In 2004, when I first started working in an agency outside of Baltimore, we developed a tool called SEO Doctor, which was the primary focus of the site instantposition.com. This tool was amazing. Many tasks I'd been doing manually since 2000 were suddenly streamlined, and I was able to spend more time on strategy and data analysis. I was in heaven, and my productivity went through the roof.
A client recently told me that if you don't go through something manually the first few times, you may miss out on some important insight that is gained in the research process. I agree. Tools can help you gain efficiencies, but if they make assumptions or average data, for example, you have to clearly understand the different ways that the information could have ended up coming out.
Several SEOs are going to laugh at me, but here's a little secret: I almost never use Firefox. For those of you who feel that Firefox is the only thing you need to support your SEO research and strategy, I respect that. I simply prefer Internet Explorer, and have found a number of tools that I regularly use to support my strategic work. I guess you can call me the "PC" of the SEO expert world.
With that disclaimer aside, let's dive into a few of the tools I regularly use -- some paid and some not. Hopefully, some of these are tools that executives and non-SEO trained individuals can get value from when evaluating internal or outsourced SEO efforts.
The search engines offer some great free tools.
Google Webmaster Tools is a must-have as a site owner. If you aren't leveraging it, you're doing yourself a disservice.
Yahoo Site Explorer is useful to Webmasters with direct access to their site information (after being verified), and can help you assess competitors. Site Explorer is great for link research, but it can also be used to evaluate pages indexed within Yahoo. The "Explore" button allows you to see exactly how many links are pointed to deeper pages on the list, among other useful quick-check functionalities.
Of course, the search engines are also important tools. The more sophisticated your approach is to searching, the more likely you can get great results.
For example, a quick check of Google for duplicate content can be accomplished by cutting and pasting a few sentences within quotes in the search bar. If there are multiple results, you have a duplicate content problem. Evaluate the listings returned to see if this issue exists within your domain or across other domains as well.
The free Google tool is one of the better keyword research tools, and can provide decent detail by region.
You can also use "shortcuts" or "hacks" within search engines (especially Google), but these also can be more industry/vertical specific, such as useful shortcuts for travelers found at Vagabondish. These, like Yahoo Site Explorer, are tools that can be used during discussions to provide a frame around the current Web site or page being discussed.
Other good free tools include URI Valet, which provides a great snapshot of technical issues that may be causing problems with a site. You can also find the Server Header Checker at the same site, which provides a quick look at the server response and path happening when you enter a moved URL, or a non-existent or malformed URL.
SEO Browser provides a great snapshot of what a "text browser" sees when looking at a site, and can be valuable in evaluating the indexed-content within navigation schemes, for example, and their order on the page.
Several tools cost money, but I don't use many of them.
The Site Strength Indicator from Planet Ocean/SEO Insites provides a great look at some of the more detailed SEO elements, and also allows you to compare sites against each other. SEO Insites makes you apply for consideration to use their tools (if you apply, keep your fingers crossed).
SEOMoz (pro) Backlink Analyzer helps you get a quick grasp of the anchor text of links pointed to the site you're analyzing. They have several other useful tools, some free and some paid, including the cool Linkscape tool, which could gain even more prominence in 2010 if Google phases out the Toolbar PageRank indicator.
I use a few other tools, and maybe if you see me at Search Engine Strategies Chicago, we can discuss! Frank, what did I miss?
Frank Watson Fires Back
Tools are needed from the start. While that story of getting your hands dirty at the beginning is nice, without analytics you really don't know what you're looking at. Where do you get the conversions?
Conversion analysis should be the start of any exam. Keeping track of your SERP positions is another big one, but if you aren't combining it with what is converting, you're basically just looking at your traffic sources.
Pity you don't like Firefox, Chris. The RankChecker tool and SEO Book toolbar should be part of everyone's arsenal. Use the RankChecker to keep track of where you are in all three (soon to be two) engines -- you can export the list and date them in a spreadsheet. The need to include conversion, even for organic search, is because you can concentrate on optimizing for keywords that bring too few conversions compared to terms you may not realize are really bringing in the money.
As the popular phrase reminds us "always be closing."
Meet Chris Boggs at SES Chicago on December 7-11, 2009. Now in its 11th year, the only major Search Marketing Conference and Expo in the Midwest will be packed with 70+ sessions covering PPC management, keyword research, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), social media, local, mobile, link building, duplicate content, video optimization and usability, while offering high-level strategy, keynotes, an exhibit floor, networking events and more.