Let’s be honest with ourselves for a second – SEO isn’t free. Sure you can make the argument that you’re not directly paying for traffic the way you have to with PPC, but with no money for tools, your campaign won’t be as effective as it would be if you had shiny toys to play with.
I’m in a similar situation with my own sites. At work, I’ve got a pretty solid tool budget to help me be as effective and productive as possible, but for my side projects, I don’t have things like Buzzstream, AHREFS or Raven Tools to play with and having just got married and moving house in the next couple of weeks, my budget’s limited. Today, I’m going to talk through what I use at home and some cheaper alternatives to the industry-leading tools – hopefully, it’ll give you enough to make a start.
What Do You Really Need?
Ask yourself this question regularly. At work, I run campaigns for a number of enterprise-level clients – you can bet I need as many tools as I can get. Finding the amount of link opportunities that my clients need takes a long time even with an extensive toolkit; I wouldn’t be able to do it with nothing but Google and Excel. But for my own sites? I’d love to let the Citation Labs Link Prospector loose onthem, I’d love to use Buzzstream to manage my outreach but I can’t justify paying for them when I can find enough link opportunities to get by without them.
For smaller-scale/ lower budget campaigns, you really need to think about what you need rather than what you want. Personally, I break my requirements down into the following sections:
- Keyword Research
- Rank Checking
- Link Prospecting
- Link Monitoring
- Site examination
This isn’t the most exhaustive list, but it covers most of the bases and, depending on the size of your campaign, every tool mentioned here is free.
Keyword Research Tools
Here’s the great thing about SEO tools: just because they don’t cost money, doesn’t mean they aren’tany good.
I’m a little bit more in love with serpIQ than I should be at the moment. We’ve got a paid account at work and I use it at home too, although it’s on a lower plan. It’s a great keyword research and competition analysis tool with a range of other handy options. You can get free accounts with it and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Market Samurai is my go-to for keyword research though. Although I love to let serpIQ loose on my chosen terms, finding and investigating a large number of phrases is made much simpler with Market Samurai’s powerful interface. I actually opted for the paid version at home so I could use everything it’s got to offer, but the keyword research module for it is free and well worth using.
Additionally, the Google AdWords keyword tool is free but limited and the SEO Book toolbar has a great free one in there too. If you’re a bit handy with API’s, SEO Gadget have done some excellentwork with using the AdWords API and Excel, and you can get some solid results with the Microsoft AdIntelligence Add-In for Excel too.
Microsite Masters is a great choice for rank checking on a budget – or even if you’re not. You can get an account that will let you monitor up to ten keywords for free, which is nice, and they have a good increment in packages, meaning you don’t go from free to £1000 just to track a few more terms. It’s one of the best rank checkers out there at the moment, so if you do decide that you need to upscale a bit, this is what I’d recommend.
There is also SEO Tools for Excel. I’m genuinely unsure how I lived without this add-on. If you read the Distilled post here, you can get a free copy of a spreadsheet that will let you do ad-hoc rank checks, providing your site’s in the first forty results. I don’t quite know how it works, but it works and it’s really rather clever. SEO Tools for Excel is an essential part of my toolkit both at work and at home and, considering it’s free, it should be part of yours too. I haven’t even scratched the surface of what it can do here, either.
Depending on your market, this might be a tougher job to get results for free, but that’s not to say you have to take out a new credit card. Firstly, if you’re into guest blogging, there’s Blogger Linkup, which is a free newsletter that comes out three times a week and links up bloggers offering guest posts, bloggers looking for guest writers and people who need sources for interview. Due to the fact that it’s free, the quality of sites isn’t always the highest, but it’s a great resource nonetheless and there are some great platforms and writers on there.
If you’re interested, this post came about through BLU.
Other than that, there’s good old fashioned searching. One mistake I always see people make when they use search engines for their link prospecting is that they only use Google. Don’t. There are loads of other search engines out there and they’ve (mostly) got different algorithms, meaning that you might find something great in Bing or Blekko that you wouldn’t have found with Google.
There are also a number of scraper plugins for Chrome and Firefox that should help you pull a big list of prospects for your targeted keywords in one go and the Citation Labs Link Prospector (which is awesome, by the way) offers a limited number of free prospecting reports.
Unfortunately, with Yahoo Site Explorer being gone, there is no full-featured link monitoring/ analysis software out there for free, but there are a few things you can do.
Firstly, there’s Blekko. This search engine has some great site analysis functionality and I really recommend using it for more than just link monitoring. For a quick site analysis, type your URL and add /SEO at the end of it.
For checking your site’s inbound links, add /domainlinks after your URL or /inbound for links to that particular page. The main limitation of Blekko’s SEO analysis – and Blekko in general, really – is the freshness of its index. Put simply, it could stand to crawl more often, although I suspect that’s something to do with finances at this stage of its evolution.
Alternatively, there’s Majestic SEO. Majestic is great and it’s part of my every day toolkit. The great thing about it is that you can get a lot of really useful information from it on a free account. Between the two, you can’t go too far wrong, although if you’ve got a monthly budget, I’d say this is the place to spend it. Personally, I’m a big fan of AHREFS, but there are a number of premium alternatives too.
Finally, at the time of writing this, Bing released their Link Explorer beta into their Webmaster Tools platform. It’s looking like we’ve finally got a Yahoo Site Explorer replacement on the horizon, but it’s not there yet – firstly, it seems that its index is quite limited, and secondly, you have to be signed in to Bing’s Webmaster Tools to use it. Although this isn’t the biggest problem in the world, it’s still less convenient than Yahoo Site Explorer used to be. Of course, it’s still in beta and this is a great step to bringing some visibility to our backlink profiles for free.
Here’s where things get subjective: some people don’t think you need one of these. Personally, I’d argue that if your link building is based around reaching out to people, you should have one, just for the sake of your own sanity. The downside is that some of these programs are really expensive. However, as always, I’ve got a cheaper alternative.
I’ve been using Streak CRM for Gmail a lot recently and, although it has its limitations (it only works in Chrome) and it’s not the most intuitive piece of software, it’s a great way of keeping track of your contacts and conversations, letting you put every deal you negotiate into a “box”. If you’re one of those people that needs a CRM, but are on a budget, give Streak a go.
There are, of course, a lot of technical elements to any SEO campaign and, although some of the tools you’d use to examine them cost quite a bit, writing about all the free alternatives is a bit beyond the scope of this post. Before we go any further, I’m going to assume that you’re already using a range of browser plugins and toolbars, so I’m not going to cover them.
Firstly, we’ll go back to SEO Tools for Excel. As I said earlier, this is the single handiest add-on I’ve ever used and I’m always finding new things it can do such as pulling Google Analytics data, checking indexed pages, checking PageRank, finding social media shares, checking for broken links and much more. I love it and you will too.
Next, you’ll need a site crawler. I don’t think you can go wrong with the Screaming Frog SEO Spider, but it’s free version is limited to 500 URL’s, making it great for small sites, but not so good for something bigger. The Internet Marketing Ninjas Sitemap Generator will give you a lot of the information you’ll need and is free and web-based. Failing that, there’s always the old faithful Xenu.
And There We Go
I hope you found today’s post helpful. As I say, as nice as it is to have the expensive toys, sometimes, you just can’t beat something that’s free. Are there any I’ve missed? I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks to Will for being an awesome host and I hope you’ll join me on my blog or on Twitter.
Ben Johnston is a professional SEO consultant and copywriter based in the UK. You can keep up with his ramblings on SEO, social media, copywriting and general geekery at 2 Feet from Freedom and by following him on Twitter .