Hi, I'm "Penguin" Pete Trbovich, and you overthink SEO!
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has been oversold for decades as the easy road to riches, subject to every snake oil tonic shuckster to roll into town. You shouldn't believe most posts about "best SEO tools," because they're usually trying to sell you something they make, and it's not the best.
Except you can believe this post, because it's selling nothing. In fact, most of these tools are free or at least "freemium." It's getting no kickbacks, no commissions, just expert advice from an industry veteran.
In previous posts, I've covered top SEO keyword practices that actually work, and the top SEO tactics that have nothing to do with keywords. If you follow that advice and especially take advantage of the resources I link to, you don't really need many tools in the first place.
But, for what it's worth, we'll go over the toolset of apps and online services which you should consider the essential minimum. This doesn't mean you need to dwell in them (except for the first obvious one), but just check in once in a while to check up on how you're doing. Double this as a content marketer's toolbox, something to be familiar with if you're serious about this industry.
Essential SEO Toolbox
Ready for the first big obvious one? It's…
Obviously, to publish marketing content on the web, you need a Content Management System (CMS).
WordPress is the overwhelming definitive CMS platform. 33.6% of the top 10 million websites use WordPress, that's how overwhelming it is. There just isn't any second place. Blogs are WordPress, end of the story.
Even if you're a rebel and want to break out on your own, you'll be driven back to WordPress. If you hire any freelancers to help with your blog, they will usually only know WordPress. WordPress gets all the development energy and marketer focus.
For the sake of showing we tried to recommend contenders, Joomla and Drupal are similar CMSs to WordPress while also offering ridiculously complex extra features that no content marketer would be remotely interested in. So, it's WordPress.
It is free and open-source, provided on tap by most web hosting providers. Some web hosts also offer managed WordPress hosting, which you should get unless you're a web tech wizard. Hosting a WordPress site costs a few dollars a month, coffee money. Once you set up, posting to WordPress is as easy as yelling at people on Facebook. We're done here.
One note: If you get an up-to-date WordPress, install the classic editor to make the interface make sense again. Everybody hates the new Gutenberg block-based editor and WordPress developers need to be aware that everyone refuses to use it. The Gutenberg editor is one of the worst features since Microsoft Bob.
Normally I'm plug-in agnostic or at least ascetic. In my freelance business, most of the clients I work for want me to manage WordPress for them and when I log in, I see a huge snarl of installed plug-ins, redundant and unused.
Most WordPress site owners have too many plug-ins, which are what I'm getting at.
But Yoast is essential. It comes in a premium version which I've never tried. The free install, however, is useful even outside SEO, because it's like installing the other half of the WordPress dashboard and editor.
Yoast adds things like an easy to edit snippet generator, an alt-text space at the top of your window when you upload an image and dozens of other useful little drawers. These features all funnel your effort towards the best SEO habits that you should be doing anyway.
SEO-wise, Yoast does add *some* guidance for best SEO text practices. But it's not to be taken with less than two grains of salt.
You can safely ignore Yoast's recommendation for things like grammar and reading level; AI grammar parsing is years away from competence. Yoast also tends to recommend just a tad more keyword stuffing than is healthy. But there are other hints in Yoast that are at least a good metric for evaluating your text's SEO health.
Just as I've stressed the advice of Google itself as an obvious resource, Google also makes a nice SEO tool for webmasters. Google Search Console is just an analytic tool.
It will let you optimize your site for maximum Google compliance, spot errors with accessibility, and generally is the first defense against webmaster errors. Think of it as a debugger for your web domain. That part works great (perhaps a little too great) as it will be fast to flag any tiny issue with your site at all.
As a search trend tracker, Google Search Console is not actually that great. It is the absolute bare-bones minimum in features, against many more rich detailed tools we'll be exploring later. But for what it does and is a completely free tool offered by Google itself, not much can go wrong using it.
