How to use SEMrush to identify and overtake your competitor’s SEO rankings


Posted on May 8, 2018 in Marketing Strategies

If you’re looking to dominate the search results for your most important keywords (combination of traffic and profitability as gauged by CPC), then one of the most high-impact activities you can undertake is a complete competitor audit.

You might have a good idea who your main business competitors are, but do you have a good idea who your search results competitors are? And from there, do you know how they are outranking you?

Even if you are not a professional SEO, you can conduct a competitor audit using my favorite tool SEMrush. After you do this audit, you will understand where your gaps (and strengths are) so that you can put together a clear plan for overtaking them in the search results and dominating your niche.

PS there are also many agencies on Credo who can do this for you if you do not have the time to do it. You can start that process here.

Let’s get started. And if you haven’t done it yet, get a 7 day free trial at SEMrush.

The strategy

The strategy goes thus:

  1. Identify the competitors in both business and the search results;
  2. Get an overview of how well your keywords overlap;
  3. Investigate each individually and download their data;
  4. Identify the topics they are covering and determine if they are right for your business;
  5. Identify high volume keywords with a CPC so that you know they are worth ranking for potentially;
  6. Square away your technical SEO so that you can rank well, including:
    1. Clean URLs with the relevant keywords in them;
    2. Minimize 404s on your site;
    3. Properly optimize your templates with titles, h1s, h2s, and enough content to be useful;
  7. Plan out the direct conversion-related keywords that you and your competitors have in common and figure out the strategy to outrank them (sometimes this is a new page, but often you need more links);
  8. Plan out the keywords that you should create content around to target larger volume top of funnel keywords;
  9. Create a calendar to consistently produce this content;
  10. Annotate your Google Analytics so that you can reverse engineer and point directly to when your organic traffic and revenue from organic began increasing because you began investing in good SEO.

I’m going to show you the important parts of this strategy in SEMrush.

Learn who your search competitors are

Before you start auditing, you should know who your competitors are. You should know both your business competitors and your search results competitors.

SEMrush can tell you this.

Go to SEMrush and type in your domain. You’ll see a screen like this:

Scroll down the page where you can see an overview of your competitors, then click the “Main Organic Competitors” heading to take you to that page:

Now click into that page to see a view like this:

Below the fold, you have a list of all the domains that your keywords are competing directly with as well as:

  • Common keyword count (how many you have in common ranking in the top 100)
  • Total keyword count (keywords the domain ranks for within the top 100)
  • Estimated traffic from those keywords
  • Price (how much it would cost to buy all those clicks)
  • Paid keywords that the domain is bidding on

Now you have two choices:

  1. Download the list and prioritize there (I like to do this every quarter or so to see how my competitors are changing)
  2. Click into the top ones that you want to investigate deeper.

For the purposes of this post, I am going to choose the personal finance niche. I do not know it well at all, other than being a lifelong Mint user and a brand new Personal Capital subscriber.

So I am going to assume I am Mint.com and will look at their competitors.

Mint’s competitors

When I search Mint.com in SEMrush, I see this graphic explaining their top search competitors:

Their main competitors according to common keywords are:

  1. Christianpf.com
  2. Quicken.com
  3. Spreadsheet123.com
  4. DaveRamsey.com
  5. MrMoneyCoach.ca

What we need to do here then is ask if these are real business competitors as well. Mint is a personal finance software tool (I have used it for years and have the Net Worth graphs to prove it), so are the above actually business competitors or are they just competitors within the same space that we should learn some strategies and topics from but also not copy because their model is different?

I can tell you for sure that Dave Ramsey and Mr Money Coach are content but not business competitors. Same with ChristianPF.com, which is a learning site. If anything, these businesses are complementary to Mint’s. We must remember this, and also know that by researching them we can uncover some great content and traffic opportunities. But these guys are content businesses, not software businesses.

