Digital marketing is a discipline that’s constantly evolving. There are always new tools and platforms through which you can reach and understand your audience better. There’s also an expanding set of options for managing and tracking the effectiveness of your marketing.
Yet sometimes the range of tools and options can be dizzying. Each takes an investment of time, money, and energy to learn and institutionalize. And while the pace of change has slowed, you still never really know which tools are worth the energy to learn.
To make sense of the options and ever-changing landscape, we asked some top instructors from the UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies Digital Marketing Program to share their insights into the top digital marketing tools in 2023 and beyond.
SEO and Keyword Tools for Digital Marketing
Of all the different methods for digital marketing, all our experts agreed that SEO (search engine optimization) was near the top, if not the foundational, in your approach to digital marketing.
“SEO is probably the core discipline, period,” said Caleb Chao, Senior Manager of Search Strategy at SportRx and digital marketing instructor at UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies. “The keyword research that goes into SEO is very similar to the keyword research you put into PPC [pay-per-click], and that research would also feed your social strategy.”
The keyword research aspect of SEO is fundamental to understanding what your potential customers are searching for and how to position your content at the top of those searches.
The tool at the top of the list of keyword research is Google Keyword Planner.
“Most people use Google ads Keyword Planner as a primary tool. If you're making a digital marketing tool list, Google's Keyword Planner not being there would be pretty egregious,” said Chao.
“Google Keyword Planner is a free tool within Google Ads for researching keyword ideas to drive content strategy,” said Steve Wiideman, CEO at Wiideman Consulting Group, Inc. and Adjunct Professor at UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies. “Enter in a ‘seed keyword’ to get ideas, refine the search by excluding irrelevant words, and export a list of keywords to inspire new or improve existing content for your website.”
Yet for most digital marketers, Google Keyword Planner is just the tip of the iceberg. There are still other tools for deeper insights and strategy.
Another tool Chao recommends is Spyfu, which feels like having an actual spy in your employ. It helps you get unique insights about your competition by showing you which keywords they’ve ranked or bought ads for.
Semrush is another popular tool available to users on individual or enterprise levels.
“Semrush Enterprise is valuable because it’s significantly more affordable than the other top enterprise solutions,” said Wiideman. “It features ‘share of voice’ metrics, consolidated reporting from multiple data sources (such as Google Search Console and GA4 analytics), and a full suite of technical, contextual, and off-page search engine optimization tools.”
Many of these tools offer a free version or trial period, but they can often be limited. For digital marketers that need to stretch their dollars, Chao recommends tools like Moz and Ubersuggest that both offer powerful capabilities on their free service.
Tools to Understand Your Customers
Keyword research is important, but at the core of any marketing is also understanding the needs and desires of your customers and why they’re searching for the terms they’re searching for.
Ron Weber, web communications director at Actian and digital marketing instructor at UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies, had two tool recommendations for better understanding your target audience: Spark Toro and BrightEdge.
Weber said, “We spend way too much time worrying about keywords when we should be considering the audiences that make up those keywords. Audiences are and will always be the most important element to successful marketing. I use Spark Toro to glean insights into audiences and see what keywords, hashtags, social accounts, and websites they like to use.”
“BrightEdge has the most historical data anywhere in the industry and is still a must-have tool for most digital marketers,” continued Weber. “Their tools will give you immediate access to bulk keyword volumes, real-time rankings, conversational keyword ideas, active backlinks, and more.”
In addition to these tools, there are also resources to get a more qualitative sense of what your potential customers are intereste d in. “Go to Quora.com and read what people really care about,” suggested Weber. “It’s real insights without having to pay for a user testing session.”
Jennifer Neeley of Jennifer Neeley Strategic Marketing Solutions and digital marketing instructor at UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies, also recommends Google Trends. “Instead of going to Keyword Planner, I go to Trends first. Trends can break down search data by region and within a specific time period. It allows me to do data scrapes for my clients that are local to particular regions every week.”
Visitor Experience to Your Website Matters
You know who your customers are, and you’ve done what you can to drive them to your website. The next step is making sure they have a good experience. A big part of this is simply making sure they find what they’re looking for, which is easier said than done.
Both Google and Bing offer tools that improve the overall experience of your page so customers find what they’re looking for.
“Google Search Console is a free tool to help webmasters and content creators find ways to improve page experience,” said Wiideman. “It helps you help Google with crawling and indexing content, and also better understand the bottlenecks that could be affecting the visibility of your website within search engine results.”
Wiideman also suggests looking at the Bing Webmaster Tool. “Bing wants to earn market share, so oftentimes the product managers of Bing Webmaster Tools are willing to go beyond what Google is willing to share. It can be exciting to watch what new features and tools they add to the platform,” he said.
Measure What Matters
The last important part of effective digital marketing tools is analytics and measurement. Google again has many of the primary tools for this.
“While all of us are kicking and screaming about adopting it, Google Analytics 4 will usher in a new era of analytics,” said Weber, referring to an upcoming phase-out of Google Universal Analytics in favor of Google Analytics 4.
“Instead of analyzing our website through the lens of conversion goals, we'll be looking at page engagement. By doing so, we'll be more apt to improve our pages in line with what our users expect: helpful content, a good user interface, clear navigation, and stable graphics. It will be the most powerful tool on the planet and we don't have a choice about it. I suggest everyone start using it now.”
Another tool that is projected for an upgrade soon is Google Data Studio, which is integrating with Google Looker. Google Data Studio differs from Google Analytics in that it brings in more data from sources beyond just your website. It also offers the ability for visualizations and deeper analysis.
“Forever in this industry we’ve been talking about dashboards, dashboards, dashboards. This means bringing together all of the data so we really get a picture of the efficacy of our marketing. Google Data Studio will include all the inputs from Google Analytics, Google Ads, Search Console, and lots of other products they offer,” said Jennifer Neeley.
“The promise of all Google data products put together in one visualized real-time model could be a seismic shift in a lot of different ways, and It’s much closer to the promise we’ve had for all these years of what Data Studio could be too.”
We hope this list adds clarity to what can be a confusing space for students looking to get into digital marketing. Many of these tools can be expensive, but there are often options for free and student subscriptions to get you started.
UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies offers a specialized certificate in Digital Marketing that gives students the training needed to become skilled professionals in the marketing field. This program is designed to provide practical knowledge in digital, content, social, mobile, and data-driven marketing, enabling participants to meet the digital marketing challenges of businesses and organizations.
Have questions about Division of Extended Studies marketing courses or certificate programs?
Contact us at MktgProgram@ucsd.edu.