What is Competitor Keyword Analysis? Best Tools and Tips 2023

Competitor Keyword Analysis discussion
Sabrina Dougall

Wanting to rank higher than your competitors is a certainty, but what's less clear is how you get there. A crucial first step to search engine results page (SERP) success is competitor keyword analysis.

In this business guide, we'll give you the rundown of researching rival rankings, including the best tools to use for it.

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What is Competitor Keyword Analysis?

Also known as “keyword competitive analysis”, this means finding out which keywords your competitors are ranking for. In all aspects of business, you should be researching your competition to discover how they're serving the same market as you. In the case of keyword analysis, it's the chance to discover which keyword phrases rival websites are dominating SERPs with.

The key questions are:

  1. How are rivals ranking on target keywords, compared with my website?
  2. Which keywords are rivals ranking for that I don't have any content on?

There are various tools you can use to get the lowdown on keywords used by competitors. Some are free and some are expensive – but both types are useless unless you really know what you're doing here. So, let's turn over a few more stones.

What's a Keyword?

You'll see this word everywhere in SEO; a keyword refers to the word(s) a web user types into a search engine. It can refer to one or more words. For example: “where can I buy refurbished headphones” is a keyword.

Why is Competitor Keyword Analysis Important?

Unless you have a good grasp of your competition's keyword rankings, you're missing out on potential traffic.

Say you're selling audiovisual electronics, and you're already ranking well for “buy new headphones”. It's dangerous to get complacent. You may be getting enough web visitors to keep revenue ticking over, but a little competitor keyword research could reveal your top rivals are targeting a whole host of lucrative keywords you'd never even thought of.

You could lose out on your keyword ranking position at any time, and for an unknown reason. It's just the way search engine algorithms work. That's why it's so important to be ranking for a range of keywords. Not just one or two!

With some careful competitor keyword analysis, you could discover opportunities to rank for:

“cheap over-ear headphones”
“headset that cancels noise”
“baby noise-cancelling earmuffs”
“dog ear protection”

Because it's difficult to do properly, too many business leaders skip out on it altogether. However, the right amount of time and expertise will surely pay dividends down the line. When you're working with machines, you've got to play by their rules. So, find out the best SEO companies small businesses are working with today.

Want to See What Your Competitors Are Ranking For?

How to Analyze a Competitor’s Keywords

Now, there's more than one way to achieve your goal. What we mean is: your competitor keyword research method will vary depending on the particular goals of your business.

It may be that you're running a purely commercial website, such as a web shop without a blog. In this case, you're looking to improve product descriptions rather than write longform articles. Or, you're aiming to sell to a Gen X audience, who trust influencers on video-based social media platforms. Then you'll be looking for TikTok ideas instead.

For the purposes of this piece, we'll hone in on business websites with some kind of content hub, such as a knowledge center, news section, or regularly updated blog.

The basic steps of competitor keyword analysis are:

  1. Identify top competitors (no more than four)
  2. Discover which keywords they're ranking for
  3. Analyze which keywords match your audience search intent
  4. Assess keyword viability (difficulty versus profitability for your business)
  5. Choose keywords for creating web content

You can get a rough idea of who your competitor websites are by simply running a web search of your target keyword phrases. We searched “over-ear headphones” in Bing and found pages from Target.com, Rode.com, Headphones.com, and Amazon.com. It makes sense to only include other retailers in our analysis, so we ignored review pages from magazines and comparison sites.

Next, there are several tools we could use for deeper research. We chose Ahrefs Keyword Explorer, as it's relatively accessible for new-comers. With it, we ran a search on “buy new headphones” and discovered data on the top pages for this keyword phrase – including one from Target.com. Bingo, we've found a competitor site.

ahrefs keyword explorer buy new headphones screenshot
Ahrefs Keyword Explorer tool reveals the top SERP results for "buy new headphones".

We ran the Target.com SERP result from Bing through Ahrefs Site Explorer tool. Next, we clicked on “Organic Keywords” to see more detail on the keyword phrases for the particular web page: www.target.com/s/over+ear+headphones. This produced a list of 84 keywords. Now we have plenty of phrases to compare with our own headphones retail website.

competitor keyword analysis screenshot from ahrefs
The Ahrefs organic keywords analysis of www.target.com/s/over+ear+headphones

In comes the human part of the analysis. This is where the knowledge of your business combines with the expertise of an SEO professional. Obviously there's no point aiming to rank higher in SERPs for keywords containing the competitor's own brand name. The reason is because the intent behind the search is navigational – those web users expect to end up on Target's website.

