Why I Hate SEO Tools

May 30th, 2013 by

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

One Does Not Simply Disavow A LinkI’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.

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11 Responses to “Why I Hate SEO Tools”

  1. I have to admit, I came here expecting to disagree. I LOVE SEO tools so hate for tools seemed crazy to me – but you’re right. It’s not the tools you (or I) hate but what people can do without thinking.

    Two months ago I had a client find Annie Cushing’s SEO tool list. (“OH NOES!”) “What does this tool say about us? How could this tool improve our SEO? Should we be using this? What do you use that does these things?”

    I’m going to go sit in a corner and sob for a bit. Don’t mind me. Good article – very true points.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks Matt. Yeah, tools make our jobs easier at times, but they also make them harder at times. With SEO there is so much room for interpretation and a lot of times with tools they make SEO practices black and white. When clients, or inexperienced SEO’s get their hands on them they try to hard to stay within the lines laid out by the tools and oftentimes that’s not what’s best for the tool.

      When I initially posted this article Darren Shaw had commented to me on Twitter about how Yoast’s SEO tool actually had a tendency to cause his clients to keyword stuff the heck out of blog posts to appease the tool’s grading system. Used properly tools are great, but users need to be aware of how to best utilize the tools and the information they offer.

    • “What does that say about us?” Really? It’s like you’re suggesting I’m selling drugs to children.

      Although there are some salient points to the posts about why people hate tools (but then say that they don’t *really* hate tools), along with the raging statements of the obvious they state to support their position, the reality is as long as a practitioner of any kind has a job to do s/he will need adequate tools for the job. I think marketers think that every new thing they focus on is new universally, but this practice has actually endured since the beginning of time.

      Pick the tools you need to do your job, but don’t insult someone who does a service to the community by compiling them in one place to make marketers’ jobs a little easier.

      The insidious reference Matt’s referencing: http://www.annielytics.com/hundreds-of-tools-for-marketers/.

      • Mike says:

        Annie, I don’t think Matt was talking down on your list. I think he was just giving examples of things his clients asked or said as a result of all the things his clients may or may not have interpreted from the tools within your list. I personally loved the list you compiled and have used it as a point of reference a number of times when trying to find alternatives to SEO tools that I use on a regular basis.

        As I tried to point out in my post. Tools are not the problem, its all in how people use them. Tools do make our jobs easier, that’s what they’re for, but tools in the wrong hands can be damaging to SEO and to a clients bottom line.

        • I just don’t think our reaction to a client finding a list of tools to be “OH NOES!” It’s a good thing when clients try to educate themselves. I mean if a surgeon complained about all the tools s/he had to learn to use to do their job effectively, we’d find that laughable. Or a pilot. Or a NASA engineer. I just think topics like this speak to how naive marketers (online marketers in particular) can be.

          • Mike says:

            While I get your point and I obviously can’t speak on behalf of Matt in regards to his reaction. I can definitely see where Matt is coming from. Client education is definitely a good thing and if they want to use those tools to help better their internet marketing efforts then more power to them. That said, using your surgeon example, if I went and bought myself a surgical tool set today and played with them a little bit I definitely wouldn’t be ready to go out and perform surgery on someone. It’s the same for many clients. They see the output from a tool and take it at face value or make decisions off what little knowledge they have of the subject matter without being the expert in the field.

            It’s like in my examples above with the toxic link tool. Someone ran it, sent a list over and didn’t look any deeper to realize that they were trying to remove content that was beneficial to local SEO simply because it was a directory type listing. They understood what the tool did, but failed to take it a step further to use their best judgement. Use tools, experiment with tools, educate yourself with tools, yes. But people can’t assume that because they posses the tool they are prepared to effectively complete a task with it.

            You can give me a scalpel, and I know it’s job is to make in incision for surgery, but I guarantee you the way I would perform a surgery versus that of a trained professional with the same tool would be greatly different.

  2. A few years ago, I had a gall bladder attack that landed me in the hospital. The nurse told me that my doctor would be Surgeon So and So. It was obvious that it had already been decided that they were going to remove my gall bladder. So I did some research to see how they determine if a gall bladder needs to be removed. When the surgeon came into my room later that day told me I would be having surgery in the morning to have it removed, I asked about the test I read about to see if it’s diseased. He agreed to run it, and the test showed that my gall bladder wasn’t diseased and was operating at 87% efficiency. Unnecessary surgery averted.

    Was the doctor irritated when I asked him about it? Very. I’m sure he would have loved to write a post about why he hates webmd.com. But the reality is he was rushing into something that would have had long-term implications for me, so I had the right (and responsibility) to do my due diligence.

    Our clients have that same right. He could have turned out to be right, and my questioning would have still been valid, even though not appreciated. Did I have the tools or training to make a decision? No. There was no question who was more qualified to make the decision. But at the end of the day, it’s my body, and I had more to lose if he was wrong.

    Same with clients. If we fail as vendors, we call it a learning experience and move on. Maybe talk about what we learned at a conference. They’re the ones who potentially lose bonuses, homes, savings, retirement, etc. So if they’re being a pain in the ass and asking too many questions about things they don’t understand, it’s often because they have a lot more at stake.

  3. SCOTT KRAGER says:

    Nice post Mike. Tools are only as good as the brain holding them. Any sort of large-scale, machine driven SEO recommendation (don’t get me started on Hubspot’s “grader”) are 90% bunk. I like to think of SEO for a website a bit like personal finance….what is right for one person/site, might be terrible for another. So applying one rule for all websites, like most automated tools do, ends up with a lot of terrible or meaningless recommendations.

    SEO is a combination of art & science. Tools can help with the science part, but you need a great artist to put it all together.

    That and ton of hard work.

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