A Guide to Competitor Keyword Research for Effective Digital Strategy
Keywords are the bedrock of a quality SEO strategy.
They influence everything from site structure to the type of content you create. Keywords are what our customers use to find us online.
That means your competitors are also performing their keyword research strategies against you.
Let’s discuss competitor keyword research, what it means for your SEO, and how you can use competitor keyword analysis to your benefit.
What is a Competitor Keyword Analysis?
Before we answer this question, let’s first define a competitor keyword.
A competitor keyword is any term or phrase that a company in your industry uses to vie for improved SERP rankings. They use these keywords to plan their webpage content, paid ads, blog articles, and more.
This is no different than what you should be doing for your brand’s website.
A competitor keyword analysis is a process of actively researching the keywords a competitor is targeting. You can use that knowledge to investigate how the brand is using those keywords.
If a competitor outranks your brand, you can investigate their keyword research to discern what makes their content superior to Google.
Conversely, you can identify weaknesses in their keyword strategy and exploit them to improve your rankings. If your team can create more engaging, high-quality content, you may be able to leapfrog them in SERPs.
Effectively, a competitor keyword analysis is like a road map. Take a look at your surroundings, determine what gets results and what doesn’t, and adjust your SEO strategy accordingly.
How to Perform Competitor Keyword Research?
Competitor keyword research is a straightforward process. However, there are a few steps you’ll need to take before you can get down to the finer details.
Step 1 – Identify Your Top Competitors
The first step is to determine which competitors in your industry are in direct competition with you online.
Your top competitors will demonstrate these characteristics:
- They offer products or services that are similar to yours
- They target a similar audience
- They’re close in ranking for the same or similar keywords
- You can reasonably compete with an effective strategy and budget
Your closest competitors will also vary based on how large of an area you serve.
If you are a local brand, you’ll want to focus on businesses in your industry within the same county and surrounding areas. You can perform a quick Google search to bring up the nearest companies. Bear in mind that the brands ranking well online may differ from the ones you may be directly aware of or interact with in person.
For example, if you’re a brewery, you could search “breweries near me” or “brewery zip code.” Google will pull up a list of the nearest competitors. Specifically, you’ll be interested in the local 3-pack that appears at the top of the SERP.
Brands that earn the 3-pack ranking demonstrate exceptional SEO. This is the result of many factors including NAP optimization, user reviews, and effective keyword selections. You can also check out high-ranking results just below that just miss the cut for these positions.
National or eCommerce competitor analysis is similar with the exception that there is no local 3-pack. You’ll want to search for online retailers that deal with the same or similar products as your business.
Bear in mind that the size and scope of the brand are important when determining competition. Your small online startup is not going to have the resources necessary to dethrone a corporate juggernaut like Amazon.
Focus on brands like you that manage to obtain and withhold the top organic rankings. It’s their strategies that you’ll want to investigate if you want to improve.
Step 2 – Investigate Competitor Websites with SEO Tools
With your top competitors identified, you should have a list of domains in hand.
There are myriad free and paid SEO tools to assist with competitor keyword research.
Semrush is an amazing keyword research tool that allows you to research by specific terms or via domain.
You can take one of your competitor domains, enter into the organic research field, and instantly generate a list of keywords found on their site.
Alternatively, you can enter your domain. Then, underneath Domain Analytics, choose Competitors. This will generate a list of keyword rankings for your site and compare them to other domains that are just above or below you in SERPs.
Semrush allows you to see a variety of insightful metrics including:
- Position rankings
- Average search volume
- Keyword difficulty
- Traffic percentage by domain
- How many times a domain appears as a result for a keyword
Semrush also offers a variety of filters that allow you to customize your search by specific geographic locations.
It starts at $119/95/month with the ability to track up to 500 unique keywords. However, they do offer a free trial so that you can determine if this platform is right for your business.
WordStream is a platform that puts a greater emphasis on PPC marketing.
However, they do offer a free keyword tool with many of the same features and benefits as Semrush.
The research process is similar. You can enter any keyword or URL into the search tool and instantly find a list of relevant search terms.
It offers some of the same key metrics including search volume and CPC. It also has a competition metric, showing how difficult it will be to rank for that keyword. This is comparable to Semrush’s keyword difficulty.
Step 3 – Compile Your Research
After you research your listed competitor domains, you need to organize your findings.
Compile all of the discovered keywords and their associated metrics into a format that’s easy for your team to follow. Your SEO tool of choice will likely offer the ability to take all of your collected data and export it into a user-friendly Excel file.
Semrush offers its Keyword Gap tool for this express purpose. After entering the root domains of the competitors you wish to track, simply export the data into a file format of your choosing.
Likewise, you can download any WordStream reports as a CSV file, which can be easily uploaded into Microsoft Excel. If you’re working on a paid ads campaign, know that these files can also interact with Google Ads to assist with planning.
Step 4 – Analyze the Competitor Keyword Data
Now that we’ve isolated the data, we can begin to conduct a proper assessment of our top competitors.
For starters, it’s a smart idea to eliminate keywords with a high difficulty from contention. However, do not delete the data. While it’s unwise to burn resources on keywords that won’t generate the best ROI, you might be better positioned to target them at a later date.
Keywords that feature a high difficulty are in strong contention by several parties. Those brands have likely been pursuing those keywords for some time, making it virtually impossible for you to make any headway at this time.
With those terms eliminated, you should now have a much shorter list comparably.
Next, begin the process of reviewing keywords used by specific competitors. Some of these may be terms that your team is already trying to use for rankings. There may also be additional terms that are not present in your SEO strategy.
Think carefully about which missing terms are most applicable to your brand. If the keyword seems to describe something tangentially, but not directly related to your business, you can eliminate it from contention.
This should leave you with a list of the following:
- Keywords used by both your brand and competitors
- Keywords you’re not currently using, but present real opportunities for better rankings
Step 5 – Check Out Competitor Keyword Usage in Action
The final step in this process is to investigate how your competitors utilize the keyword for rankings.
This applies to both types of keywords we narrowed down in the previous step. Particularly, you’ll want to focus on competitors that currently outrank you for terms you have in common.
You can do this by navigating to the URL that is ranking for the keyword in question.
Consider what the competitor is doing with the content. Many factors can contribute to superior content rankings including:
- The subject matter
- The quality of the content
- Content layout (headlines, sub-headers, clean organization)
- Internal linking and anchoring
- Keyword frequency
- Secondary and tertiary keyword usage
Also, look for other success indicators such as likes or shares. If a page or a particular piece of content is gaining large engagement numbers, you’ll want to take note. Let the consumer tell you what content they want to see.
Of course, additional off-page factors may contribute to superior rankings and domain authority for a competitor. Among these are backlinks, meaning that other sources share the competitor’s content with their audience.
Keywords by themselves simply tell you where to aim. However, by taking the time to better understand why a domain ranks higher for a keyword, you can gain real insight as to how you can adjust your strategy.
Also, do not simply attempt to copy or imitate the competitor directly. Focus on the aspects of your brand that help it stand out. Then, use that unique perspective to add flavor to content that only you can provide.
Finally, don’t ignore or rule out competitors that you’re currently beating. Rankings can change overnight with how frequently Google’s algorithm changes. Stay up-to-date with their keyword and content strategies, and always assume that you could fall back in rankings at any time.
Conclusion – Should You Use Competitor Keywords?
A competitor keyword analysis is critical for any successful SEO strategy.
To improve your ROI, you need to make gains in your organic traffic and rankings. You cannot achieve this without proper keyword selection. Capitalizing on the right search terms will help you connect with the right users and help you outshine competitors in the same industry.
Whether or not you should use a competitor keyword depends upon key factors.
- Does the keyword directly pertain to my business?
- How difficult is it to rank for this keyword?
- Can I use my unique value proposition to outrank my competitor for this keyword?
If the keyword satisfies one or more of these conditions, you may want it to consider for use either now or down the line.
Finally, high keyword rankings among competitors will tell you a lot about their marketing strategies. Pay close attention to the type of content they create, how they present it, what makes it strong, and when it presents a weakness.
Then, use all of this information to guide your content creation process. Consider how you can differentiate your brand from the competition, and add that unique spin to your keyword-focused content.