I just saw an SEOMoz survey question asking what tools respondents had paid to use in 2010. Whilst I was happy to see that over 300 of the respondents said that they had paid to use Majestic SEO’s link intelligence tools, I was REALLY surprised to see that 59.7% of respondents said that they had not paid for any tools at all to help them with their SEO. (That was 5297 respondents.)

Now that really surprised me. My team at Receptional certainly has an SEOMoz Pro membership and of course we use Majestic SEO heavily and  lots more third party tools. we are also lucky enough to be able to build a few seo tools of our own. So I wonder how many respondents can end up paying nothing for their tools?

If you want to be able to make a living at this… a full time living… then you really need to decide on some paid services to help to keep you ahead of (or at least up to speed with) others in your vertical. Collecting the best data and writing the best tools is not a “free” activity. If the devloper is any good, he or she needs to earn a living. Sure, a few try to survive on google Adsense but that really isn’t a viable mainstream income in the SEOTool market. I am fairly confident that most of the 5297 respondents that were not paying for tools are predominantly weekend internet marketers. As a friend said in the pub last night – they are looking for their “5 to 9” income stream.

Compared to other professions – like the law or accountancy – the oerheads for SEOs and Internet marketers are extremely low. But no overheads at all? That won’t work.


Dixon Jones

An award-winning Search and Internet Marketer. Search Personality of the year Lifetime achievement award Outstanding technology individual of the year International public speaker for 20 years in the field of SEO and Internet Marketing, including: Pubcon; Search Engine Strategies (SMX); Brighton SEO; Ungagged; Search Leeds; State of Search; RIMC and many more.


Jeb · 1st January 2011 at 3:48 am

It seems to me there are a number of people in the industry who dont charge enough for their services. If you’re selling SEO services for more than $100 an hr and you can’t afford tools, you’re doing something wrong. If you’re charging less than $100 an hr, you’re also doing something wrong.

Bill Hunt · 4th January 2011 at 1:41 pm

Dixon, I totally agree that a tool box is necessary. But I can also understand why many people don’t use them and here is my take.

1. Most are not functional – I typically operate at the enterprise level and other than a few newer tools most are not functional at that level. We just don’t do one off pages – we are looking at templates and site wide issues and most don’t handle it. Also, many will abandon tools that are not flexible and don’t let them modify things they think are important. They also mirror how that developers works. I have used a lot of tools that if they were a bit more flexible to how “I” do SEO they would be great that is why people often code their own. That is also a challenge in that even when someone does a tool box list there will be a number of people who post that say they are all crap tools. It is hard for small businesses to understand what to use. This is often why the tool box sessions at conferences are full – the irony is that most of what is shown are free and/or freemium tools.

2. Many SEO’s are more than SEO’s. If you are a marketer for a small business you don’t have time to even test them. We all assume that everyone is reading all about SEO tools. Honestly, most do a very poor job of marketing so they may never know about a great tool. I am finding more and more SEO’s that never get to go to a major conference. There are a lot of tools where you have to buy in advance before you can demo it and that is often not practice for small businesses or even large.

3. Cost of tools – there are a few that, while brilliant, are the entire marketing budget for some of these companies. Like SEOMoz or your Silver subscription at an annual rate these can be cost prohibitive. For example, if you have a $100k company and spend the suggested 3% of revenue on marketing that is $3k and to spend 1/3 on SEO tools is not practical.

4. Some great free tools – for most SEO’s you can do your job with free tools or since many of the old school are programmers they have built their own. This is what I have done. I have a fairly large tool box – yes I use Majestic and SEOMoz but I also have a dozen tools I have built or had built that lets me do things at the scale I need.

I think this is a challenge that a number of influencers can take on to help people build a good starter and master mechanic SEO tool box. I know in my book I profile a range of tools from free to the top shelf enterprise-level SEO tools but there is only so much space – it is already a phone book. Also, we need to reach outside of the SEO community. It is surprising to me how few even ready business publications and blogs – most of these business owners are making a living or their “SEO” is a hack or on a budget of time or money and don’t have time to monitor the SEO blogs and community.

I totally agree that they can gain time and efficiency with the use of tools but we also have to make them aware of the benefits of doing so.

admin · 4th January 2011 at 8:13 pm

Interesting and valid comments Bill. Thanks!

So – for the fun of the debate – let me counter…

>>Most are not functional at scale< <

I quite doubt that those that have scaling issues are the people saying they pay for nothing in the survey. If a client requires scale then they most likely use some form of paid tools – whether Comscore or Hitwise or much more reasonably priced tools that do scale.

