I used to be a bit of an SEO tool junkie. Whenever a new tool was announced I’d drop everything and go find out what it did, signup for a free trial or even start paying for it straight away if I was really impressed.
But my life as an SEO didn’t start like this because I didn’t have the money to invest in tools, I built my first website using Notepad and a free FTP program. Even when I started to learn SEO properly and get my sites ranking, it was a while before I could afford to buy a website creator and some
spamming link building software. I learnt most of my skills the hard way, I really wanted to take the easy route and let tools do the hard work for me, but I genuinely couldn’t afford to.
Looking back, I think I was making up for lost time when I started signing up for every new tool that came along! I seem to have gone back the other way now as I only use a small amount of SEO tools each and every day.
The fact is, you probably don’t need to pay for SEO tools in order to learn your trade or get results. But in many instances, they can sure make your life a hell of a lot easier and free up your time to work on more interesting tasks. But how do you know when to invest? How much should you invest? How do you know that a subscription is worth keeping?
Hopefully I can help answer some of these questions as part of tools week here on State of Search.
Why not build your own tool?
Given the wealth of APIs, online support and skilled developers available today, it can be tempting to try and build your own tools rather than pay for someone elses. There are some good reasons for this:
You keep all your own data – no storing of sensitive material on a 3rd party website
Some tool providers require you to setup campaigns for tracking purposes. For example, SEOmoz will crawl your website and track various metrics over time. BuzzStream will store all your outreach emails and link building efforts. Whilst Raven will help you generate reports for your clients.
This means that you’re giving another company access to your client list and their data which can make some people nervous. For this reason, building your own tool can be an attractive option because you don’t need to worry about this.
You can define exactly how it works in line with your personal needs
I don’t think I’ve ever used an SEO tool that does EXACTLY what I want 100%. There are always slight tweaks that if I could, I would make. This isn’t to say I’ve never been happy with tools, but there is always something that doesn’t work quite how you’d like it to. If you build your own tool, you can define not only the functionality, but also the interface and the output to be exactly what you want. Meaning you can integrate it pretty easily into your existing processes and workflows.
It can be a selling point
I know a few SEO agencies who use their own in-house tools as a selling point to potential clients. I can understand why, it sounds impressive and gives those agencies a USP over others that may be pitching for the same client. Whether or not the in-house tools are really that different and unique from what is publicly available is another matter, but there is no doubt in my mind that it can give them an advantage in the sales process.
At the same time, there are some disadvantages to building your own tool as well.
It’s never finished
When you pay for a tool that someone else has built, that company is responsible for improving it, adding new features etc. As any software or tool developer will tell you, there are always new features that can be added or slight tweaks to be made. The same applies when you build your own tool. You may predict that a tool will take two weeks to build and cost you $1,000, but it is quite rare for a tool to be a fixed cost like this.
This means that you actually have to keep investing money to keep the tool up to date and incorporate new features / fix bugs etc.
It’s harder than it looks
I’ve helped scope and plan a few tools over the years and it is way harder than it looks. Taking the idea that you have in your head and conveying that to a developer is actually pretty hard and a big test of your communication skills. What may seem clear and straight forward to you may be the exact opposite for someone else, particularly if you’re working with a developer who may not be an SEO or is in another country where you can’t talk to them face to face.
Because of this, there is often a lot of back and forth between yourself and the developer to iron out small things that aren’t quite right – this takes time.
It can break
Actually, let me rephrase that – it will break. No matter how robust it is when it is launched, there are always going to be bugs or external factors that cause your tool to break. Whilst this isn’t the end of the world, it can be a pain because you need to spend more money getting it fixed and whilst the tool is being fixed, you probably can’t use it.
Compare this to when a tool that is run by another company breaks, it isn’t your job to get it fixed. Sure it is an inconvenience, but you aren’t charged extra by the tool provider if you want to get the tool working again.
Another thing to note as well, sometimes external factors will cause your tool to break. For example if you’re scraping Google search results and they change how it works, your tool needs to change too.
When do I need to use a tool?
There are multiple reasons to start using an SEO tool, I’ve tried to summarise them here.
You’re doing repetitive tasks
If you find yourself doing the same tasks over and over again, whilst the process for the tasks doesn’t change much, it is probably time to get a tool to do it for you. With the growth of the SEO tools market over the last few years, chances are that pretty much any task related to on-site SEO or data gathering can be automated. For example, rather than manually gathering your search rankings, you can use a tool such as Authority Labs. Instead of checking for broken links on your website manually, you can use Screaming Frog.
