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Do you really need tools to do SEO?

Author: Geoff Kennedy

an image of author Geoff Kennedy, accompanied by search-related iconography, including a loading bar, a magnifying glass, and a browser tab

The short answer is: no, you don’t need specialized tools to do SEO. But, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t use them.


Armed with only an understanding of search engine optimization principles, I could sit down and optimize page copy, add some internal links to my site, and even run a campaign to drive backlinks.


However, I could also use tools to help me do any one of those tasks, probably more efficiently, and possibly saving myself time.


Additionally, there are some areas of SEO in which tools are essential to help you diagnose and resolve issues. There are some tasks that simply require a tool for technical analysis and to see things like Google does.


But, tools come at a cost. Not only the obvious financial cost, but also the risk of distraction, or becoming overly reliant on what they tell us.


This article will help you weigh out the pros and cons by examining:



What do we mean by “SEO tools?”


What we’re talking about here are tools that are primarily considered SEO tools (not simply general purpose tools that can be used for SEO). These are the tools that you’d be unlikely to use unless you were doing some kind of SEO.


For example, Google Sheets is a tool that I use daily for SEO. But I also use it for all sorts of other tasks—I wouldn’t consider it specifically an SEO tool. On the other hand, rank trackers, crawlers, and auditing tools are usually (but not always) designed specifically as SEO tools.


There’s no definitive list of the types of SEO tools available (and if there was, it would be constantly growing). But, here are some of the the most common types you’ll encounter:


An image listing various types of SEO tools, including: Keyword Research Tools, On-Page SEO Tools, Link Building Tools, Rank Tracking Tools, SEO Reporting Tools, Web Speed Optimization Tools, Structured Data Tools, Mobile SEO Tools, Local SEO Tools, International SEO Tools, SEO Auditing Tools, SEO Crawlers, All-in-one SEO Tools, SEO Forecasting Tools, CMS SEO Plugins, and SEO Browser Extensions.

Why you should use SEO tools


I’ve already stated that you don’t need tools to do SEO, and I stand by that. There are many aspects of SEO that you can perform without a tool.


But, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use them when they can help you:


  • Save time

  • Make sense of large datasets more easily

  • Discover additional insights (often through third-party data)


To summarize these points into a simple rule:


You should use SEO tools when they help you work more efficiently and/or effectively.

You might assume that this would always be the case. But in my experience, it isn’t. That’s why this article aims to help you navigate the pitfalls of using SEO tools and ensure you get the most out of them.


The potential pitfalls of SEO tools


For all the advantages that tools offer, there are some very real downsides that you need to be aware of in order to make proper use of them to grow your site’s organic visibility.


Information overload

With almost any tool, you’re going to be bombarded with data and recommendations, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.


Even when you’re familiar with a tool, it’s easy to get distracted. One minute you’re logging into Google Search Console (GSC) to check the canonical status of a URL, the next you’ve found yourself down a rabbit hole of search query reports. It happens all the time.


The most important thing to remember is what you’re there for. Have a clear vision of what you’re trying to achieve, and keep focused on the task in hand. Try not to get distracted by all the bells and whistles a tool offers. We’ll look at how to handle those soon, in the “shiny new thing” section.


Having a clear objective isn’t just important for avoiding information overload, it’ll also help you use tools more effectively.


If you don't know where you are going,

You’ll end up someplace else.

— Yogi Berra


Your priorities vs. your tools’ priorities

Tools generally work on a set of best-practice SEO rules and a hierarchy of what's important. They use these criteria to prioritize their recommendations of what you should do.

Sometimes, identifying high priority issues is fairly straightforward. For example, if an auditing tool detects that you’ve noindexed your whole website, or a content analysis tool identifies that you’ve not even mentioned your primary keyword on the page, these are both clearly high priority.


This type of rule-based prioritization is useful, to a degree. But what these tools don't have is context—an understanding of what's important to you and your business, and what you’re trying to achieve.


More often than not, assigning real priorities is much more nuanced than a set of rules. That said, here’s some tips to help:


Avoid thoughtlessly following the priorities assigned by tool recommendations.

Don’t assume that all recommendations provided by tools are worth implementing.


Do sense check tool recommendations.

Do prioritize actions yourself—use tool priorities as a starting point and layer on your own considerations.


“Shiny new thing” syndrome

There are always new tools to try. Some come and go. Others that stand the test of time regularly release new updates and features to tempt you.