Mint’s business competitors are:

  1. Quicken.com
  2. Personal Capital
  3. You Need A Budget

I found these by searching [mint alternatives]:

First I’m going to look at the business competitors to see how well Mint stacks up/ranks for the profitable keywords. Then we can look at the content competitors to find new areas of opportunity for Mint.

The Keyword Gap tool

SEMrush has a tool called the Keyword Gap, which allows you to enter your site as well as up to four competitors. I am going to use Mint and the above 3 competitors to compare how well they are doing.

As you can see, the four sites have 499 keywords in common in Mint’s database. Mint and Quicken have over 11,000, Mint + Quicken + Personal Capital have 1,314, and so on.

But as you can see when you scroll down the page, there is a challenge to the data:

A lot of these keywords are garbage. They may have a lot of search volume, but none of these sites will ever be able to, nor deserve to, rank for a term like [wells fargo login].

To get around this you can go a few different directions. My preferred way is to sort by each competitor’s rankings, from best to lowest, to see which keywords they’re ranking for that Mint should target:

This starts to give us a bit more signal to the very noisy report from before, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. But as you can see, there are keywords like [free budgeting tools] that have a lot of potential.

Now you should export this data so that you can slice it within Excel (or your spreadsheeting tool of choice). I do this because SEMrush (and no other tools either) do not allow you to filter on this specific view without losing the comparison. Without that ability, you cannot remove branded terms that your site can’t rank for (eg Mint won’t ever rank for [does quicken have an app]).

It is worth noting, though, that you are able to filter out branded (and junk like [login]) when you compare only two domains.

If you are doing a deep dive into one specific competitor to learn why they are outranking you, this is incredibly valuable and possible to do within the SEMrush UI.

But if you really want to find the gem keywords, do the data analysis within Excel or another data processing tool.

Browse each domain

After you’ve done the above and taken a high view at how well your keywords overlap (in this case, how Mint’s overlap with their competitors), now go to each of the competitors you identified and audit their rankings individually.

For the purposes of this audit I am going to look at Quicken because they are one of Mint’s most formidable business and SERP competitors. While Personal Capital and YNAB are definitely business competitors, according to our comparison done above they’re not really formidable SERP competitors. While they might be worth a look at some point to identify a few keyword gems, Quicken is where you are likely to get the highest return.

Remember Pareto’s principle – you can often get 80% of the returns for 20% of the work.

Here’s Quicken’s overview:

As you can see, they’ve taken off since late 2014. When you see a chart like this it usually means that an old domain was moved over to the current one and then SEO was invested in. You can verify this by looking at link growth (which I tend to do in Ahrefs, for the record) and finding their old domain.

The first thing I do now is filter out branded keywords on the Organic report:

Now I export this list and move on to prioritizing by search volume and CPC.

Prioritize by search volume and CPC (because valuable)

Now comes time to do a bit of Excel magic (well, just using everyday features) to sort the data and make it understandable.

I like to:

  1. Make the data a table (Insert > Table)
  2. Apply Conditional Formatting to Search Volume, Keyword Difficulty, CPC, and Competition
  3. Hide Traffic %, and Traffic Cost.

Now you end up with a table that looks like this:

Where I now start is by browsing through the keywords, sorted by Search Volume, to begin understanding the broader buckets of keywords that my competitor is ranking for.

I do this because I believe that you should understand their strategy and topics they have chosen to cover before you start putting together your keyword strategy. You can always find one-off keywords for which you can create content, but a broader understanding of the topics and strategy lets you tackle them in a way that makes sense for your users and your conversion funnel.

When I look at Quicken’s keywords, I see that they have tackled the following buckets of topics:

  1. Taxes (gross income, etc)
  2. Budgeting (rent, etc)
  3. Tools (online budget, budget calculator)

They also rank quite well for “how to” and “what is” content, which is quite easily served with long form content. For example, their “what is gross income” resource page ranks well for many high volume keywords like [what is gross income] at 22,200/mo, [gross monthly income] at 12,100/mo, and more.

What I’ll do here is define a legend (eg taxes in red, budgeting in blue, transactional keywords like “budgeting app” in green, and so forth) then go through and categorize these keywords for easier analysis and prioritization later on.

