When I first started using SEO tools and tried to figure out which one was right for me, I was pretty confused.
There are a bunch of tools in the space, they seem to overlap a lot, and there are way too many specialist tools to sort through.
And which one’s have data that I can trust?
After using all these tools for years and years, I’ve come to realize there are only a few choices you need to make.
First, there are three main tools in the market: SEMrush, Ahrefs, and Moz. Everyone uses one of those three. We’ll get to our recommendations for these down below.
I call them the SEO workhors — and all three of them qualify as one of the best seo tools. These workhorses carry the bulk of the weight in any SEO program, but you only need one SEO workhorse.
Any serious SEO program absolutely needs a SEO workhorse. The rank tracking, keyword research, and link analysis are all too difficult or time consuming without one. I’ve tried to get away without paying for them; that was a mistake. I could have gained a lot more traffic by using one of these tools from the beginning.
After you pick your main SEO workhorse, I highly recommend you take full advantage of the free tools. Google Analytics and Google Search Console are both world class and I consider them both required tools in day-to-day SEO operations. Plus they’re free.
Beyond that, there are a few specialty tools worth picking up if you’re doing those types of tasks.
Pretty simple all-in-all.
Here’s how your decision process will go:
- Pick SEMrush, Ahrefs, or Moz as your SEO workhorse.
- Install a SEO plugin if you’re on WordPress.
- Add an advanced SEO crawling tool if your site is massive.
- Add an outreach tool if you’re doing link building.
- Get the free SEO tools in place: Google Analytics and Google Search Console.
Best SEO Tool for Beginners: SEMrush
If you’re new to this whole SEO thing, I highly recommend that you go with SEMrush.
Compared to the other “SEO workhorse” tools, it’s by far the easiest to use. Ahrefs definitely has a learning curve and Moz has never clicked with me — I can never understand where to find anything.
SEMrush’s rank tracking reports are also the best in the industry. I check our reports every morning. Within a few minutes, I feel like I’m in complete control of what’s going on. All the other tools spread stuff out all over the place. Or the reports coddle me too much and don’t have enough density. SEMrush has that perfect balance of usability and depth with its reporting. You’ll have everything you need without getting overwhelmed.
SEMrush has all the other essential parts of a SEO workhorse: link analysis, keyword research, and competitive analysis. All of them are more than good enough to hold their own against the other SEO workhorses.
Just for Quick Sprout fans, SEMrush is offering a 7-day free trial, which they don’t normally do. In order to give you full access to their pro plan, they will ask for a credit card before starting the trial.
Best SEO Tool for Advanced Folks: Ahrefs
If you’re more comfortable with all this SEO stuff and want a tool to really flex your skills, go with Ahrefs.
They’re the “new” SEO kid on the block and I have to admit, their tool has a ton of depth to it. Every time I log in, I find a hidden feature or report that makes me giddy.
That’s also the one weakness, I’m still discovering new features I had no idea existed. Ahrefs doesn’t hold your hand at all. For an SEO expert, it’s liberating. The tool is denser than granite. But I’ve watched SEO beginners try to get their heads around it and they really struggle. After poking around a bit, they stop logging in altogether.
Ahrefs is perfect if you know exactly what you want and are determined to get it.
On specific features, I prefer the link analysis in Ahrefs over the other tools. So if you’re planning on doing a lot of link building, it’s worth getting through the learning curve.
Best SEO Plugin for WordPress: Yoast
There are probably thousands of SEO plugins for WordPress.
Only one of them matters: Yoast.
I consider it a required plugin on any WordPress site. It automates a ton of SEO tasks and makes things like meta titles and descriptions super easy to update.
I don’t spend any time on this decision — I install Yoast and move on.
Just use the free version of Yoast; there’s no reason to upgrade.
Check out our full list of recommended SEO WordPress plugins here.
Best SEO Crawling Tool: Screaming Frog SEO Spider
There’s one type of SEO task that the main SEO tools struggle with: crawling and auditing huge sites.
When you have a site with thousands of URLs, there’s just no way to go through the site on your own. And the audit tools in SEMrush, Ahrefs, and Moz are pretty basic.
For a massive site that needs a huge audit, a dedicated crawling tool makes the task so much more manageable. The entire UI and all the workflows are built around having to manage thousands of pages at once. There’s no extra clicking or back and forth. And the tool automates as much of the process as possible. You’ll instantly find all the broken links, missing meta descriptions, bad redirects, and duplicate content on your site.
Screaming Frog SEO Spider is our preferred site crawler. It’s been around the longest and has site crawling dialed.
You didn’t hear this from me, but since site audits are usually a one-and-done type project, you can sign up for the tool, pay for a few months while doing your site cleanup, then cancel it once you’re done.
The only folks I know who have long-term subscriptions are SEO consultants who do multiple audits every month for clients.
Best Outreach Tool: Pitchbox
I remember the days when you could get away without doing any link building in SEO. That’s how we built the KISSmetrics marketing blog to over 700,000 visitors per month. We just posted a ton of great content over an 8 year period.
Nowadays, that’s not nearly enough. SEO has just gotten too competitive.
My rule is that if I’m not willing to do outreach for link building, I shouldn’t be focusing on SEO for traffic. I should find another strategy to grow my business.
I’ve done a bunch of outreach projects out of Gmail and a Google Sheet. It’s such a pain. Especially when a team is involved. Keeping track of who contacted who, updating last status, remembering to send follow-ups, coordinating and updating templates, it’s all a massive pain that takes up way too much time.
And outreach is painful enough, no reason to make it any harder.
These days, I always use an outreach tool when link building. I don’t even consider the option of skipping it. A good outreach tool automates the majority of the outreach. It’s a game-changer. I used to hate outreach with every fiber of my soul, now I don’t mind it.
Our favorite tool for outreach is Pitchbox. It’ll find contacts for you, automate email follow ups, and keep track of all your outreach contacts. Seriously, use it.
Make Use of Google’s Free Tools
Google Analytics is our favorite website analytics tool. And the search data in Google Search Console is a gold mine. Don’t bother trying to pay for any of the paid analytics tool. Google Analytics gives you more than you’ll ever need and it’s completely free.
We have a guide on how to set up Google Analytics here.
After you get Google Analytics installed, go set up Google Search Console too. It’s completely free and you’ll get access to your data once Google Search Console verifies your Google Analytics account. Other than the authentication to prove that you own the site, there’s nothing else you need to set up for Google Search Console.
Google Search Console is the one and only place to get real keyword data from Google. Every other tool is a best guess. It also records all the errors Google picks up on your site, tells you what’s been indexed on your site, and gives you impression and click-through data on all your keywords. I can’t overhype it enough — use it.
We never work on websites without installing both of them and they’re completely free. Even if they were paid, they’d be worth every penny.