As for Google Analytics, it's also free to use. Analytics is a far more detailed tracker that measures all the site visitor metrics like bounce rate and traffic sources and whatnot. It is not as important for SEO, but it is still important in terms of the general usability of your site.
Analytics is nearly identical to other free webmaster tracking apps like AWStats or Webalizer, so don't get too excited here. Your cPanel probably has three overlooked options to replace Google Analytics already.
One more Google tool that's worth mentioning is Google Trends. It's a long-standing portal that's been forgotten by the wayside lately but is still worth visiting once in a while just to keep a finger on the pulse of web search traffic. Pick up on a popular topic or analyze whether a niche market is worth exploiting.
We have reached the domain of keyword analysis tools. There are many like this on the web. They're free SaaS applets letting you paste in text and see the results. Live Keyword Analysis couldn't be simpler: Enter keywords, enter text, and it tells you the percentages. Just barely worth mentioning to see how natural your text is without overloading the target terms, but for a free service that takes a second, there's no downside.
As you can tell from the screenshot this is a "freemium" SaaS app, but even the free preview gives you results that are somewhat useful. Feed it any term, and it shoots out a list of related common keywords.
KeywordTool.io has tabs for searching Google, Bing, Twitter, Amazon, and more, and a few more features for free. It can do things like finding related hashtags on Instagram. We're listing these freebie tools all quick to build up to the more powerful, but paid, tool to come…
Sometimes being a good SEO content creator and being a good author are the same thing. Gosh really?
To that end, when you're stuck for a word but know the definition, One Look Thesaurus is a hybrid thesaurus that also coughs up related terms, or works from a word's definition in crossword-puzzle-clue fashion.
The range of keywords is very broad as you can see from this screenshot. But type in "amusement park" and it will bring up synonyms ("theme park, fairground"), proper nouns ("Disneyworld, Coney Island"), and related terms ("Ferris wheel, funhouse").
It also has tabs for finding applicable verbs, adjectives, and other parts of speech. In this way, you get an overview of a topic's field for discussing it naturally and mining keyword stems. Snappy and useful just for generating inspiration.
One of the best free online services out there, Similar Web is like a mini one-stop site metrics analysis.
It has a free online version with some quick stats, and has a premium version as well. Just be advised, the free online version pulls up nothing for small websites. But it is still useful for checking out a large competitor or your own site if it's already got some traction - traffic stats, top search terms, and website focus. It also has a Firefox extension toolbar, if you're into that sort of thing.
We've reached the big kahuna! SEMRush is not free at all. It is paid, and the subscription is a hefty $99 / month subscription to start.
However, if you're the kind to say "you get what you pay for" and you're looking for the best value per dollar, SEMRush is on a whole other level of Internet marketing insight. This is an entire suite of tools you can use to analyze websites, keywords, search trends, competitors, comparisons, topics, and so on.
SEMRush is practically an operating system on its own. It's a complete command center where you can study keyword metrics, plot campaigns, troubleshoot your site, track your search ranking for terms, analyze backlinks, and much more.
You'll spend a lot of time fiddling with it, it's kind of fun. It won't be worth the price for a single-website user, but for serious eCommerce entrepreneurs, it's almost necessary.
With that said, there isn't too much you'll use in SEMRush that you won't be able to do in other, free tools, including Google webmaster offerings if you knit them together piecemeal and perhaps pop open a spreadsheet yourself.
It's just that SEMRush is from the generation of SaaS luxury data analysis. Having instant answers at your fingertips helps a lot with marketing.
Whew! That was a lot of analysis!
Given the above tools, regardless if you stick to the freebies or pay for the premiums, you should have plenty of research to do.
You can spend a lot of time fiddling with keywords and analyzing the market, but be sure not to fall into the rabbit hole of analysis paralysis. At the end of the day, you still win the traffic game just by blabbing about stuff to get search engines to find you when people search for that stuff.
So simple, and yet so complex. Isn't it beautiful?