tools!
8 SEO tools we happily pay for
I previously worked for a search marketing software company, so I have a lot of empathy for how difficult it is to build a cool and useful piece of software, and I’m happy to pay for tools that make me more efficient.
These are all great tools and are in no particular order — certainly not by ranking. For these seven tools we pay, for I tried to include:
- a screenshot for each.
- specific use cases.
- links to user guides and/or reviews.
- pricing information (most have free versions, but again, the idea here is that these are the tools I pay for).
Screaming Frog is an amazing tool. Hopefully, they don’t get wind of this, but even if they 10x’d the price, I’d absolutely have to pay it without hesitating. Unless you’re using an enterprise SEO tool, it would be very difficult to be efficient at conducting SEO audits without this tool.
When I encountered it, it replaced Xenu — the first crawl tool my old boss introduced me to almost 10 years ago now –and lots of other arduous tasks pretty much immediately. I use Screaming Frog for so many different things that I’ll probably forget some here, but some of my favorites are:
- checking for duplicate content.
- auditing 302 temporary redirects.
- getting a clear picture of the information architecture (level/click depth).
- identifying too-short or too-long title tags or meta descriptions.
- performing log file analysis (to see uncrawled/orphaned URLs, crawl frequencies and so on)
Screaming Frog user guides & reviews:
Screaming Frog pricing:
This is another tool for which I’d absolutely pay more than the sticker price given the value it delivers, and, as with the Screaming Frog section, URL Profiler allows you to do so many cool things that I definitely haven’t gotten to all of them. But here are a few we use the tool for currently:
- Developing a content analytics database. We have a huge spreadsheet that houses all of the content we’ve created for clients and our own sites, where we aggregate lots of different data (traffic, links, shares, word counts and more) and put that next to the different types of content we create (to target different types of keywords), dates published, cost to create each asset and so forth. This lets us see really interesting patterns across the content we create like:
- What content types have the best cost-per-visit, cost-per-link or cost-per-share?
- How long does it take for different assets to get traction (which do well in the first month, which gain steam over time)?
- How does cost per visit/cost per link/cost per share vary for more and less authoritative domains?
- Assessing indexation. Running a big list of URLs through URL profiler to see what is and isn’t in Google’s index can be a tremendously valuable exercise to help diagnose issues and improve indexation and site structure.
- Conducting link prospecting/email gathering. You can also run a list of URLs through URL Profiler to grab emails for outreach or add useful data points like domain authority or links to the URL to help prioritize your outreach and get a head start on gathering contact info. For most outreach, this won’t be a one-stop shop for finding an email for your outreach prospects, but it can save some time.
URL Profiler user guides & reviews:
URL Profiler pricing:
Starting at £12.95 + vat
Rank checking is a bit of a tricky beast. I find it very valuable in measuring progress and diagnosing SEO issues, but simple rank reports (arguably) aren’t as useful as they once were. Additionally, as a consultant, rank reports generate extra work around educating clients on the importance and value of rankings for specific terms. All of that said, Authority Labs is a slick tool for tracking rankings across multiple sites.
Full disclosure on this category: I have used some different rank trackers over the years, but this isn’t a class of tools I’ve done a ton of research in recently (here is a really nice breakdown of all of the options here, though, spoiler alert: his recommendation seems to be the same).
Authority Labs user guides:
Authority Labs pricing:
Starting at $99/mo.
Moz Pro has a lot of different kinds of functionality (it seems like having too many different areas of focus has been something they’ve struggled a bit with), and honestly, there are a lot of aspects of the tool that I rarely use or have never used. Still, we’ve been subscribers for several years and find there’s more than enough useful functionality to justify the subscription. Specifically, I really like:
- Keyword Explorer & Keyword Difficulty Tool. I’ve used Keyword Explorer more and more as of late, and although they’re apparently sunsetting the Explorer, I still use the keyword difficulty tool frequently. As with all keyword data, the volume and difficulty estimates are rough, but the difficulty data especially is something that’s extremely useful, helping you gauge which terms to target for a given site as you come into a niche. Ahrefs and SEM Rush (coming up here on the list) have difficulty metrics as well, but I’ve been using the Moz metric for a while now and have a good feel for what it means in relation to the domain authority of the site I’m working on and the types of assets we’ll be likely to build for a client.
- MozBar. I still use this every time I’m coming up with ideas for linkable assets. Having the root domains linking to a page overlaid over search results as you’re coming up with topics is really invaluable.
Moz user guides:
Starting at $99/mo.
Nearly every SEO is going to have their favorite link analysis tool. I haven’t done a super-granular deep dive into comparing the different link analysis tools (there are folks who have done this work if you want to Google around). Anecdotally, and based on my usage, my impression is that Ahrefs finds more links than Moz’s tools. It also surfaces more relevant links in a more actionable interface than Majestic (though Majestic may have more actual link data). Again, just my two cents.