>> Many SEO’s are more than SEO’s. If you are a marketer for a small business you don’t have time to even test them. < <

A very fair point, yet these same people have the time to fill in what looks like a pretty extensive survey. Now there may have been another incentive to fill in the survey – maybe a year’s supply of MozPro – I don’t know. MozPro is not one of the cheaper tools out there, but I have to ask the question… if you take an active interest in SEOMoz enough to fill in a survey, then you must have a reasonable stake invested in online marketing. In that event, you ultimately need to rise above your competition – which (on a Macro scale at least) must mean that all things being equal, the one with the technology advantage will win out.

>>Cost of tools< <

I absolutely accept that if you only have $3K to spend a year on your entire marketing budget, then both the subscriptions you mention are not practical… unless your income is as a result of Internet Marketing services – in which case these expenses are not marketing costs so much as a cost of sales. I guess it was these people that I (possibly mistakenly) assumed would be answering an SEOMoz survey.

On a weaker argument, I would counter that a small business needs to spend 5% of it’s turnover on Marketing to a mid sized competitor’s 3% just to get over the scale issue. They get that back on lower overheads elsewhere in the business. Now (being a basic man and with no regards to any vertical) let’s say a third of a company’s turnover ends up as profit. At $100,000 that’s $33,000 profit which is probably a liveable wage, but therein lies the rub. If you run a business then $33K a year is not enough, so the marketing budget needs to increase. It’s the 3% that is the challenge there, whatever the way such a budget is spent. But I agree very much that a business which is not entirely an Internet Marketing business does not need to buy Internet Marketing specific tools. We probably envisaged different people filling in the survey here.

>>Some great free tools< <
That’s very true – and the rest of your argument there is also true. Yet this is totally at the heart of my argument. Why are there so many good free tools? On a Macro level I see two reasons:

1: The innovator that knows how to build tools but is unable to profit from them because people use the free alternatives. The inevitable result of this will be that the innovators end up being employed by the giants, without being in a position to profit from their innovations. The tools then become unsupported or loss making.

2: The large organization that gives away tools. Surely the motivation of these companies (all of them including mine) has to be questioned. The free tools are either there to show you that the paid alternatives are much more effective or the free tools are there to create a paradigm shift in the market. Yahoo’s Site Explorer must cost (in our estimate) over a Million dollars a year just to handle the API /scraper calls. Google Analytics has to be an extremely expensive solution for Google to manage – but presumably the most honorable reason for them to do it is to show the website owners that they can make more money by buying advertising (hopefully through Google). I can’t see a more noble explanation – but it ultimately leads to more costs for the web site owner than innovation.

If people bought your book – they would get a great tool! But they have to splash a bit of cash first! (Buy Bill’s book guys. “Search Marketing Inc.”).

I think we see different people answering the original survey.

moby · 6th January 2011 at 11:17 am

what seo tools would you recommend and why? I mean why would one have to pay for tools, couldn’t you use google analytics to measure results? Thats free..

Dennis Bartram · 10th January 2011 at 7:15 am

It’s understandable how paid tools can really increase productivity as well as in leveraging a campaign’s success rate, it’s just that there are a lot of free tools out there that can still actually help SEO practitioners to help them with their task.

Personally, I do use some paid tools (SEOmoz’s OSE pro version and Traffic Travis paid version), and thinking of using SEOmoz pro and Ontolo this year, since it’s more practical to spend on these tools to improve data capturing on the part of campaign research as well as with actual link acquisition.

Kevin pike · 10th January 2011 at 3:34 pm

Ditto Bill’s comment above.

I follow Anne Smarty, and have seen and tested several of the tools she talks about. Many of these are great – free – technical site tools. I use these all the time.

The only tools I have considered paying for are from sites that have a large index of the web – i.e. SEOmoz. This is something I simply can’t create myself. Rand as put a huge investment into SEOmoz, and is privy to some some great correlation data.

Other free tools (with paid upgrades) seem to be keyword tools; and they never seem to impress me with their accuracy, or ability to find great niche terms. I seem to think the PPC data (perhaps a kind of paid tool itself) provides me with better impression, click, and conversion data than any other tool.

In some ways, I think I do a lot of reading to make up for other paid tools. Some of the correlation/causation data that Rand, and others blog about is enough for me to extrapolate to my own clients website without the use of paid tools. When I see traffic and rankings improve, I know it’s working.

I also conduct my own tests, which I think can make you a better SEO than any tool. To me, we have “book smart SEO’s” and “street smart SEO’s” in the industry. To be a great SEO, it is important to know what all the books and tools say, but also come to some of your own conclusions. All knowledge is power, but I think your best knowledge comes from hands on experience in learning the little nuances no tool can teach you.

admin · 13th January 2011 at 12:16 pm

It’s great that the post is creating intelligent debate! Makes a change from “Nice post will ytr ur stuff more” spam comments 🙂

“Many of these are great – free – technical site tools.”
So – here’s my thing. Someone has built a reall great free tool – which you are using. It creates two ethical questions.