Although it’s good to keep up to date with what’s available, it’s important not to let them become a distraction. New tools make great procrastination fodder!


To avoid “shiny new thing” syndrome, I recommend using some simple rules to structure your exploration:


01. Keep a list of tools that you want to try.

02. Schedule regular time to try new tools. I try to set aside an hour or two on Friday afternoons.

03. Prioritize your list based on your SEO objectives. There’s no point spending all of your time playing with fancy content tools if your next six months are going to be filled with technical audits!

04. Set tasks for yourself. Allow some time for exploring, but don’t just spend your time aimlessly. Either select a real task or make up a scenario to test the tool properly.


Javascript rendering

One of the benefits of certain tools is being able to look at a website the way Google (or rather Googlebot) does. But whatever tool you use, there’s no escaping the fact that you aren’t actually Google, and that can cause issues.


Traditionally, web pages would consist of a page of code (mainly HTML) that Google would read.


This is the same code that a tool would look at if you’re using an HTML crawler.


Right-clicking the blank space on a webpage and selecting “View Page Source” (if you’re browsing with Chrome) enables you to see the code in all its glory.


A screenshot of the source code on an example webpage.

This used to mean you could easily view page code the same way Google would. For better or worse, those days are gone now, thanks to Google’s ability (and willingness) to render JavaScript.


That means that Google doesn’t just see the response HTML (i.e., the code we can see on the page), it renders the JavaScript within it, too.


In many instances, the response HTML might be identical to the rendered HTML. In other cases, the JavaScript may make small changes to elements of the page. And in extremes (albeit not uncommon), the website may rely completely on JavaScript rendering.


The important thing to remember is that if you’re using an HTML crawler, what you can see might not be what Google renders.

There is thankfully a relatively simple solution to this problem. Many SEO tools now offer JavaScript crawling. This aims to replicate how Google crawls, so you can see the same rendered HTML.


JavaScript crawling is much more resource intensive—which makes it slower and more expensive. For that reason, most tools still default to HTML crawling, even if they are capable of JavaScript crawling.


So, what’s the answer?


01. Always be aware of whether a tool is using HTML or JavaScript crawling.

02. If you spot anomalies between crawl data and what you can see on a page, try Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test tool to view how Google renders the page.

03. Run spot checks using a JavaScript crawler to compare the response vs. rendered HTML.


A screenshot of Google’s mobile-friendly test on the Wix homepage, with the rendered HTML highlighted.

For a more in-depth explanation of why it’s important to consider rendering issues, have a look at this guide on comparing response and rendered HTML.


Blocking

Websites are generally built for users. Exceptions are made for the likes of Googlebot and other crawlers. And on the whole, most websites are happy to let most people (and bots) access them.


But sometimes, when using tools—especially crawlers—to access a website, you’ll find that you’re just not wanted there.


There are completely valid reasons why you might want to prevent bots from crawling your website. But, these reasons are usually associated with malicious behavior, so assuming you’re not doing anything naughty, you’re probably not the intended target of such measures.


Regardless of whether you’re the intended target of blocking, you need to be aware of when and why it happens.


Blocked tools

One of the simplest reasons behind crawling issues is that a website owner has chosen not to let the bot of the tool in question crawl their website.


This type of blocking could be done by user agent, or if it’s a cloud-based tool, the IP range the tool uses to crawl from. When this is the case, you might not be able to crawl the website at all.


Assuming that you have a relationship with the website you’re trying to crawl, your best bet in this instance is to request to be whitelisted. This essentially means setting a rule (either on the firewall or server), to allow you to crawl the site with that particular tool.


Blocking bad behavior

Sometimes though, things are a little more personal (and maybe for good reason).


Most SEOs at one time or another have been guilty of some overzealous crawling, resulting in a client’s website “falling over.” We’ve all been there, it’s a bit embarrassing, but a necessary learning experience.


Even if the result isn’t as dramatic as the website going down completely, it can often result in server errors (which can in itself be misleading if you’re not aware of why they’re happening).


Accident or not, this type of behavior can look an awful lot like a DoS (Denial-of-Service) attack. So inevitably, it’s becoming more and more common to encounter measures to protect against such behavior.


Responsible crawling is the most important thing to remember here. This type of blocking is in place for good reason, so if you don’t want to fall foul of such measures, it’s best to play nicely.


Most tools/crawlers will default to a reasonable speed, so the first step is to avoid substantially increasing those default settings. If that’s still too fast, there are usually settings available that will let you reduce the rate of your crawl.


