Editor's note: As 2010 winds down, we're celebrating the Best of 2010, our top 10 most popular columns of the year on Search Engine Watch, as determined by our readers. Every day over the next two weeks, we'll repost the most popular columns of the year, starting at No. 10 and counting down to No. 1 on Dec. 31. Our countdown continues today with our No. 3 column, which originally was published on September 14. Enjoy!
Honing your search engine optimization (SEO) skills goes well beyond tips and tricks you read in tidbits across the web. It requires time, patience, testing, and a lot of research.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of moving parts including the personalization of search results based on past search behavior, localization, language, user experience, and a host of other potential ranking factors. Fortunately, there are literally dozens of tools that can help, whether they're free, freemium, paid, or even "no cost to you."
Top Free SEO Tools
- Bing Webmaster Tools -- It would be silly not to start paying attention to Bing-referred search traffic when measuring the effectiveness of an SEO campaign, especially considering the Bing/Yahoo search alliance represents an estimated 30 percent market share in search, and that many find conversion rates from Bing-referred traffic considerably higher than Google. Not unlike Google Webmaster Tools (detailed below), Bing Webmaster Tools provides information pertaining to content performance: content crawled, indexed, and trafficked. Unfortunately, Bing Webmaster Tools doesn't yet provide as much information as Google Webmaster Tools.
Can help answer the questions: Why has my Bing-referred traffic changed? What keywords trigger results for my content in Bing?
- Xenu Link Sleuth -- Best described as a PC-based crawler, this handy tool spiders your website for links and ensures they are valid, executable (when pointed at files), and search engine friendly (if redirects).
Can help answer the questions: Are all the links on my blog still valid, or are they broken? Are all the broken links that were found now fixed?
- Yahoo Web Analytics -- A highly customizable web analytics solution rivaling the likes of Omniture Sitecatalyst (yes, it's almost that powerful, and it's free). The only downside is that you can't necessarily get started right away -- you have to know someone who is a member of the Yahoo Consultant Network.
Can help answer the questions (in real-time): Where do most of my organic search-referred visitors live? Aside from the page they clicked in a search engine, what other pages did they visit? What do my search-referred visitors have in common, how do they differ based on multiple visitor segments?
Google's "No Cost to You" Tools
Maile Ohye of the Google Webmaster Tools team uses the phrase "provided at no cost to you" as a subtle reminder that although these tools are indeed free to use, they don't come without a cost. Google invests a lot of time and money into developing tools that help users make the most of their search-referred traffic, advertising dollars, and website user experience.
- Google Webmaster Tools -- The definitive tool enabling webmasters to diagnose Google search indexing issues, research keyword visibility (impressions, clicks, click-through rate, average position, position distribution), article popularity on Google search engine results pages (SERPs) and overall website speed.
Can help answer the questions: Why has my Google-referred traffic changed? What keywords trigger results for my content in Google? Where does my content rank (on average) in the SERPs? How does my Google visibility change over time?
- Google External Keyword Tool -- External meaning available outside of Google AdWords, this tool provides invaluable keyword research information such as average competition, global monthly searches, local monthly searches, and local search trending. Somewhat dated now that Google Insights for Search has arrived (see below).
Can help answer the questions: What keywords are the most popular for websites in a given category? Which keywords are becoming more popular over time? Which keywords have a good balance of high search volume and low competition?
- Google Analytics -- Arguably the most powerful tools you would ever need in order to maximize the ROI of your SEO campaigns are found in your web analytics software. It doesn't matter how much traffic you get from Google if 100 percent of your visitors recall their experience as -- Avinash Kaushik puts it best -- "I came, I puked, I left." Think of Google Analytics as the natural extension of Google Webmaster tools, two halves of the same coin; ultimately the coin you put in your pocket.
Can help answer the questions: Where do most of my organic search-referred visitors live? Aside from the page they clicked in a search engine, what other pages did they visit? How many visitors from a given keyword completed goals on my site? What's my conversion rate?
- Google Trends -- Put simply, this tool provides a trended representation of the most popular topics and search queries, and helps explain the context of those terms using content segmentation (news articles, blog posts, web results, etc).
