Want to succeed at digital marketing? Then make sure your web sites rank at the top of customers' searches. We test popular search engine optimization (SEO) players that'll help you keep your site at the top of the Google heap.
“Organic search” pertains to how visitors arrive at a website from running a search query (most notably Google, who has 90 percent of the search market according to StatCounter. Whatever your products or services are, appearing as close to the top of search results for your specific business has become a critical objective for most businesses. Google continuously refines, and to the chagrin of search engine optimization (SEO) managers, revises its search algorithms. They employ new techniques and technologies including artificial intelligence (AI) to weed out low value, poorly created pages. This brings about monumental challenges in maintaining an effective SEO strategy and good search results. We’ve looked at the best tools to let you optimize your website’s placement within search rankings.
The emphasis on tools, meaning plural, is important because there’s no one magical way to plop your website atop every single search results page, at least not organically, though there are best practices to do so. If you want to buy a paid search ad spot, then Google AdWords will happily take your money. This will certainly put your website at the top of Google’s search results but always with an indicator that yours is a paid position. To win the more valuable and customer-trusted organic search spots (meaning those spots that start below all of those marked with an “Ad” icon), you must have a balanced and comprehensive SEO strategy in place.
This can be broken down into three primary categories: ad hoc keyword research, ongoing search position monitoring, and crawling, which is when Google bots search through sites to determine which pages to index. In this roundup, we’ll explain what each of those categories means for your business, the types of platforms and tools you can use to cover all of your SEO bases, and what to look for when investing in those tools.
This review roundup covers 10 SEO tools: Ahrefs, AWR Cloud, DeepCrawl, KWFinder.com, LinkResearchTools, Majestic, Moz Pro, Searchmetrics Essentials, SEMrush, and SpyFu. The primary function of KWFinder.com, Moz Pro, SEMrush, and SpyFu falls under keyword-focused SEO. When deciding what search topics to target and how best to focus your SEO efforts, treating keyword querying like an investigative tool is where you’ll likely get the best results.
(Editors’ Note: Moz is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag’s parent company.)
These cloud-based, self-service tools have plenty of other unique optimization features, too. Some, such as AWR Cloud and Searchmetrics, also do search position monitoring—which means tracking how your page is doing against popular search queries. Others, such as SpyFu and LinkResearchTools, have more interactive data visualizations, granular and customizable reports, and return on investment (ROI) metrics geared toward online marketing and sales goals. The more powerful platforms can sport deeper analytics on paid advertising and pay-per-click (PPC) SEO as well. Though, at their core, the tools are all rooted in their ability to perform on-demand keyword queries.
We concentrated on the keyword-based aspect of all the SEO tools that included the capabilities, because that’s where most business users will primarily focus. Monitoring particular keywords and your existing URL positions in search rankings is important but, once you’ve set that up, it’s largely an automated process. Automated position-monitoring features are a given in most SEO platforms and most will alert you to issues, but they don’t actively improve your search position. Though in tools such as AWR Cloud, Moz Pro, and Searchmetrics, position monitoring can become a proactive process that feeds back into your SEO strategy. It can spur further keyword research and targeted site and competitor domain crawling.
When your business has an idea about a new search topic for which you think your content has the potential to rank highly, the ability to spin up a query and investigate it right away is key. Even more importantly, the tool should give you enough data points, guidance, and recommendations to confirm whether or not that particular keyword, or a related keyword or search phrase, is an SEO battle worth fighting (and, if so, how to win). We’ll get into the factors and metrics to help you make those decisions a little later.
Crawlers are largely a separate product category. There is some overlap with the self-service keyword tools (Ahrefs, for instance, does both), but crawling is another important piece of the puzzle. We tested several tools with these capabilities either as their express purpose or as features within a larger platform. Ahrefs, DeepCrawl, Majestic, and LinkResearchTools are all primarily focused on crawling and backlink tracking, the inbound links coming to your site from another website. Moz Pro, SpyFu, SEMrush, and AWR Cloud all include domain crawling or backlink tracking features as part of their SEO arsenals.
There are three types of crawling, all of which provide useful data. Internet-wide crawlers are for large-scale link indexing. It’s a complicated and often expensive process but, as with social listening, the goal is for SEO experts, business analysts, and entrepreneurs to be able to map how websites link to one another and extrapolate larger SEO trends and growth opportunities. Crawling tools generally do this with automated bots continuously scanning the web. As is the case with most of these SEO tools, many businesses use internal reporting features in tandem with integrated business intelligence (BI) tools to identify even deeper data insights. Ahrefs and Majestic are the two clear leaders in this type of crawling. They have invested more than a decade’s worth of time and resources, compiling and indexing millions and billions, respectively, of crawled domains and pages.