To save you time / improve efficiency
This is the most obvious reason and ties in with the reason above. When you’re first getting into SEO and may only be working on a site or two, you may be able to spend pretty much all your time on just these sites. But as time goes on and you take on more work, you’re going to find that your time becomes very stretched and you are struggling to get everything done.
It is at this point that you need to take a step back, look at the tasks you’re doing on multiple websites and seeing what can be done by a tool instead, therefore freeing up your time. After all, most SEOs will charge by the hour, so rather than having a client pay you for data gathering, pay for a tool and spend that time doing something that a tool can’t do.
To improve happiness
This one is often overlooked, but it shouldn’t be. If your team are doing repetitive, pretty mundane tasks over and over again, all day long, then they’re probably not going to stick with their job very long. All employees want to be challenged and we can all get bored easily, doing repetitive SEO tasks can be pretty mind numbing so if you can get a tool that does it for you, your employees can concentrate on more interesting, meaningful tasks.
How do I select an SEO tool?
There are loads and loads of SEO tools available, some will cross over with their features and functionality whilst some will have features that other do not. So it can be quite hard to decide which ones are right for you. Here are some questions you need to ask yourself when deciding if an SEO tool is for you.
What problem am I trying to solve?
Are you trying to save time? Save money? Become more efficient? Whatever it is, you need to ensure that the tool will help you do this. If a tool will only let you do what you did before but with a more fancy interface, it probably isn’t going to be worth paying for. If possible, ask for a trial of the software so that you can give it a spin and see how it fits into your workflow and see if it really does help you.
Remember that sales pages for tools are meant to make you want to buy. Rather than rely on the sales page alone, get a trial and see for yourself.
Is the price worth it?
You need to be realistic about what you can afford to pay for an SEO tool. There are some which are clearly targeted towards enterprise SEO agencies and very large companies, this is reflected in their pricing and it can out the tool out of range of smaller companies and individuals. If you’re a single person doing SEO for your own website, then I’d be really surprised if you could justify spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars a month for an enterprise level tool.
You should look at the cost of a tool and work out if:
- You’ll save enough time to warrant the cost of the tool
- You’ll win new business as a result and cover the cost of the tool
- You’ll do much better work for your client and therefore be able to charge more to cover the cost of the tool
- Your team will become happier by using the tool to do repetitive, boring tasks
There are other reasons, but this broadly covers most scenarios where a tool is worth paying for.
What about subscriptions?
I’m not as keen on monthly subscriptions as one-off costs. But at the same time, a monthly subscription can make you double check that you’re sure a tool is worth it. It can also make you regularly check that you’re using the tool each and every month and therefore, the subscription is worth it.
If you’re working for an SEO company, it is worth having a single person take ownership of your tools and keeping track of your subscriptions. This person is then also responsible for periodically checking with the SEOs to make sure they’re still using the tools that the company is paying for.
What features do I want the most?
As mentioned above, there are not many tools that d0 everything for you. But many tools can do the vast majority! The best thing to do here though is to list the features you’re looking for before you start looking at actual tools. Here are some examples of things you may look for in terms of features:
- Site crawling
- Flagging of duplicate content
- Error checking
- Link analysis
- Competitor link analysis
- Recording outreach emails
The next step is to then start looking around at tools that will cover all of these features, noting down the costs of each one and how many features each one covers. You may get really lucky and find a single tool that covers all features that you want. If this doesn’t happen though, you may find that you need several tools instead.
What is support like?
It is worth checking out what the support desk is like for the tool as well. Quite often, you can access the knowledgebase of the tool without buying it. So you can have a look through it and see how well all the features are explained and documented. I really like the SEOmoz help hub because they also include videos for each part of their toolset and they also have a really helpful Q&A section for asking questions.
How many people will use the tool?
If you’re buying a tool for your company or agency, it is worth looking at how many people will get use out of it. If you have a team of ten SEOs but only one person would find the tool useful, it may not be worth investing in compared to a tool that is useful to everyone.
What is uptime and security like?
If the tool is accessed via some kind of online login as opposed to a desktop download, you need to make sure that uptime is good. If the tool is always going offline or is broken, it will get very frustrating and you’ll start wasting money.
On a related front, if you’re storing sensitive client information in the tool, you need to make sure that the tool has good security measures in place to protect your data. You also need to ensure that regular backups are taken so that if the worse does happen, the company are able to restore your data from backups and get you up and running again.
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