Last week’s announcement by Raven tools that they would remove all ‘scraped data’ (e.g., ranking reports) from their toolkit came as an unwelcome surprise to many of their customers. This action effectively makes a big portion of their service redundant, and the reaction to this news hasn’t been all positive for Raven.
This must have been a tough decision for Raven’s management team to make, and I’m sure they agonized over it before deciding on this course.
This event got me thinking about the relationship between SEOs and the tools they use, and wondering how much understanding there was about how tools work and how to select the best tools for you.
An Insiders View Of SEO Tools & Software Companies
I thought it would be useful to give an insiders view of how SEO tools and software (‘tools’) work, addressing some regular questions which arise. I also thought it would be useful to provide a checklist of questions you should ask when researching which local SEO focused tools to use.
And, to make this post even more useful, I have curated a list of the leading ‘locally-focused’ tools, what they do and what they cost. Enjoy!
What Are The Benefits Of Using SEO Tools?
Every week, I speak to an SEO who tells me that they do all their research by hand and manually track their performance, often storing data in uber-sized excel sheets. Whenever I hear this, I want to scream out ‘why! why would you subject yourself to that?’
Data is power in SEO. We need fresh, accurate data to inform every decision we make. Gathering this data by hand is such a waste of precious time which would be much better spent analyzing findings, taking informed action and working closely with existing and potential clients.
The reason we (for the purposes of full disclosure: BrightLocal) switched from being an agency to a ‘tools’ business is because we struggled to cope with the volume of intensive, data-gathering tasks we need to complete each day, and we could not find appropriate tools to automate them. So we built them ourselves.
SEO is a cerebral occupation. Data gathering is not. Using tools to automate these time-consuming processes frees up valuable time and enables you to spend more time focusing on your clients, implementing strategies, finding solutions, winning new customers and knocking off a few hours earlier on a Friday to have a beer with your team.
SEO Is Not An Exact Science, Neither Is Reporting
SEO isn’t conducted in a lab, and for each situation, there are a ton of variables and relationships which influence the results. We can repeat the same action for different campaigns, and the results are always slightly different.
Our approaches and methods are also different. SEO strategies are often similar, but the actions and implementation can vary greatly from one SEO to the next; but, both can achieve great results for their clients.
The same is true for tools and reports. Different tools have different approaches based on the knowledge of the team who develop them. You may run a ‘citation tracker’ report using one tool and get 155 citations, while the same report on another tool yields 178.
They both are, given that they have their own interpretation of how to calculate citations, and we can never be 100% sure of what Google’s own citation index contains (it would be nice if they told us, wouldn’t it!)
One area where we encounter a lot of questions is on ranking report accuracy and the impact of ‘personalization’ of search results.
As search engines modify results based on personal factors such as location, search history and social connections, each one of us gets a tailored set of search results which are slightly different from the next person. This leads to confusion when comparing ranking report results with manual look-ups — the results don’t always match. But which is correct? Well, there really isn’t a correct answer anymore, so we’re both right, and we’re both wrong (arrrrgggghhhhhhh…)
So what you need to look for in your tools is a ‘good’ degree of accuracy, a methodology you agree with and consistency in the results. Ranking reports are best used to show performance trends. You need to understand the impact of the work you’re doing, and this can be seen by upward/downward trends in rankings over time.
Ranking reports aren’t the only way to measure performance, and tracking traffic and conversion alongside ranking gives a more complete picture of campaign performance.
How Do Tools Gather Their Data?
Different tools use different methods to gather their data, and it’s useful to understand these methods and how they can affect tool performance and reliability.
APIs – tools which use APIs (e.g., Google Adwords API) have approved access to the data they get via the API. Data providers create APIs because they want other businesses to use their data within 3rd party services or tools. This data is typically well structured and easy to use, and data providers often charge for API usage.
Because the data providers create the API, they also support it and update it as they update their own site/data structure. They notify their API users of these changes, which makes it much easier for tool companies to update their tools, so they continue to work with API updates.
Scraping – this is, essentially, unapproved access to information which is gained by extracting data published on another website. Scraping uses automated techniques to ‘scrape‘ this information from a webpage and often mirrors human action so they can go undetected.
Because ‘scraping‘ is not approved access, it is often harder to process this data (vs. an API), and any changes made to a website may not be immediately picked up by the tool, which means there will be data inaccuracies until the tool is updated to match the website changes.
Scraping is common place among tools, and there’s often no other way to get the data that we present in our reports. Just because a tool uses scraped data doesn’t mean it’s bad, but you should expect more bumps in the road as data sources change and tool companies scramble to adapt to these changes.
SEO Tools Are Working Machines With Many Moving Parts
Good quality, professional tools are powerful pieces of software. They are working machines with moving parts.