False positives/negatives

If retrieving a webpage or crawling a site fails completely, it’s usually pretty obvious. But with partial or sporadic crawl failures, the effects are sometimes harder to recognize.


The simplest version of this is when a tool cannot crawl a URL and therefore flags it as an error. The likes of links and canonical tags pointing to the page may also be reported as broken. In reality, Google may be able to crawl the page just fine, so the issues are only with your crawling and not genuine SEO issues.


The flipside of this is that if a tool cannot properly crawl a page, it won’t be able to identify any issues within it.


The lesson here is to not rely solely on one data source. Double check using other tools, and ideally go straight to the source (GSC) to see what Google can tell you about a page.

Assessing the value of SEO tools


Most of us do SEO to make money one way or another, whether that’s through improving the search presence of our own business or selling our SEO services to others. So, cost is inevitably a factor when it comes to choosing the tools we use.


There’s no simple answer to how much you should spend, as it’s different for everyone. How much you should spend is dependent on what value it can bring to you and your current situation.


Even with no budget, there’s very little that you can’t do when it comes to SEO work (in the next section, I talk specifically about free SEO tools). With a combination of free tools and manual work, most tasks are achievable one way or another. However, it does come at a cost—primarily in the form of your time.


This concept of time vs. monetary cost is essential when considering the value of any given tool.


It’s also important to remember that value is different for everyone. For one person, spending $1000 on a particular tool might be a no-brainer, yet for another person even $50 for that same tool could present a completely unjustifiable cost.


I’ve already talked about how you should have a clear purpose when it comes to selecting which SEO tools to use. Costing is another reason why that’s important, because if you know what you’re trying to achieve (and what that’s worth), you can work backwards to assess the value of tools.


Essentially, you need to weigh the cost of the tool against the value of your time that it saves:


An infographic that says “value of time saved minus cost of tool equals value of tool”

That equation assumes that you’re already able to carry out the same task using only your own time and free tools.


An alternative calculation might focus more on the value you can create by using the tool:


An infographic that says “value created minus cost of tool equals value of tool”

Obviously these equations use simplified scenarios—costing is usually a bit more complex and often isn’t an exact science, but the same general principles apply.


Free SEO tools


I’ve already talked about the value of SEO tools in the previous section, and although we all love free stuff, free doesn’t always offer the most value.


But, there are times when there simply is no budget available. Luckily, there’s always options available.


Completely free

There are some very talented SEOs out there, producing great tools, and sharing them completely for free. Sometimes these tools might just be a simple plugin or spreadsheet, but others are full-blown tools. Many of them even stack up against the paid alternatives.


Occasionally, there is such a thing as a “free lunch,” and the SEO community is generally pretty great for sharing. But before you go diving in, there’s a few things to consider.


Be aware

Although it’s easy to be blasé when you’re not actually paying for something, it is important to apply a sensible level of caution in choosing which free tools to use—especially if you’re going to share data or connect accounts.


Data security

Many of the free tools you’ll see commonly used in the SEO community are created with genuinely altruistic intentions. Or at least only self-serving in so far as the creator uses their tool as a way to increase their profile.

Even with these tools, you should check to ensure they’re keeping your (or your client’s) data safe, if the tool has access to it.


Monetization
“If something is free, you're the product.” - Richard Serra, 1973

Some tools, although free to users, are monetized in other ways—most commonly by using your data in one way or another.


This may be as simple as allowing the creator to market a paid product or service to you. It could go as far as actively selling your data. Or, it could be something in between, like using data for research. This is especially relevant when you grant the tool access to the likes of Google Analytics or Google Search Console.


This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Any above-board tool should be clear on how it uses your data, and require you to agree to this when you sign up (of course we all read the small print, don’t we).


Personally, I don’t usually have a problem with tools doing this as long as they’re up-front about what they’re doing. But you need to be aware and make your own judgments.


Bad actors

Lastly, there are inevitably some bad apples when it comes to free tools.


Just like any other industry, where there is a demand (in this instance, for “free SEO tools”), there are nefarious actors that will try to capitalize on that demand in various dodgy ways.


Simply put: unless you trust the tool and/or creator, don’t give access to your data, connect accounts, or install software.

Stick to tool recommendations and creators that you trust. Some simple background checks on Google are usually enough to judge whether a tool is genuine.


Share and give back to your favorite free tool creators

It would be easy to over-emphasize the negatives, but it’s worth repeating that there are some genuinely amazing free tools out there.


