It's no secret that keyword research is essential for any SEO campaign. But sometimes finding the right keywords to target can be a long an arduous task. If you've hit a road block in your research, why not have a snoop around and find out what your competitors have been doing. By studying your competitors and their keywords, you can gain valuable insights into what's working for them and adapt these strategies for your own website.
Not sure where to start? Don't worry, we've got you! Here’s your step by step guide to competitor keyword analysis. By using the techniques in this guide, you'll be able to uncover your competitors' most lucrative keywords (and steal them for yourself). So what are you waiting for? Happy reading!
You might find that your competitors in the search engine results pages (or SERPs) have had, and tried, different ideas about keywords already. They might be more mature or have a bigger budget than your business. Competitor keyword analysis can help you learn a lot about what will or won’t work without having to do the legwork yourself, and you can pick and choose which lessons you want to take away from your competitors’ successes and failures.
In order to carry out competitor keyword analysis successfully, you’re going to want to know who your competitors actually are, right? Whilst you might have a local nemesis down the road who have positioned themselves as your nearest competitor, they aren’t necessarily your competitor in the SERP. You want to pin down your online competitors, who could show up anywhere from Google to eBay, Wikipedia, or the NHS. Here’s how you find them.
Just like the best things in life, gathering your main keywords and popping them into search is totally free. You should already have an idea of what your main keywords are (if not, get the low down on keyword research here). A good starting point is to pop these ‘top of the tree’ keywords (sometimes you’ll see them called “head terms”) into Google and begin assessing who’s ranking for each of your main terms. If you find yourself struggling, ask yourself, what would your customer type into Google to find your products or services? Use the search to find the usual suspects (that’s the pages that are coming up over and over).
You should have a few variations of your main keywords that you’ll be able to try. For example, if one of them is ‘builders merchant’, some related search terms could be ‘plumbing supplies’, ‘timber merchant’, and so on. You may start to find that the companies ranking well for these terms are not necessarily competing directly for your customers, but you should probably still be viewing these businesses as competitors, at least as far as organic traffic is concerned.
Tools like SEMrush can offer you a great insight as to who your competitors are. Let’s use a digital marketing company as an example.
Straight away, within Domain Overview, if we scroll down a bit we can see a list of organic competitors that SEMrush has identified through looking at the keywords they have in common. The tool even provides a graph that illustrates your positioning within your competitor list in relation to estimated organic search traffic and organic keywords.
It’s worth noting that these competitors have been flagged in relation to the keywords that you are currently ranking for and not the keywords that you want to be ranking for. Take that into consideration. If your existing site isn’t quite sending the right signals in terms of topic relevance, you may end up deciding to use a model competitor as a jumping off point instead.
You should now be able to build a bit of a shortlist of competitors. Don’t be afraid to go even more in depth. You can be even more specific with your search queries and collate different lists for really valuable long tail keywords vs those that you’re competing with for your main product or service queries.
So you’ve got your list of competitors that are ranking for relevant keywords. Now, how do you go about finding what other keywords they’re ranking for? Let’s enlist the help of a tool to get the goods.
Google Keyword Planner
This route is a perfectly decent way to get started, generating a glorious list of suggested keywords (plus, it’s free!). First, you’ll want to identify a similar services page or competing page from one of your competitors’ websites and copy the URL. Head over to Keyword Planner - you’ll need to select ‘start with a website’, copy the URL in and make sure to tick the ‘use only this page’ option. What the tool will do is provide you with a list of suggested keywords based on the copy of the entered URL.
Now, this doesn’t provide information on whether they are ranking particularly well for these terms. What it does do is give you a clearer idea as to what keywords they are targeting with this page; or at least what Google thinks that page is relevant for.
Looking back at SEMrush, the tool can provide a lot of insightful information. Start by adding the root domain of your competitor into the search bar at the top of the website. If we then head into ‘Organic Research’ found in the left navigation menu, we can see a lot of information related to organic search. Now, what we are mainly interested in at the moment is what keywords they are ranking for, so if we scroll down a bit we can see there is a section for their top organic keywords.
View all organic keywords to see which URL within this domain is ranking for the keyword in question.
This in itself can be useful, but if you want to go a step further you can discover your competitor’s most prolific pages and how much search volume they are potentially exposed to. This is particularly useful for identifying high performing pages that you can take inspiration from.
