Search Engine Optimization is a tricky but important discipline. If your content is top-notch but you’re still not getting the kind of visibility or traffic you’re aiming for, it might be time to check out an SEO expert or consider trying an SEO tool.

This post is the second in our series on top SEO tools for SMBs and startups. In the first installment, we looked at some of the questions and factors you should consider when searching for an SEO tool. In this article, we’ll look at some of the top SEO tools on the market and compare them side-by-side.

Keep in mind, there are tons of SEO tools out there, from specialized tools that just do one or two things to mammoth suites of tools that can do just about everything. There are also tons of subspecialties within the world of SEO, each with its own tool sets. For example, Local SEO can be extremely important for brick-and-mortar businesses, but we’re saving Local SEO tools for a future post. For now, we’re going to focus on five top SEO tools for businesses trying to grow their web presence.

What to Look for in an SEO Tool

We covered some of these questions in part one, but to briefly recap, two of the main features that most SEO tools are built around are keyword research and competitive backlink research. Some tools specialize in one or the other, some do both, and many take novel approaches that have distinct advantages or drawbacks. That’s why many SEO pros will rely on multiple tools for different features, depending on their SEO strategy.

Let’s start with a quick overview of the tools we’ll be covering:

Good For Who Should Use It? Integrations & APIs Pricing
Ahrefs Backlink analysis, competitor research, keyword research SEO Pros API available Lite plan starts at $82/mo (billed annually) or $99/mo (billed monthly)
SEMrush On-site SEO, idea generation, keyword research Small businesses, bloggers, SEO specialists Trello, Google Analytics, Google Search Console, multiple APIs available Pro plan starts at $84/mo (billed annually) or $100/mo (billed monthly)
Moz Pro Keyword research, reports and visualizations Non-SEO pros, marketers Google Analytics, API available Standard plan starts at $79/mo (billed annually) or $99/mo (billed monthly)
Majestic Backlink analysis, competitor research SEO specialists BuzzSumo, API available Lite plan starts at $42/mo (billed annually) or $50/mo (billed monthly)
Google Analytics and Search Console Basic site auditing and keyword research Everyone APIs available Free

Ahrefs

Ahrefs bills itself as a “competitor research tool” rather than a straightforward SEO platform. It can show you what keywords your competitors are ranking for and how much traffic those keywords are sending their way. Though it does support standard SEO features like ad-hoc keyword research, rank tracking, and web monitoring, these aren’t really the focus of a tool like Ahrefs. Where it really distinguishes itself is in backlink analysis. Ahrefs crawls (by its own account) between four and six billion web pages every day and maintains the largest index of live backlinks in the world.

Another great feature is its Site Explorer tool, which is one of the best competitive research tools around. You get a full breakdown of organic and paid search, keywords, and traffic for any URL, letting you see what keywords you’re sharing with competitors, and which ones are unique. On top of that, you get some great interactive visualizations.

SEMrush

SEMrush has all the features you would expect, including position monitoring, backlink tracking, data visualizations, and more. Where it really shines, however, is in keyword research and idea generation. Most SEO tools can offer keyword suggestions, but the quantity and quality of those suggestions can vary wildly. SEMrush lets you see what keywords your competitors are using, helps you generate ideas sorted by topic, and (importantly) gives you a sense of how tough it will be to rank for those keywords.

Another one of SEMrush’s flagship features is its On Page SEO Checker, which generates a structured, prioritized list of concrete actions you can take to improve your on-site SEO. It’s extra nice that it also tells you how difficult each improvement will be and how you should expect it to boost your overall visibility and traffic.

It’s one of the only tools out there that breaks down searches by desktop and mobile. As mobile becomes increasingly important and organizations begin to develop differentiated strategies, this kind of information can be extremely valuable. Another neat feature is the ability to create and assign work tasks using the Trello integration.

Moz Pro

Moz Pro is a solid all-around SEO tool that covers most bases you could want covered. Essentially, it’s a number of different tools all bundled together. These include Keyword Explorer, which creates targeted keyword suggestions and predicts search volume, and Site Crawl, which continually audits your site and alerts you to any technical issues that might keep your site from getting properly indexed by search engines.

Moz Pro can be especially friendly to people without a lot of deep SEO experience. It comes with great reporting and visualization tools, but Moz Pro really distinguishes itself with its custom metrics. While many SEO tools will include some metric that quantifies the “difficulty” of ranking for a given keyword, Moz Pro also gauges things like click-thru rates and what your competitors are paying for those keywords. Taken together, these can help you identify smart keyword plays even if they appear “difficult” to rank for on their face.

Majestic

Like Ahrefs, Majestic is built around a high-quality backlink tracker and web crawler with some extra SEO functionality on top. When you search for a URL, you’ll see a detailed breakdown of the backlinks and referrals, separated by a “Fresh” index (a rolling index of URLs from the past three months) and a “Historic” index which catalogues every URL from the past five years. It also includes browser plugins for Chrome and Firefox that give you solid monitoring and reporting info.

Recently Majestic has expanded its feature set with Campaigns, which lets you group and track a collection of URLs over time along a variety of metrics. The idea is that you can easily compare your backlink performance alongside your competitors and see where everyone is making progress. Speaking of metrics, Majestic uses a couple of proprietary metrics, called Flow Metrics, that gauge the authority and trustworthiness of sites and links.

While Majestic does have some basic functionality to support keyword research, site auditing, and position monitoring, that’s not really what it’s best suited for, which is why many companies use Majestic in conjunction with more keyword-oriented tools.

Google Analytics and Search Console

If your site’s SEO needs are still pretty basic or you’re just starting out, you can get quite a bit of valuable information just using Google’s free web services. There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with Google Analytics, so let’s focus on Search Console. Formerly Webmaster Tools, Search Console can help you discover who’s linking to your site, what keywords you’re ranking for in Google, and what factors might be holding your ranking back. Combined with user data from GA, Search Console can give you a wealth of valuable information. (For instance, Search Console, unlike many of the more robust SEO tools on this list, can tell you whether people are reaching your site on desktop, tablet, or mobile devices.)

Another valuable feature Search Console offers is the ability to add sitemaps and check your robots.txt file. Adding a sitemap can make it easier for Google’s bots to crawl your site more efficiently. While sitemaps aren’t mandatory, Google does recommend them especially if your site is relatively new or if it’s a large site with lots of pages that may not be thoroughly linked together. A robots.txt file, by contrast, tells search robots which areas of a website they are (or aren’t) allowed to crawl.

One other nice feature Search Console has is the ‘Fetch as Google’ tool, allowing you to test how Google crawls and renders your website, which can be useful for catching errors that may be negatively impacting your ranking. You can also submit your site to be re-crawled and re-indexed manually, which can be especially helpful after a major site overhaul.

And did we mention it’s free?

Looking for More SEO Tips and Tricks?

Check out our articles on avoiding common SEO mistakes and distinguishing between white and black hat SEO. In our next installment, we’ll take a look at Local SEO tools and show you how they can boost traffic for brick-and-mortar businesses.