Ahrefs is another tool that I use frequently (nearly daily), but I don’t leverage all of the features. Specifically, my focus within the tool is:
- Link Analysis. I use Ahrefs data to get a sense of linking root domains, to analyze specific links, to get links to existing assets we want to Skyscraper (can you use that as a verb?) to use as link prospects and more.
- Content Explorer. Within Ahrefs is a Content Explorer tool which will show you the most linked-to or shared pages on a specific topic. I often find the results here a bit wonky and hard to act on, but frequently if I play around with different combinations of topics and metrics to sort by (linking domains, shares and so on), I get some good topic ideas.
Again, there’s a lot more in this tool. It has a lot of overlapping functionality with some of the other tools on this list, but this is what I use it for currently.
Ahrefs user guides & reviews:
Starting at $99/mo.
I use SEMrush for every single site audit and keyword research project, and I often use it for one-off tasks as well. It’s essentially my “competitive keyword research” tool of choice. It would be really hard to do effective keyword research without SEMrush, as the insights you can get from looking at competitor and publisher sites is really invaluable. Here’s what I use it for:
- Competitive keyword research. Get a list of your/your client’s competitors and the niche publications (forums, popular blogs, major publishers, conference sites) and start to plug them into SEMrush to pull out relevant keyword opportunities.
- Internal linking optimizations. This concept is something I believe I first read about in Nick Eubanks’ keyword research course (you can see the step-by-step process broken down in this post on SEMrush’s blog). You can use SEMrush on your own (or a client’s) site to quickly surface terms that are ranking well but could use a little bit of a boost and have significant estimated search volume. You can then link internally to those pages from some of the better linked-to pages on your own site.
By now, you’re likely noticing that a lot of tools are expanding their functionality (and I’m not using some of these new features). SEMrush falls into this category as well. Really, if you’re just starting out and/or looking to conserve budget, you could probably pick one of these tools and get as much as possible out of it. I’m simply sharing how I use them in this column.
SEMrush user guides & reviews:
Starting at $99/mo.
Link prospecting is so hard! It’s incredibly time-consuming and difficult to scale, or even just do efficiently in small batches. Link Prospector is an awesome tool that helps with a specific slice of the link prospecting process: gathering link prospects. It essentially automates a lot of the manual work (running different link queries and grabbing prospects from search results). It just saves a ton of time if you’re doing this work. You still have to then layer on qualification and outreach, of course, but it’s an insanely useful tool.
Link Prospector user guides & reviews:
Link Prospector pricing:
From $5/credit or $47/mo.
This is the last time I’ll mention that tools are increasingly expanding and overlapping, and that I only use specific slices of them (big relief for you the reader, right?) but here again we have an example of a tool that does a lot of different things around link analysis, content analysis and more.
Personally, my favorite use for BuzzSumo is for seeing the most shared content around specific topics and from specific sites. This can give you a lot of great content ideas, and, while I mainly turn to Ahrefs for in-depth link analysis, having link data next to the share data is helpful as well.
Buzzsumo user guides & reviews:
What’s in YOUR SEO toolbar?
This is actually a fun question for SEOs (free topic idea for those of you in the expert roundup community). These are the varied Chrome extensions that are consistently present in my toolbar and are used at varying frequencies.
Most of these are free to use (a couple have a premium version) and, in most cases, the use cases should be pretty specific and straightforward, so I won’t go into a great deal of detail.
If you’re doing link prospecting and outreach, Link Miner is an incredibly valuable tool. It allows you to:
- quickly check a page to see which links are broken (helpful in alerting writers/webmasters that their links are broken as you’re recommending they add your resource).
- see actual link metrics for the broken link. This is the game-changer here. Previously I’d used another plugin called Check My Links for this purpose, which works well for simply seeing broken links on a page. Link Miner does this and goes a step further and shows you the number of linking root domains for a broken link. This means that, with a little additional data, you can add all of the folks linking to that broken link to your list of link prospects (they’re likely very relevant).
The extension is free, but it’s more useful when you can combine it with the link data for broken links, so it will be more valuable if you have a subscription to one of the tools with their own link data (Moz, Ahrefs or Majestic SEO).
This is a handy plugin that quickly lets you know the redirect path for a specific page, which is useful as you’re clicking through a site trying to understand specific issues.
The extension is free.
This is Google’s plugin that tells you which Google tags are present on each of your pages and if there are issues with those tags. I probably use this more to troubleshoot conversion tracking issues in AdWords accounts than anything else, but it’s also very handy to quickly see if Google Analytics code is both present and properly installed on a given page.
The extension is free.
This is a handy little Chrome extension that lets you quickly open a bunch of links on a list at once in new tabs. If you’re working on link prospecting this is frequently pretty useful.
Finding emails can be difficult, particularly for link/resource lists where there may not be a clear author. Hunter is a really slick tool that lets you quickly see contact information for the folks on a page or site, and you can even click through to the pages that specific addresses are on to get more context and figure out if this is really the best person to be contacting. Good data capture at this stage of the outreach process can really impact your success rate and efficiency.
