Many SEOs, especially those that don’t work at marketing agencies or companies, are confronted by the challenge of not wanting to pay for expensive SEO tools that have become the industry standard.
There are ways to get around this using free tools and free trials. But the longer I work longer in SEO, the more I come to realize that SEO
is awash in so many tools that aren’t fundamentally needed. They simply gather information you could get yourself and provide far too more data than you really need.
I’m often a purist at heart, which I why I have decided to put together a blog about how to perform great SEO using only Google searches and a spreadsheet. Google is the most powerful SEO tool and I feel that SEOs like myself are being lead into an overdependence on tools. We have forgotten our roots.
Sure, this data mining can be more labour intensive than getting everything you need from a tool. But this effort often pays dividends in additional information and the knowledge you acquire for how search engines work.
Backlink tools are certainly valuable and I don’t mean to suggest that they should not be used. But in reality you can get a lot of information about how many sites are linking from cached pages simply by using Google.
Your approach will depend on the size of a website you are targeting. If you are targeting fellow SEOs, Googling the exact URL to check for directory links or the business name using “” can yield a lot of valuable insight. Best of all, Google will rank these links according to value, so literally the cream rises to the top. Googling the exact URL is also good way to find directory links.
Whenever using this method, it is important to verify that there is actually a link on the page and not a brand reference. Simply go into the page source by right clicking on the screen and selecting page source. You can also export all of these results into a spreadsheet, which then makes it easier to manipulate the data on a larger scale.
What you won’t be able to find using this message is linked article references, especially if the author is linking to a piece of content. This is the one aspect that Google does not give away, at least to my knowledge. There’s apparently a great way to discover your competitors backlinks using Yahoo. I haven’t been able to get it to work myself, but it’s worth a test. Simply type linkdomain:http://www… into the search bar and you will get a result with all backlinks discovered by Yahoo.
Prospecting for Links
I have used a paid tool like link prospector to help me find sites and I have to say I am disappointed with them. Ultimately, I believe that the best approach to finding websites is brainstorming in front of Google and doing additional information on industries.
The “” (exact match function) is very powerful for this. Using the exact match “write for us” or “submit your site” plus an industry or other related keyword you want to target can yield a huge amount of useful results.
Whenever doing this method, you want to make sure that the site you have found caches any page with outbound links. You do so by putting cache: + URL of any page you want to check. If it not cached by Google, then you will get a 404 error and this link has no value for your site as Google does not know it exists.
You likely saw this one coming. At work I use a tool like Nightwatch to give me daily ranking updates and while ultimately you will one day want to switch to a tool, there is something to be said for checking keyword data manually as I do for this website.
You can see the results of all of your competitors and track them if you so desire. I would recommend gathering keyword data once a week. This is frequently enough that you can follow trends and see the impact of any particular activity without being too labour intensive. An additional benefit of this approach is the ranking data is usually more accurate.
It’s important to use igcognito mode when doing this kind of data mining. That’s because you don’t want Google to use your previous browsing habits to impact your results.
Of all the SEO tools, this is the one I would miss the most of. I have personal access to a keyword planner account, meaning I can perform keyword research for myself and clients without breaching my employment contract. There is just no substitute for getting search volume data and no way to get it from Google.
However, there are other ways to find keywords to target. If you are looking for keywords related to your industry, finding your top ranking competitors or a client’s and then targeting those can work well. Again, make sure you a thorough analysis. Just because one website is targeting a keyword doesn’t mean it’s a good one. But if enough are, then you have likely found what you were looking for.
Once you have found a few that you like, I give you permission to use a keyword tool like Moz, which allows for two free searches a day. You just want to get some data that will allow you to make a decision with regards to search volume.
When you are looking at competitors, there are few critically pieces of information you need. You need to see how they are ranking for their targeted keywords, the overall web presence, and signs that their website is performing well with regards to on-page metrics.
Targeted keywords is by pulling ranking data, which you are already tracking. Just a clear cross section of the performance of their top pages by looking at the keywords they are targeting can provide a lot of valuable information.
The overall web presence is variation of domain authority that I have created. Ultimately, since domain authority is an arbitrary score generated by a software, I can look at a few factors and create a score as well. Looking at ranking data is important for this, but you can also look at how many results appear when you perform an exact match search of their URL or brand.
You can also scan the results to see the quality of sites that appear and give them a score yourself. While this might seem arbitrary, looking at 5 or so competitors should give you a good idea for who has
Signs of engagement include social media, blog comments, content creation as well as just for a general feel for how a site performs you can only get by looking at it.
Content Creation and Analysis
This is similar to keyword analysis but different enough to warrant its own section. When gathering potential content ideas, I use a tool like keyword planner to verify that there is search demand for it. But by simply using Google, you can come up with all sorts of ideas for content and keywords to target.
Google has a few powerful ways to suggest content based on whatever idea you came up with in the first place. By simply Googling your idea, you can get a list of related results that you could use as well. Indeed, using the knowledge graph, Google will simply serve you as many knowledge graph results as you want. Just keep scrolling through the questions and recording your results.
Domain Authority & Traffic
I sort of touched on traffic and domain authority in competitive analysis section and ultimately, why these are helpful metrics, aren’t necessarily fundamental to SEO. Traffic is just one of other brand presence metrics along with social following and blog comments, so it’s something you can live without.
As for domain authority, it is an arbitrary score created by companies like Moz and Ahref. While it is helpful while high level overviews of sites, experience has taught it is far from the critical indicator for how sites rank.
The purpose of this blog was not to disavow all SEO tools. I wanted to demonstrate two concepts that my readers might find helpful: that Google is ultimately better at crawling, ranking and discovering things about websites than any tool and that you can data sometimes overlooked by these tools. I hope you are inspired to try some more back to basics SEO using in your work moving forward!