Not many spy tools out there do what MixRank does. MixRank is a tool that gives you the ability to peek into the contextual and display ad campaigns of sites advertising with Google AdSense.
Uncovering successful advertising on the AdSense network can give you all sorts of ideas on how to increase your site's profitability.
Not only can you uncover profitable AdSense ad campaigns but you can pick off AdSense publisher sites and leverage competitive research data off of those domains to help with your SEO campaign.
With MixRank own your competitors in the following ways:
Obtain the domains your competitor's ads are served on
Swipe your competitor's ad copy
Watch ad trends to target your competition's most profitable campaigns and combinations of ads
Another great thing about MixRank is how easy to use it is. Let's go step by step and see how powerful MixRank really is!
Step 1: Pick a Competitor to Research
MixRank makes is super easy to get started. Just start typing in a domain name and you'll see a suggested list of names along with the amount of ads available:
Here we are going to take a look at Groupon as we consider building a niche deals site. Keep in mind that MixRank is currently accepted free accounts while in beta so over time we can expect their portfolio to grow and grow.
MixRank breaks their tool down into 2 core parts:
Ads (text and display)
We'll cover all the options for both parts of the MixRank tool in the following sections.
Step 2: Working with Ad Data (Text and Display)
Let's start with text ad options. So with text ads you have 3 areas to look at:
Here's a look at the interface:
As you can see, it is really simple to switch between different ad research options. Also, you can export all the results at any time.
The image above is for "Active Ads". In the active ads tab you'll get the following data points (all sortable):
Publishers - maximum number of AdSense publishers running that particular ad
Last Seen - last known date the ad was seen by MixRank
Frequency - amount of publisher sites on which the ad appeared
Avg. Position - average position of the ad inside AdSense blocks
Here you can export the data to manipulate in excel or do some sorting inside of MixRank to find the ads earning the lion's share of the traffic.
The Ad Reach tab shows up to 4 ads at a time and compares the publisher trends for those ads. To spread the love around let's look at a couple ads from LivingSocial.Com:
Here you can see that one ad crashed and fell more in line with an existing ad. You can compare up to 4 ads at once to get an idea of what kind of ad copy is or might be working best for this advertiser.
The Best Performers section compares, again, up to 4 ads at a time (use the arrows to move on to the next set) which have recently taken off across the network.
Needless to say, this report can give you ideas for new ad approaches and maybe even new products/markets to consider advertising on.
If the advertiser is running Banner Ads you can see those as well:
With Banner Ads, MixRank groups them by size and you can see all of them by clicking on the appropriate size link.
When you click on a banner ad you'll see this:
This is a good way to get ideas on which banner ads are sticking for your competitors. Also, it's a great way to get ideas of how to design your ads too. A little inspiration goes a long way :)
So that's how you work with the Ads option inside of MixRank. One thing I dig about MixRank is that it's so easy to use, the data is easy to understand and work with, and it does its intended job very well (ok, ok so 3 things!)
Step 3: Traffic Sources
Now that you have an idea of what type of text ads and banner ads are effective for your competition, it's time to move into what sites are likely the most profitable to advertise on.
MixRank gives you the following options with traffic sources:
Traffic Sources - domains being advertised on, last date when the ad was seen, average ad position and number of days seen over the last month
Reach - total number of publishers the advertiser is running ads on
The traffic sources tab shows:
Uniques - estimated number of unique visitors based on search traffic estimates
Last Seen - last date MixRank saw the ad
Days Seen - number of days over the last month MixRank saw the ad
Average Position - average position in the AdSense Block
A winning combination here would be recent last seen dates and a high number under the Days Seen category. This would be the advertiser has been and is running ads on the domain, indicating that it may be a profitable spot for them to be in.
Another tip here would be to target these domains as possible link acquisition targets for your link building campaign.
The Reach option is pretty self-explanatory; it shows the total number of publishers the advertiser is showing up on:
Another good way to evaluate traffic sources is to view the average position (remember, all the metrics are sortable). A high average position will confirm that the ads are pretty well targeted to the content of that particular domain.
Combine the high average position with Days Seen/Last Seen and you've got some well-targeted publishers. You can export all the data to excel and do multiple filters to bring the cream of crop to the top of your ad campaign planning.
MixRank is Looking Good
It's early on for MixRank but so far I like what I see. The tool can do so many things for your content network advertising, media buy planning, link building campaigns, and SEO campaigns that I feel it's an absolute no-brainer to sign up for right now.
I might opt for the Fresh Index initially, because Majestic tends to have dead links in the historic index (thanks to the significant churn on the web) but if you can't find enough decent prospects in the Fresh Index, using the Historic one isn't a bad option.
There is a lot I like about this tool and a few things I'd like to see them add to or improve on.
Step 1: Setting Up a Campaign
I'm a fan of clean, easy to use interfaces and Wordtracker definitely scores well here. Here is the first screen you are presented with when starting up a fresh campaign:
Researching competing link profiles is not enough with respect to link prospecting, in my opinion. I really like the option to not only research multiple URL's at once but also to research keyword-specific prospects.
You can research lots of countries as well. Below is a snapshot of the countries available to you in Link Builder:
Step 2: Prospecting With Competitor URL's
I am craving some chocolate at the moment, as you can tell from my selected URL's :)
Here's a good example of my decision making process when it comes to using the Historic Index and the Fresh Index. My thought process usually involves the following information:
The bigger/older the link profiles of the URL's the more likely I am to use the Fresh Index to avoid lots of dead links
If the site is a well known brand I will be more likely to use the Fresh Index given the likelihood that the link profile is quite large
Smaller link profiles, newer link profiles will probably benefit from using the Historic Index more
In this example the sites I'm researching have big link profiles and have been around for quite awhile in addition to being large brands, so I will use the Fresh Index to cut down on potential dead-ends.
I selected the "Edit Sources" box because I want to make sure I pick the URL with the most links (or you can just go with both) but I wanted to show you the options:
I'll leave all selected just to maximize the opportunities. Sometimes you'll find pages ranking for specific keywords you might be targeting, rather than just the homepage ranking, so you can use both or one or the other if that's the case.
In this scenario I'm looking at the URLs ranking for "chocolate", and they all happened to be homepage's anyway.
Wordtracker is pretty quick with getting the data in, but while you're waiting you'll see the following screen:
Step 3: Working with the Analysis Tab
In order to keep the results as targeted as possible, Wordtracker automatically removes the following links from the results:
One thing I'd like to see them do is let no-follows through because even though they might not pass any juice they certainly can be decent traffic sources and link building isn't just about passing juice, it's also about brand building and traffic generation.
I'd even say let image links through. I understand they don't want to be a pure link research tool but image links can be valuable for some of what I just mentioned as well. I would say, give us the data and the ability to filter it rather than just taking it away completely.
Here is a snippet of the result page and a description on what it represents:
On the left are pre-designed buckets that Link Builder groups your links into. This is helpful but I'd like to see more flexibility here.
They also offer a tagging feature to help you group links in another way. The tagging can be helpful for things like assigning links to specific people within your group or really any other custom setup you have going on (maybe stuff like grouping keywords into priority buckets or whatever.)
The prospect tab gives you the domain (chow.com in the below example) the link sits on, the page it links to on a competing site or sites, and the page the link is actually on from the linking site:
All you have to do is click that "links to" button to see where the link is pointing to (in this case chow.com is only linking to 1 of the sites I inputted).
