Competitor keyword research is the process of identifying and analyzing the keywords that your competitors rank for in search engine results.
It’s an important process that can help you learn a lot about what it takes for your own site to rank. Knowing what organic keywords your competitors rank for can give you insights into the market as a whole, the tactics they use to attract customers, and gaps in your content.
But competitor keyword research doesn’t have to be difficult.
Use the interactive guides in this article to get the most out of your competitor research—even if you’ve never done it before.
When Should You Do Competitor Keyword Research?
You can do competitor keyword research on its own or as a part of a complete keyword research process. Alone, it isn’t a replacement for comprehensive keyword research. But it can help you learn where your competitors are winning and how you may catch up with them.
Competitor keyword research comes in handy at a few particular times.
First, It’s a critical component any time you develop a new SEO campaign. This is true whether it’s the first campaign for your business or if your business is launching a new service or product.
Looking at your competition’s rankings gives you insight into what is working in your industry. It can help you understand the market landscape, the relevant terms, and potential opportunities.
Competitor keyword research is also helpful when you want to update or expand content. Researching your competitors can show you what terms they’re using and how they’re structuring their content around those terms.
Finally, it’s helpful when your organic traffic plateaus or declines.
A dip in organic traffic is sometimes a sign that search intent has shifted for some terms you used to rank for. A competitive keyword analysis can provide fresh insights into tactics the competition uses to adjust to algorithm changes.
No matter what your reasons is for doing competitor keyword research, the process is almost always the same. The steps found in the following sections will show you how you can do it yourself.
Find Your Competitors
It may sound obvious, but the first step in competitor keyword research is identifying your online competitors.
That may not be as straightforward as it sounds.
You might think of the firm across town as your primary competitor. After all, you are competing with them for the same clients. But they may not always be the best benchmark for your keyword research.
Unless your local competitor has invested in SEO, they may not be your competitor on Google.
If you’re a software company, this probably makes sense. You’re an international brand serving an international audience of searchers. But many businesses with a local or regional component, such as law firms, miss this critical point.
Your most relevant competitors on Google often extend beyond your local area.
When you do competitor research, look for sites that target keywords with national appeal rather than just local terms. These sites often rank for higher-value keywords than the ones that only focus on local terms. They also tend to still rank highly even when Google localizes its search results.
A quick way to unearth your competitors is by using advanced search operators on Google.
The “related:” advanced search operator shows you other pages that Google thinks are like your own. It’s like asking Google to find pages in the same ‘category’ as the one you specify.
The walkthrough below will show you how to use this type of search to find some competitors.
This type of advanced search is a useful place to start if you have a big site.
Google may not always be able to compare your site to others if yours is small or new. The search engine may not have enough information on a small site to serve a list of related pages.
You could do a “related:” search for a leader in your industry to find their competitors. The problem with that is your competitor’s competitors aren’t always the same as yours. That could make your keyword research less accurate at the end of the process.
A more reliable way to find your competitors is by using a tool that compares the keywords you rank for versus sites with a similar keyword profile.
There are a few different SEO and keyword research tools that can surface competitors for you this way. We recommend using Ahrefs for this process. It’s an industry-standard tool for SEOs and has other useful tools that will come in handy for other parts of keyword research.
If you already have an Ahrefs account, go to the Site Explorer account for your domain. Then follow the steps outlined below.
The organic competitors report will show you some of the most closely related sites to your own by keyword overlap.
But some valuable insights may be missing.
For example, Ahrefs only showed other law firm websites as competitors for forthepeople.com. Law firm websites aren’t the only type of site that ranks for legal keywords. It’s worth it to look around for those sites too.
You can find more competitors by looking at which domains get the most traffic from specific keywords.
First, come up with some broad keyword ideas for your industry. For example, a lawyer who wants to get more car accident cases may use the following high-level terms to see which competitors get the most site visitors from them:
- car accident lawyer
- car accident lawyers
- car accident attorney
- car accident attorneys
- car accident settlement
Then, you can enter your high-level terms into Ahrefs Keywords Explorer. The walkthrough below shows how to use Ahrefs to learn which sites get the most traffic from your chosen terms.
