Use Competitor Keywords to Improve Your Digital Strategy in 5 Steps

Connor Lahey

Feb 28, 20227 min read
competitor keywords

What Are Competitor Keywords?

Competitor keywords are keywords your competitors are currently targeting to improve rankings and generate more online traffic.

Targeting competitor keywords helps you appear on the same SERPs (search engine results pages) as your competitors. You can also use competitor keyword research to reveal weaknesses, such as valuable keywords they have yet to target.

With this information, you can perform a competitor keyword analysis to find out which keywords to focus on next (more on that later).

What Is Competitor Keyword Analysis?

Competitor keyword analysis is the process of identifying and evaluating keywords used by competitors to achieve high rankings in search engine results in order to help inform your own SEO strategy.

First, you’ll need to find out which keywords have worked well for your competitors. Before we jump into how to do that, let’s quickly see the importance of understanding search intent.

Leveraging Search Intent

Users know what they’re looking for when they enter keywords or phrases into Google search. To maximize your organic search success, you will need to zero in on their search intent and understand the different stages of a buyer’s journey.

Search intent feature in Semrush
Semrush's search intent feature categorizes keywords into four different intent categories: Informational, Navigational, Commercial, and Transactional

For the sake of competitor keyword research, you’ll also need to understand the customer’s journey within the context of the competitive landscape you operate in. A potential customer will have a range of options available to them at each stage of their journey. 

How to Do a Competitor Keyword Analysis

If you’ve already completed your keyword research, you can do competitor analysis research to receive the most out of your target keywords. 

Performing a competitor keyword analysis can be done in five simple steps:

  1. Find Your Competitors
  2. Research the Competition
  3. Gather Competitor Keywords
  4. Export Keywords
  5. Organize Your Results

Read on to learn more about each step.

How to perform a competitor keyword analysis in 5 steps

1. Find Your Competitors

Your online search competitors can be very different from your local business competitors. Some of your toughest local competitors might not be competitive at all in terms of organic search. 

How are search competitors different from business competitors? Search competitors are the websites that rank for the same or same type of keywords as your website.

With this in mind, the first step in your competitor keyword research is to understand where you stand against your search competitors. 

To find the top players in your niche, start with a simple Google search query related to your industry. 

Coffee shops in Chicago
You may have established competing businesses in your area, but it's smart to check which businesses are ranking well organically for keywords you plan to target.

You’ll discover which competitors have the highest organic and commercial rankings through this search. Choose the main keywords most relevant to your business to see who is dominating in your search “neighborhood.” You might be surprised to see who is competing for the same keywords as you!

For example, if you run a coffee shop, you could search for keywords like “coffee shop,” “cafe,” “coffeehouse,” or “coffee bar,” and you’ll have a simple view of who is also ranking for those terms.

Even if the competition for local keywords like "coffee shop in [your city here]", it's a good idea to capitalize on that so you remain the most visible online for customers in the area.

Pro tip: Run a Google ‘related’ search [] to find websites related to yours instantly. 

2. Research the Competition

If your website is new or you’re struggling to identify your competitors, you can use third-party tools like the Organic Research tool

The tool includes a competitor report that highlights the main organic competitors related to your domain.

To use the Organic Research tool, insert your target domain into the tool’s input field, then select “Search:”

Organic Research tool

The Organic Research tool returns a wealth of metrics, such as: 

  • Top organic keywords
  • Top pages
  • Position changes for organic keywords

For a full competitors report, select the “Competitors” tab:

Organic Research Competitors tab

You can adjust the filters to show your competitors in different markets (such as the UK or Australia) or on different devices in this tab. 

You’ll also be able to see how much organic traffic each competitor earns and how many keywords the target domain shares with each competitor. 

3. Gather Competitor Keywords

If you click any number in the “Common Keywords” column, you’ll navigate to the Keyword Gap tool

You can use this tool to compare target keywords from up to five domains. The tool highlights any common target keywords the domains share and keywords your competitors are ranking for that you’re not. 

Keyword Gap home screen
Once you input one domain, Keyword Gap will suggest competitors based on shared keywords.

The Keyword Gap tool also allows you to export the aggregated data from multiple platforms in an Excel sheet, which eliminates the step of running gap analysis one domain at a time.

Or, to keep things simple, check the keywords you want to analyze and click blue the “+ To Keyword Manager” button at the top right of your results. You can create a new list or use an existing list.

