How to Approach SEO Software Selection

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What is the role of SEO software in businesses?

Before we jump into the role certain third-party, usually paid for SEO software has in businesses, it’s important to firstly highlight the role of Google’s in-house tools and how their mostly free features can provide valuable insights for your business from an SEO standpoint. 

There are a number of Google-made platforms that you can use largely for free with only some premium features unlocked by paying, though the two you’ll most want to consider are:

Google Search Console: A web-based tool that allows your team to assess indexing status, crawling errors as well as the search queries that are driving traffic to your website. It’s incredibly valuable to your team’s SEO workflows as it’s entirely free to use and provides first hand data from Google itself. Assessing keyword and traffic trends and technical SEO opportunities across your site can be done through Google Search Console, and the tool should be used on a frequent basis by your team.

Google Analytics: Although it does have a premium version unlocking more user data, most businesses use its free version. Like Search Console, it offers first-hand Google data, providing various data layers on user types, engagement types, revenue and conversion tracking among many other things. Crucially, a good Google Analytics set-up will allow business to see clearly which pages are driving revenue from the SEO channel and where potential improvements should be made.

Aside from these two Google products playing a vital role in your business from an SEO standpoint, third-party platforms can provide further valuable insights into your business’ SEO programme. Many have advanced crawling capabilities allowing your team to deeply audit various areas of your site, while some will allow your team to devise robust keyword research and content strategies that bring in new users and more revenue from SEO. 

A good third-party SEO software will also position itself at the heart of your team’s day to day SEO activities and can be useful for promoting the visibility and understanding of SEO as a product across different departments. This can make it easy for department leads as well as C-level members to understand and get involved in the SEO discourse. 

What are the different types of SEO software?

There is a large amount of choice when it comes to SEO software and the functions they perform. They can also come in different formats and software types. Some operate in internet browser tabs on a cloud basis, some are downloadable desktop software applications, and some are browser plugins. For the purposes of this guide, we’re going to group them into four core categories:

  • Specialist SEO software: tools that excel in particular areas of SEO. There are technical SEO tools like Screaming Frog and Sitebulb, outreach and content marketing tools such as BuzzSumo, and site speed optimisation tools like GTMetrix. Keyword research tools like Keywords People Use and Keywords Insights have become extremely popular choices. These typically have reasonable price points given their focused use cases. 
  • All-in-one SEO software: as it says on the tin. These tool suites, such as Ahrefs, SEMRush, SERanking and Dragon Metrics, offer business all the core SEO essentials such as keyword research and rank tracking, competitor analysis, technical SEO auditing and link data. Subscription models are typically based on the number of user seats, how many URLs are analysed, and the number of keywords tracked. Most small to medium sized businesses will benefit from one of these.

    Mindful that these SEO software package prices will increase every year and quite considerably if we go by the recent price increases of Ahrefs and Semrush.
  • Enterprise SEO software: higher up on the investment chain, enterprise tooling is often considered for large global businesses with teams worldwide with website inventories in multiple languages and pages in the many thousands. They will often include all the features that all-in-one SEO software offers, with more powerful data warehousing capabilities, technology enhancements and flexibility through use of APIs among other things such as dedicated account managers. These can become incredibly expensive ventures, with one main argument in favour of them being their use in improving and centralising SEO workflows across large and complex businesses.

    Most businesses do not require these platforms, and the reality is that only a small percentage of the functions get used, and an even smaller percentage of acquired seats ever log in.
  • DIY SEO software: this is where companies have taken it upon themselves to develop proprietary SEO software technologies. There is no cost involved (aside from internal development resources) and these types of software may be made to address a certain need and use cases that popular third-party tools cannot help with. 

    The advancements in AI and no-code app technology have allowed many SEOs to build custom solutions to problems they experience.

What metrics should I be tracking in my SEO software?

Many SEO software types offer countless metrics to track, ranging from keyword rankings, traffic estimations to somewhat more arbitrary metrics like “site health” and “domain authority”. Everything ultimately needs to be tied to the bottom line of course. If you’ve got a clear throughline in terms of a conversion path from commercial keywords that drive traffic to your money pages, then often rankings and traffic attributed to these will be at the top of the list.

Many SEO software platforms will sell their own made up metrics which are merely there to market the product. Please be aware that many of these metrics are metrics that Google does not use or endorse. 

What are the pros of buying SEO software?

  • Automation and efficiency

Certain manual tasks like keyword research and rank tracking can be done on an automated basis with data being populated quickly, iteratively and at scale. Know that one of your competitors is outperforming you but not sure where? Many SEO tools will be able to give you an export of the areas your competitors are being you on and where the gaps are, allowing your team to make quick and informed decisions.

Google Search Console offers ongoing crawling and indexing data for technical SEO, while many third-party software can run scheduled keyword ranking and technical SEO auditing saving you time and money.

  • Data-driven decision making

Analytics suites and keyword research tools can provide laser-focused insights and in-depth data on user behaviour to help you make informed decisions on where to invest your efforts. Many online businesses fall foul of flying blind when it comes to publishing content for example. SEO software will allow your team to assess the types of keywords and content topics relevant to your business, are realistic ranking-wise from a difficulty point of view, as well as where the real opportunity gaps are.

