Driving traffic and leads to your website with SEO is one of the best investments you can make as a small business owner. SEO traffic is some of the highest quality traffic out there and it’s not reliant upon ad spend, promotions, or one-time events. 

With the right information, consistent research, and the will to win, you can develop SEO momentum and overtake your competitors. First, let’s examine why competitor keyword research should be part of every business owner’s content marketing strategy…

Why Is Competitor Keyword Analysis Important?

When it comes to competitive keyword analysis, you don’t merely want to gather the keywords your competition is ranking for, but understand the value of these keywords. This means evaluating their top keywords for their topical relevance, conversion-friendliness, and total visibility. 

You also want to use competitors’ keyword data to establish realistic expectations for your content. If two of your top three competitors have been around longer and have hundreds of published blog posts, you can’t rival that within a week.

However, if your primary competitors have roughly the same or less content than you do, you’re in a great position to rank higher than them. Remember to conduct an SEO content audit on your own site if it’s been a while since you’ve invested heavily into content marketing.

You can analyze your competitors with SEO tools like Ahrefs, SEMrush, Spyfu, and Moz, and you should budget for one of these or a similar platform. Tools provide significant amounts of data like which competitor blog posts are ranking best, but in order to sustain your efforts beyond a few popular keywords, you need a long-term strategy.

Here are the steps you should take…

1. Gather Initial Competitor Data

If you aren’t sure that your competitors are even doing SEO, our 10-minute SEO test will answer that for you. Once you have a list of competitors who are doing SEO, it’s time to analyze their overall approach. Your direct competitors are those that either rank for the same keywords as your website, or keywords that pertain to your flagship services and/or products.

For example, if you’re a plumber, here are some of the keywords you and your competition may target:

  • How to fix leaky pipe under sink
  • Common plumbing issues
  • How much do plumbers cost
  • Best plumbers in my area

Each of these keywords make for great blog posts or FAQ resources. It’s not surprising that real-world plumbing businesses own many of the Google page one positions for these keywords. 

There are two reliable means by which to collect competitor keyword ranking data: the paid way and the free way. Before you utilize either method, set up your competitor tracking spreadsheet in an online, shareable Google Sheet.

The sheet should include the following columns:

  • URL 
  • Primary Keyword
  • URL’s Current Rank
  • How Much Traffic They’re Getting (if available)
  • Your Equivalent URL
  • Your Primary Keyword
  • Your URL’s Current Rank
  • How Much Traffic You’re Getting

Duplicate these columns for as many competitors as you’re spying on. Now that your spreadsheet is ready, let’s look at the free and paid methods of competitor keyword data collection. 

Related article: How to Spy on Your Competiors’ Google Ads Campaigns

Paid Competitor Keyword Analysis Method

The paid method involves using a robust SEO platform like SEMrush or Ahrefs, and plugging in your competitors’ homepage URLs. You’ll see their recent site traffic, current rankings, and the URLs on their site that rank the highest. Use the keyword gap feature in whichever platform you’ve utilized to see how many and which keywords they are ranking for that you aren’t. 

Free Competitor Keyword Analysis Method

The free method is searching for the keywords you want to rank for and see who is ranking for them. Use the same spreadsheet above to log the data, taking note of the competitors you find along the way. This method is more time-consuming but also offers real-time insight into first-page rankings that may not show up in SEO tools. 

While researching, take particular note of any keywords you already rank ahead of them on or are close to overtaking (it helps to color code your spreadsheet). Prioritize these keywords and the content associated with them to gain measurable advantages over your competitors. Tracking your most competitive rankings also helps you develop a long-term strategy for the keywords where your competitors are still ahead of you..

Whichever competitive keyword data collection method you use depends on your needs and resources. You don’t have to invest thousands of dollars per year into SEO research tools if you have the time and willingness to collect the data on your own. You may also only need to track a few keywords right away if you’re in a highly specific niche. 

2. Identify Keywords Your Competitors are Not Targeting

Once you have an overview of the keywords both you and your competitors are ranking for, it’s time to uncover what they aren’t ranking for. To do this, you will need access to a  paid SEO tool.

Once you’re logged into your SEO platform, go to the area labeled Keyword Gap, Competitor Analysis, or whichever applies. Then look for a button or tab labeled All, Not Ranking, or something similar. You’ll find hundreds or thousands of keywords on this page that other websites or competitors are ranking for, but the specific competitor you’re evaluating is not ranking for. 

Log these in your competitive keyword analysis spreadsheet as a “preemptive strike” against your competitors. By seeing relevant keyword opportunities before they do, you can write content that Google will love and you can gain top rankings. 

3. Perform Constant Comparisons with Your Competitors

When doing SEO, it’s essential to know where you stand with your competitors as often as you’re able. You don’t have to run a competitor keyword analysis every week, but doing so once quarterly or bare minimum twice per year is smart. 

When Googling content you may come across your competitors’ blog posts, but you may not. They may have created content that serves a need you were unaware even exists–until now. 

Observe the content they’re creating and ask yourself how you can create higher quality content. Also, navigate their website and see what you like and don’t like. If your website speed, navigation, and usability aren’t up to par, create a plan or speak with your website developer to improve those factors. 

4. Estimate the Percentage of Valuable Traffic Specific Keywords Generate

Throughout your competitor keyword analysis, remember that keyword volume can be deceiving. You may find dozens of high-volume keywords your competition is ranking for, but unless they hold the top one to three positions for those keywords, they likely aren’t getting traffic from them. 

A more advantageous approach is to estimate how much valuable traffic is being generated from specific keywords rather than how much search volume they have. For example, a keyword such as “jewelry store near me” may generate more valuable traffic than just “jewelry.”

People who search “jewelry store near me” are interested in making a jewelry purchase or inquiring about one, which makes them more valuable to jewelry businesses. On the other hand, people who simply look up “jewelry” may simply be doing research, admiring jewelry images, or looking for jewelry blogs, which often doesn’t generate the leads small businesses want. Knowing these differences between search volume and search traffic pays dividends for your SEO strategy.

Related article: Use Search Intent to Guide Your SEO Strategy

The Bottom Line

In SEO, competitor research is one of the most strategic steps you can take as a small business owner. Understanding the recipe of success for your competitors, then adjusting it for your own efforts, is essential for any sustainable, powerhouse lead generation campaign. (If you’re ready for in-depth insights into your competition’s strategies, learn how to conduct a full SEO competitor analysis.)

Here are the key points we covered regarding competitor keyword analysis:

  • Understand the importance of competitive SEO keyword analysis. Content marketing is a deeply competitive field these days and you won’t make it ahead unless you have clarity on what the rest of your niche is doing. 

  • Gather your top competitors’ data early on. In SEO you can’t afford to guess; you need to identify the keywords that offer the easiest wins for your website and produce content for them with confidence. 

  • Find the keywords your competitors aren’t targeting. This is your opportunity to write phenomenal content and rank higher than them before they even see the keyword you’re targeting. 

  • Evaluate your competitors’ rankings on a regular basis. Aim to run competitive analyses two to four times per year so you can pivot or update old content to gain higher rankings. 

  • Consider the type of traffic your competitors are getting, not just the volume. Long-tail keywords are usually much lower in search volume but are used by individuals with buyer intent. Look at the long-tail keywords your top competitor is using and see if it’s a keyword you can snatch from them right away. 

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