If you have a new website or blog, you want to track your progress in search results.
You also want to be able to use basic search engine optimization (SEO) to improve, refine, and audit your site.
Any new blogger can find a lot of free SEO tools on the web. There are thousands you could choose to use. I have used so many of them over the years.
But how many tools do you really need to get the job done today?
SEO is changing fast
Since I started blogging, way back when, I have used a lot of paid and free tools.
Years ago, all you needed was a keyword research tool. Ranking keywords were gold back then.
You only had to check for low keyword difficulty and reasonably high monthly search volume, and that was it.
Then for on-page SEO, you added the keyword to the title and meta description and sprinkled it a few times in headings and the body text.
It was a formula for success to get lots of search traffic in content marketing, especially.
But those days are gone now. SEO keyword research is dead, or at least on its last legs.
For established bloggers like me, premium services such as Ahrefs, Semrush, and Screaming Frog have been must-have SEO analysis tools for link building and keyword suggestions.
But I am starting to change my mind. Do I really need all these expensive tools now?
Search engines like Google and Bing are getting smarter and smarter.
A good blog post now that ranks on search engines is all about relevance for users and search terms that no longer equate equally with keywords.
As an example, I published one article recently and tried to get it to rank for my chosen keyword phrase.
But guess what? I did not rank at all on my carefully researched and selected longtail keyword. But the post started to get a lot of traffic.
My premium apps didn’t pick up the traffic spike at all.
Here is my traffic data projection from my Semrush account. Almost no change, and if anything, falling off slightly in traffic.
It was only when I checked with Google Search Console (GSC) and Google Analytics (GA) that I realized what was happening.
My post was ranking for well over 1,000 search terms.
My real traffic was way above the inaccurate data supplied by Semrush.
All my expensive tools work on keyword forecasts and averages, which is great for research.
But in real-time and real users, they prove to be next to useless.
So how many SEO tools do you honestly need today?
I would say two, with an optional third. And you don’t need to pay for any of them.
The number one free SEO tool
Google Search Console, which used to be called Webmaster Tools, has added so many new ways you can analyze your site’s data.
So much so, it now competes with any keyword explorer tool you can find, either free or paid.
As a testing tool for your site, it is now up there with the best, and all for free.
What makes it such a great SEO tool now is the new capability to compare your site’s data and performance across date ranges.
You can choose the date ranges from seven days up to 16 months.
It means that you now have access to lots of data that was previously only available if you paid for a subscription service.
Even then, many premium services don’t offer historical data much further back than seven days.
With GSC, you only need to know where to look to find useable and reliable data.
Here is how you can use the fantastic comparative data tool.
Go to your Google Search Console account and then select Search Results.
Now click on the gray Date button. Then select Compare by a date range.
You have the set options, or you can select a custom date range.
Once you select your range, click apply.
I selected a seven-day range to compare. You can see the comparison data above for clicks, impressions, CTR, and average position.
By selecting and deselecting the four colored option boxes, you can drill down further into your performance data for up to 1,000 keywords or pages in the lower details pane.
By selecting only clicks and position, you can see the data comparison for keywords or pages.
In my case above, it is pleasing to see the improvement in performance in clicks and positions.
When I select CTR, again, I can see the comparison between the two date ranges.
You can toggle between pages and queries to dig deeper.
If you click on a page and then click queries, you will have all the ranking keywords for that page.
The limit is 1,000 again, but that is more than enough data for a single post or article.
Even though I pay a subscription for a premium SEO suite, I find that I am using GSC much more now for performance reports.
The only area that is still a little lacking in GSC is backlink data.
But it is still more than good enough to track backlinks for most smaller to medium traffic blogs and websites.
My number two SEO tool
Google Analytics is definitely the best way to track every aspect of your site’s performance.
I always have it open in a tab so I can see the current number of active visitors on my sites.
That feature alone makes it a great tool to use.
But there is so much more you can do.
One great feature you may not know about is query tracking from GSC.
You need to connect your GSC account to GA before you can use it.
Once you connect, navigate from Acquisition > Search Console > Queries.
Now you will see a list of all your search terms. It is not limited as it is with GSC, so you will see all your data.
Now instead of seeing only 1,000 search terms, I can access all of my ranking keywords.
I can see click data, impressions, CTR, and average position for well over 20,000 queries.
There are almost unlimited ways you can analyze your site’s performance and data with GA. All you need to do is know where to look.
The third option
SEO is not only about Google. I get a lot of organic traffic from Bing and Yahoo.
But what is surprising is the difference between visitors from these three search engines.
If a page is not ranking well on Google, it can rank well on Bing.
There are differences between how each search engine ranks posts and articles and how their algorithms work.
I have to say that Bing Webmaster Tools site is not as user friendly as Google Search Console.
But at last, changes are happening, and a new interface is now up and running.
It now looks and feels more usable, as you can see in the screengrab above.
You can quickly and easily check your performance for keywords and pages.
You can also view your sitemaps and backlink data all from the one screen.
I check Bing regularly now because I often find differences in how articles perform compared to Google.
There is no shortage of free SEO tools, as well as paid apps you can use. But how many do you really need?
Over the last year or so, I have started to reevaluate what tools are necessary to create, check, and audit my sites and blog posts.
Back when keywords were at the heart of SEO, premium apps were worth the investment. But now I am not so sure.
I renewed my (expensive) annual subscription only a few months ago, but I am starting to think it might be for the last time.
Google and Bing are changing their algorithms towards rewarding natural language, relevant quality content, and even social media popularity. It has changed the way SEO works.
You can no longer expect success from purely keyword research, selection, and placement.
But if you want a little help when you are writing content, you can always use the free version of Yoast SEO for WordPress.
What you need to do now is analyze your published articles and posts. Look for ones that are succeeding or failing. Then decide why you are getting those results.
If you look at the search terms that Google and Bing index for your posts, you can gain a picture of how people are searching and finding your articles.
Then you can choose to edit, improve, or extend your content to try to get better organic performance.
What SEO boils down to today is about answering a question fully for people and not about keyword placement.
You only need Google Search Console, Google Analytics, and perhaps Bing Webmaster tools to be able to do this.