If you do use one, and get value from it, I’d strongly encourage that you give a little something back to the creator, especially if they’re an independent creator (as many are).


A review, link, share on social media, or even just a message to say thank you is often much appreciated. Some also offer a “buy me a coffee” donation link too, where you can send a small monetary thank you.


Freemium

As well as being a horrible mashup of the words “free” and “premium,” freemium is a strategy used by tool creators to draw you in with a free product, with the eventual goal of leading you to purchase the paid premium version.


Under this model, the free version usually either limits the features available to free users or has some kind of credit system that limits usage before needing to pay for more access (e.g., a keyword research tool might allow a limited number of free keyword searches per day).


Similar to “completely free” tools, there are some genuine gems out there that offer great features even to free users. Where most free plans tend to reach their limitations is when you need to scale up. Many tools limit by number of URLs or number of keywords. So, you may be fine working with smaller sites, or samples and segments, but if you want to go big, you’ll usually need to pay.


Sometimes there are workarounds for these limits, often in the form of using samples or segments (as I’ve already mentioned). However in most instances, when you reach that point, you’d get more value from the paid version of the tool, especially considering the time you’d spend on workarounds.


Free trials

Lastly, we have free trials—obviously, these come with some pretty clear limitations. Typically they’ll last somewhere between a week and a month, depending on the tool.


Due to the short-term nature of free trials (yes, most have restrictions in place to stop repeat trials!), I'm not going to suggest that you consider them part of your toolset. But, I do think there’s a way to utilize them more wisely.


Plan your trial

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be guilty of regularly seeing new tools you want to try, signing up for the trial, then never actually doing anything with it. Or worse yet, you spend some time aimlessly nosing around the tool, but not actually doing anything substantial enough to evaluate it properly.


If you think a tool is worth testing it out, do it properly: Schedule some time to do so. List out some tasks you want to try. Or even better, outline a project or scenario to test it out on.


Give it a real trial

If you really want to test out a tool, the best way to do so is with real work.


When you're on a tight budget, this is even more true. It can allow you to work out the value of a tool and assess whether it’s worth you paying for, without the outlay.


If you work for clients, you may even be able to take it a step further. If you’re able to use a free trial to deliver a paid piece of work, the money earned can be used to pay for the tool and continue using it.


Where to find free tools

I’m not going to list tools in this article. That’s not the goal of this resource, and it’s a big job to compile such a list (and even more so to keep it up to date!).


Free tool lists

Instead, here are some great resources others have put together:


  • LearningSEO.io by Aleyda Solis; it includes free SEO tools.

  • Backlinko.com by Brian Dean; it includes filters for free, freemium, and paid tools. Note: This domain is now owned by SEO tool provider Semrush.

  • MatthewWoodward.co.uk by Matthew Woodward; it includes free and paid tools.


Recommendations

There’s often no better recommendation than a word-of-mouth recommendation.


My first go-to is asking friends and colleagues what they use. Then, to widen the net, I sometimes ask for recommendations on Twitter. We all have different places that we can engage with the SEO community, though.


It doesn’t really matter where you go for recommendations. The important part is that you’re getting first-hand recommendations, from people that you trust, that have already used the tools themselves.


Google Search Console

The one specific tool I will mention is Google Search Console. If you’re not already using it, get it setup now. It’s one of the few ways that Google gives data and feedback about how it sees your website.


It’s not perfect, and you need to consider the output objectively (as with any tool). But right now, I’d say it’s probably the most important tool for SEOs.


Note: Wix users have access to GSC data from within their SEO Dashboard and can also monitor organic performance using GSC data in Wix Analytics.


So, do you really need tools to do SEO?


There is a lot of SEO you can do without the need for tools. But if you’re serious about SEO, you are going to reach a point where it makes sense to utilize some of the many tools available.


Tools have the potential to provide additional insights, save time, and help us be much more efficient. But, they can also work against you if you let them dictate priorities or distract you.


The most important thing to remember when working with tools is to be aware of their limitations and potential pitfalls.


With that in mind you can use SEO tools as they’re intended: not as a replacement for your own knowledge and expertise, but as tools to help you be more effective in reaching your SEO goals.


 

Geoff Kennedy

Geoff Kennedy is a UK based SEO consultant with over 15 years experience working with clients around the globe. He works with a wide variety of businesses, including well-known brands, specializing in SEO audits and providing strategic support. Twitter | Linkedin







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