Don’t you hate it when SEO blogs start doing reviews to try to shift shitty tools with big affiliate paychecks?! I’ve wanted to do a review of Raven tools for a while but have resisted it until now for that very reason. As a precursor to the first review type post I’ve written here I wanted to give a bit of background to my involvement with raven tools and tell you why I think I’m in a position to write this review.
I was first introduced to raven tools about 18 months ago by my colleague at the time Kelvin, we were shopping around for a new tool to manage our SEO campaigns and Raven had recently launched publicly. On the face of it the tool did a lot of the stuff we were trying to develop ourselves at the time, it wasn’t perfect by any means but it was better than any other SEO tools I’d come across. We gradually introduced Raven into our processes and watched as the tool grew, added new features and the team behind it seemed to continually expand.
Since then I’ve watched the tool develop closely and have overseen the introduction of Raven Tools into 4 different SEO agencies (including my own) as well as introducing numerous in-house SEO’s to the system. Its fair to say I’ve been a big advocate of raven from the outset so its probably obvious to you how this review will play out. Instead of evangelising too much what I want to do is run through how I use some of the features of the tools (concentrating on the SEO parts as I don’t really use the rest of the system much) and hopefully give you some tips to get the most out of Raven and show you some real world examples of how I’ve seen Raven tools change the way agencies and in-house teams manage their SEO.
What is (and isn’t) Raven?
When I look at SEO tools I tend to separate them into 2 buckets. The tools which try to replicate the job of an SEO specialist and invariably fall flat on their face. And the tools which help experts to work more efficiently. When evaluating the second type, my main concern is that the tool actually makes it faster and easier for the guys on the ground to do their work and not just easier for managers to check up on them and run off reports. I’m an in-the-trenches SEO, I’ll regularly spend 10 hours a day trawling for backlinks or building keyword lists. If a tool isn’t more efficient than using my old spreadsheets I don’t use it. Raven fits nicely into this bracket, it accompanies my workflow rather than dictating it. That’s important to me because I don’t want to do SEO like everybody else!
What Raven won’t do is replace the need for a well trained SEO to work on your campaign. It won’t build your links for you or tell you what keywords to target, its just going to make it easier for someone who know’s what they’re doing to do it efficiently.
I’m going to run through some of Raven’s main features (or at least the one’s I use the most) and start with the link manager as I think its the best feature of the tool and certainly the one I spend most of my time in. Like I’ve said the idea here isn’t to build links for you, its to reduce the administrative burden of managing large scale link acquisition campaigns- particularly across large teams. The link manager is essentially a database of link records- all the places you’ve built links, failed to build links or would like to build links can be stored here. Prior to Raven I did this work on spreadsheets. Fine at first but when you build a lot of links, you need a lot of spreadsheets!
Conceptually the reason I really like the idea of a link record database is that it de-duplicates a lot of the work you do when you work on more than one campaign. With a few clicks I can import records from a previous campaign of topical blogs who accept guest posts, free directories which actually approve submissions or article sites with decent PR.
The trick with the link manager is to spend a bit of time setting up the custom link and website types to match the types of link building work you do. When you first setup Raven you’ll have a few link types already in there like ‘paid (temporary)’, ‘paid (permanent)’, blog comment, content exchange. These are fine for starters but I’d start by adding my own link building methods, some examples below…
The only issue with these custom link types is if you want to associate cost data with a link you have to use the pre-configured ‘paid’ link type rather than being able to define your own i.e ‘paid directory’.
As any CRM people will know, a database is only as good as the data you put into it and making proper use of Raven’s link classification and tagging features is my top tip for success with the link manager. If you’re working across a link building team you should create a crib sheet for link builders so they know what link type and website type to attribute links to and what tags to add to each link. One feature I’d like to see built into the link manager would be the ability to add these notes along with the custom link types.