Keyword Manager example
Organize keywords in groups in the Keyword Manager tool. You can easily sort by Keyword Difficulty, search intent, competitive density, and more.

4. Export Keywords

To customize your results, use the filters to explore the untapped potentials of your competitor keywords. Then, export a ready-to-use spreadsheet with the most valuable information already coherently organized. 

Keyword Gap results

With this tool, you can see what position you hold alongside your competitors for each keyword and which pages rank the highest. 

To export your Keyword Gap results to a spreadsheet, click the export button to generate an Excel, CSV, or CSV semicolon file of your keyword gap data. 

To add selected keywords to the Keyword Manager, click the blue button next to “Export.”

If you’re a free user, you cannot export or filter your results.

5. Organize Your Results

Start by thoroughly vetting and assessing your competitor keywords list, then follow these steps.

  1. Sift through the stats for high competition keywords and set them aside. They might be too competitive to go after now, but they might come in handy later.
  2. Cross-check keywords you share with your competitors and eliminate ones that don’t make sense for your business.
  3. Highlight keywords with higher domain and trust authority. These could be solid options to target.
  4. Review SERPs for each highlighted keyword. Note any organic or paid opportunities you may have missed and how you might target them. Pay special attention to keywords your competitors rank higher for. 
How to assess competitor keywords

How to Use Competitor Keywords to Your Advantage 

There’s no magic trick to help you quickly identify which keywords are more important than others. You need to perform a manual analysis of your competitors' keywords and consider their relevance, organic traffic, and current SERPs to make this decision.

Evaluate Each Competitor Keyword

Once you’ve narrowed your competitor keywords list to the most relevant or accessible keywords, you’ll probably be looking at a much shorter list. 

Now you’ll need to analyze each.

A keyword analysis tool like the Keyword Overview tool can help you explore the critical metrics for each keyword, such as their search volume, average CPC dollars spent, or ads currently targeting the keyword

To use this tool, enter a target keyword and select “Search.” The tool returns the keyword’s search and global volume, notable keyword variations, and more.

Keyword Overview tool results for cat memes

Assess Ranking Difficulty: Find a Competitive Edge 

To find potential quick wins, check your competitors’ ranking changes. 

Open the Position Changes report in the Organic Research tool to look at the lists of lost and declined keywords.

Organic Research tool Position Changes report

This report aids in spotting your competition’s current weak spots. You’ll be able to see keywords they’ve recently lost that you may want to target. 

Scroll down on the report to review the list of keywords and look at the “KD %” column.

This refers to Keyword Difficulty, which is an estimate of how difficult it will be to rank for a particular keyword. The closer to 100, the more difficult it will be.

Keyword Difficulty percentage

If you’ve found keywords you want to pursue, there are a couple of ways to move forward depending on whether you already have pages that target these keywords or not:

  • If you don’t currently have a page that targets the keyword in question, use the SEO Content Template or SEO Writing Assistant to begin the content creation process. These tools will review your rivals’ content and provide suggestions to make yours more competitive. You can set target keywords and receive real-time feedback on readability, SEO, originality, and tone of voice.
  • If you already have a page targeting the keyword, use the On Page SEO Checker to receive specific recommendations to improve your page.

Review Competitors’ Paid Campaigns

After exploring your competitors’ organic traffic opportunities, the next step is cross-referencing organic results with your competitors’ paid traffic.

The Advertising Research tool helps you track what keywords your competitors are bidding on and the results they’re earning. The tool even shows you any live ads it can find.

Advertising Research ad copy for

You can also use the Keyword Gap tool to analyze paid keyword gaps. Combined with the Advertising Research tool results, you can start planning paid ad campaigns accordingly.

From here, you can start adding targeted paid keywords into Ad Groups in the PPC Keyword tool to begin building your campaigns.

Pro tip: Don’t forget to check the Competitive Density of the competitor keywords you select to decide which ones to bid on.

Use Competitor Keywords to Your Advantage

It's essential to understand the competitive landscape before moving forward with your SEO or PPC strategy.

You may find something you’re missing or learn something new!

With Semrush—and this quick guide to understanding competitor keywords—start targeting the best and most relevant keywords for your business using the largest keyword database on the market.

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Content strategist, SEO and writer. Enjoys monitoring SERP volatility. You can find me reading Tolkien in the far north of Norway.
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