The column to the right shows the page on the domain where the link is originating from and the number in the middle is a measure of how important that particular prospect might be.
The furthest most right column shows columns that tell you whether the domain is also linking to you and how many other sites, out of the sites you inputted, that domain is linking to. The idea being that the domain might be more likely to link to you if they are linking out to multiple competing sites as well:
The grayed out button to the right of the co-link count is the "target" button. This is the button you'd click to let the tool know that this is a prospect you'd like to target.
You have the following toolbar available to you in the Analysis tab:
These are generally self-explanatory:
Delete - removes selected prospects from the campaign
Export - export your results to a CSV file
Copy to - copies prospects to another campaign within your account
Tag - allows you to tag selected prospects to help create custom grouping fields
Filter - filters Top Link by "contains" or "does not contain". An example might be if you wanted to target a link prospect or prospects which contained the word "chocolate" somewhere in the URL
You can also click on any of the groupings on the left to view those specific groups only. I find that the groupings are fairly accurate but I personally prefer the ability to customize fields like that rather than being boxed in.
I created a sample tag titled "for eric" that contains 2 links I want a team member named Eric to work on:
Step 4: Working with the Contact Tab
The Contact tab has most of the same toolbar options as the Analysis tab with one exception:
Find Contact and About Links - click on the links you want to find contact information on and/or find the about page on
Link Builder works in the background to find this information and you can continue working in the application. There is a notes option as well. There's no specific way to leave multiple, time-stamped notes (for team environments) but the input box is expandable so you can leave an ongoing contact history.
You have the same contact flag on the right and to the left of that is an email icon that turns yellow if you click it and is designed to let you know contact is in progress or has been initiated.
When the contact request comes back (just refresh the contact tab) you'll see the following, new fields within the Contact tab that denote the contact/about pages for the prospect:
Step 5: Reporting
The Reporting piece of Link Builder has the following reports:
History - options for the Fresh/Historic Index of Majestic SEO via cumulative and non-cumulative views for the chosen domains
Spider Profile - the link category breakdown (the aforementioned pre-defined link sources Wordtracker assigns your prospects to) of each domain
Target Summary - number of targets, number/% of targets contacted, number/% of targets not contacted, number/% of targets linking to you
This gives you a quick overview of the growth of competing link profiles, current link building rate, types of links they have, and your own Prospect metrics. All the reports are exportable to PDF.
Here's the History report:
Here's the Spider Report:
Here's the Target Summary:
Additional Campaign Options
As we discussed earlier, you can either input a list of domains to search on a specific keyword.
If you search on a specific keyword to start you are able to select URL's to include in your prospecting search. Everything else, in terms of options after the URL selection is the same as if you were to have started with domains.
Having a keyword search to start a campaign is helpful in case you are looking to go beyond competitors you already know of and get a real deep look into link prospects across that keyword's market as a whole.
Also, right next to your campaign name you can sign up to be automatically notified of new links and prospects for your campaign:
Link Builder also has a Firefox extension that allows you to grab all the external links from a page and save them in your Link Builder account.
I find this is helpful on directory sites (for gathering a list of topic-specific URLs), as an example. The extension is really easy to use. You can install it here. Once you arrive at a page you want to use it on you just click on the LB logo in your toolbar:
Then once you click on the option to gather the links, you get the following interface:
You can save the chosen links right into your Link Builder account.
What I Like
The features that I like in Wordtracker's Link Builder tool are:
Ability to prospect by multiple URLs or by choosing a specific keyword
Option to use Fresh or Historic Index via Majestic SEO
Simple ways to keep notes and contact information
Ability to search for contact and about information on selected prospects
Robust selection of countries
Initial, intelligent link grouping
Fast results and a really clean, easy to use interface
What Could Be Improved On
I think Wordtracker could do some things to make this tool even more functional and useful:
More flexibility with the naming and assigning of link types
Have profile-wide settings to include all links (no-follow, image, etc) or exclude some rather than excluding without a choice to include
More filtering options around the data points they offer and whether a prospect has been targeted or not
More robust link tracking (if the status of links change send me an alert). Though I realize that is getting into link tracking versus link building, it's still a nice option
A bit more flexibility with notes and timestamps for a more defined contact history (especially if teams use this)
A Solid Link Building Product
Overall I think this tool does a good job with its intended use, link building. I think some users would like to see more done to make it more team friendly but I think you can accomplish a lot with their tagging feature.
As stated above, I'd like to see some more done with notes and such but as a link prospecting and building tool Wordtracker's Link Builder is worth your time to try out.
I am not sure how many people were holding off on updating to Firefox 5 because of our SEO extensions, however we made versions for Firefox 5 quite a while ago for Seo for Firefox, Rank Checker & the SEO Toolbar. When you first go to update it there might be a message that the extensions are not compliant. If that is the case, upgrade to Firefox 5 & then after you get Firefox 5 installed it has a check for updated versions of extensions.
Our newest extensions no longer support Firefox 3 (we get some complaints from people using 3.6) and some early versions of Firefox 4 (like 4.0.1) may not be supported either. If you have an older browser & try to install our extensions you will get an incompatibility message, likeso:
If you like the extensions as they are then there is no need to upgrade, however if you are having any issues with them (not being able to install them, not being able to pull Bing rankings, blank CSV export, etc.) then an upgrade should fix the problem.
Firefox stated that the version 5 update is a security one, so I did it right away. If your Firefox version is high enough you should see an "allow" message box, likeso:
Shout out to Brad McMillen, who had a support request & donated $20 to charity: water to receive a response. He was the first person to do so after months of us making the suggestion on the help desk area, even with 10 daily freetards (who are too lazy to read installation instructions) send us support tickets every day, flaming us because they "paid" for Firefox years ago & such. ;)
I have been losing weight recently and working out a decent amount every single day & working a bit less. I even had time to go see my mom, see my sister, and visit my favorite childhood park.
As an added bonus we dusted off the Nintendo & found a store selling vintage games that had my favorite pinball machine ever - Medieval Madness. I felt like a genuine escentric when trying to explain to my wife how buying a pinball machine for the house was reasonable. Even more eccentric, she didn't counter the idea. Who knows where that will lead...but it could add extra incentive to buy vs rent, if only California real estate didn't start at 7 figures on up. :D
Extra time for reading, exercising & playing has led to a higher level of personal happiness, even as my fear of crushing state debts & banker fraud leading to a new wave of fascism the world over grow daily.
Probably the single best business move I made over the past couple years was deciding that freetards were worth less than nothing and just deleting them. Part of what helped me do that was I actually had an employee answer tickets & after less than a week of doing it he was miserable & had a health issue. Since discarding freetards entirely I have seen 0 business impact and a huge lift in quality of life. If you are trying to please too many people and are showing signs of an unbalanced life for it (things like lacking sleep, high stress level, gaining weight, etc.) then a change is in order. I am still pretty chubby, but have already lost about 30 pounds.
Sometimes I think it makes sense to lean into living a somewhat unbalanced lifestyle to build leverage, but after you are doing well for a while at some point it makes sense to live a bit more balanced life & enjoy it a bit more (or else the hidden health issues will become unhidden in short order). :D
I think sometimes if you just read the blog posts things can be perceived to be more cynical and negative than they actually are. One of the bigger things I struggle with is having inspiration to keep making new posts after having published thousands of them. As I read more about the history of communications & how monopolies come to control information it is easy for me to write about some of the parallels between that and the current market. It is much harder to have something new to write about marketing though, as so much of it is just a repeat of history.