Website-specific crawlers, or software that crawls one particular website at a time, are great for analyzing your own website’s SEO strengths and weaknesses; they’re arguably even more useful for scoping out the competition‘s. Website crawlers analyze a website’s URL, link structure, images, CSS scripting, associated apps, and third-party services to evaluate SEO. Not unlike how a website monitoring tool scans for a webpage’s overall “health,” website crawlers can identify factors such as broken links and errors, website lag, and content or metadata with low keyword density and SEO value, while mapping a website’s architecture. Website crawlers can help your business improve website user experience (UX) while identifying key areas of improvement to help pages rank better. DeepCrawl is, by far, the most granular and detailed website crawler in this roundup, although Ahrefs and Majestic also provide comprehensive domain crawling and website optimization recommendations. Another major crawler we didn’t test is Screaming Frog, which we’ll soon discuss in the section called “The Enterprise Tier.”
The third type of crawling tool that we touched upon during testing is backlink tracking. Backlinks are one of the building blocks of good SEO. Analyzing the quality of your website’s inbound backlinks and how they’re feeding into your domain architecture can give your SEO team insight into everything from your website’s strongest and weakest pages to search visibility on particular keywords against competing brands.
LinkResearchTools makes backlink tracking its core mission and provides a wide swath of backlink analysis tools. LinkResearchTools and Majestic provide the best backlink crawling of this bunch. Aside from these two backlink powerhouses, many of the other tools we tested, such as Ahrefs, Moz Pro, Searchmetrics, SEMrush, and SpyFu, also include solid backlink tracking capabilities.
The last piece of the complicated SEO tool ecosystem is the enterprise tier. This roundup is geared toward SEO for small to midsize businesses (SMBs), for which these platforms are likely priced out of reach. But there’s a handful of enterprise SEO software providers out there that essentially roll all of the self-service tools into one comprehensive platform. These platforms combine ongoing position monitoring, deep keyword research, and crawling with customizable reports and analytics.
The enterprise platforms can also tie in larger content marketing campaigns and ROI metrics for integrated digital marketing teams. Large enterprise organizations with flush SEO and digital marketing budgets may want to consider enterprise SEO platforms such as BrightEdge, Conductor, and Linkdex.
In the enterprise space, one major trend we’re seeing lately is data import across the big players. Much of SEO involves working with the data Google gives you and then filling in all of the gaps. Google Search Console (formerly, Webmaster Tools) only gives you a 90-day window of data, so enterprise vendors, such as Conductor and Screaming Frog, are continually adding and importing data sources from other crawling databases (like DeepCrawl’s). They’re combining that with Google Search Console data for more accurate, ongoing Search Engine Results Page (SERP) monitoring and position tracking on specific keywords. SEMrush and Searchmetrics (in its enterprise Suite packages) offer this level of enterprise SERP monitoring as well, which can give your business a higher-level view of how you’re doing against competitors.
Platforms like AWR Cloud continue to give you great position monitoring in an affordable tool, but this aspect of the market is becoming more of a high-end feature. For SMBs, a combination of self-service tools that can best address their needs is a smarter overall investment.
Evaluating which self-service SEO tools are best suited to your business incorporates a number of factors, features, and SEO metrics. Ultimately, though, when we talk about “optimizing,” it all comes down to how easy the tool makes it to get, understand, and take action on the SEO data you need. Particularly when it comes to ad hoc keyword investigation, it’s about the ease with which you can zero in on the ground where you can make the most progress. In business terms, that means making sure you’re targeting the most opportune and effective keywords available in your industry or space—the words for which your customers are searching.
The terms SEO experts often start with are page authority (PA) and domain authority (DA). DA, a concept in fact coined by Moz, is a 100-point scale that predicts how well a website will rank on search engines. PA is the modern umbrella term for what started as Google’s original PageRank algorithm, developed by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Google still uses PageRank internally but has gradually stopped supporting the increasingly irrelevant metric, which it now rarely updates. PA is the custom metric each SEO vendor now calculates independently to gauge and rate (again, on a scale of 100) the link structure and authoritative strength of an individual page on any given domain. There is an SEO industry debate as to the validity of PA and DA, and how much influence the PageRank algorithm still holds in Google results (more on that in a bit), but outside of Google’s own analytics, they’re the most widely accepted metrics out there.
