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Free Tools vs. Paid Tools - When Should You Pony up the Big Bucks?

Ryan Burglehaus

The SEO world we work and play in has no shortage of available tools promising everything from page one results to doing your laundry for you and ensuring bags of cash will show up on your doorstep. All as a result of using "just this one" SEO tool. Sometimes the pitch pages get to the point of being pretty ridiculous.

Having spent more money and time trying SEO tools than I care to admit, I've started putting new tools I'm considering adopting through a more careful screening process. Sure I'll try a tool here and there on a whim, but ones that I consider part of my SEO arsenal, I want to make sure live up to some sort of standard beyond just the stated promises.

Deciding when to pay for an SEO tool vs. using a free one can be a bit challenging though. If we don't have to spend money to achieve a result, then why do it? Here are 6 things to consider when evaluating your current SEO toolset, as well as looking at new ones to add:

Accuracy - How accurate are the results you're getting? This is easily my #1 criteria. Free tools oftentimes rely on old data that can hurt any competitive advantage you get from using the tool in the first place. You want to rely on software and sites that are current, being actively developed, and driven by current data. Part of what you're paying for with premium SEO tools is the cost of the data the company providing the tool is charged. This results in more accurate results giving you an advantage.

Reliability - Is the tool and supporting data available when you need it? We've all used tools that don't seem to work quite right, or something just seems "off" in the data or results. Having a tool you can rely on to make your life easier can be worth spending some hard earned SEO dollars on. This applies to both web based tools as well as desktop applications. Most importantly, you want to make sure any connections to the data set driving the tool's results is reliable.


Ease of Use/Time saving/Convenience - Does the SEO tool make your life easier, save you time, or make the process more enjoyable? We all have a limited amount of time in a given day. For most of us, the to do list is typically longer than any given day will allow you to accomplish. Having some tools at your disposal that save you time and let you power through more on your list can be worth the price of admission. It can also be worth paying for tools that automate or make easier the tasks that you don't really like doing. For instance, keyword research. Some people love going through manual processes for digging up golden nugget keywords and phrases. In fact, some of the best results can be had through simple manual processes that don't cost a dime. Others, though, don't love that aspect and want to skip as much of that process as possible. Enter premium tools that focus on keyword research. Understanding what you're good at, and focusing your efforts on that as much as possible, will make you more effective in the long run.

Integration - Does the tool integrate with your other systems? This relates to saving time. I'm a big fan of doing tasks once, then leveraging the power of the technology at our disposal to reuse those efforts in other ways to maximize your results. This applies to content, SEO, networking, etc. Your toolbox should contain tools that play nice with each other. Typically this requires moving to premium tools. Not having to duplicate work can easily save you enough time to justify the cost of a premium tool. This should also be a main criteria of selecting which tool to invest your time, and potentially money, into.

Innovation - Is the development team behind your tool continuing to develop the tool and look for ways to be innovative? This can be a hard one to nail down, but is something you should at least consider. It can take time to learn how to use a tool effectively. You want to invest that energy into one that a company is committed to developing for at least the foreseeable future. Oftentimes this means investing a little cash to give the development team incentive to put in effort to make the tool more effective and take advantage of new discoveries in the SEO industry. I personally like the tools that are developed by individuals or small teams. Over the years, I've found they typically have more on the line in the success or failure of their tool and tend to be more apt to further develop it. They also seem to be more receptive to actively pursuing feature requests made by their customer base.

Support - Is your SEO tool being actively supported? This seems like a no brainer, but I'm oftentimes amazed at what people invest huge amounts of time into learning or rely on as an integral part of their online efforts, only to realize when they run into a problem, there's no place to turn other than random searches in Google. If you're reading this blog, it's safe to assume you make some amount of money as a result of SEO. Don't hang your hat on tools, paid or free, that aren't actively supported. Also make sure the support avenue you like best is offered. For some, phone support is what they're after. Others are happy with next business day email support. Whatever it is, a little due diligence can save you mounds of frustration when something isn't working right and you're bumping against a deadline.

By taking some time to dig into tools you're thinking about adding to the SEO toolbox, you stand to save yourself frustration, wasted time and disappointment. Look past the shiny sales pages and take a hard look at what you really stand to gain with the SEO tool under consideration.

One thing worth mentioning is the value of doing any SEO task manually before you invest in a tool or outsource it to someone else. I'm a firm believer in understanding the ins and outs of what you're trying to accomplish before you try to automate it or hand it off. Certainly there are things you just plain aren't good at, or simply don't want to do, that a tool or outsourced workforce can help you with. But you still need to understand and experience as much of the process as you can before you hand things off.

Take the time to learn what you're doing. It will make you a better SEO'er, giving you even more expertise. You will also be able to evaluate tools more effectively, making your efforts that much more powerful.

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Thanks for the article, Ryan. What SEO tools would you recommend (in addition to SemRush)?