You can create a solid list of competitors by using each of these methods.
For example, a lawyer may choose some of the law firm websites uncovered in the organic competitors report plus Nolo.com from the traffic share by keywords report.
Once you have your list of competitors together, you’re ready to move on to finding the keywords they rank for.
Run a Content Gap Report
Finding your competitor’s keywords is far easier than figuring out which sites to investigate.
The most efficient way to both find your competitor’s keywords and compare each one to your site is by running a content gap analysis. Ahrefs has a built-in content gap report that can help you find this information quickly. Follow the walkthrough below to get started.
Using this report, it’s easy to see instances where all of your competitors are ranking for a topic but your site is nowhere to be found. Things like that are a pretty clear indication that your site should probably cover the same topic.
With your filtered and exported list of keywords in hand, you can start assessing each keyword to see if it makes sense as a topic to cover on your site.
Assess the Keywords You Discovered
Not every keyword that your competitors rank for is going to be valuable to you.
Before you start creating content based on any keyword gaps, you’ll need to assess each keyword’s viability. There are three important things to assess each keyword for:
- Business value and topical relevance: Is the keyword relevant to your business and site?
- Your ability to rank for the keyword: Do the keywords metrics (such as search volume, traffic potential, keyword difficulty, and backlinks) indicate that your site could rank for the term?
- The search intent for the topic: What are people looking for when they search for the topic? Can you create a piece of content that satisfies the intent?
You can assess any keyword opportunity from your content gap report that you think is worth targeting through this lens. Ahrefs Keywords Explorer tool can help you find the metrics for your potential target keyword. It can also help you figure out what the search intent is and whether the term has business value.
Start by going to Ahrefs Keywords Explorer. Then enter your keyword. The walkthrough below will show you how to assess that keyword.
One other thing to consider as you assess keywords is similarity. Google groups related keywords together into topic clusters. Two keywords that might seem different on the surface may actually belong to the same.
This may seem like a small detail, but ignoring it could cost your site’s performance.
When you try to create two pages or blog posts targeting two keywords that are part of the same topic cluster, you could create a cannibalization issue. When Google’s algorithm sees two different pages about the same thing, it can’t decide which one to rank. In most cases, neither page can achieve a first-page ranking.
When you see two keywords that might be the same topic, you should investigate their similarity before creating a new page.
You can check the similarity by entering both terms into Google in separate tabs. Then you can compare the search engine results pages (SERPs) to see if the results are the same. But this can be an incredibly tedious process.
Instead, you can use the SERP similarity feature in Ahrefs following the walkthrough below.
After confirming that two relevant keywords actually belong to different topics, you’re ready to start creating a new piece of content.
Running Page-Level Competitor Gaps
Competitor keyword research isn’t limited to creating new pages. It’s also useful for optimizing the content on your site.
For example, imagine that you’re a personal injury lawyer with a page about typical payouts for an injury claim. You published the page a while ago, but it never took off. It currently ranks toward the bottom of the first page of organic search results.
You can use a competitor gap report to see if your page may be missing something that top-ranking competitors nailed.
First, you need to find the top competitors for your target term.
Note down the URLs for the competitor pages and your page’s URL. Once you’ve done that, follow the walkthrough below to run your page-level competitor gap report.
The competitor keyword gap data that you find may help you identify gaps in that specific page. Refreshing your page to fill those gaps could improve your rankings.
Closing the Gap with Competitor Keyword Research
Competitor keyword research is an important part of any keyword research process. It can help you understand what your competitors are doing to reach your ideal clients. It’s a powerful tool for both creating new content and updating existing pages.
But it isn’t the silver bullet for SEO success.
Knowing your competitor’s tactics is just the beginning. You have to understand how to create content that meets your audience’s needs. And you have to know what it takes to maintain an optimized website.
If you need help with this, consider reaching out to an SEO agency.
At Rankings.io, we help elite attorneys capture their market through search engine optimization. We know what it takes to help your firm not just match your competition but eclipse them. Talk to us today to see how we can take your law firm to the next level.
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