  • Cheaper than building inhouse

The costs involved in maintaining crawlers, databases, proxies, and web scraping software can quickly exceed the cost of these platforms. Maintaining these technologies requires a developer skill set that falls outside the SEO remit.

What are the cons of buying SEO software?

  • Cons and budget constraints 

SEO software costs can quickly mount up, particularly if there hasn’t been due care as to the subscriptions purchased and whether they’re actually relevant in terms of the needs required. 

If they’re not suitable, rolling monthly subscriptions may be a difficult commitment to escape from particularly if you have your business’ historical SEO data stored within one tool, often resulting in a “golden handcuff” situation where the tool may own the data.

  • Learning curve

All businesses will have a varied amount of SEO knowledge and expertise within them, though the onboarding of a fresh SEO software can be a learning curve for both new and experienced practitioners. They all have their own UI and UX, KPI measuring styles and can take a while to get used to and get the best out of in terms of functionality.  

  • Software limitations

There is no perfect SEO software that will tick all the boxes in terms of a business’ requirements for SEO. Where one tool may excel in an area like keyword research, it may fall short in technical SEO analysis. There may also be limitations in the data available within the software due to how they’ve been developed as well as the APIs they are using. 

At the end of the day, there will also be the need for human expertise to interpret the data they’re seeing and take steps appropriately. Even the most industry-leading SEO software is only as good as the user in control of it.

SEO Software Selection Case study: successful implementation of SEO software

A global electronics ecommerce brand, with global teams across the world and web assets in a multitude of languages, was struggling to ascertain a clear direction in terms of a global SEO strategy. Many individual SEO teams across the world were quite siloed in their approach and used their own toolset. After bringing in an SEO software that was rolled out globally, this centralised workflows in terms of how SEO progress was reported and actioned upon, and ultimately led to a greater understanding of its processes and improvements in productivity. 

SEO Software Selection Case study: unsuccessful implementation of SEO software:

A similar-sized large business brought in an enterprise level SEO tool without running due diligence in terms of how data was stored and owned. Aside from a few features, the functionalities of the tool itself proved irrelevant in terms of what was actually useful for the business, and there was no tangible return on the investment being made on the tool. Furthermore, when trying to switch tools to another supplier they had issues extracting historical data from their incumbent supplier, which ended up in a dispute over data ownership and the subscription commitment on the contract. 

What are the key criteria for selecting SEO software?

Wish lists in terms of what individual businesses will need features-wise will of course vary, and it’s up to your team to gather a priority list of non-negotiables when it comes to prospecting a new SEO tool. 

Alongside a number of legal and procurement-related must-haves (which we’ll detail too), here’s a general list of features to consider when assessing SEO software in the case of an “all-in-one” tool:

  • Keyword / topic research capabilities allowing teams to research keywords in various global markets, track keyword rankings by category and monitor competitor rankings
  • Integrations with Google Analytics, Google Search Console
  • Ongoing technical SEO assessment and crawling capabilities that provide succinct, digestible and actionable insights
  • Data on backlink profiles of websites tracked
  • How fresh is the data?
  • Multiple user seats under one subscription (depending on a business’ needs) 
  • Does the software have easy usability and UX to allow non-SEO focused professionals to understand the data they’re seeing?
  • Is there ongoing support in terms of troubleshooting and set-up assistance, and how active is the software in rolling out improvements on a regular basis?

In addition, business owners need to consider SEO software providers from a commercial, legal and procurement perspective:

  • Does the software offer free trials and demos for your team so they try before they buy? 
  • Is there a money-back guarantee if your team aren’t satisfied within a certain timeframe? 
  • Is the software provider compliant with data security measures relevant to your territory? 
  • How is your website data stored and do you have ownership of it if you decide to move on?

How to weigh up the pros and cons of prospective SEO software suppliers

If you’re in the position to draft up an RFP to send out to software suppliers, this can make assessing the pros and cons of your potential suitors a lot easier. The RFP can include all your desired feature requests (listed above or otherwise), and you can look to draft up an internal approach to score your prospective SEO software providers in terms of how they score against certain feature requests. 

Scoring areas may include strength of technical SEO offering, keyword research capabilities, ease of use, reporting abilities as well as the natural synergy between representatives of the software and your team among other things. 

This will need your SEO, product, development and content teams to feed into, though ultimately will require input from all key relevant stakeholders across the business. 

Using an RFP-driven process instead of simply trialling a number of different tools will also transform the software supplier acquisition process into a more focused project-like approach. It also puts the focus on the software providers in question to come up with the goods and do their best to answer your requirements.  

Additional resources for prospecting SEO software providers

Across the web you’ll find plenty of articles curating some of the pros and cons of some of the more popular third-party SEO software on the market today. While some of these are often written by some of the software providers in question and are biased in terms of how they portray their capabilities compared to others, here a few neutral comparisons:

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