Sure we can say everything is changing and hype everything new to try to pick up some links from people who want to cite quasi-research, but beyond understanding broad stroke philosophical stuff, a lot of what is new is either just hyping what is new for the sake of it or a regurgitation of what was old.
The Google <3's brands theme is something that has been playing out for about a half-decade now. And if you look at every other major established ad driven media model, brand is there as well. Other big components of the ad ecosystem?
Classifieds = local/mobile/deals
retail = ecommerce/deals/payment processing
channel segmentation = ad personalization & social media platforms that you reveal your tastes & interests on
What areas are Google pushing into? Those exact same areas. Just look at this 2007 slide from Hal Varian...
I think about our products in three separate categories
First, there is search and our ads products, the core driver of revenue for the company. Nikesh and Susan are going to talk more about ads later in the call
Next, we have products that are enjoying high consumer success--YouTube, Android and Chrome. We are investing in these in order to optimize their long-term success
Then we have our new products--Google+ and Commerce and Local. We are are investing in them to drive innovation and adoption
The other hard bit with blogging is that of course sometimes there are some really delicious bits to SEO that most the market is unaware of. If you blog them there is a good chance the idea dies. Sometimes valuable tips are shared though, like in Rae's latest link building group interview.
The SEO tool space is a pretty crowded one (and growing one!). Tools are helpful, there is no doubt about that. However, tools are generally only as good as the person using them. We'd love to know what tools you use and why, so please let us know in the comments after the post :)
I am not "house" handy by any means, I can barely hang a picture frame straight. So if you gave me the best construction tools in the world I'd still make extra holes and screw something up.
Even if I managed to get the picture hung correctly, it certainly would not look professional.
You can buy as many guides, tools, and accessories as you like but in the end it is your skill that determines the success or failure of a project (building a deck or building a website). Skills can be harnessed, but tools do not overcome a lack of skill.
SEO Tool Fatigue
SEO tool fatigue is a real issue for some folks. Some people spend a good chunk of their productivity on testing or trying out new tools, or even using so many tools that their implementation and interpretation of data suffers a great deal. One tool says this, another says that, and yet another says 1 or the other or both or neither :) .
The first thing to realize is that most of the data from tools (excluding analytics and such) are basically estimates of estimated data, or are directly from Google's various estimation-type tools (Keyword Tool, Trends, Insights, and so on), or driven off what the tool builder thinks are important or reliable metrics to build your research off of (there tends to be some swings and misses with that type of approach).
You are not going to fail miserably if you decide not to do days and days and days of keyword research with multiple tools and then spending more days comparing different datasets. Research is important, but there is a limit.
Picking a Core Set of Tools
From a cost and time standpoint I've found it really helpful to pick a core set of tools and stick with them rather than bouncing around to get an extra feature or two.
It's good to peek around from time to time but using mostly similar tools can lead to a "needle in the haystack" approach; where you spend most of your time digging a time-suck hole rather than building websites and adjusting strategies based on analytics and/or AdWords data.
Again, research is important but there is a sweet spot and it's a good idea to get some kind of system down so you can focus on doing "enough" research without doing harm to the time it takes you to get sites up and running.
I'm going to highlight some of the tools I've used below, most of which are considered to be market leaders. I'll point out why I use certain tools, why I don't use others (yet) and I encourage anyone who's dealing with tool overload to do the same for the tools you use.
The areas I'll be focusing on are:
On Page Criteria
Competitive Link Research Tools
There are many keyword research tools that pull data from the sources listed below (like our free keyword research tool, which pulls from Wordtracker).
These tools use their own databases (although in Wordtracker you can ping Google's tool as well).
I use all the Google tools as well as Ad Intelligence and Wordtracker as well as the SeoBook Keyword Tool. Sometimes I use Wordtracker just via our keyword research tool and sometimes I use Wordtracker's web interface (I like being able to store stuff in there).
Our keyword tool also links in to most of the sources listed above. A big reason why I like our keyword research tool is that it's super easy to hit the major data points I want to hit on a particular keyword from one location.
Ad Intelligence is solid as (Microsoft claims) they incorporate actual search data into their results, rather than estimating like Google does.
I should also note that I mainly use Trends and Insights for comparing similar keywords and looking at locality (in addition to the history of keywords). Sometimes you run across really similar keywords (car, auto) and it can help to know which one is most relevant to your campaign.
For the on page stuff I'm mainly concerned with large scale, high level overviews.
I use our toolbar for specific on-page stuff but when I'm looking to diagnose internal linking problems (not maximizing internal link flow, broken links, http status codes, and so on) or issues with title tags and meta descriptions either missing, being too short, or too long, or duplication then I use a couple different tools.
Since I'm on a Mac and I don't care to run Windows for anything other than testing, I use the three listed which work on Mac (though I don't use them in every situation).
I use Screaming Frog's SEO Spider pretty frequently as well as Peacock's Integrity. Integrity is a broken link checker while SEO Spider incorporates other SEO related features (title tags, H1/H2's, anchor text, and a ton of other important elements).
WebSite Auditor offers most, if not all, of what SEO Spider does but also incorporates white-label reporting, Google Page Rank, Yahoo! & Google Link popularity, cache dates, and so on.
For some of those features in Website Auditor you might want to either outsource the Captcha inputting or use their Anti-Captcha service so you don't have to sit there for hours entering in captcha's.
In my regular workflow, SEO Spider and Integrity get used a lot and Website Auditor comes in to play for some of those other metrics and for white label reporting.
Here's a crowded space! So I think the right choice here really depends on your needs. Are you a solo SEO who runs multiple sites, or maybe you run your own sites and client sites, or maybe you are a client-only shop.
Even if you have reporting needs, you can still do a lot for free with our free rank checking tool (scheduled reports, stored reports, multiple search engines, and so on) and Excel or another spreadsheet program like OpenOffice.Org or Google Docs. Some good tips on creating ranking charts with Excel can be found here.
There are a couple differences with the software players, Advanced Web Ranking and Link Assistant's Rank Tracker (both have multiple levels so it's wise to check the features of both to see if you need the higher end version or if the lower priced versions will work for you). Some of the key differences are:
Rank Tracker integrates with Google Analytics
Advanced Web Ranking has a variety of ways to track local rankings, including maps and a local preview engine
Advanced Web Ranking has more, easier to customize reporting options
I find that the interface with Rank Tracker is much easier to work with
If all you are looking for is rank checking, then Link Assistant is a bit cheaper overall (comparing enterprise versions of both). While noting, AWR has more local options at their higher price point. You can see AWR's pricing here and Link Assistant's here. Note, it's worthwhile to check out maintenance pricing as well (Link Assistant and AWR)
AWR let's you assign a proxy per project, which can be really helpful if you have clients all over the map.
AWR automatically pulls in the top ten sites for a keyword, and their last position compared to current, and let's you add that site to your tracking (at any point) with all the historical data saved and updated within your account.
One tip with software tools is to run them on a different machine, perhaps even behind an IP off of a private VPN service like WiTopia, and think about utilizing multiple proxies from a service like Trusted Proxies and/or using an anti-captcha service with Link Assistant's tools.
The idea is to not get your IP banned and to let you continue to work as normal on your main machine while another machine is handling the automated queries. If you don't want to fuss with that, you might want to try a cloud app.