Remember, you've got to focus on capturing the right type of searches. You want to hook in users with commercial/transactional intent, i.e. those who want to buy headphones.

We've also got to bear in mind keyword difficulty. This gives us a picture of just how realistic it would be to try and outrank competitors for this keyword. We want to look for a keyword difficulty (KD) score of 19 or under. Helpfully, Ahrefs marks these in green for us.

Focus: Keyword Difficulty

High keyword difficulty means it will take a lot of effort (read: staff time) to rank for it. It's often wiser to aim at low difficulty keywords so you'll see results quicker. Note: there may be a reason why the difficulty score is low. Be sure to check if there's enough search volume for you to see return on investment.

The level of keyword difficulty you choose is down to specific business motivations. You may see the benefit in setting your sights on low-competition keywords because it's an opportunity to dominate a peculiar niche. Traffic may not increase considerably, but the type of leads landing on your website could give your conversion rate a lovely lift. This strategy best suits retailers of specialist products and services.

On the other hand if your website needs high volumes of traffic – perhaps it's monetized by display ads – then you may still need to target more difficult keywords. And you're therefore willing to commit to an uphill hike for the long-term.

Continuing with the above example, the low-difficulty keywords with commercial intent leave us with the following keyword phrases to consider creating web content around:

“sennheiser hd 218i on-ear stereo headphones with mic/remote”
“big headphones wireless”
“big wireless headphones”

We can combine the last two as they're essentially the same. There's more we could do to investigate these particular search terms, but this is a good start on competitor keyword analysis.

Keyword tools and search volumes are not always the ultimate source of truth – your customers are! Make sure you’re regularly interviewing your customers. The terms they search for can change over time, and new trends can begin to emerge – which keyword tools struggle to pick up on. Discovering this early on means that you can capitalize on emerging trends before your competitors can, and dominate for new valuable queries.
Caitlin Hathaway
Caitlin Hathaway SEO Manager, Expert Market

Is Competitor Keyword Analysis Included in SEO Service Packages?

Usually, yes. Competitor analysis is so fundamental that the best SEO companies will include these services as standard. This may appear under various names such as, ‘competitor intelligence reporting' or the related, yet similar, ‘keyword gap analysis'.

You should be very wary of SEO agencies that omit competitor fact-finding. After all, the internet is a web, not a series of parallel lines. So you need in-depth insight into your nearest neighbors.

Competitive keyword research may be a standalone service, which you can pay for as a one-off. This option can work well if you have some in-house SEO expertise, but lack the resources for a comprehensive SEO audit.

How Much Does Competitor Keyword Analysis Cost?

The cost of competitive keyword research will likely fall in the range of $220-$480 for a standard service. The bulk of SEO professionals charge an hourly rate of $100-$149. Costs will naturally vary according to the scope of your project; for instance, if you're looking for research on more than one domain, or you're in a particularly complex niche.

It's not always easy to work out who to hire and what to ask for. Fortunately, we've made SEO prospecting really simple with our service provider matching tool. By taking the quick quiz, you can get matched with an SEO based on exactly what you need, so you won't end up paying for services you don't want.

Ranking Higher

There's more to outranking the competition than simply targeting keywords. Domains with higher authority than yours may have a better backlink profile, a more responsive site with quicker load times or they may simply have more pages which satisfy user search intent.

 Best Tools to Use for Competitor Keyword Analysis

Let's talk tools. You can't guess which keyword phrases your competitors are ranking for, so it's time to get to grips with big data analysis. These are the essentials of your SEO toolkit:

1. SpyFu

If you're looking for a general overview of your competitors stats on keywords, both paid and organic, then SpyFu is a secret weapon. Despite its name, the software is white hat SEO, so you can be sure there's nothing shady about using it. Their tools are both broad in terms of the data you can download – competitor keywords, ranking, cost per click, difficulty, monthly search volume – and commercially useful.

SpyFu provides the estimated monthly SEO click value of your competitors, which you can't get with Ahrefs. It's also much cheaper than Semrush, and has a free competitor analysis tool to get you started on valuable research.

SpyFu screengrab competitor keyword venn diagrams
SpyFu visualizes both paid and organic keywords shared by competitor sites.

Even though SpyFu is a golden tool for beginners, in particular, it shouldn't be the only string to your bow. While we recommend it for beginners starting out on the competitor keyword analysis journey, you won't get too far on the free package as a seasoned professional.

