It’s certainly possible to do SEO using only free tools and doing certain types of research manually. I did for years, and I know a lot of small businesses that have, as well.

What (paid) SEO tools are really bringing to the table for you are two things:

  1. Higher efficiency: Having clear insight into search trends and what top-ranking sites for those things have done makes every tweak, adjustment, or new piece of content you do more efficient.
  2. Greater clarity: Some facets of SEO pretty much require keen data to do effectively. Targeted link building, for instance, often begins by reviewing the link profiles of competitors, and that’s extremely time-consuming to do manually. Pro tools produce actionable data within minutes, and you can use that data to directly influence your priorities. Often that analysis will lead to plans you never would’ve made otherwise, and those are often the plans that move the needle.

In this post I’ll go over high bang-for-buck free tools I have used, as well as delving further into paid ones with which I’ve found the most value.

The most valuable free SEO tool is, in my opinion, Google Search Console. Here’s Why.

Google Analytics has its place, but those numbers often involve fluff from bot traffic or someone hijacking your Analytics ID, and without advanced filtering can really skew the reports. As of writing this, the filters pros used to recommend to remove this fluff were only available pre-GA4.

Google Search Console’s “Performance” tab provides a lot of actionable information for free.

Most importantly, these aren’t theoretical numbers.

Keyword research tools are making educated guesses, and sometimes those guesses are dead wrong. (I once wrote a blog post on a topic that research tools insisted had zero search volume, and the post quickly started bringing in 300-600 views per month for over a year.)

GSC numbers are straight from Google. Here’s how I use the data there.

Sort by average ranking lowest to highest, and then observe impressions.

Gaining insight from Google Search Console's performance tab

This will show you keyword queries you already rank for. In a lot of cases you’ll get a lot of value by looking at all queries where you rank between 7-20.

Why this range?

Rankings in the top 5 are super competitive and can take a lot of work to move. If you’re looking for quick wins, queries where you rank just beyond the first cluster tell you something important: Google already likes your content enough to rank it fairly well, big picture. It’s far easier to optimize that ranking content further to nudge those rankings up even higher than to target queries you have little to no ranking for.

Once you’re looking at this rank, observe the impressions numbers for each. Impressions are each time your site showed up in the results for that query, whether it was clicked on or not.

What impressions primarily tells us here is that we know at least that many people were actually searching for that query. It’s not a theoretical number.

This helps create some priorities.

Some queries in the 7-20 range may have less than 30 impressions, while others could have hundreds (or more).

When you’d prioritize lower impression queries:

These won’t amp your traffic as quickly to target, but they also tend to be specific needs/questions that probably aren’t well answered.

These are opportunities to show expertise, and you may not need volume if highly motivated searchers like your answer enough to take action.

Building a bunch of ranking wins for low volume queries can elevate your whole website’s authority, which can make going after tougher queries easier later on.

Some of these lower impression queries may be branded searches — queries involving your brand name specifically. You definitely want to dominate these.

When you’d prioritize higher impression queries:

Queries directly related to your primary service are worth going after even if they are highly competitive. If you already have middling rankings for these queries, chances are you can slide toward the top 5 by doing things like:

  • Running a page audit to dial in the content in accordance with phrasing variations top-ranking competitors are using.
  • Adding more unique images to help illustrate your points.
  • Deepening the expertise displayed on the site by creating more content that answers questions related to the high-impression search time, and link that content to your “money page”.

When your site has amassed some authority you can leverage that to go after more aggressive goals.

Paid tools like Surfer SEO give you data-driven, actionable reporting.

Even when you can come up with keyword segments with other tools, distilling the brass tacks of what the top-ranking websites are for those keywords, and what they’ve done on their pages, is very effective.

Trouble is, the way to make those level of observations at scale is very time consuming to do manually. (Content gap analysis.)

Paid tools like Surfer SEO or Ahrefs can do that kind of analysis in a few minutes, and give you a breakdown of contextual phrases those sites have used that you haven’t and more. These tools take an overwhelming amount of info and make it quickly digestible.

I’ve found a lot of value in spending time improving existing content, even old blog posts, using these types of data.

Especially for sites that already have more than 20-30 blog posts. Long term we definitely want more posts than that, but some months there’s more value in further optimizing current material than putting the time into yet another blog article, for instance.

I’ve seen client sites plateau after a while, and certain tactics were no longer effective in breaking those rankings past where they’d settled, like #5-8. After doing audits and other analysis and improving core pages, in many of those cases I broke the plateau and shifted up a couple more ranks.

Surfer also has a much more sophisticated SEO Content Editor tool than a lot of people see with Yoast SEO, for instance. You can work with a batch of suggestions as you write initially.

Tell it what you’re hoping to rank for with the piece, and it will guide some of your word choices and help you key in on the best areas to place some of them. Even an experienced SEO writer can benefit from this, because even if you have a good sense of general optimization to employ while writing you simply can’t know all the LSI (AI language models) and contextual phrasing Google is looking for on your own.

This tool is another time-saver. The guidance can help you write the article itself faster, and you won’t have to double back and do an audit on it right away because you’re publishing it with a polished degree of optimization.

Further reading:

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If you’re looking for some personalized tactics for your website goals, consider 1:1 consulting. We can meet via phone, Zoom, or Google Meet and go over your site, what you’ve tried, and where the highest value moves are.

Get the info you need without paying for a whole campaign — ideal for business owners willing to put in the work with the right strategy.