1. Do you feel great about using a tool but not putting any food on the creator’s table?
2. Do you feel that you can “get the edge” on the other guy who bought SEOMoz Pro or Majestic Silver or Hitwise or Compete Pro? (which are all tools I would seriously consider using if budgets and resource allow). I can’t afford Hitwise.

On Point 1: The toolmaker is EITHER not getting their just desserts for such a cool tool OR they have another way to make money out of you using their tool. I dare not contemplate the second option – but I am sure I have used free tools which are doing more harm than good to the fabric of the web.

On point 2: Of course – ultimately knowledge is power in this game, as you pointed out, Kevin. My point is that there is theoretical knowledge and site or vertical specific knowledge. On the latter – and saving on time at the very least gives you more time to do the former.

Sean Pecor · 16th January 2011 at 7:24 pm

SEO takes time. Time is money. Money is power. Get more power 🙂

All kidding aside, ethics is an important motivator for a subset of the population; I like to think that ethics plays an important part in how I make purchasing decisions as a consumer and development decisions as a business entrepreneur. Perhaps it would be more aptly called “enlightened self interest”? Someone acting with enlightened self interest is potentially motivated by their ideals to upgrade from the “free” version of a tool and begin paying for the “premium” version. Their business would presumably benefit from the ROI borne from “premium” features while at the same time they make their investment knowing that it helps sustain the (presumably) small business developing the tool. After all, these businesses offer a “free” version to the masses, primarily to serve as a promotional tool for their “premium” versions. If fewer people opt for “premium” then the business model may not be sustainable.

However, many people don’t act with enlightened self interest. Despite this, I think that they’re still potential paying customers. They just have different motivators. Finding out what those motivators are can be very challenging.

In my own experience, I offered a specific service as a free benefit to 100% of the 90,000 or so small businesses who have accounts within my own website network. I offered this as a motivator to upgrade to “premium” service and yes, it did motivate sales on a daily basis. However, the vast majority of businesses simply stayed with the “free” version despite the fact that they’d benefit so much more if they upgraded. So, in December, when I was feeling particularly curmudgeonly, I changed my policy with this “free” service. I turned the “free” version into Crippleware. I took away something that was benefiting lots of people. That made me feel, well, a little bad; I consider myself a compassionate person who is generous by nature. I got some hate mail (“WHY did you take this service AWAY? I’m entitled to this free service! Blarg!”). It was disheartening. But then my sales revenue doubled overnight. I mean, revenue doubled the second I changed the policy. Unsurprisingly, this made me feel less bad. I do still offer plenty of free services to 85,000 businesses (and counting) that will never pay me a cent. That makes me feel good too. It also makes me wonder who is the fool. Is it the customer who underpays, or is it the business who undercharges? I guess it’s both.

admin · 16th January 2011 at 8:07 pm

Thanks for adding this Sean.

I understand your pain when you take away something you previously gave for free and presumably without warrantee. People do seem to get upset. It’s harsh, but when you consider the bottom line, “free users” only mean something if you are piggy backing and pimping other (paid) services through your own free service. That’s not cool if it’s your service that people like.

I free sorry for the innovators who are not stoing enough to charge – whether the weakness is an uneven playing field from the strength of the competition or the desire for acceptance over bottom line.

An example, for me, went the other way. Indextools was a fantastic analytics system, which I used to be happy to pay for. It then got sold to Yahoo and became Yahoo Web Analytics. It also became free. Now I wonder if it has the financial backing needed to stay ahead of Google Analytics or Unica or Omniture. Going from paid to free was a retro step for me. Luckily, the innovators in that product presumably won in the sale to Yahoo.

Jason · 10th February 2011 at 4:12 am

Agreed. Paid tools just make you more efficient. But there ARE some great free ones. E.g. Market Samurai has an always free keyword tool if you download the trial version. The other modules stop working after the trial, but the keyword module is free forever. I ended up buying it for SEO competition module. FYI peeps. Just don’t pay the $150 that is on their homepage. Download the trial and inside it is a link to a coupon for $99. I haven’t bought any of the others b/c I just can’t stomach massive monthly charges. But a one off payment, I can deal with. Though I am considering Majestic SEO too. I liked the free report.

Dixon, Question. Do you know if Google passes pagerank through links as the page is finally rendered by the browser? Or is it as the source code appears? For instance, I give users a javascript link for a widget that they paste on their site. Then inside this I use document.write to output the html code for my widget and a link to my site. Do you know if this link will pass pagerank?

admin · 17th March 2011 at 2:13 pm

Google’s interpretation of Javascript is improving all the time. But last time we checked this, most of the time, that won’t pass Page Rank. It would be read, but not listened to. Things may have changed!

Comments are closed.