If there is a topic that I know anything about, it’s rank tracking and SEO tools.
Being the former CMO of an SEO tool platform (Rank Ranger), I have some idea about the inner-workings of what goes into them.
One of the best parts of my former job was being able to help create new reports and tools to meet the needs of a changing industry.
The tools are great.
SEO data and reporting has come a long way in the past few years.
Still, there are a few things you should know about SEO tools before you decide to pay for one (because they can be costly).
What follows are five things you should consider before opening your wallet and subscribing to an SEO tool.
1. Ask for a Demo of the Product
Even if you’re a seasoned SEO pro who has used countless tools, the demo is invaluable.
SEO platforms have a problem.
They have tons of reports and tools and whatnot (at least they should) and that makes it hard to offer an intuitive UI.
Worse, it makes it hard to discover all of the tools that the platform sports.
It’s a nightmare.
Take it from me, it’s not a “fun” problem to try to solve.
How do you organize everything you offer in an intuitive way that also lends to discoverability?
To be honest, I think this is a problem all tools of this nature have.
Even though it may seem “simple,” it’s really hard to balance.
Which is precisely why I recommend taking the time to sit in on a demo.
More than that, any given tool within a platform can have a number of options that you may not even be aware of.
So if you see a specific tool or report you like, or that’s especially relevant to you, dive into it with the company rep.
I’m telling you, there may be gems you would have never even noticed before that can really help you customize the tool to your needs.
On that, you have to realize that you are in control of the demo, at least you should be.
Most account managers who show you around the tool have absolutely no idea what you want to know.
They’ve done tons of demos and have a general presentation flow that will most likely not be very helpful, it’s too general (to no fault of their own).
You have to take the lead by showing the company’s rep exactly what you want.
Just signing up for a demo and asking to be shown around will often be a waste of time.
We all use tools and can play around with a free trial ourselves.
The demo is only helpful in:
- Uncovering what you can’t see at first glance.
- Seeing how the platform can be tailored to meet your needs.
Ask the rep to show you some tools that most people don’t know about (I’m sure they’ll have a mental list of tools/reports that they wished more people knew about).
Give them a real-world scenario and see how the tool can be customized to meet your needs.
2. Don’t Always Take the Metrics SEO Tools Offer at Face Value
The amount of data most SEO platforms offer is almost unbelievable.
Perhaps too good to be true (and in many ways it is … I’ll get to that).
Don’t get caught up in how much there is.
Rather, dive into the nitty-gritty of what the most important metrics mean.
Take rank tracking.
The rank you see in a rank tracker is not your rank for any given search at any given time in any given location.
That’s not how it works and no rank tracker (at least that I know of) makes that claim.
Ask what the metrics mean (and in this case, pro tip, ask on a per search engine basis if Google is not the only SERP important to you).
Obviously, no tool provider is going to release their secret sauce.
But they should give you a general overview of how they go about concretizing their metrics.
This ambiguous metric can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different tool providers.
It’s not like there’s some advisory board out there defining the metrics used (and in what proportion).
Don’t make assumptions.
- Are there data or insights that a tool pulls in that are super important to you?
- Where are they pulling this data from?
- If it’s the SERP itself (as it often is) how far down the rabbit hole are they going?
- Does the data/insight you’re getting speak to just page 1 of the SERP or are you getting information that applies to the top 100 results?
Sometimes you want that depth and sometimes you don’t.
If you don’t, can you filter it?
(That sort of thing.)
Are SERP features important to you?
Does the tool show you information on “images” on the SERP?
Well, there are a lot of image-centric features on the SERP – are they all included when the tool lists “images?”
Does that formula work for you and your needs?
Understand what you are looking at.
Collecting this sort of data is really complex. And again there is no set of standards to follow.
It can take a serious amount of deliberation (and coffee … or beer) to decide on how to construct a certain dataset or what to include or not include within a certain “score” or metric.
It’s not magic and the end result may or may not work for you (and that’s OK, too).
To that, understand that the data you’re getting back is not absolute.
The “numbers” you see in a tool are not the exact “numbers” in reality.