It’s free to use the extension, but if you exceed certain usage thresholds, you’ll need to subscribe to one of the different paid plans.
Additional tools I use for SEO work
Beyond the subscriptions and Chrome extensions, I use a few additional tools to execute on SEO work. Not all of these are SEO tools, strictly speaking, but I find they help with a lot of recurring SEO tasks.
If you’re just looking to quickly see what’s going on with a batch of URLs (maybe some blog content on a site moved, and you’re not sure what kind of redirects it’s been run through), this is a nice free tool that gives a clean visual of the http status for a batch of URLs.
Frequently I’ll want to mash up some keywords with modifiers (e.g., if you’re working with a pizza chain, you may want to quickly combine “pizza places in” and city name) for various reasons and purposes, and this tool is a quick and easy way to do that.
I was working at WordStream when the Keyword Grouper was developed, and the basic premise here is that within a big list of keywords (like an AdWords search query report) you frequently want to understand not just what individual terms are driving the most traffic or conversions, but what clusters of terms drive the most traffic or conversions in aggregate.
You can dump a big list of keywords with an associated metric (traffic, estimated traffic, conversions, or whatever) into the grouper, and it’ll tell you which keyword groups are driving the most traffic, conversions and so on, which is really helpful as you try to map out keyword priorities.
BuzzStream’s paid influencer and relationship management tools are great, but they also have some really cool free link-building tools that I use frequently and rarely see on these kinds of lists. Specifically, you can do things like:
Yoast is the SEO plugin I most frequently find on WordPress sites, and we install it on all of our own sites as well. It’s a great tool for quickly customizing title tags, and it can help with lots of SEO blocking and tackling issues like generating an XML sitemap, canonical tags and more. There’s also a premium version that offers more functionality.
Of course, there’s a lot of data you can mine from Google’s free tools (or kind of free, in the case of Keyword Planner). I’m as quick to complain about Google as the next guy, but the ease of access to a lot of this data is really worth being grateful for.
I kind of hate it when people put general stuff they use all the time, like “Google Docs” or “my laptop” or “Excel” or “WordPress” on their X tools list, so forgive me here if you do, too, because these don’t belong on an SEO tools list, strictly speaking. I do think it’s worth calling out how I find and organize SEO information. Beyond some of the general best practices information that Google puts out, there’s not a ton of universally accepted “SEO canon,” and Google is updating their algorithms, their search results and their guidelines and policies constantly. For that reason, it really is important to have at least a rough process for staying up to date with news and information. I like to do the following:
- Subscribe to blogs in Feedly. It’s a bit Google-Reader-Era-ish of me, but I still have a number of blog feeds I follow, and I typically add interesting blogs when I find a post by them. I try to check in every week or two and work through everything that’s unread.
- Follow smart people on Twitter. I have a Twitter list for this purpose. I don’t understand why there’s not broader adoption of this feature. I feel that a number of the complaints I hear about Twitter could be solved if people knew about and used lists. If you just created one that aggregated tweets by Glenn Gabe and Barry Schwartz’s, it would almost be like hiring someone to keep you up to date in real time with everything that ever changes about Google’s search results and what it means/why it’s important (but for free).
- Save interesting stuff to read to Instapaper. It seems most people use Pocket for this purpose, but Instapaper works well for my purposes, so I’ve saved myself the switching costs and use it to save long-form posts that I want to read but don’t have the time (or focus level) for at the moment (most often from Twitter links).
- Save “bookmarkable” posts to Evernote. Finally, I drop tools I want to try, links I want to share and great articles I want to reference later into different Evernote notebooks.
All of these tools are free. I also played around with different IFTTT recipes but found this disconnected process works better for me personally. I’m sure there’s a more efficient process to be had here, but again, this is just a list of stuff that I do and use.
OK one more along those same lines: Boomerang is one of my absolute favorite overall apps. I do pay for this one, and I also use it for way more than SEO (essentially I use it for personal email management), but the main features allow you to:
- send emails later. Rather than saving a draft and sending in the morning, you can just schedule it to go out on the spot. If you’re prospecting and working on outreach on off-hours, this is really helpful.
- have an email “boomerang” back into your inbox. If you send an outreach email, you can just check a box and have that email jump back to the top of your inbox in a day or a week or more to remind you to follow up if you don’t (or if you do) get a response.
Pricing for Boomerang starts at $5 a month, which is incredibly low in relation to the value it provides for regular email communication, never mind outreach.
My current “SEO tools to try” list:
That’s really the full list of tools that I currently have in rotation, but, obviously, I’ve only covered a fraction of the tools that are available out there. I also keep a running list of any tools or services I see in my travels that I’d like to try, so I’ll share that here as well (maybe you’ll have more success carving out the time to actually play around with them than I have):
Did I miss something you can’t live without? Some functionality I’m crazy to be leaving on the table? Competitive tools that are better than what I’m using? Let me know!
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.