Can help answer the questions: Why did an old article I wrote months ago about Tom Brady's resilience become so popular again (if you lived under a rock)?
- Google Trends for Websites -- An easy to use tool that can profile estimated traffic to almost any website (given sufficient traffic numbers) and provide visitor region, other websites trafficked by visitors, and search terms used by visitors.
Can help answer the questions: How does my website's overall traffic compare to other websites I consider competitors (or partners)? How does the distribution of visitors from different regions to my website compare to my competition?
- Google Insights for Search -- A considerably better tool than Google's External Keyword Tool (mentioned above) for keyword research because it provides in-depth (annotated) trending, categorization, localization (regional interest), and more -- all in a sophisticated, interactive interface.
Can help answer the questions: What global events triggered the popularity of a given keyword? What keywords are highly seasonal and cyclical, and when should I consider targeting those queries with relevant content?
- Google Instant/Google Suggest -- Some say that Google Instant will change the rules of engagement for SEO, while others say Google Suggest has been around a while, and already provides value to intelligent content creators. If Google isn't your first stop for keyword research plus competitive content ideas, it should be.
Toolbars and Browser Plug-ins
In general, all the tools in this category are great in assisting SEO professionals determined to discover the nitty-gritty details behind successful content creation, link building, and user experience. Whether it's to help optimize preexisting content, or reverse engineer competitive content.
- SEO Book.com SEO Toolbar -- A comprehensive toolbar for Mozilla Firefox that includes a variety of link segmentation information, competitive intelligence metrics (Compete, Alexa, Quantcast, Google Trends for Websites), website comparison tools, and even non-related SEO features like an RSS reader.
- SEO Quake -- The granddaddy of SEO browser plug-ins, the primary "must-have" feature of this tool is an extremely powerful overlay of parameters that influence SEO success, right on top of those SERPs.
- SEO Site Tools for Chrome -- Dubbed "the SEO tool that may make you switch to Google Chrome," it has fast become a favorite in the SEO community due to the ridiculous amount of "awesome sauce" it provides. From standard metrics affecting SEO success to overlays in Google Analytics, Google Webmaster tools, Google SERP, Yahoo SERP, and Bing SERP, this is the current plug-in to beat.
Top "Freemium" SEO Tools
- Open Site Explorer -- A powerful tool created by the fine folks at SEOmoz.org that measures and compares link popularity of websites, top pages on a domain, and anchor text distribution. Although the free version doesn't really limit the number of results returned (1,000 links is a lot), it limits some of the metrics in any given report. Subscriptions start at $79/month.
- mozBar -- Yet another popular SEO toolbar, this time from SEOmoz.org. The free version of this tool provides a number of auto-loading metrics such as page authority, number of inbound links, and the root domain authority for pages you visit. I also love the "Show Nofollows" button, which highlights no-follow links using an overlay. Subscriptions that unlock additional metrics, plus several other SEOmoz.org tools starts at $99/month.
- Majestic-SEO -- Similar to Open Site Explorer, this tool provides comprehensive backlink information on over 2.4 trillion unique URLs (as of Sept 3). The tool is free to try out, but link information for external backlinks by type requires free registration. Subscriptions that scale the volume and detail of reports are reasonably priced and start around $15/month.
Top Paid SEO Tools
- BuzzStream Link Building -- Automated tools to make researching keywords and managing link building relationships easier than ever.
- SEOClarity -- Full-scale SEO web analytics suite capable of managing data-driven and actionable insights tied to ROI.
- Lotus Jump -- Link building software that takes the guesswork out of SEO, scanning thousands of websites for opportunities and returning actionable tasks including social media participation, content generation, and more.
- Compete -- Provides competitive intelligence reporting including website traffic comparisons, inbound link analysis, and search analytics.
- Experian Hitwise -- Advanced competitive intelligence reporting including website traffic comparisons, comprehensive industry/category rankings, search intelligence, clickstream analysis (upstream/downstream websites), and demographics information.
By no means is this list comprehensive, but it includes many tools several of the expert contributors here at Search Engine Watch recommend. Feel free to comment and add your own.