The Cloud and Scalability
The 3 main services, that I've used anyway, come from Raven, SeoMoz, and Authority Labs. Authority Labs now powers Raven's SERP tracker too. My biggest concern with cloud-based rank checkers is that the keyword volume can be (understandably) limited. Now, Authority Labs has unlimited checking at 450/month but the other two have limits.
Let's just look at the highest plans for a second, Moz allows 30 campaigns and a total of 3,500 keywords. Raven's highest plan allows for unlimited domains and 2,500 keywords total (and 200 competitors).
If scalability is a concern for you then you might be better off with software solutions. Once you start running multiple sites or are responsible for reporting on multiple sites (and you are working the long tail and your analytics) then you can see how restrictive this could become.
Of course, comparing just the rank checking options of a tool set like Raven and Moz (which both have other useful tools, Raven more so for full on campaign management) doesn't do the pricing justice. So what you could do is still use the many other tools available from each company and use a software solution once your rank checking scales beyond what they offer.
Both Moz and Raven integrate with Google Analytics, and Raven's campaign integration with GA is quite nice too (beyond just rankings).
A good chunk of software-based solutions pull link data from search engines but if you want a more, way more, comprehensive view of a competing site's link profile (and link history) you do have a few options.
Majestic was originally known for having a much deeper database, with the caveat that they keep a lot of decayed links, and their UI wasn't overly impressive. Well, as noted in a recent blog post (which includes 20% off coupons) on Majestic's new tools, most of that isn't the case anymore. Though, I still feel Open Site Explorer has a better and smoother UI.
Advanced Link Manager's strength lies in their ongoing link management and reporting but they also have some decent link research tools built in and they can connect to SeoMoz's API to gather link data, so that kind of sets them apart from those other software-based solutions.
Again, Moz offers other tools as well so it's hard to really compare price points. What I like about OSE is that you can get a really solid, quick overview of the anchor text profile of a competing site. Also, you get unlimited look ups and up to 10k links per query on their pro plan (in addition to other Moz tools). You can get a 30 day free trial of all the Moz tools as of this writing.
Majestic's New Tools
Majestic, now with their new site explorer and fresh index, rival OSE's UI and freshness a bit but there still are limits on usage. You can check out Majestic's pricing here and don't forget about the 20% off coupon mentioned here.
Typically I like to use both Majestic and OSE. I like the new tools Majestic has come out with and their historical data is solid. OSE, for me, is great for getting some of a site's top metrics quickly (anchor text, top pages, etc).
If I had to pick one, I'd go with Majestic mostly because Moz gives a decent amount of data away for free (being a registered user) and because Majestic has really good historical + deeper data.
Building links, especially if you have a team, can be a cumbersome process unless you have collaborative tools to work with. Even if you operate mostly on your own, you might want to track links you've earned or built directly.
Every once and awhile i like to download a report from Majestic SEO and add any links that are not yet in my tracking program into the program. Some people like to just track paid or exchanged links and let the natural ones sort of come and go naturally.
There are a couple of tools out there that I've used, and one I haven't but I've heard good things about it from reputable sources so I'll include it here.
Raven's Link Manager is probably their flagship tool. It has received really high praise from experienced SEO's and is easy to use. You can easily add links, assign them to employees, and let Raven worry about the automatic checking and reporting in case something changes with a link.
Advanced Link Manager has many features built in but you can use it just for tracking links you want to track by uploading the links into the program. It's software based and you can set it to run whenever you'd like, automatically.
I personally haven't used Buzzstream, but reputable people have told me it is a solid program, and they have a free 14 day trial here. It's a dedicated link building and management tool (and also has a PR and social media tool) so chances are if you are looking for a specific tool to fill that need, this one might be worth a shot.
If you don't have a ton of links to manage or a team to manage, you might be just fine with an Excel spreadsheet or a Google Doc. To me, it's just one more thing to think about and Raven and Buzzstream have low priced plans if you don't need enterprise-level storage.
What's in Your Toolbox?
So there's an overview of what I feel are the best SEO tools out there and one's that I use frequently (or infrequently).
I'd love to know what you are using and why (or why not?) :)
We love free stuff, especially when it comes to SEO tools and SEO data. Recently, we published a post on how to do a good bit of competitive research with free tools and now we are going to do that for competitive research on domains.
There are a number of tools we can use here. We are going to focus on using these tools to help evaluate a domain from a competitive research point of view:
AdWords Keyword Tool
Open SIte Explorer
Google Ad Planner
It is worth noting that we reviewed the paid elements of most of the prominent spy tools about a year ago.
Getting Started with a Domain
Researching a competitive domain can have many benefits. Beyond evaluating the strength of a domain with respect to age, links, and engagement statistics you can find things like:
High traffic keywords
Low hanging keyword fruit (keywords they are ranking for mostly off domain/brand authority)
Competing domains and overlapping keywords
Keywords being purchased for PPC
So you can do a few different things with domains. You might want to evaluate the strength of the domain as a whole if you are beyond the keyword research phase or perhaps you want to do that in addition to checking out potential keywords you can add to your campaign.
There are a few different tools you can use for this and I like to start with the SeoBook Toolbar because it's quick, easy, and incorporates the tools I want to use in one spot.
Using the SeoBook Toolbar
The toolbar links through to a ton of external tools and most of the tools listed above. It also provides a way to quickly review a bunch of the most relevant data with a simple click. Turn the toolbar on, visit the domain you want to research, and click the blue "I" icon shown below, next to the SeoBook icon:
Once you click on the blue info ball you get all this nice data immediately:
So in what really amounts to a quick, 3 step process you are able to instantly see helpful information about:
High level site data about age, Pagerank, indexed pages, and recent cache date
Link data from Yahoo! Site Explorer, Open Site Explorer, and Majestic SEO
Rough traffic estimates from sources like Compete.Com, Alexa, and SEM Rush
Important directory links
It will be somewhat clear just by looking at the chart how strong the domain is. In this case, the domain is one of the stronger ones on the web.
You can link through to each tool/statistic from this chart and also from the icons on the toolbar itself.
As you continue down the toolbar you can see the link-thru icons Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO, and Blekko. The "Dir" dropdown will show you the appearance of the site in the more important directories on the web.
Then you also can link thru to the Archive, Compete.Com, SEM Rush, the free SeoBook Rank Checker (to quickly check rankings of a keyword on a particular domain you might be researching), and the X-Ray Tool.
The "Competition" drop down will show you the following:
So here you can link through to a variety of sites to check out all sorts of data points about a domain including, but no limited to, domain registration, demographic data, and keyword data.
If that weren't enough, the toolbar also offers more tools:
The first link gives you the following drop down, which links through to a bunch of keyword tools based on the keyword you enter in the form field to the left of the book:
The highlighter highlights the typed in keyword on the current page and then you've got a link to SeoBook archives, recommended RSS feeds, no-follow highlighting, and a button which allows you to compare up to 5 domains at once.
Typically, I use the SeoBook toolbar as my research assistant of sorts when researching different aspects of a domain. It links through to the relevant tools I need to properly evaluate and research a particular domain.
An appropriate disclaimer would be that data can be limited on these free accounts but they can help establish a rough baseline to start off of. From the SeoBook toolbar you can easily link through to an SemRush report which gives you limited data on:
Organic keywords a site is ranking for
Keywords a site is buying in AdWords
Domain competition in organic SERPS
Domain competition in AdWords
Actual AdWords ad copy
Potential traffic/ad buyers/sellers based on the AdWords and Organic competitive data
A comprehensive review on SemRush can be found here.