I use tags in the link manager to associate links with a certain theme, product group or keyword. For example if I’m tagging a link on a blog about Spain to my Majorca hotels page I might add the tags ‘Spain, Majorca, hotels’- then give the link the link type ‘guest post’ and website type ‘travel blog’. What this means is in the future I can run a search through my link manager for all my travel blog contacts who accept guest posts about Spain or hotels- this is a big time saver if you’re running large or multi-site campaigns.
Rank checking & keyword manager
I don’t buy into the ‘ranking reports are dead’ argument. I want to know where I’m ranking, where my competitors are ranking and how my rank has changed over time. In many respects Raven’s rank checking tool is quite limited- it only runs once a week, you’re somewhat limited to the number of keywords you can check by your account limits and there’s no localisation options beyond the standard Google UK, Google de etc.
But there’s stuff I really like about this rank checking tool as well. The simple interface is great for clients and really easy to understand and there’s an excellent tagging system which let’s you create unlimited numbers of segments to your keyword list to cluster keywords by, for example theme, priority or target landing page. The rank tool will also give you an average rank calculation either for the whole list or for keywords with a specific tag which is great for snapshot client reports.
The rank checking tool in raven also has a couple of handy integrations with other parts of the toolset which provide you actionable insight, not just extra data for the sake of it. Google Analytics data can be displayed alongside keyword rankings so you can see exactly how much traffic a keyword has sent from a particular ranking. This comes in handy when you’re reviewing your keyword list as you can quickly see if there’s a keyword you’re ranking well for which isn’t delivering traffic or a keyword which you’re on page 2 for which is driving decent traffic and is therefore a priority for optimisation/ link building. Since I started using raven I’ve found I review and refine my keyword strategy in a far more fluid and ongoing way rather than just doing my research once and then running with it. This makes it easier to notice and respond to keyword traffic and ranking data rather than just continuing to report on it.
A lot of people I’ve shown Raven to have be less then impressed with the Analytics part of the system but I rather like it. When Raven first launched they had their own analytics system which meant tagging client sites with extra tracking code, conversion page pixels and so forth. Convincing clients of the value in this was tricky especially as the analytics it gave you was limited and the data was in my opinion less accurate than GA.
Now Raven uses the Google Analytics API so no extra tracking code is needed and it only takes a few seconds to sync up your GA account. The Analytics view in Raven is like a stripped down version of the GA dashboard. Why would I want that when I can just log into GA I hear you ask?
Well there’s a few advantages from a workflow point of view. My favourite example being the ability to flick through your top referring keywords (paid or non-paid) and quickly add new keywords to the keyword manager to run ranking reports on them. Sounds minor but I like anything which cuts down on copy and pasting between interfaces, especially when I’m training new SEO’s. on the flip side of that the Analytics integration means you can quickly make assessments about the quality of your keyword list so if you’re ranking #1 for a keyword you’re monitoring and getting zero visits from it its likely that’s not a good keyword so you might want to drop it or change it.
The other feature I really like on the Analytics dashboard in Raven tools is the ability to overlay key events with the traffic graphs so you can make snap shot observations about a change or new link might of effected your traffic. For example I’ll create a new event when I audit a site and they make onsite changes, or when I add a really good link or when I make a small sitewide tweak to a large site such as a page title restructure. We can then see in the Analytics dashboard how that change effected non-paid search traffic. This is really handy for showing clients how the changes they’ve made have taken effect and for getting a quick overview of the lead time between a change happening on the site and the associated upturn (or downturn) in traffic.
Again to turn this idea on its head you can also use the event manager and Raven analytics to create an event when a client screws something up on their website like messing up a redirect, changing domain names or releasing a new version of their homepage without consulting you (we’ve all been there!) As a consultant its often useful to be able to demonstrate the effects of negative changes to clients to help with the education process.
I don’t use the research tools in Raven as much as perhaps I should (I’m a bit set in my ways when it comes to my keyword and link research methodologies) but there’s a few more handy integrations in here which can save you a few quid on seperate subscriptions for wordtracker data and SEMrush subscriptions (you don’t get the same full features of each however).
