A Look at Google’s Free SEO Tools

Who says nothing in life is free? Google offers an amazing wealth of free SEO tools for web developers. These are just a few.

Core SEO analytics tools
Google Analytics and Google Keyword Tool stand head and shoulders above the rest of Google’s free tools as foundational underpinnings to any SEO strategy. Think of it as the difference between understanding what you already have, and researching what you want to have.

Google Analytics offers a free and relatively easy-to-implement analytics solution with access to a key piece of SEO data-one that requires custom implementation in the major paid analytics packages: Entry Page URL. In addition to the usual visits, orders, sales, bounce rates and other online metrics, Google Analytics allows you to easily associate natural search visits and sales to the keyword and entry page.

Think about it: You don’t optimize the whole site for a keyword phrase, you optimize a specific URL. You don’t build links to an entire site; you build links (ideally) to specific pages targeting specific keyword phrases.

To determine if your SEO activities are successful, you have to do the analysis on the impact to the specific keyword and entry page URL. Google Analytics is also faster and easier to navigate than the other major analytics packages I’ve used.

While Google Analytics tells you what keyword phrases and URLs your site is and isn’t performing for today, Google Keyword Tool offers a window into which keyword phrases would be most beneficial to perform for going forward.

Using analytics data as keyword research will only result in receiving more of what you already have. But basing optimization decisions on keyword data from Google Keyword Tool positions you to capture more traffic and sales for keyword phrases you’re not winning today.

Structural SEO tools
The first pillar of SEO is optimizing a site’s structure. Googlebot can’t deliver content to its users that Googlebot can’t crawl, so site architectures that prevent efficient crawling and indexing are detrimental to Google’s goals.

To help Webmasters help themselves, Google provides a suite of Webmaster tools at Google Webmaster Central, a blog and a companion YouTube Webmaster Central Videos Channel.

After site owners verify ownership of a site, Google offers Webmaster tools to:

  • Manage crawl: XML sitemap submission and indexation rates, crawler error details, crawl stats, robots.txt tester, parameter handling
  • Manage content and architecture: internal links report, meta data and title tag issues, various keyword relevance reports
  • Manage domain: domain changes and preferences, geographic targeting
  • Manage search result appearance: block sitelinks, rich snippets tester

These tools are useful to diagnose specific SEO issues, such as a sudden drop in product sales, or in specific instances like a domain move. You might not need them every day, but they’re crucial to have in an emergency.

It’s a good idea to review the other reports and tools monthly to make sure things are running smoothly. But analytics visits and sales data are the true measure of “running smoothly.”

SEO content tools
When a site is crawlable and indexable, the content on the pages is the next pillar of SEO. Content optimization centers on using the most popular, relevant keywords in the most prominent, crawlable areas of a page template.

Google will suggest popular keywords, but of course it can’t write content for a site. Google can, however, suggest similar words in other languages:

  • Google Translate: Handles 50+ languages and takes text, URLs or documents as input.
  • Google Language Tools: For a query in the user’s language, Google translates the query to the desired language, completes the search in that language, and returns the search results in the user’s language.

In addition to its primary keyword tool, Google also offers a couple of quick comparison keyword tools that provide fast snapshots:

  • Google Suggest: Start typing your search phrase in the search box or the Google Toolbar and Google suggests phrases you may be looking for. More than a helpful usability feature, Google Suggest may help you find a keyword gem that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.
  • Google Trends: Enter a search phrase and Google Trends will show a search volume trend graph for the past few years. There are no numbers associated with the graph, but it shows the relative popularity of two or more keywords. It’s great for presentation visuals.
  • Google Insights for Search: Like Google Trends on steroids. Add specific regions, categories, time frames and properties to show more detailed trends. Also great for presentation visuals.

SEO link-building tools
External links represent the third pillar of SEO. Links are like little votes of confidence to the search engines that the page being linked to is valuable and relevant. Google’s link-building tools are combined with the tools we’ve already discussed:

  • Google Webmaster Central: The external links report in Webmaster tools is the most complete report of external links available. The report is displayed as a rolling several-week listing, so links that haven’t been crawled recently won’t be reported and reports aren’t archived.

    This report is available only for verified sites, so you must still do competitive link analysis elsewhere. Yahoo Site Explorer provides free access to up to 1,000 external links for any URL.

  • Google Web Search: As discussed earlier with the site: query, Google honors the link: advanced operator. For example, Googling link:www.example.com returns a sampling of the links Google chooses to display publicly.

    This number is commonly far smaller than the number reported in Webmaster tools, and should be used only as a relative number across competitive sites rather than as a definitive count.

Google provides a final link-building tool, the Google Directory (http://www.google.com/dirhp). The good news is that submission to this vast and trusted directory is free.

The bad news is that it’s powered by DMOZ, which has slowed acceptance rates to a trickle in recent years. There’s no risk to submitting if a site isn’t already listed, but be prepared to be extremely patient or disappointed.

For more on making the most of Google’s free tools, check out the March 2010 issue of Multichannel Merchant.

Jill Kocher (jkocher@covario.com ) is director of natural search services at SEO agency Covario (formerly Netconcepts).