You’re a small business or startup and you’re trying to improve your visibility. You’ve invested in great content, now it’s just a matter of helping people find it. In other words, you might be in the market for an SEO tool.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) can be more art than science. Since no one outside Google knows exactly what goes into their search rankings, you should be skeptical of tools (and people) claiming to know all the secrets of gaming the major search algorithms.

That said, there are a number of high-quality SEO tools out there that can help you increase your traffic and visibility. In this series of articles, we’re going to look at some of the things you should consider before investing in an SEO strategy and then compare some of the most popular options on the market today.

Why Use an SEO Tool?

Without revealing the specifics of their search algorithms, Google has said that their goal is to surface content that’s fresh, trustworthy, and provides a good user experience. They tend to take a dim view of spammy content, so even if it might provide a short-term boost to your traffic, it’s a poor long-term strategy.

The best SEO strategy starts with creating meaningful, engaging content that people want to read. A good SEO tool can help you develop that long-term strategy, by helping you make informed bets on which keywords to pursue and optimizing your site to make it friendly to both your human users and the web crawlers used by the major search engines.

What Should You Look for in an SEO Tool?

There are a bunch of SEO tools out there, each one with its own strengths and weaknesses. Which one you’re looking for will depend on your business goals and current capabilities. That said, you can broadly divide SEO into two categories: On-site and off-site.

On-site SEO deals with factors you can control yourself, from making sure your content is unique and valuable to crafting URLs that are intelligible to users to optimizing your load-times and sharability. Off-site SEO covers actions taken off-site to improve your search results. The main goal of off-site SEO is getting other high-quality websites to link to your content, essentially using their own credibility to vouch for yours.

How do SEO tools help you improve you on- or off-site SEO? In general, they do it through link building and keyword research. We’ll tackle each below.

Backlinks (also called inbound links) are links to your content from somewhere else. Think of them like a reference or citation. For example, if you’re reading a post on a blog like TechCrunch about a topic, and it links to a New York Times story as evidence to support a claim, TechCrunch is backlinking to the Times.

One of the main ways modern search engines rank pages is by looking at what other high-quality, authoritative sites link to them. The idea here is that if a high-quality site trusts another site enough to link to it, then that site is probably high-quality as well. Building (or earning) links from high-quality sites is the heart of off-site SEO.

There are a number of SEO tools out there focused on helping you earn links for your site. If you’re just starting out, you may be interested in competitive backlink research, which involves analyzing the websites of your competitors to figure out what sites are linking to them and what keywords they may have targeted to build up those links.

Be warned, though, there’s a real difference between legitimate link-research tools and the kinds of automated linkbuilding tools that cultivate low-quality links from places like forum profiles and spammy blog comments. These underhanded tactics may temporarily juice your rankings, but search engines tend to severely penalize sites caught engaging in these kinds of practices.

Keyword Research

A big part of on-site SEO is optimizing your page’s content and metadata around your chosen keywords. But how do you find those keywords in the first place? That’s where keyword research comes in.

Traditionally, keyword research involves generating a list of seed keywords and then using a keyword research tool to filter those by search volume to figure out which ones you should target. More recently, though, another approach has emerged. Rather than starting with a list of seed terms, competitor-based keyword research looks for the keywords other websites are already using (i.e., those that have already been proven valuable). From there a tool can help you identify keyword opportunities and trends for you to take advantage of.

Which of these approaches is best is a matter of some debate, and the answer will likely depend on your industry, budget, and competition.

What Other Features Should You Consider?

We’ve covered two of the most important features to look at when considering an SEO tool, but there are dozens of others that might be important to your organization. Here are just a few of them.

  • Site auditing crawls your website to look for ways to improve your on-site SEO.
  • Position tracking monitors your ranking for selected keywords and shows how you stack up to the competition.
  • Keyword suggestions are automatically generated based on either seed keywords or competitor research.
  • Data filtering helps you target your keywords by looking at their search volume and difficulty and identifying the best, most cost-effective opportunities to rank.

What’s Your Budget for SEO?

There are a lot of SEO tools out there, ranging from specialized tools focused on one or two things to fully featured suites that can do just about everything. Since startups and SMBs are usually working on a tight budget, make sure you’re not paying for features you don’t need. Look at what features you need, and then look at what you’re willing and able to spend to get those. Keep in mind also that getting an SEO tool is not the same thing as hiring an SEO specialist.

In our next installment, we’ll dive into some of the most popular SEO tools on the market and compare their feature sets to help you decide which ones might be a good fit for your organization.