For smaller campaigns where I pretty much know what keywords I’m going to go after anyway I like the Adwords keyword tool in Raven simply because it again makes it really easy to add keywords to your keyword manager with one click and see what keywords you’re already tracking saving on the export, copy, paste process. Also the Adwords keyword tool is too flashy for me these days so the stripped down interface suits me well.
Its worth pointing out though that for larger campaigns you’ll probably want a more robust keyword research tool/ process than Raven currently offers.
Content/ blog manager
Probably one of the lesser known but one of my favourite features of Raven is the blog manager. If you’ve got a few blogs (or lots:-)) which you use for link building Raven has a neat little XML-RPC client which lets you add all your blog login details to Raven and quickly push out content and links onto your network right from your Raven account, no need to login to 50 different blogs each time.
This is a perfect mid-range solution for maintaining a blog distribution network as it lets you manage content centrally but still retain control of things like templates and domains at an individual blog level. What I’d really like to see here is an integration with the textbroker API so you can order content and have it dropped straight into your Raven account to push out to your blogs. Also a hook up with one of the public blog distribution networks we use like Article Ranks would be handy.
The content manager itself lets you upload articles/ blog posts and then either push them out through the blog manager or associate them with a link record (for example a guest post). This is a nice way to keep track of all the content you’ve produced for a campaign rather than storing it in word documents. Also I’ve found when outsourcing blog post and article writing getting contractors to upload their work straight into raven again reduces the amount of cut and paste between systems and means the content will arrive to you formatted for the web rather than with nasty microsoft word encoding.
I had to put in a special note about Raven’s support because it deserves a mention. The guys behind this tool are really receptive when it comes to feature requests and good at replying to support tickets. To give you an example last week I pointed out an issue which had been bugging me for ages about the firefox toolbar not picking up links from a page when using a wildcard root domain instead of a subdomain. Within 3 days they had a new version of the toolbar released which fixed the issue. That sort of thing might not seem like a big deal its nice to know you’re running a tool which is actively maintained and getting better all the time. A lot of my process depends on raven now and I’d be pretty stuck if it got discontinued or the company went bust so I like the proactivity!
I’ve got a few issues with Raven which I feel I need to highlight for the sake of completeness.
Speed and downtime – the systems web based and right now the raven servers seem to be struggling to keep up with the demands of all the new customers they’re getting! If the servers not responding I can’t work and nor can any of my link builders so this is a big one for me. Its not that bad but I notice a lag at least once every few days.
PageRank – Raven recently removed PageRank scores from the link manager and replacd them with SEOmoz metrics which I was a bit disappointed by. Although I welcome the introducion of moz metrics I’d still like the option of PageRank for times when MozRank et al are clearly way off the mark, which happens quite a lot in my experience. I get that mining PageRank data is a pain in the arse but I’d at least like the option to input it manually.
Quality over quantity – My preference would be for the developers to spend more time improving the core SEO functionality rather than introducing new API integrations like mailchimp and YouTube which I find pretty pointless TBH.
The current pricing plans can be seen here. At the time of writing the ‘pro’ plan is $99/ month and agency is ¢249/ month although I’ve got accounts locked in at lower prices and I can see the prices increasing again in the future. There are extra charges for things like additional users or running more reports or checking extra keyword rankings above your allocation. Actually for my own account I find it cheaper to use the Pro plan and pay for things like extra users than upgrading to Agency.
You can also get a 30 day free trial, which I’d definitely encourage anyone to do, and if you sign up for 12 months you get 1 month free.
If you’ve read the full 3000 words+ which this review has come in at you’ve probably already gathered I’m a bit of a Raven Tools fan but I hope I’ve also given some useful insight to how I get the most out of the tools and what they can do. If you haven’t tried Raven yet sign yourself up for a trial and if you have any questions about how to get the most out of Raven feel free to fire them at me in the comments or hit up Raven support.