Focusing on the organic keywords, you can get the top ten keywords driving traffic to a site (disclaimer: Spy tools should be taken as rough data points rather than data that is 100% accurate. In order to achieve 100% accuracy you'd need access to a site's analytics :D )
This can be helpful if you are trying to research whether traffic is heavily branded traffic or if it's more keyword centric traffic as well as the overall rankings of a site across a wide spectrum of keywords.
In the above example you can see that many of the top keywords are brands but they also rank highly for really competitive, core keywords. This conicides with our initial findings, via the SeoBook Toolbar, that this site is a very strong site.
If you wanted to dig deeper you can subscribe to one of SemRush's paid accounts. We also offer up to 1,000 results per query (organic data) with our Competitive Research Tool (which pulls data from SemRush) in both our membership options We also have our own custom data calculations inside the Competitive Research Tool which are pretty sweet :)
Compete is a more expensive competitive research tool but they do give you a fair amount of data for free on a domain.
So here is an example of the free data they give on a "Site Profile" report:
Some of the key points missing on a free account are (besides full access to the teaser data) are demographics and some deeper engagement metrics.
We can get some semblance of demographic data from Google Ad Planner and Quantcast for free.
This report can give you some, albeit small, keyword data outside of a Google tool in addition to traffic history (searching for victims of Panda as an example) and some high level signals about how many sites the domain is getting traffic from.
I would use a free Compete site profile to get a really high level overview of traffic size, top keywords outside of a Google tool, and traffic/visitor trends and history.
This report certainly lines up with the site being an extremely competitive one, a large brand with lots of traffic sources, and a site unaffected by the latest Google update.
AdWords Keyword Tool
So once you move away from looking at some keyword and traffic sampling numbers, as well as the solid high level overview provided by the SeoBook Toolbar, you might want to consider site structure and keyword structure.
A neat feature in the AdWords Keyword Tool is you can enter a domain and Google will list the keywords and the page assigned to that particular keyword (in their eyes):
*Other columns were removed to show this feature specifically:
This can be helpful in terms of breaking down the site structure of a competing site, finding profitable keywords they are ranking for but not necessarily targeting, and helping you plan your site structure.
Open Site Explorer
Since this post is on free tools, I would go with Open Site Explorer here (you could also use Yahoo! Site Explorer and Blekko for more data points but OSE offers a really quick, easy to use interface and has tons of link data).
Using this tool you can find things like the anchor text distribution of a site (see if they are targeting keywords that you might be considering or if lots of their anchor text is brand related)
Inside of OSE you can find other key data points like:
Top linked to pages on the site
List of linking domains
External linking pages
% of no-follow to followed links
% of internal versus external links
301 redirected domains/links
I do like using Yahoo and Blekko as well but I find that when looking at the free data options, OSE provides the deepest data out of the three and it's very easy/quick to use. On the paid side it competes with Majestic SEO which is a solid paid option as well.
I think Alexa can be somewhat useful when doing quick and free competitive research, but it's also a tool that gets a bad rap due to internet hype marketers promoting it as the BEST THING EVER!.
We did an in-depth review of Alexa here and a review of their paid tool here. Alexa gives out a few different data points:
Within those sections Alexa offers a lot of data points (based mainly on their toolbar data). Here we have data similar to Compete's:
You can also see things like global traffic ranks (where the site ranks in Alexa's Top Sites in each country)
Helpful information on where folks are navigating on the site (if you are in the same market are there site features you could be missing out on?)
Similar to SemRush stats but based on a smaller sample:
Trailing data on traffic being received from search engines:
Keywords that they are growing and keywords where they are slipping:
Potentially profitable keywords they are ranking for (factoring in advertising competition)
They also offer some demographic data compared to a relative baseline figure for each demo section:
Find out what sites people are coming to the site from (possible ad partners or related domains you can target in the same way you are targeting the current one from a competitive research perspective):
Where people are going when they leave:
Again, Alexa's data (like most spy tools) should be taken as rough figures rather than exact data. It's helpful to compare data from multiple sources as you can start to see patterns emerge or you can prove or disprove theories you may have about the site and your proposed method of attack.
Most sites I run across are not "quantified" so the data is a rough estimate (again).
So with Quantcast you can get more of that same traffic data along with some deeper demographic data:
This is on the overview page, there are separate sections for traffic and demographic data which break the information down a bit further:
You can also see data about what other sites are used/liked by visitors of the site you are doing research on:
This is on the demographics page and can give you an idea of what type of customer you'll be encountering which can help in determining how to present your offer and what to offer:
I like to use Quantcast mostly for demographc research on competiting or similar website (similar to products or services I am offering to help shape those offers and the presentation of my site).
Google Ad Planner
Ad Planner offers similar demographic data to Quantcast and similar traffic data to Alexa and Compete.
The big difference is the data is obtained from various Google products so it's probably somewhat safer to assume that the data might be a bit more relevant or accurate since Google has lots more data than any of the tools mentioned above (at least in terms of traffic data).
Ad Planner will show you "Google-ized" data for traffic patterns:
Unique visitor data in addition to Google Analytics data (for those who like to share)
You can also see top search queries:
As well as demographic data and audience interest data:
When to Go Paid
As you can see, free tools can give you lots of data but at some point you might have to scale up to use some paid tools. Paid tools certainly give you more data to work with but you can accomplish a lot of competitive research and background research on a domain with free tools.
Before Google's Panda update an effective SEO strategy was to "make a page for everything." If you are Wikipedia that strategy may still work, but for most websites that approach is a high risk & low return approach. Clustering like keywords together and using that to help set up your site's information architecture is a lower risk and higher return strategy.
Given Google's new approach to search (where dead weight can harm your good pages) organization is more important than ever.
Let's say you have a big list of keywords which is not well organized & you want a quick and dirty way to organize it. Here are a dozen different tips and tools to help you organize your keywords.
Ad Group Filter
We created an ad group organizer tool which aims to create a footprint for keywords by putting muti-word keywords in alphabetical order & stemming the keywords. The output is TSV, so you can copy it and paste it into a spreadsheet for further analysis. It also allows you to use stop words to filter the list. This can not only be used for organizing keywords for paid search, but also to help organize them for your SEO efforts down to a per-page level.
RKG Duck is a Perl clipboard extension which was the inspiration for our above tool. This tool works well in spreadsheets, but it takes some level of programming sophistication to get working.
Spyfu's Keyword Groupie allows you to look up a competing site's keywords & see them organized by root word. In addition to listing keywords by root word, they also give you the option of viewing the top 100, 500, or 1000 keywords for a site.
The big benefit with SpyFu is that you can view data on a competing site & use their performance as a bit of a filter for you, but the downside is that at times it can be a bit slower than the above tools. That is to be expected though, because it is searching through a database of records related to sites, rather than just applying a filter or returning results.
They allow you to browse keywords to drill down in areas of interest. Another nice feature is that they show you keywords they feel you are missing out on by putting them in bold, so this tool is great both for looking up competing sites & for looking up your own site to see what you missed.
Google AdWords Desktop
There are a couple different ways to use the Google AdWords editor to group keywords. Here is a semi-automated way (where you still have a bit of human editorial in the process to manually filter to find themes & create groups)
You could do similar to the above with Microsoft Excel's table filters. And if you are combining multiple data sources / tables in Excel this AbleBits merge tool is handy.
Google also offers an automated option inside Google AdWords editor to help organize keywords into fairly tight groups.
