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Can You Do SEO Without Paid Tools?

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

Today I’m answering a great question that I saw in an SEO forum, “Can you do SEO without paid SEO tools?”

When we say, “paid SEO software”, it refers to tools like Ahrefs, SEMrush, Moz Pro, Majestic, Mangools, and many others.

I believe that you can do SEO without any tools except for Google itself.

It will be slow going, because you won’t have access to certain competitive data, but I believe you will have an advantage many people don’t have.

Why Paid SEO Software Can Be a Disadvantage

As I’ve said before, I think many people that use paid tools rely on the software to tell them what to do. Many SEO software suites have what they call a SEO audit. But these “audits” primarily look at two factors: the link profile, and on-page keyword optimization. SEO is far more complicated than that.

SEO tools like Ahrefs (which I use) and SEM Rush are great at documenting what links your competitors are getting, and what keywords you are ranking for. But high-level, competitive SEO requires you to look at other factors which are less obvious.

What if you couldn’t use any tools at all?

Suppose the only tool you were allowed to use was Google itself? How would that change your SEO process?

Look at the Source Material

What many people don’t realize is SEO is primarily about using the scientific method.

Observe what’s happening. Form a hypothesis. Test your theories. Document the results. Form a new theory based on your findings.

In my opinion, there’s no purer way to start forming theories about why your competition is outranking you than by doing a Google search, and writing down what you see.

In fact, this is one of the primary steps in our own in-depth SEO audits.

We look at each page on Page One of Google for a given search query. Then we look at each page, and write down what we see.

What elements does each page have? What phrases does it mention? What problem does this page solve? (aka searcher intent).

We’ll also Google the businesses for each page. How are they represented in other online profiles? What websites mention them?

Bottom line, you are forced to look at the evidence and draw your own conclusions. Not rely on what a piece of software tells you to do.

Can You Do SEO Without Paid Tools?

Spoiler Alert…The SEO World is Full of Misinformation

The same thing that I said about believing exactly what the software tells you to do goes for taking advice from “SEO gurus”.

That’s why I tell everyone, don’t listen to people just because they have a SEO blog, podcast, webinar, or speaking gig. Heck, don’t even listen to me.

Use the scientific method, do SEO for real sites, and draw your own conclusions about what works and what doesn’t.

RANT: Be Your Own SEO Guru

What you might find out is, some of the SEO advice that you thought was “chiseled-in-stone” truth, was either grossly exaggerated, or possibly even false.

I don’t believe that people give ineffectual SEO advice on purpose. Many people repeat what they hear other people say.

It isn’t until you actually try the advice that you’ve heard people say, that you’ll find out whether it actually makes a difference or not.

What Most SEO Forums Look Like

Every single week, in SEO forums, Facebook groups, and other places — I see people asking questions like these.

“Our Page Speed score is better than our competitors, why aren’t we beating them in rankings?”

“Our competitors’ site is not optimized as well as ours, why are they beating us?”

“We have Schema markup and our competition doesn’t, how are they still outranking us?”

“This competing site has low-quality content, our content is so much better than theirs, why are they ranked ahead of us?”

The truth is, there are many factors in SEO. The factors that move the needle are the hardest to execute successfully:

These are not things that can be fixed over the course of a week. They require sustained effort over time.

“Is Google Page Speed Insights BS?”

I hate to say it, but most people are looking for a quick fix. And SEO isn’t always improved by reaching for the lowest-hanging fruit on the tree.

Use Your Wits and Observation, Not Just Tools

Let’s say you’re trying to rank for a specific search query. Google that search term and look at what the top ten results are. Look at each page. Write down each little thing that you see on each of those top ten search results.

Then, examine each of the companies. Find out what the rest of their online profile looks like.

If the only tool you have is Google, you’re forced to use your wits, and look for these patterns.

By looking for these patterns, you’re going to have an advantage over people who are just following advice that they heard, like, “Do Skyscraper content. Make the page faster. Add Schema.”

Sometimes those things make a difference. But sometimes they don’t. That’s when you have to step back and try to figure out what’s different about the page(s) outranking you.

When Skyscraper Content Doesn’t Work for SEO

By making changes based on the patterns you have observed, you can make bigger changes than people who only follow recommendations from SEO tools.

You Are a Detective and a Scientist

Let me wrap up by saying, tools definitely make doing professional SEO easier. I’m glad that so many great SEO tools exist.

But it’s more important than ever to draw your own conclusions based on what actually happens when you implement SEO advice. Not what people, or tools, tell you should happen.

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

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