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25 Free SEM Tools To Survive The Abyss

by Andrew Miller   |   Mar 20, 2011

To the uninitiated, Search Engine Marketing (SEM) can feel like staring into an abyss.

How deep does it go? Where does it start and end? How do I avoid getting swallowed alive? What happens if I get in over my head?

There are countless consultants, companies, and software tools that can help you navigate these waters, but it helps to have a reliable map and a good compass to avoid being lead astray. The following tools are provided by the search engines themselves and are a great head start towards improving your company’s visibility in a wide variety of search results.

Even (especially) if you are planning on hiring somebody else to manage your search engine marketing, you need to familiarize yourself with the tools of the trade.

Search Engine Optimization

Once you verify ownership of your site, search engines will share a lot more inside information about how they view your site and content. The following are must-have tools for any website owner that wants to know how their site is perceived by search engines, any obstacles that their crawlers encounter, and who’s linking to you.

1. Google Webmaster Tools – Shows obstacles uncovered by their crawlers, search queries that your site ranks for, and allows for some control over your site’s appearance in search results.

2. Bing Webmaster – Similar to Google’s tools, but don’t always assume the results will be the same. Each search engines views sites differently, so it’s best to get a “second opinion” from Bing. Also, since Bing now powers Yahoo search results, you can diagnose problems on both engines in one place.

3. Yahoo Site Explorer – Since the Bing/Yahoo alliance began last year, the Yahoo Site Explorer tools have been largely replaced by Bing Webmaster data. However, Yahoo Site Explorer still shares extremely useful inbound link data.

Website Analytics and Testing

Websites are nothing more than digital brochures unless you measure how well they are performing and make changes to improve the results. These tools provide insights into your visitors’ behavior so you can make more informed business decisions.

4. Google Analytics – By far the best web analytics tool on the market for small- medium businesses. It allows you to analyze the “who, what, where, why, when and how” of your website’s visitors. It helps you understand how they got to your site and what they did once they got there. Plus, it’s completely free!

5. Yahoo Web Analytics – While it’s only available to Yahoo advertisers or hosted e-commerce sites, it goes a step beyond Google Analytics to provide demographic and psychographic data about your visitors in real-time.

6. Google Website Optimizer – A free, relatively simple tool to A/B test different elements on a web page (images, text, buttons, forms, etc.) to mathematically determine which combination leads to the highest conversion rates. The numbers don’t lie, and it minimizes the risk of “going with your gut” or assuming that the web designer (or design by committee) nailed it the first time.

E-Commerce Product Listings

You mean people actually buy stuff online? Sure they do! And they frequently start their search on a major search engine. Conveniently, it’s easy (and free) to list your products in their shopping engines.

7. Google Merchant Center – Do you sell products online or in a retail store? Did you know you can list them on Google’s product search engine for free? These results frequently appear in Google’s web search results so you could receive additional free exposure and traffic.

8. Bing Shopping – Upload your products through Microsoft adCenter and your products can appear in Bing and Yahoo search results.

Multimedia Search

Sure, people waste a lot of time online “researching” the latest viral videos. However, if your company has digital content such as photos or videos, a little legwork can make sure potential customers can check out your assets.

9. Flickr – A free photo-sharing website owned by Yahoo that allows members to upload and share their images. If your business or products are highly visual, this can be a great way to build awareness and connect with people searching Flickr or the general web since images frequently show up in web and images search results.

10. YouTube – The world’s largest video-sharing website. Your video content is discoverable by people searching YouTube or presented in Google search results when people search for related keywords. Video can be a powerful sales tool when done right, and picking a distribution channel is an important part of getting it right.

11. Google Images – Insure that photos on your website incorporate SEO best practices to increase the likelihood of them ranking well in Google’s image search engine. This can increase traffic and awareness from highly competitive keywords.

12. Yahoo Image Search – Similar to Google Images, but with better grouping of thematically related images. For example, a search for “Richmond, Virginia” also displays options to view nearby landmarks, neighborhoods and events.

13. Bing Image Search – A more visually appealing layout of image search results that focuses on creating a rich experience for searchers.

14. Yahoo Video – A good source for commercially produced video content with less of a focus on user-generated content than YouTube.

Local Search

Claiming your business’ listings in each of the major search engines insures that your details are accurate and up-to-date. This is especially important as their databases are often pulling from outdated sources. Plus, you can upload photos and videos to make your listings stand out.

15. Google Maps / Google Places

16. Yahoo Local

17. Bing Maps

18. Yelp – A different type of search engine, Yelp is a leader in the customer reviews space. Businesses can claim or create their listings to better manage their listings and promote offers.

19. Reviews Sites & Directories – This is where it gets hairy. There are literally thousands of reviews sites, local directories, and internet yellow pages sites. It is impossible to find and keep track of all of them, but start with the obvious and try to check and update a few each week. Most offer ways to claim or edit your business listing so be sure to fix anything that is wrong. One word of warning, every one will try to up-sell premium listings. You could go bankrupt paying for all of them, so use your judgment (and web analytics reports) to figure out which ones send the highest quality traffic and start there.

News Search Engines

Each of the major search engines crawl news sites and curate their own news search sites. If you are a publisher or media site, you need to insure your content, site maps and data feeds are structured properly to maximize your exposure in news search results, which are also frequently positioned prominently in web search results for timely or newsworthy searches.

20. Google News

21. Yahoo News

22. Bing News

Paid Search Advertising

These technically are not free services, but I cannot overstate their importance. The list of benefits reads like a marketer’s wish list: immediate exposure to people that are searching for your products or services, real-time performance data, accountability, immediate on/off controls, geographic targeting, and relatively simple ROI calculations. I could go on, but the important thing to remember is that paid search is highly effective for those willing to invest the time or money in managing it properly and optimizing for better results.

23. Google AdWords

24. Microsoft adCenter

Bonus Level! Keyword Research

25. Google AdWords Keyword Tool – This is the first stop for most search marketers that need to know how many people search for specific keywords in an average month. By comparing keyword variations (plurals, synonyms, geographic modifiers, etc.), marketers can determine where to allocate their SEO and SEM resources. It’s free, but the data provided are invaluable.

Utilizing these (mostly) free search engine tools, any company can improve its standings in search results and attract more qualified visitors to its website.

The biggest mistake I see people making when embarking on a search marketing journey is putting all their eggs in one basket. Don’t fall victim to the temptation to focus only on Google, or ignore the traffic-driving potential of your other digital assets.

How many of these tools have you used? What would you add to this list?

portrait of Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller

Andrew co-founded Workshop Digital in 2015 and serves as the Director of Client Services. He oversees our client relationships and ensures our SEO and PPC teams have everything they need to provide amazing results. After growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta during the 1980s, he decided it was time for a change of scenery and moved north to attend The University of Richmond. Armed with dual degrees in Computer Science and Spanish, it made perfect sense to seek another course change and begin a career in advertising and marketing at The Martin Agency and later, CarMax, before venturing out on his own in 2007. Andrew collects hobbies and devotes his time to his family, training for triathlons, and trying to grow vegetables in an expanding backyard garden.