First create a new ad campaign (and its settings can be a bit arbitrary off the start as you are mainly using this to help automate data sorting). You only need to create 1 ad group in that ad campaign and then bulk upload a group of keywords into it.
Next use the keyword grouper tool, as shown here.
In the keyword grouper you can use the "generate common terms" option to automatically create keyword groupings. Note that in the right box you can add stop words & other words that you don't want them to cluster keyword groupings around.
Google then spits out a result set you can use, with the keywords clustered into tight groups. Note that sometimes they footprint geo-local keywords similarly even if they are for multiple different areas, but outside of that it is a pretty nice tool considering the amount of work it does in what amounts to a 2-minute process.
Put your site in rank checker and see how you rank for your target keyword list. If your site is nowhere to be found for a keyword then that may indicate a need to create more content pages around those new topics. If your pages already rank well then see how well they are optimized. A small amount of link building & on-page SEO can go a long way if you were already ranking for a keyword that you were not intentionally targeting.
If your site is brand new & has no authority (or you are researching a new market) you can search for the rankings of a popular website in your niche and see where they rank. Export the ranking data and you can sort the Excel spreadsheet by URL, which should help you cluster your keywords around a similar strategy that top ranked websites are using.
You can pull data on competing sites from competitive research tools like SEM Rush, Compete.com, Keyword Spy, SpyFu, and Alexa to help get an overview of some of the top keywords competing sites are ranking for.
Crawl Their Site
Do you have a well optimized competitor? You can crawl their site using tools like Xenu Link Sleuth or Screaming Frog & then export the data to a spreadsheet, using that as a baseline to start your information architecture strategy from. Xenu is free & Screaming Frog's SEO Spider is free for up to a 500 URL site.
Keyword List Cleaner
If you have a big and dirty keyword list where some of the words have multiple meanings you can try to filter the list down by using negative keywords on a keyword list cleaner.
Google Related Searches
Whenever you search on Google not only does their search box recommend tightly related keywords (which are good for late state optimization of on-page content), but in the left column they have a link to "related searches" which organizes related keywords. Within these lists of keywords you can click further into to drill down deeper.
Some folks scrape that data in bulk as well, but if you do that then you are back to having to organize it again. ;)
Google AdWords Keyword Tool
Many paid keyword tools like Wordtracker have advanced filtering & organization options, but I mainly wanted to show free options in the post. Google AdWords keyword tool has multiple helpful ways to organize data.
I tried to highlight key areas & options in the above image, but it sorta feels like I highlighted everything, as there are so many amazing options baked into it. You can get keyword data based on selecting a category, a site, or entering a root keyword. They allow further filtering by match type, tight or loose keyword groupings, location, and so on. Sometimes the data can be a bit inaccurate, but nonetheless it is a great starting point as it really is an amazing feature-rich tool.
Microsoft adCenter Plug-in for Excel
Earlier I mentioned how Excel tables have a bunch of handy filters in them. Taking that to the next level, try the adCenter Excel plug in (review here), offering you quick access to Microsoft's keyword data by root keyword, general topical category, ad campaign association, and so on.
Your Web Analytics
There are at least 4 amazing benefits to using your site's keyword data
This is the stuff that actually applies directly to your site. Rather than being some sort of academic exercise or a bunch of "what if" sort of stuff where there is a big margin for error, you have the data related to the actual business impact of these keywords.
Since your site is already ranking for these keywords you already have momentum behind them. Pushing a #5 to #2 is typically far easier than going from nowhere to #5. And it is not only easier, but it is also more profitable.
This data is organized by page already, and (since you know your site) you should be able to quickly tell if pages that are ranking should be further optimized for a keyword or if the user intent for that keyword is different and it deserves a different page.
If you have been tracking your site for an extended period of time you should know not only what pages are ranking, but also why. Sure Google aims to make this a bit more complex, but that is precisely why looking at data on your own site is so helpful: you already know so much about it.
The same types of benefits can be had by using a (phrase matched, broad matched, or modified broad match / with negative keywords) AdWords ad campaign to do keyword research. You are not only testing the search volume of the keywords, but also how your site performs for them.
WordTracker's Strategizer (review here) is a premium SEO-oriented extension of web analytics data, which helps make the data relationships easier to visualize. Concentrate is another paid application built on data wrangling & visualization front.
Free keyword cloud tools like Wordle & tools like Many Eyes can also be valuable for helping you see word relationships for a page and convey concepts to management. You can probably guess which page the following analytics-driven word cloud is for without even visiting it. ;)
There's not a complex mathematical formula that is needed for one to understand the basic math associated with SEO. It boils down to something like:
Traffic + Conversions = $
That's a pretty easy way of looking at it, and it sort of ignores some of the variables that might go into it like:
no so targeted traffic
However, the basis of profiting via SEO mainly involves getting traffic to your website and converting (or monetizing) that traffic by whatever conversion (or monetization) methods you happen to be using on your website.
There are many means you can factor into the end game of an SEO campaign but at its most basic form it is about getting traffic and monetizing that traffic.
A Small-Minded Approach
The school of thought which postulates that ranking reports or ranking data is either essentially dead, useless, or pointless generally is a small-minded approach with respect to the various ways you can use ranking data and over-dramatizes the effect of changing search results from searcher to searcher. Small-minded simply because you can use ranking reports for more than just blindly monitoring keywords.
If the argument is that you should focus more on conversions than ranking in terms of straight revenue then I can buy that, to a degree, but the problem remains that you can't convert if you don't have traffic and you can't have traffic from search engines unless you rank highly for your keywords.
If the argument is that you shouldn't care because of personalized search, or local search, or different data center results then I would say that you are overstating the adoption and the effect. Sure, there could be a map or products or images in your search results (or tweets or news results) but I believe the idea that search results are so radically different from person to person, so different as to render ranking reports irrelevant, is quite overstated and inaccurate (from reports I've been running over time). All search results start from some starting point!
Knowing where you generally rank matters, watching the trend of your rankings in conjunction with your SEO tactics matters, and watching the evolution (up and down) of competing websites matters. To simply watch analytics data leaves so many opportunities on the table if we stipulate that ranking reports are a waste of time or mostly unimportant. When major algorithm updates or penalties happen, one of the quickest ways to help analyze what happened is to track your rankings before and after for a variety of keywords. That will help you determine things like:
is the issue sitewide?
is the issue related to a singular keyword?
is the issue related to a group of closely related keywords?
is the issue primarily impacting your most competitive keywords?
is the issue related to a particular market?
Pattern matching is key to learning how algorithms work. Sure some of this type of data may be available in your web analytics, but rather than having to hunt and probe for it, rank checking allows you to quickly get a baseline idea of where the problem may be.
Trends & Measurable Effects
Suppose you are interested in finding out whether certain SEO tactics are working or not working for a particular site. By watching your ranking trends over a period of time, parallel to your tactic testing, you can gauge whether or not those particular tactics are working.
Perhaps you've targeted a keyword which doesn't really have as much volume as you thought it did or what the keyword tools told you it did. If you ignore ranking reports then you are removing a key step in figuring out whether the word is viable or not, rather than looking at your analytics and guessing that it is viable or not based on traffic. Maybe you are ranking #4 for that term but the order goes:
Chikita reported (based on 8+ million impressions on their network) the following percentages of search traffic distribution by rank (roughly a year or so ago):
Chikita's chart shows that position 2 roughly in the 15-20% traffic range with position 4 around 5% and position 1 around 35%
Here's the leaked AOL chart from a few years ago, discussing the same topic:
AOL's data shows position 1 at 42%, position 2 at 11%, and position 4 at 6%.
So if you were running monthly ranking reports you could reasonably make the assumption that by increasing your rank +3 you might expect north of 25% in terms of increased traffic. If the sites were reversed and you were getting little traffic, it would be easy to see that this keyword is probably not worth continuing to spend resources on since you are ranking #1 and still getting little traffic.
In either the case of potential opportunity or no opportunity ranking reports would work nicely with your traffic reports to help you make reasonable adjustments to your SEO campaign. If you skipped the reports totally, you are kind of flying blind or more blindly than you need to be .
Sales & Marketing Tools
Everything in SEO comes down to balancing risk vs rewards. It is easy to show a short term boost while leveraging up on risk, but showing sustained performance is much harder. Snake oil salesmen *always* have a smooth sales pitch (along with ranking reports for search engines nobody uses, and some go so far as faking traffic to websites using click bots). The more lenses you can provide your clients of value delivered the more you differentiate from those who are playing games of deception.
A client may view an SEO as incompetent simply because Google changes the rules of the game mid-stream. From month to month search can change in ways that seem both uncontrollable and unpredictable. Nothing kills sales like the words "I don't know." The more answers you can deliver the more confidence clients will have in maintaining & growing their investment in search, even if things are a bit unstable in the short run.
Ranking reports are further evidence of proof-of-value delivered. They help take something fuzzy and make it feel more concrete, helping you show the client not only that you are pushing to build relevant traffic, and serving as a baseline to help clients see how they are doing. If the client knows they are at #3 with a $5,000 monthly budget they can easily see the value of increasing the budget to $10,000 to boost their ranking to #1.
Take it One Step Further With Analytics
Let's say you are starting to see all these keyword variations in your analytics for a core term you are targeting. Here's where you can (again) use analytics and ranking reports together:
The ranking tools mentioned also offer ongoing rank reporting as do the tools from Raven, SeoMoz, and Authority Labs (incidentally, Raven will be using Authority Labs's API for ranking data in the near future as mentioned in the Raven link above).
Now you've got a bunch of new keywords you are already getting some traffic from, along with some predictions on what the potential increase in traffic (and conversions if you have that data from your analytics) might be.
Factoring in Universal & Local Search
Advanced Web Ranking has some interesting features which let you change up the location so you can better track those kinds of results. Google continues to take up SERP real estate so sometimes you run in to situations where you might be ranking #2 for a core keyword but given maps, news, images, and products you could be "ranking" as low as 6 given the SERP layout.
This is another situation where you can use your ranking reports and analytics together to get the most out of an SEO campaign. Perhaps you are not getting traffic, or as much as you though given your research, but you are ranking #2 according to your reports. Using ranking reports and traffic numbers together can help you determine whether to continue pursuing that keyword or maybe use some different strategies (PPC, trying to get into the "universal" search results, etc) to win back the traffic you've lost to universal search.
It's the same premise with local. Can you reasonable expect to rank in whatever position(s) are above the map? Can you get into the map? Is PPC viable for your campaign? Rarely is it useful to go off of one data point. This is another example of how to you use multiple data points together, to more appropriately manage your or your client's SEO campaign.
It's Against Google's Guidelines!
This is absurd in my opinion, more so when it's stated by folks who sell SEO services. If you offer SEO services (which ironically promote the idea of increased rankings and visibility) and those services encompass "Link Building" then the "Google Guideline" stance is hypocritical.
In all fairness, I happen to think that the broad way Google encompasses link schemes is equally absurd (links intended to manipulate PageRank and such). Even Google recognizes the value in ranking data and they have incorporated it into Webmaster Tools.
Not a Singular Solution for Success
Ranking reports shouldn't be used as a single source of success, at all. Simply ranking for a term is not something one should be shooting for unless you are just doing some kind of testing run on tactics.
There is value in running ranking reports and using them in conjunction with your analytics, keyword research, and SEO planning. They are also useful to watch growth patterns of competitors and keyword trends over time for a particular market you might be interested in.
In today's SEO game you can never have enough useful data :)
Majestic SEO has long had great link data, but their biggest issue has been usability. They sorta built with the approach of "let's give them everything" as a default, and then allowed advanced filtering to be done over the top to generate custom reports.
For advanced users this type of set up is ideal, because you are able to slice and dice it in many ways on your own terms. It allows you to spot nepotistic networks, pinpoint strategies quickly, and generally just give you a good look at what is going on in ways that wouldn't be able to do if you couldn't get all the data in a table. There are so many valuable edge case uses that can't practically be put in a single interface while keeping usability high for the average use.
But for people newer to the SEO game & those looking for a quick source of data the level of options can be a bit overwhelming when compared against something like Open Site Explorer. A parallel analogy would be that when I want to spot check rankings real quick I rely on our rank checker, but if you want to have a variety of in-depth historical views then something like Advanced Web Ranking can be a quite helpful tool.
How much can you use the Majestic Site Explorer?
The system is designed for silver users and above. Silver subscribers can query upto 10 different domains an HOUR. Gold subscribers can query upto 30 different domains an hour and Platinum subscribers can query upto 100 different domains an hour. All levels are subject to fair use terms.
These allow you to view data on a sitewide basis, at the subdomain level, or drill down to individual pages.
Here is an example of a site level report
and if you wanted data down to the URL level, here is an overview of a top few links (note that the report goes on for numerous pages with data)
This update helped Majestic SEO close the gap a bit with Open Site Explorer, but a couple more things they may want to consider doing are
adding result crowding / limit results to x per domain
allowing you to filter out internal link data
Those features are available via their advanced reports, but making it easier to do some of that stuff in the "at a glance" interface would allow Majestic SEO to provide as a best in breed solution for both the "at a glance" function and the "in-depth deep research" options.
Majestic SEO also announced their new fresh index, which allows you to view fresh link data as recently as within the past day. It doesn't require waiting for a monthly update or such, but offers link data right away. To help spread the word & give everyone a chance to see some of the new features they gave us free discount voucher codes to give out to get a 20% discount on your first month at any level.
If you have any questions about how Majestic SEO works you can sign up & register your own site, which allows you to access many of their features free. As a comparison SEOmoz (which offers Open Site Explorer) is also running a free 1-month trial right now.
There are so many competitive research tools on the market. We reviewed some of the larger ones here but there are quite a few more on the market today.
The truth is that you can really get a lot of good, usable data to give you an idea of what the competition is likely to be by using free tools or the free version of paid tools.
Some of the competitive research tools out there (the paid ones) really are useful if you are going to scale way up with some of your SEO or PPC plans but many of the paid versions are overkill for a lot of webmasters.
Choosing Your Tools
Most tools come with the promises of “UNCOVERING YOUR COMPETITORS BEST _____".
That blank can be links, keywords, traffic sources, and so on. As we know, most competitive research tools are rough estimates at best and almost useless estimates at worst. Unless you get your hands on your competition’s analytics reports, you are still kind of best-guessing. In this example we are looking for the competitiveness of a core keyword.
Best-guessing really isn’t a bad thing so long as you realize that what you are doing is really triangulating data points and looking for patterns across different tools. Keep in mind many tools use Google’s data so you’ll want to try to reach beyond Google’s data points a bit and hit up places like:
The lure of competitive research is to get it done quickly and accurately. However, gauging the competition of a keyword or market can’t really be done with a push of the button as there are factors that come into play which a push-button tool cannot account for, such as:
how hard is the market to link build for?
is the vertical dominated by brands and thick EMD’s?
what is your available capital?
are the ranking sites knowledgeable about SEO or are they mostly ranking on brand authority/domain authority? (how tight is their site structure, how targeted is their content, etc)
is Google giving the competing sites a brand boost?
is Google integrating products, images, videos, local results, etc?