Moreover, even the beginner-friendly SEO keywords interface gets cluttered fast. The data doesn't fit nicely across the screen and you have to grab and scroll by hand.

SpyFu competitor keyword analysis
SpyFu will generate competitor keyword lists but the interface gets crowded quickly.

SpyFu is the best place to start if you're not looking to invest too much money or effort. That said, we found using Semrush a more aesthetically appealing and mentally soothing process.

2. Semrush

As a smash-hit, comprehensive SEO analytics tool, it's no surprise that Semrush has lots of data-crunching search functions. The Organic Keywords Research Tool sets you up for smart keyword hunting with a high level of granularity. With Semrush, you can dig into much finer detail when compared with BuzzSumo or SpyFu. You can generate an organic competitor's search report to help you uncover vital search terms.

Semrush includes a nifty little metric called ‘Competition Level' which visualizes the overlap between a competitor's keywords and your own. It's a pricey SEO tool, but it equips you better than many others; you can even tune up your technical SEO with the On Page SEO Checker.

We particularly like its Keyword Gap tool, which allows you to compare up to five domains. It's an intuitive web app, immediately suggesting competitor domains as soon as you've typed in yours.

Semrush keyword gap competitor analysis tool screenshot
Semrush Keyword Gap tool suggests competitor domains as soon as you input your own.

That said, Semrush contains such a broad range of capabilities that it's overwhelming for beginners. We've ranked it a little lower than SpyFu owing to its complexity. It's really a lightsabre in the hands of a toddler unless you have the appropriate expertise to use it well.

Semrush can help to carry out the most in-depth competitor analysis possible. It's a professional-level tool, so unless you're committed to a long-term career in SEO, you're best off hiring outside help to use it. In case you've got money on your mind, we've written a guide on the best affordable SEO services.

3. Ahrefs

Easier for a beginner to get to grips with than Semrush, Ahrefs is a quick way to identify and compare rival domains. But you'll also get a good amount of detail, such as the percentage of keywords you have in common with similar websites. Simply click into Site Explorer>Competing Domains and it soon generates a list of your competitors.

There's less visualization when compared with SpyFu and Semrush (you get bar graphs rather than Venn diagrams). We think this makes the data easier to read because rows of numbers are more useful than colorful circles. Plus, there's plenty of white space, which makes analysis easier on the eyes. If you get stuck at any point, the online user guides (‘Ahrefs Academy') are clear and up-to-date.

Ahrefs competing domains tool screenshot
Ahrefs leaves more white space than SpyFu, so the data is clearer to read.

4. BuzzSumo

Focused on social sharing, trends, and engagement, BuzzSumo is less applicable for researching your ecommerce SEO strategy. While it used to have a separate domain comparison tool up until this year, it's since been absorbed into the content analysis feature, so you can't get the same graphs you used to, which is a shame.

That said, it's handy for comparing whose coverage of a topic takes the greatest share of web user interest. It gives another dimension of comparative content performance that you won't get with the SEO-centric tools above. You can save keyword searches and create custom competitor analysis dashboards to track your rivals' content performance over time.

screenshot of search results for buzzsumo keyword content analyzer
BuzzSumo compares content performance in terms of engagement.

Next Steps for SEO Success

As you've probably gleaned from the above guide on competitor keyword analysis, SEO is not a one-and-done effort. SERP results change every single day thanks to changes in consumer demand, news trends, and search engine algorithm updates.

It takes ongoing effort to maintain vital competitor analysis. It's not a simple task, nor is it an easy one.

Thankfully, there are some highly capable SEO professionals who can take this crushing workload off your plate. If you'd like to speak with our trusted SEO partners, why not outline your business website needs and we'll put you in touch.

While there are plenty of scammers, swindlers, and SEO ogres out there, we'll only connect you with honest and capable firms. If they can't achieve what you're looking for, they'll soon tell you. But you've got nothing to lose, so why not give it a try?

Leave Your Competitors in the Dust with Professional SEO Services
Written by:
Sabrina Dougall
Sabrina Dougall Web Marketing Expert

Sabrina is a business journalist whose career began in news reporting. She has a master’s in Investigative Journalism from City University London, and her work has appeared in The Times, The Daily Express, Money Saving Expert, Camen New Journal, Global Trade Review, and Computer Business Review. She specializes in writing about SEO (search engine optimization). Having run her own small business, Sabrina knows first-hand how critical digital marketing is to building a client base and local reputation.