In the age of the cloud and big data, lots of us understand that data is one of a company's most valuable resources. But professionals in many industries spend less time thinking about the key ways that data is collected – or, in other words, research.

There's a big focus on big data analytics, and on data handling, and on data storage. But some of the nuts and bolts of good, old-fashioned business research don't get the top billing they deserve. Part of that is because of the very unsexy nature of unassisted data mining and manual data entry. Companies would much rather hire a vendor to automatically port structured (or relatively unstructured) data into a central data warehouse than hire actual people to enter information by hand, or even spend time brainstorming the right ways to gather data from local sources such as point-of-sale systems.

So when it's time to do research, what kinds of tools and resources are companies into? We asked over a dozen professionals about their preferences for general research tools. Here's some of what they said.

Branded SEO Tools

Some branded SEO products are so popular that they've practically become household names. Lots of us will recognize bits and pieces of their branding in Web pages or print articles.

Jake Cain from Long Tail Pro is one fan of the SEMrush products that help companies to look at competitors’ keywords as well as their own.

“We use SEMrush for analyzing our competitor’s keywords. Basically, you can put in your competitor’s website and see all the search terms they rank for. This allows you to try to compete for the same keywords and get some fresh ideas for what you should be targeting.”

In addition to SEMrush, Cain promotes his company’s own tool, Long Tail Pro.

With Long Tail Pro, users put in a few keyword ideas and generate more keywords from them. Then researchers can drill down by clicking into individual keywords to see how competitive they are.

Why is keyword research so important?

“(Keyword tools) help a business glean better intelligence about what their customers are actually searching for in Google.” Cain says. “In addition to how often, a good tool will also show them how competitive a given search term is…This is important because many forward-thinking businesses are blogging and using other inbound marketing tactics to draw customers in. Without keyword research, you are merely taking an educated guess when it comes to your topics and focus keywords in your content.”

Back to Basics with Google Analytics

Dan Shaffer at WebPageFX is a big fan of using Google Analytics to look at website traffic.

“Google Analytics is by far the most useful tool for analyzing website traffic,” says Shaffer. “Not only does it show you who is on your website, but also who has made a purchase. With a large amount of data, you can even test elements of your site for improved conversions with Google Analytics.”

The idea that you can promote customer conversions online with Google Analytics is only one part of the massive appeal of this product, part of Google's set of business resources, which now includes Google apps for mobile and items like Google Drive for business storage.

Build Your Own Research Center

Sean Malseed at RankTank points out that business people also have the option to develop a lot of their tools and resources in-house. Using open-source products and a self-directed mix-and-match system, he says, a company can aggregate things like SEO tools and lead generation resources without becoming beholden to any one brand.

“This stuff isn't magic that only SEO experts can do,” says Malseed.

Product Improvement Research

Barry Parr, Director of Marketing Communications at Chartio, likes Net Promoter Score as a great research tool for figuring out more about a customer base, and how a product is received in its markets.

In a post on Chartio’s blog, Parr talks about measuring customer satisfaction and figuring out how a particular business does against its competitors. The Net Promoter Score survey asks recipients how likely they are to recommend a business to friends or colleagues, and runs that through a visual interface, to try to predict likely outcomes in terms of customer loyalty and conversion, as well as growth.

Free Market Research Tools

In any survey of research, you can’t leave out market research. There’s the field of SEO, which is a crucial area for getting visibility and boosting a brand, but there’s also the market research that brings organic effort to figuring out how to sustain an enterprise.

A few of our respondents were interested in what, an open-source collection of market research tools, brings to the table. There’s a lot of functionality built into this toolbox, from things like trend watching and custom polls, to user testing support and other open products to get more data on market contexts. On the social media side, you can find a few more bits, for example, tools for hashtag investigations that will mine those trendy new expressions of a post-millennial user base.