That’s why PA and DA metrics often vary from tool to tool. Each ad hoc keyword tool we tested came up with slightly different numbers based on what they’re pulling from Google and other sources, and how they’re doing the calculating. The shortcoming of PA and DA is that, even though they give you a sense of how authoritative a page might be in the eyes of Google, they don’t tell you how easy or difficult it will be to position it for a particular keyword. This difficulty is why a third, newer metric is beginning to emerge among the self-service SEO players: difficulty scores.
Difficulty scores are the SEO market’s answer to the patchwork state of all the data out there. All five tools we tested stood out because they do offer some version of a difficulty metric, or one holistic 1-100 score of how difficult it would be for your page to rank organically (without paying Google) on a particular keyword. Difficulty scores are inherently subjective, and each tool calculates it uniquely. In general, it incorporates PA, DA, and other factors, including search volume on the keyword, how heavily paid search ads are influencing the results, and how the strong the competition is in each spot on the current search results page.
It’s exceedingly easy as an SEO team to spin your wheels trying to optimize a term into which your business will never be able to break. Difficulty scores quantify that potential opportunity versus risk proposition into one number, which is why we spent a lot of time in this roundup testing how effectively each tool represented keyword difficulty.
For example, let’s say the keyword difficulty of a particular term is in the 80s and 90s in the top five spots on a particular search results page. Then, in positions 6-9, the difficulty scores drop down into the 50s and 60s. Using that difficulty score, a business can begin targeting that range of spots and running competitive analysis on the pages to see who your website could knock out of their spot.
The caveat in all of this is that, in one way or another, most of the data and the rules governing what ranks and what doesn’t (often on a week-to-week basis) comes from Google. If you know where to find and how to use the free and freemium tools Google provides under the surface—AdWords, Google Analytics , and Google Search Console being the big three—you can do all of this manually. Much of the data that the ongoing position monitoring, keyword research, and crawler tools provide is extracted in one form or another from Google itself. Doing it yourself is a disjointed, meticulous process, but you can piece together all the SEO data you need to come up with an optimization strategy should you be so inclined.
Sign up for Lab Report to get the latest reviews and top product advice delivered right to your inbox.
Your subscription has been confirmed. Keep an eye on your inbox!
Rob Marvin is PCMag’s Associate Features Editor. He writes features, news, and trend stories on all manner of emerging technologies. Beats include: startups, business and venture capital, blockchain and cryptocurrencies, AI, augmented and virtual reality, IoT and automation, legal cannabis tech, social media, streaming, security, mobile commerce, M&A, and entertainment. Rob was previously Assistant Editor and Associate Editor in PCMag’s Business section. Prior to that, he served as an editor at SD Times. He graduated from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. You can also find his business and tech coverage on Entrepreneur and Fox Business. Rob is also an unabashed nerd who does occasional entertainment writing for Geek.com on movies, TV, and culture. Once a year you can find him on a couch with friends marathoning The Lord of the Rings trilogy–extended editions. Follow Rob on Twitter at @rjmarvin1.
Mike Levin is the Senior SEO Director at Ziff Davis, PCMag’s parent company. His career goes back 25 years to the halls of Commodore Computers, as an original Amiga fanboy to be beamed up by the mothership just as it imploded. Over his past 10 years in NYC, Mike’s highlights have included leading the Apple Store, Kraft and JCPenney SEO accounts while at the 360i agency, along with creating one of the more the long-lived tools in the SEO industry, called HitTail. Today when he’s not optimizing the ZD properties, he’s helping others hone their old’skool Linux or bleeding-edge Python/SEO skills through his Levinux and Pipulate Github projects.
PCMag.com is a leading authority on technology, delivering Labs-based, independent reviews of the latest products and services. Our expert industry analysis and practical solutions help you make better buying decisions and get more from technology.
© 1996-2021 Ziff Davis. PCMag Digital Group
PCMag, PCMag.com and PC Magazine are among the federally registered trademarks of Ziff Davis and may not be used by third parties without explicit permission. The display of third-party trademarks and trade names on this site does not necessarily indicate any affiliation or the endorsement of PCMag. If you click an affiliate link and buy a product or service, we may be paid a fee by that merchant.