I hate SEO tools, and yes that’s a double entendre. It seems harsh, but I do. Tools make many SEO’s lazy. Tools make many SEO’s look better than they are. Tools, are just that. Tools.
In truth, I don’t hate SEO tools. After all, I am the self proclaimed biggest fanboy of Raven Tools. That said, SEO tools have really been getting under my skin as of late. Or to be fair, SEO’s and their poor use of tools have been getting under my skin as of late. SEO tools, when used properly, can help save people and businesses a lot of time and money. They can help you to be more organized. They can help you to collect large sets of data, and most of all they can make you more efficient. But in the wrong hands, SEO tools can be dangerous. Unchecked or left in the hands of someone who doesn’t fully understand them can lead to misinterpreted data and major mistakes in an SEO strategy.
The Keyword Research Tool
In the nearly six years I have been doing SEO and internet marketing I have done my fair share of keyword research, and in that time I have used a vast array of keyword tools. Each tool uses their own data set and each tool offers its own set of strengths and weaknesses, but at the end of the day it is the responsibility of the user to take the keywords provided by the tool and identify if they are a proper fit for the website they are working on and ultimately the business they are doing work for.
I recently ran into some issues with another SEO, in which I was provided a rather extensive keyword list, clearly generated by an automated tool somewhere that took every possible related keyword under the sun and jammed it into a spreadsheet. To the untrained eye it looked impressive, it would lead many to believe a ton of work went into it, but as you dove deeper into the list you could tell it was nothing more than the output of a tool with no rhyme or reason to the provided list. The list featured terms blatantly unrelated to the business we were optimizing for, and worse yet it included fragmented keywords like, “Blue widgets for.” Blue widgets for what?
In this case the tool made the SEO more efficient. They were able to quickly compile a list of related keywords based off of initial topics or products from the client, but they failed to dissect the list further to ensure that a) the keywords in the list were relevant and b) the keywords in the list made sense for the content we were optimizing, or better yet were going to create.
The “We’ll Tell You If You’re Doing SEO Right” Tool
There are a billion of these out there. In the early days the one that always plagued me was Hubspot’s website grader. Snake oil SEO salesmen would always run these reports and hand them to clients and try and sell them on the fact that their site wasn’t W3C compliant or similar nonsense. But more recently I’ve run into issues with tools like Screaming Frog, or Yoast’s SEO for WordPress (both tools I use personally I might add.)
In the case of Screaming Frog I had a major content marketing company try and sell a client on all the SEO “problems” their site had. Using just the data from Screaming Frog and no further analysis they tried to report numerous website errors, duplicate content, duplicate meta tags and the like. However, upon further analysis many of the page errors were either temporary or an error of the tool. When we went back and spot checked many of the URL’s in question, they were working fine. The duplicate content and duplicate meta data was limited to category and tag pages on the blog, which had been properly optimized so as not to be indexed or a problem for SEO. In the end, the data from the tool painted a very negative picture for those less trained in SEO, but with a closer look it was easy to identify the what and why and realize things weren’t as dire as the tool made them out to be.
With Yoast’s SEO for WordPress, the most common problem I see is what I call “green light panic.” Over the years clients and other marketing people have tried to use the infamous “optimized” green dot as a means of saying if SEO is being done properly, but again without interpretation or understanding of the overall strategy there is no way for the tool to know if what you are doing is truly right for SEO.
For those of you unfamiliar with the plugin, Yoast has a feature that displays a little red, yellow, or green dot to designate how “optimized” a post is from an SEO standpoint. It’s a nice little guide if you want to get a general understanding of best practices and the like, but where it gets dangerous is in instances where you might want to deviate from those a bit. Let’s say for instance your title element uses one keyword and then you want to use a synonym as the H1, SEO for WordPress won’t see a keyword match for the “target” keyword and then may deliver a yellow dot instead of green. For some, this is so absolute that it leads them to believe that content isn’t being SEO’d and in most cases that simply isn’t the case. Again, these are used as guidelines, but nothing in SEO is absolute.
The Disavow Tool & “Bad Link” Tools
I’ve grouped these together because they have been partners in crime as of late thanks to Penguin paranoia. The disavow tool, which is available from both Google and Bing is a webmaster tools feature that allows webmasters to notify the search engines of links they wish to disavow, or not receive credit for because they may be of poor quality or may have been obtained in ways that are against the search engine’s quality guidelines. At face value it seems like a great tool, but thanks to strict link updates like Google’s Penguin many SEO’s are using this tool improperly, or worse yet using it as a threat against webmasters.
The disavow tool is great in instances where webmasters know they engaged in spammy link tactics and have either been penalized, or are looking to be proactive in their efforts to disavow links they know were obtained using spammy practices. Unfortunately, the tool is now being used by many SEO’s to simply disavow any and every link that looks like it may be of lower quality, which brings us to our next set of tools.
Following Google’s Penguin update a number of new tools hit the market to help webmasters and SEO’s identify “bad” or “toxic” links in their backlink profiles. I had a recent run in with such a tool, again with another SEO, and again the end result was a report of nothing but output with not other thought to what might be included in this list of “bad links.”
As I looked a bit closer at the report I began to pick out a number of links that were being deemed as low quality, but were of high value. In this particular case they were high value because of their significance from a local SEO standpoint. The links were directory links, however they happened to be within a directory on a local newspaper website and also included valuable local citation data along with the link. Had this gone unchecked the client would have gone out to do link cleanup and may have inadvertently had a negative impact on their local SEO.
Ultimately the “bad link” tools and disavow tools have great uses, but its important to be mindful of what you are doing with the tools. If your site has not been penalized or received a warning for unnatural links and you haven’t engaged in spammy link building practices in the past, how do you know that any of the “bad links” in your backlink profile are actually worth stressing over? Chances are most of your low quality links in your profile are already being dampened by the search algorithms, but unfortunately many SEO’s and webmasters are being told by tools that they need to go out and remove all their backlinks or disavow them or Google is going to get them.
As Rae Hoffman so elegantly put it in a similar piece in her recent newsletter, “Calculators are nice, but they shouldn’t be depended on in place of actually learning how to do math. Especially when this game that we all love to play relies heavily on being able to discern connections, relationships, intent and the correlation between data.”
By all means, use tools, that’s what they are there for. But don’t stop at the output of a tool. Take what the tool has given you and then apply your knowledge, expertise, and analysis and make sure that what you are getting is relevant and accurate based on the variables that a tool will not have access to. In the end it will make you a better SEO and lead to better decision making.