I think we’re starting to get that point when it comes to things like search volume (thank you, Jumpshot).
However, it applies to a lot more than that.
Take the data for what it is.
3. Don’t Get Caught up in All the Shiny Graphs
You should know, there is a certain degree of repetition in a lot of the tools (even the good ones).
This repetition often takes the shape of a wonderfully designed graph, that you probably saw elsewhere in the platform, but just didn’t realize it.
And yes, a tool will put a relatively meaningless graph or widget up at the top of the report to make it look more appealing.
Don’t get baited here.
For the record, I am not saying that tools do this nefariously.
They’re just trying to meet certain user demands for a visually appealing platform.
This does – at times – result in a given tool/report getting a relatively meaningless (but very well-designed) graphic element tacked on.
These elements often repeat themselves in various forms.
A given graphic element may show up as a pie chart in one report and a bar graph on another, or perhaps the always chic stacked columns graph, etc.
Similarly, you can have reports or tools that pretty much tell you the same thing just from a slightly different perspective.
Again, not nefarious.
It could just be the tool provider updated and improved upon a report but didn’t want to shelve the old one because a lot of clients use it and wouldn’t appreciate being migrated over to something new.
This is just how it often is, and it’s just a natural evolution for a lot of these platforms.
Still, be cautious.
Don’t get too caught up in the shiny bells and whistles.
You’re there for data and actionable insights, not artwork.
(This is not to say visual elements are not an important part of the equation, that’s not my point here.)
4. Make Sure You Can Get the Customization & Development You Want
Know what you will need to have created just for you.
No tool or platform is going to fit like a glove.
If you’re working with a sizable amount of keywords or sites or whatnot, you’re most likely going to need some custom development, even if you don’t at the onset.
Obviously, the best scenario is where you know what customization you’ll need upfront.
However, you often throw a bunch of sites and keywords into a tool, get the data back, and think to yourself, “this is not going to work.”
I’ve seen it happen countless times.
It’s no one’s fault.
It’s just the nature of things.
What you thought was a manageable amount of data to sift through might not be in the end.
Knowing how malleable a software solution is, is a point we don’t talk enough about when discussing choosing an SEO tool.
You want to get a sense walking in of what kinds of things are subject to customization, how the process works (from here you might get an idea of how long things will take), etc.
Personally, I would ask to be shown some current aspects of the platform that have come from custom development requests.
Without an actual dev request, it’s going to be hard to know what can and can’t be done.
The best you might be able to do is get a sense of what customization means to the platform.
Is it about research, is it about reformatting data, or is it about developing new tools/reports/options for you?
5. Ensure You Can Easily Move Your Data
Every tool will tell you that you can export this and that (and the Brooklyn Bridge) – well they should (and usually can).
The devil here is in the details, and it’s important.
Look, hopefully, you’ll be happy with whatever tool you choose from now until the end of time.
But sometimes, you need to move on (or you need multiple tools).
A tool can change, your situation can change, and it’s worthwhile to consider this possibility at the onset.
This means investigating how difficult certain platforms make the data transfer process.
So while every tool will allow you to export your data (if they don’t – run) they may not make the process anywhere near easy.
(And if they don’t, what does that really say about them?)
It is possible for a tool to make the file of data you export clumsy and hard to work with (as some of my former colleagues would often complain about – just in case you thought I was making this stuff up).
During the trial period, check to see if the CSV files you export have fields that look pretty normal and are structured in an easy-to-digest format.
In other words, if the CSV file looks complex and awkwardly presented to you, it will look that way to whatever new platform you move to as well.
It may make for some awkward conversation, but it’s worth bringing up the topic of not just exporting your data, but the universality of it, so that it can be easily uploaded to another provider.
The Inside Scoop
It’s really easy to look at what an SEO tool has to offer and feel like you “get it.”
But SEO tools are like Transformers, there’s more than meets the eye (that was too easy).
The best thing you can do is demo the product and walk in knowing exactly what you want out of that platform.
You’ll never have a complete understanding of the platform (nor should you) but at least this way you get information that actually scratches the surface.