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Six free SEO research tools to use in your strategy development

By . Posted 13 October 2021

When it comes to running an SEO audit on your site in order to develop a new or reworked search engine optimisation strategy, getting the right data to inform your process isn’t always as straightforward as you might think.

With more than 200 known ranking factors (and new ones added or evolving frequently), where do you start and how do you know what is going to make the biggest difference to your online business?

Thankfully, there are many SEO tools available, and lots of them with free versions, that can help provide the insight you need into current website performance and search engine-friendliness to inform a more effective strategy. Tools can cut down on lots of the manual effort involved in SEO research, but a downside of there being so many of them can be that it’s tricky working out which tools will give you the information that is best suited to your business objectives.

What are the main tools for SEO?

There are really two main camps of SEO tools. There are those that specialise in a particular area, such as keyword research, and there are suites of paid tools that offer a range of features to cover different areas of optimisation, such as backlinks, competitor research and tracking your keyword rankings. These include SEMrush, Moz, and Ahrefs.

This article looks at six tools that help specifically with the research you’ll want to do before putting in place an SEO strategy to fix any issues that are negatively affecting your SEO performance and take proactive steps to make your site more search engine (and user) friendly.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics (GA) is one of the most powerful and useful tools for SEO research because it already tracks your website’s data, can potentially hold years of historical information for you to refer back to and covers a wide range of different aspects of your site, including how channels other than organic are contributing to your website traffic/users, which can provide you with really useful context and enable more accurate attribution for SEO reporting.

GA also gives great insight into how your website visitors behave on your site, what pages they visit on the route to conversion and a myriad of other details, in addition to how they came to your site in the first place. Understanding acquisition of your most profitable visitors is a vital part of determining an SEO strategy to attract more of them.

Google Analytics stopped providing meaningful data on the keywords that are bringing organic visitors to your website some years ago, but you can get an indication of this by adding a second dimension for ‘landing page’. However, the keywords used to get to your website is much more clearly gained from using the next tool, Google Search Console.

Google Search Console

Google Search Console (GSC) is a tool, formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools, which is designed to flag any technical issues with your website picked up by Google which could be impacting on your organic visibility. You can see the search queries that your site is showing in search results for and the number of clicks driven from those results, and can give a great indication of SEO performance improvement (or drops) over time.

However, it’s worth noting that the number of technical SEO issues that GSC will flag is fairly small compared to many other tools, so GSC alone won’t give you the full picture.

Screaming Frog (Free limited version)

If you have a large website then the free version of Screaming Frog (which is a downloadable program) might be of limited benefit, as it only crawls the first 500 pages it finds, but for smaller sites it can be one of the most useful SEO planning tools.

The name doesn’t have anything to do with what the tool does, as it’s essentially a ‘spider’ that ‘crawls’ websites and will deliver a report on a website that flags common SEO issues.

This could be anything from 404 errors on pages that no longer exist on your site but haven’t been redirected, to images that don’t have alt text or pages that have thin content – you can also diagnose significant or technical issues too. It can be a great way to find out where your site is currently at from an on-page SEO best practice perspective. You can also use it for competitor SEO tracking by running the spider on other websites which can give you some insight into what they might be doing differently to you from an SEO point of view.

Screaming frog interface example
Image source – Screaming Frog

Google Keyword Planner

Whilst by no means the most reliable or accurate keyword research tool around, Google Keyword Planner can be a useful way to find potential new keywords to target with your new SEO strategy. You do need an account to use it, but you don’t need to run any ads to do so, so it is free to use. This is a tool designed for paid search rather than organic search, but it can still give valuable data about how competitive a potential keyword might be, along with average monthly search volumes, which can help you refine your keyword strategy and hopefully find some intent-led keywords that will help bring in a good quantity of relevant organic visitors once you start ranking well for them in search results.

An alternative use for this tool is to estimate the value of your organic traffic. For example, if you were to setup a paid campaign around a certain term which cost £5,000, but by doing some optimisation and a bit of content wizardry, you could essentially save your business from spending that budget. So, it’s a good way to identify opportunities to rebalance the scales of your overall search marketing strategy.

Once you know your primary keywords and are ranking on page one (well done you!), you could also use this tool to report back to the business on the value that organic search is generating with a comparable cost to paid activity!

Ahrefs backlink checker (Free limited version)

Backlinks are a really important part of SEO and having a tool which can offer insight into your own link profile as well as those of your competitors can be really helpful when you’re putting a new strategy together. Ahrefs Backlink Checker will show you the top 100 backlinks to a website (or you can search with individual URLs rather than the whole domain/subdomains) which will not only show you how your own site’s backlink health is faring, it can also show you where your competitors have gained their links from, which can help you to emulate this kind of activity in your own SEO strategy.

This means that the backlink checker can be one of the most useful SEO content tools, because it will show you the kind of online content that is attracting or earning links that you want to get, from sites with a high level of domain ‘authority’ and a relevant audience, to help you get to where you want to be from an SEO point of view.

Google Trends

Yes, it’s another tool from Google, but using Google Trends for SEO strategy research can help you to look outside of the box a little when it comes to keyword targeting, and get ahead of the competition for seasonal SEO if you can predict peaks ahead of time based on what’s happened in the past.

The difference between the data you see in Google Trends for keywords and what you see in another tool, like Keyword Planner, is that Google Trends gives you the relative popularity of a term over time, rather than specific search volumes on a monthly basis.

For example, if you search for raincoats, you’d expect to see the biggest peak each year to hit in early autumn and run through to winter, which it does, but there are also smaller peaks in early summer most years (when the British summer inevitably lets us down). You can use this kind of info to time your SEO content activity for off-peak peaks and capture traffic that otherwise wouldn’t land on your website.

Google trends example

You can time your SEO and content activity for particular target search terms to coincide with peaks before they happen, giving it an opportunity to start ranking by the time demand is there. Google Trends can help you plan your SEO content calendar and feed into your strategy that way.

Some other great tools that give great insight include Answer the Public and Also Asked. Both allow you to expand your keywords with related questions that users are looking for – perfect!

The key to making the most of SEO research tools is in discovering which will save you time and give quality insights that you can use for your strategy. It may be the case that investing in a paid subscription suite of tools could be more beneficial to your business than the marketing team spending hour upon hour using multiple free tools to try and find the same information. This is a decision that will be unique to every business or organisation.

If you’d like to discuss SEO audits, strategy development or have any other SEO queries, get in touch with our team for a chat about how we can help your business.