Start by exporting your information from SEMrush into Excel and then copy the list of URLs into another tab.
Remove any duplicates.
Now we want to count how many keywords each URL is ranking for. We can do this by using =COUNTIF. Essentially, this formula counts how many occurrences of cell A2 there are within the selected range. Be sure to add ‘$’ symbols in front of your values to prevent them incrementing up when you copy the formula down.
Next we’re going to sum up the total amount of search volume each URL is potentially visible to. Using =SUMIF we’re going to get Excel to add up your “sum range” (the search volume of the keyword in question) every time your “criteria” (your new URL list) is found within your selected “range” (the URL list in your 1st sheet).
Finally, you can sort high to low and then you’ll get a good idea of which of your competitor’s pages are the most prolific. Where you can’t look in their Google Analytics, you can at least get an idea of what SEMrush thinks they’re the most visible for. You may discover that your competitors aren’t ranking particularly well for these keywords, which is good news for you as these terms have now been revealed to you and you can take a stab at ranking for them yourself.
Keep in mind: It’s important to have a general idea of how tools work, and the idiosyncrasies that come with it. SEMRush doesn't have privileged access to information from Google. They operate by maintaining their own database of keywords, and regularly checking the SERPs to see who ranks where. This means that their data relies on, and is limited to, their own big database of possible keywords. If your keyword isn’t in their list, then as far as SEMRush is concerned, it doesn't exist; even if Keyword Planner reports it as having some volume. If you’re in a very niche space, this could be a problem for you. If you’re not, it could be a useful filter.
If you’ve found a competitor that is dominating the SERPs, appearing left, right and centre, you may decide you want to take a closer look at their website to explore why it is performing so well and find out whether there’s anything you can replicate for your own site. Screaming Frog’s spider tool can help you here. The tool will crawl a website, a search engine for example, and list a load of information including; page titles, meta descriptions, heading tags, plus a lot more. You should be able to get a sense of their structure and these other components will point you towards the keywords they’re targeting, giving you a better understanding of how they’re ranking for them.
You’ve gathered your list of competitors and discovered what keywords they’re ranking for. What’s next?
Using some combination of the tools listed above, you should be able to sift through vast lists of keywords that have been generated using your competitor(s) as a seed. This is the point where you need to start getting choosy. You need to decide on which keywords will be valuable enough to you to target.
It’s tempting to be lured in by search volume, as this means you’ll be visible to more people, right? That might very well be the case, and for brand awareness this can be great, but it’s important to ask yourself; what are the true intentions of someone using this search query? It can be much more beneficial to target a search query that is niche and low in volume but has clear commercial thrust behind the search, e.g. “dining table” vs “5ft x 4ft square extendable white and oak dining table that seats 6”. The latter knows exactly what they want, and when they find it, they’ll be ready to make an inquiry.
You may have found that one of your competitors has a great resource section on their website that is generating a lot of visibility. On the surface this may look impressive, perhaps unattainable, but remember to consider; ‘who would actually be searching for this content?’ Maybe there’s a lot of content aimed at someone in a junior position – and if you’re a B2B company, maybe you really want to be attracting decision makers. When deciding what kind of content to cover, remember to always keep in mind your marketing personas. If you’re wanting to learn more about user intent, check out Rejoice Ojiaku’s Business as Unusual talk here.
Finally, the golden question. There are lots of metrics and signals that go into deciding who gets to rank in the top spot, too many to cover comprehensively, but getting started is simple enough. Start by looking at the SERP for each of your queries. Keep in mind when doing so: Google wants to personalise results as much as possible. Even if you’re using a private browsing window, some topics will be personalised based on your location, so try to be wary of that when making decisions.
Look at the top performing content on your SERP and assess the characteristics of each page. Often there can be a pattern with the type of content being preferred for a given query. Painfully often, this will differ from the type of content you expected, or were planning to write/optimise. For example, you might have optimised a service-type page for the query, which does a lovely job of communicating features and benefits– but Google has other ideas. Nothing in your list of results looks like a service page. All the results for that query are long, dense ‘pillar page’ style articles, packed with facts, citations and references.
In a circumstance such as this, you might have to rethink the type of content that you’re sending after that query.
James is SEO Executive at Noisy Little Monkey and responsible for helping our clients climb up the organic rankings.
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