Other questions might be stuff like "how is Google Instant skewing this keyword marketplace" or "is Google firing a vertical search engine for these results (like local" or "is Google placing 3 AdWords ads at the top of the search results" or "is Google making inroads into the market" like they are with mortgage rates.
People don't search in an abstract mathematical world, but by using their fingers and eyes. Looking at the search results matters. Quite a bit of variables come into play which require some human intuition and common sense. A research tool is only as good as the person using it, you have to know what you are looking at & what to be aware of.
Getting the Job Done
In this example I decided to use the following tools:
So we are stipulating that you’ve already selected a keyword. In this case I picked a generic keyword for the purposes of going through how to use the tools. Plug your keyword into Google, flip on SEO for Firefox and off you go!
This is actually a good example of where a push button tool might bite the dust. You’ve got Related Search breadcrumbs at the top, Images in the #1 spot, Shopping in the #3 spot, and News (not pictured) in the #5 spot.
So wherever you thought you might rank, just move yourself down a 1-3 spots depending on where you would be in the SERPS. This can have a large effect on potential traffic and revenue so you’ll want to evaluate the SERP prior to jumping in.
You might decide that you need to shoot for 1 or 2 rather than top 3 or top 5 given all the other stuff Google is integrating into this results page. Or you might decide that the top spot is locked up and the #2 position is your only opportunity, making the risk to reward ratio much less appealing.
With SEO for Firefox you can quickly see important metrics like:
Yahoo! links to domain/page
Open Site Explorer and Majestic SEO link data
presence in strong directories
potential, estimated traffic value from SEM Rush
Close up of SEO for Firefox data:
Basically by looking at the results page you can see what other pieces of universal search you’ll be competing with, whether the home page or a sub-page is ranking, and whether you are competing with brands and/or strong EMD’s.
With SEO for Firefox you’ll see all of the above plus the domain age, domain links, page links, listings in major directories, position in other search engines, and so on. This will give you a good idea of potential competitiveness of this keyword for free and in about 5 seconds.
It is typically better & easier to measure the few smaller sites that managed to rank rather than measuring the larger authoritative domains. Why? Well...
Google's brand boost isn't something you can replicate if you are just starting out
analyzing smaller chunks of data is easier than analyzing huge sets of data
So now that you know how many links are pointing to that domain/page you’ll want to check how many unique domains are pointing in and what the anchor text looks like, in addition to what the quality of those links might be.
Due to its ease of use (in addition to the data being good) I like to use Open Site Explorer from SeoMoz in these cases of quick research. I will use their free service for this example, which requires no log in, and they are even more generous with data when you register for a free account.
The first thing I do is head over to the anchor text distribution of the site or page to see if the site/page is attracting links specific to the keyword I am researching:
What’s great here is you can see the top 5 instances of anchor text usage, how many total links are using that term, and how many unique domains are supplying those total links.
You can also see data relative to the potential quality of the entire link profile in addition to the ratio of total/unique domains linking in.
You probably won’t want or need to do this for every single keyword you decide to pursue. However, when looking at a new market, a potential core keyword, or if you are considering buying an exact match domain for a specific keyword you can accomplish a really good amount of competitive research on that keyword by using a couple free tools.
Types of Competitive Research
Competitive research is a broad term and can go in a bunch of different directions. As an example, when first entering a market you would likely start with some keyword research and move into analyzing the competition of those keywords before you decide to enter or fully enter the market.
As you move into bigger markets and start to do more enterprise-level competitive research specific to a domain, link profiles, or a broader market you might move into some paid tools.
Analysis paralysis is a major issue in SEO. Many times you might find that those enterprise-level tools really are overkill for what you might be trying to do initially. Gauging the competitiveness of a huge keyword or a lower volume keyword really doesn’t change based on the money you throw at a tool. The data is the data especially when you narrow down the research to a keyword, keywords, or domains.
Get the Data, Make a Decision
So with the tools we used here you are getting many of the key data points you need to decide whether pursuing the keyword or keywords you have chosen is right for you.
Some things the tools cannot tell you are questions we talked about before:
how much captial can you allocate to the project?
how hard are you willing to work?
do you have a network of contacts you can lean on for advice and assistance?
do you have enough patience to see the project through, especially if ranking will take a bit..can you wait on the revenue?
is creativity lacking in the market and can you fill that void or at least be better than what’s out there?
One of my favorite approaches to save time online is to use multiple web browsers for different purposes. It allows you to combine speed + reliability with also having quick access to tons of valuable tools & data.
I set up Firefox fully loaded with bookmarks and extensions (all our free & premium ones, User Agent Switcher, Web Developer, Greasemonkey, Roboform, Colorzilla), but realize that as a result it will often be a bit slower & crash more frequently. That is ok because I don't use it as my primary web browser, but as my primary SEO research browser with all our SEO tools installed. Other extensions like Web Developer and Greasemonkey make it an obvious choice to use it as your fully loaded research browser.
I run Google Chrome bare to the bone, with 0 extensions installed. One time I tried to install Roboform on it, but that slowed it down as well, so I got rid of that and keep it bare. The benefit of having a minimalistic browser is that it is quite stable & fast. In this way I can open up 20 tabs from our forums at any given time without worrying about it causing a crash. What is better is how good Google is at allowing you to restore tabs if things do crash. Chrome is my forums + email browser & my general purpose browser for anything I don't have to login to access & a few of the sites I am typically logged into (like this 1).
And while Firefox is my normal research & testing browser, Chrome also has a nice feature where you can highlight & right click to inspect an element. It tells you exactly what css file the property is in, and you can double click on it, adjust the size/color/etc within Chrome to see what it changes.
I also run IE9. It's purpose is to help give me a clean & pure localized view of search. It is set up to delete all cookies when it closes. I use it in conjunction with a VPN to compare how search results look in various parts of the world. It is another type of research, but it is not always-on the way that Firefox and Chrome are. Such a browser can also be handy for putting your computer in London for exclusive BBC content, or getting around other such geographic content-access limitations. I also have Roboform enabled on IE to allow me to log into client accounts easily if I want to ensure I keep those separate from my personal accounts.
I also have Opera installed & I use it for testing user permissions based issues. Some pages on our site here operate in a way that is far more sophisticated than they might look at a glance. Some pages may look different based on if you are not registered, logged in with a basic account, logged in with a premium account, or logged in as an administrator. When testing & tweaking that sort of stuff I can end up with 4 different browsers open. Over time after we get everything up and running I hope to improve further on this front, as we haven't done as much of the conditional permissions-based changes as I would like to do. But, first thing first, we need to get re-launched soon. ;)
And the final reason to have most modern browsers installed is to check out how your site looks in all of them. I would NEVER describe myself as a website design, but I am foolish enough to hack away at the CSS & HTML. Sometimes it works. Usually it doesn't. :)
Having all browsers available (well all of them except Safari) makes it easy to see if something works or not. That said, tools like Adobe Browser Lab and Browser Shots are a nice compliment to this approach. And we have Safari on my laptop, so if the design looks good elsewhere then generally it is typically good to go in Safari, so I check it last. If you use Safari as your primary browser LastPass is good.