By Jill Whalen
I am not a big tool user in general. By that I mean the types of tools that supposedly help you "optimize" your website. There is no perfect page for SEO purposes, so in my opinion any tool that claims to give you information such as how many words you need here or there is simply wrong.
What most of those tools do is look at the top 10 ranking sites for a specific keyword phrase and then take averages of how many words they have in the Title tags, within the content, etc. Which to me is just silly. An average doesn't tell you anything. One page might have 1,000 words and another might have 50, but the average is then in the 500 range. That certainly doesn't mean that if you create your page to have 500 words it will somehow magically rank well.
SEO is more about fixing technical issues (which some tools can certainly help with), and it's about being sure you're using words that your target audience uses. And these days, in the wake of Panda and Penguin, it's also about diagnosing bad links and other things that may be bringing your site rankings down. Online tools can certainly help with all those things.
Keep in mind that I generally only do SEO site audit reports, and high-level SEO consulting and training (as opposed to rolling up my sleeves and actually doing the SEO for clients). So I may be missing some that I previously used. Please note that while I assume that the Google tools I'm mentioning are obvious, they're so integral to my work that I'd be remiss not to mention them.
Here are the tools I use regularly to help with my SEO consulting services:
Most critical tool at all, it diagnoses lost traffic for site audits, and of course is used to measure success. Especially helpful when combined with custom reports, dashboards, and advanced segments.
Google Webmaster Tools
Everyone with a website today needs to be signed up here. It offers tons of useful information, but basically it helps diagnose website problems and provides messages directly from Google if a site has a major issue or penalty.
This tool sends a spider out to sites and compiles a nice spreadsheet report on the pages. It shows you Title tags, URLs, Meta Descriptions, Canonical tags, etc. Plus, it tells you about pages that may have 404 errors, redirects, and lots of other things. I usually use this when I'm starting a new site review because it helps me get an overall feel for the site and quickly shows me any major technical issues. (And I just love the tool's name.)
Rex Swain's HTTP Header Viewer
This one is good for seeing what sort of redirect any page may have. For SEO purposes we like to see 301 redirects rather than 302s or any other kind. It will also show if there are multiple redirects for any URL.
This is a great tool for learning about any website's backlinks. You can get a lot of that also from Google Webmaster Tools these days, but I often find different ones showing up in Ahrefs that I may not have seen in GWT. Plus, you can learn about the backlinks of competitor sites. I mainly use it to see if the website I'm reviewing has a lot of spammy links. It's especially helpful if the site has received an unnatural links warning in the GWT account. It's a great way to see the distribution of anchor text as well. This tool also has a spidering component similar to ScreamingFrog mentioned above.
Google Keywords ToolThis is pretty much the only tool I use or recommend for doing keyword research. Use it to learn about the types of phrases your target audience uses at Google when they're looking for what you offer on your website.
This is not so much an SEO tool as it is a way to have all my files synced across all of my computers and devices. Drive makes it easy for me to review a website and have my report in progress anytime and anywhere I need it. It also enabled me to buy an inexpensive Chromebook as my traveling laptop. All the tools and programs I use are online, so with my documents and files safely tucked away in Google Drive I'm totally in the cloud.
This is a project timer that I've been using lately. I like to keep track of how much time I spend on any client work so that I have a good idea of how to price similar jobs in the future. I've used a variety of timers in the past, but this one has become a favorite because it syncs up "in the cloud" so I can access it using any device.
Chrome Extensions (Most if not all of these are likely available as Firefox extensions as well):
This is the BEST extension ever if you're an SEO! It outlines all links on a page that have the Nofollow attribute on them. But even better is that it pops up a little window if the page you're looking at has the Noindex tag on it. You wouldn't believe how many websites I find through this extension that are inadvertently blocking all search engines from being able to index them.
This tool teaches you lots of things about a page, such as its Google Toolbar PageRank, the number of pages from the site that are indexed, a link to the page in the Wayback Machine (archive.org) and many other things. (This one will also highlight nofollow links.)
TagAssistant (by Google)
This one shows if there are any Google Analytics code errors on any given page. It can come in handy if a site appears to have lost traffic because sometimes traffic wasn't actually lost, but the Google Analytics code is missing from certain pages, or it's used incorrectly.
Awesome Screenshot (combined with Evernote)
I use Awesome Screenshot nearly every day while doing SEO site audits to quickly and easily show what's wrong with pages on a site. You can add arrows and words, draw circles around items, etc. I basically paste them all into Evernote along with my other notes of what's wrong with a site. Then I use those notes to compile my report.
Jill Whalen has been an SEO Consultant and the CEO of High Rankings, a Boston area SEO Company since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen