You’ve heard of its magical powers. Digital marketers swear by it, saying it can uncover some of the highest intent, most searched keywords in your industry.
Competitor keyword analysis.
But there are tons of competitors to sift through, hundreds of different tools you could use, and even more keywords to consider. How in the world can you harness that magic without spending hundreds of hours?
By following a proven process that sifts through all the noise. In this post I’m going to walk you through the process I’ve used at my agency, Rank Tree, to usurp competitors, Game of Thrones-style, on my clients’ behalf.
Table of contents
What is a competitor keyword analysis?
A competitor keyword analysis is the process of figuring out the queries your competitors are ranking for in search results, and reverse engineering what they did to outrank them.
It can be used for doing keyword research for both SEO and PPC, and is one of the quickest and easiest ways to find the highest intent keywords for your business (meaning those that lead to conversions on your website and sales).
And I can verify this. Competitor keywords, in just about every campaign we do, are one of the biggest factors in the SEO decisions we make.
But despite its wonderful powers, a lot of people do it wrong. And making the same common mistakes other people do can completely sabotage you. That’s what we’ll avoid in the process below.
How to do quick & effective competitor keyword analysis
Use this process to find what I call golden keywords: high-intent, high-volume keywords that your site can rank for quickly.
Step #1: Understand what your customers search
One of the most common mistakes people make with SEO and PPC in general is chasing keywords with high volume. This is deadly because ranking for a high volume keyword doesn’t always (and often doesn’t) translate into leads and conversions.
For example, the keyword “content marketing” has a monthly search volume of 14,000. I could rank my site for this keyword and get thousands of visitors, but none of them are going to turn into customers. The people searching that phrase in Google are simply trying to figure out what content marketing is. Most of them likely aren’t looking to purchase content marketing services.
That’s why figuring out what your customers actually search in Google before you begin this process is so important. To do this, you need to know far more than just your target audience’s demographics. You need to know:
- Questions they ask
- Problems they struggle with
- Goals they have
- Things they talk about
This helps you map out keywords based on things your customers think and struggle with while they’re at the top, middle, and bottom of your funnel. And this context is what separates sites with tons of traffic but no conversions from sites with tons of traffic and tons of conversions. If you need help with this, I created this step-by-step process for mapping keywords to your funnel.
Not sure what your audience is searching? Use our Free Keyword Tool to find out!
Step #2: Determine your top 3 competitors
With a mile-deep knowledge of what your potential customers search in Google, it’s time to identify your top competitors.
There are likely hundreds of different companies providing products or services that are somewhat similar to yours, but for this exercise, we need to identify your main three competitors.
There are two main reasons I recommend only looking for your top three competitors:
- No one has time to perform competitor keyword research on 100 competitors.
- Your closest competitors are your best bet for finding the highest intent keywords in your market.
This is the 80/20 of competitor keyword research and I’ve found tons of amazing keywords countless times from only researching three competitors.
We’re looking for those competitors who are the bane of your existence. The ones who:
- Target the same customer base.
- Are most similar to you (in terms of products or services).
- Stay on your mind the most.
Step 3. Select your competitor keyword analysis tools
The tool you use to find competitor keywords can make or break you. Why? Because the metrics these tools provide dictate which keywords you decide to go after, and some tools have more accurate metrics than others.
I recommend going with more well-known tools with access to tons of data because they will have more accurate metrics on just how much a term gets searched and how competitive it is. I usually use a combination of:
- SEO tools like Ahrefs and Semrush to identify the keywords.
- Reporting tools like Google Search Console and Google Analytics 4 to make comparisons between your competitive analysis and the existing traffic coming to your site. You may find you’re already hitting some of the keywords bubbling up in your research and that your content just needs refinement (can we interest you in some SEO-optimized blog post templates?).
I’m not suggesting these are the only tools you should use–just make sure you understand (at a high level) how a tool is calculating its metrics. Pass on any tool that doesn’t have a track record of accurate data and calculations. Too many people completely ignore this to their own peril.
Step #4: Analyze your competitors’ URLs
Now we’re down to the good stuff. Grab the URLs of your top three competitors selected in Step #2 and use your tool of choice to analyze the keywords they rank for.
Most tools will have some version of a “Site Explorer” like Ahrefs has where you can see paid keywords, organic keywords, backlinks, rankings, and more for whatever URL you enter.
In this example, I filtered the keywords to contain “how to”
Some tools also have keyword or content gap reports where you can enter multiple competitors and compare their rankings to yours with the click of a button. This is ahrefs’ Content Gap tool:
And this is Semrush’s Gap Analysis tool:
5. Identify your golden keywords
Regardless of which tool you use, the key here is identifying keywords your competitors rank for that:
- Drive the right kind of visitors (i.e. they drive customers, not just visitors).
- You can create content (or optimize existing content) for that’s better than your competitors.
- Have enough search volume to be worth investing towards.
These are the “golden keywords” we talked about in Step #1—the ones you should try to steal from your competitors. This will be largely subjective based on a number of factors, like whether you’re performing this analysis for SEO or PPC and what your goals are.
This Google Sheet template will enable you to organize your keywords by whatever criteria makes the most sense, whether that’s search volume, competition, stage of funnel, or intent.
Always, always actually Google the keyword
This is the easiest way to figure out what kind of visitors you can expect. Google wants to give people the best answer to their query, so we can reasonably assume that the top-ranking results provide the best answers (in Google’s opinion) in most cases.
Sometimes you’ll find a keyword you think is a home run and then the SERP will show completely irrelevant results or a branded term for a product, service, or company that you’d never want to waste your time on.
Don’t just look at keyword difficulty metrics
Generally speaking, keyword difficulty metrics measure the number of links the top-ranking URLs have for a particular keyword. They aren’t 100% accurate measurements of how hard it will be to rank.
That’s why I recommend also looking at the Domain Rating (DR) or Domain Authority (DA) of each of the top results for any keywords you’re considering. Sometimes you’ll see a keyword that a tool says is “very hard” with super-low DR sites (like 20) in the top 10, and vice versa. This is usually an indicator that it’s actually easier or harder to rank for than the difficulty metrics claim.
Make competitive keyword analysis a staple in your PPC & SEO strategies
Competitive keyword research helps you quickly and easily uncover the best keywords in your niche. It’s by far the most fruitful strategy I’ve used, and I know many people who almost solely find their keywords this way.
Remember, this is a quality over quantity game. The right traffic is better than a lot of traffic. And this process will help you define the “right” traffic for your site. Approach this with a “reverse engineering” mindset.
You have the best chance to take your competitors’ keywords when you beat them at their own game and provide Google with the answers it’s looking for.
To recap, here’s how to do a competitor keyword analysis:
- Understand the terms your audience searches
- Choose your tools
- Identify your top three competitors
- Plug them into the tool
- Find your golden keywords
About the author
Hunter Branch is the founder of Rank Tree—a content marketing agency that has grown blogs that fuel seven-figure online businesses.