The nice-looking interfaces and reports a user sees is just the tip of iceberg. Behind this is a mountain of sophisticated code and infrastructure which gathers data for the reports, processes it, analyzes it, stores it and spits out the results in a pretty-looking table or chart.
It’s inevitable that parts of the machine will break or slowdown and need fixing. This isn’t a sign of a bad tool, but a reality of working with multifaceted, complex software. The key is how fast these issues are dealt with and if they re-occur.
You shouldn’t be surprised if things don’t always work, but you should expect them to be dealt with swiftly. So, be sure to report any issues you find — having extra eyes and brains to spot an issue helps to get things fixed faster.
Supportability Vs. Customization
As I mentioned above, all SEO’s have their own approach to their work. Because of this, as a tool provider, we get a lot of requests for new features which are very specific to a customer’s needs and the way that person/agency operates.
We’d love to be able to satisfy everyone’s requirements, but it’s just not possible without creating a monster toolkit which is overly complex and really hard to support and maintain.
So, we have to be selective about the changes we implement and make decisions which benefit the majority of customers. Creating something new isn’t the tough part, it’s the long term support and maintenance which is.
8-Point Checklist To Help Choose The Right Tools For You
It’s very important that you understand the tools you use and select the right tools for your business. You obviously need them to be fit for purpose, but also, the more time you invest in using these tools, the more reliant on them you become, the more familiar your clients become with the reports, and the harder it is for you to switch. So, be sure to make the right choice at the start.
You need to think about what you need today, but also what you will need in 6 months, 12 months and even 3 years down the line.
Here is an 8-point checklist for you to use when evaluating which tools are right for you.
1. What is the breadth vs. depth of the tools?
Some tools have a broad offering and cover many different areas of reporting and monitoring, while others specialize in one specific area. You need tools which mirror the services you offer (plan to offer). Do you need the detailed attention of a specialist tool, can you combine multiple specialist tools, or will a ‘Swiss army knife’ do the job you need?
2. What is the cost of the tools and does this work within your pricing model?
Tools can vary greatly in price (sometimes with very little difference in the offering); so, you need to clearly understand what the price is and what the pricing model is. Is it subscription fee? Is it price per location? Is there a 12 month discount? You need to work this cost into your business model and make sure it fits.
You also need to know how that price scales. As you add more customers and reports, how does the cost change, and can the tools scale with your business?
3. What customization options are there?
Do the tools offer white label reports and do they offer full re-brandable dashboards which you can give your customers access to? These can enhance your brand, add functionality to your site and add credibility to your services; so, it’s important to leverage them.
4. How do they gather their data?
Is the bulk of their data gathered using APIs or scraping? If they scrape data, then what monitoring do they have in place to pick up changes in their data sources, and what SLAs do the offer (if any) for updating their service when changes are detected.
5. How regularly are the tools updated?
It’s important that you choose tools which are well invested in and which are regularly updated and improved. Updates are often announced in blog posts and in ‘change logs’ on the site.
You should look to see when the last update was and how many updates have been made in the last few months. You want to ensure that the tools you use will keep getting better and will adapt to the changing LoSoMo landscape.
Also, will you get automatic access to any updates and enhancements, or will you need to pay for these?
And, will your package price remain fixed forever, or is it subject to change as the tools change?
6. What technical and customer support do they provide?
As with any sophisticated software, things can go wrong, and/or you’ll have questions about how to use it. It’s important to check what level of technical support and customer support are provided and what response times are worked to.
If the tools offer a free trial period, then find out if you get the same level of support during the free trial as you do when you are a paying customer.
Do they offer phone or live chat support, or is it just email support? If you really need to, can you talk to someone — there’s nothing more frustrating than not having your emails go answered and have no other means to contact the company!
7. What training and support content is there to help you learn about the tools?
Are there comprehensive FAQs, video guides and other support documents which you can read/watch so that you get a detailed understanding of how to use the tools?
8. Do they offer an API for their tools?
More and more agencies are building their own reporting dashboards and tools. You may be planning to do this now or in the future, so it’s good to know if your tools provider has an API and what it costs to use.
Typically, the fees for API access are based on your usage and are additional to normal subscription fees. So, find out what can be accessed using the API and what the costs are.
Comparison Of Local SEO Tools & Software
The tables below contain a list of the well-regarded, locally-focused tools. There are tons of other tools which deal with other aspects of link building, content creation, PPC, call tracking, etc…
Table 1 – Comparison of Fees & Platform Capabilities
Table 2 – Comparison of SEO Features/Services
Admittedly, this list is not exhaustive but offers a targeted list of tools for you to start with, and I’m happy to add others on recommendation so please contact me via my author page with your suggestions (the more details you can give me the better!)
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.