But even from this quick look at Quicken’s keywords, if I was Mint I would start creating a large resource section around taxes, budgeting, income, and free tools like budgeting and investing calculators. Not all of Quicken’s keywords apply to Mint (as Quicken is also for doing taxes, though Intuit owns Mint, QuickBooks (for businesses) and TurboTax), but there are many that do.

Now you can repeat this for the rest of your competitors to identify their keywords.

Determine how they’re ranking

Now that you have a broader understanding of what your competitors are targeting and using to drive traffic, you can start to untangle why they are outranking you.

The common questions to ask yourself are:

  • Do they have content that I do not have on my site?
  • Is their website stronger than mine and thus able to rank for more and more competitive keywords?
  • Are their URLs better formatted than mine?
  • Are their pages easier to index than mine (eg higher in the site architecture)?

Often your questions can be answered with these four simple questions. You should also be looking at your own site and determining if your templates are properly optimized, if your XML sitemaps are working correctly, and the like. But once all of that is taken care of (or the priorities are identified and being worked on), you have heavy lifting to do to beat your competitors.

Let’s dive into the second one (links) with SEMrush’s Backlink Gap tool.

Use the Backlink Gap tool

SEMrush provides a backlink tool very similar to their Keyword Gap tool.

When I put Mint and the three competitors into this tool, I see that Mint actually has a stronger domain and more links than its competitors!

One of SEMrush’s most powerful features in my opinion is the data below the graph. You can see exactly the domains from which your competitors have links but you do not (as well as where you have links and they do not). From this you can put together a strategy to acquire links.

Mint could get links from Wikipedia and Mozilla to help them out:

The question for Mint is “should they?”, to which I would say they probably do not need to invest right now in acquiring new links and doing manual link acquisition (though, if they have extra budget to spend they could easily spend $4,000-$6,000 a month and acquire some awesome links that help them out even more).

Mint’s biggest challenge is that they simply do not have the content coverage on dedicated URLs so that they can rank for some of these bigger keywords that their competitors currently outrank them on.

Prioritizing your keywords and tasks

Hopefully now you’ve seen the thought process I go through when doing competitor research and identifying the keywords that my competitors rank for and I do not.

The most important thing to keep in mind as you look at your competitors keywords is this question:

Do these keywords serve my business’s revenue model and ultimate goal of the business I want to build?

Sometimes keywords seem to be quite relevant to your business (for example, in the digital marketing space “SEO agencies + location” has a lot of volume), but when you look at how your business functions versus theirs they might not be relevant. For the SEO + location keywords for example, I’m not going for a huge scale of people listed. I might have 2-4 agencies/consultants in one location, but that’s not enough to actually outrank my SERP competitors. Therefore I know about them, but I don’t concentrate on them.

Now that you know what your competitors are ranking for and how, you get to prioritize features, changes, and strategies that can bring you into better competition with them.

How Mint could quickly catch up

Mint’s owned by Intuit, which does $5.7B a year in revenue (!!) and has a market cap of $48.67B. They’re a huge company that owns a lot of properties and is one of the bigger finance players online.

I obviously do not know Mint’s specific situation around budget or team working on Mint (Intuit has almost 10k people claiming that they work there on LinkedIn), but if Mint wanted to quickly bolster its keyword spread with content I wouldn’t invest in hiring a team to create this content.

I wouldn’t even hire an agency to do it.

I’d acquire a content site in the personal finance niche and then fold that content into the Mint.com site.

Some people are content creators and some are product people. Mint is a product company, but they could acquire a site that has great rankings/content and will never monetize it properly.

Mint could probably acquire a site or a few sites for relatively little in revenue compared to the revenue possibilities (especially once you take into account QuickBooks and Intuit’s other properties)

It’s a bit of work to fold the content into the Mint site and is an upfront expense, but Mint could make back their investment in 6-12 months.

Hopefully this article has been helpful to you in identifying how to beat your competitors.

If you’re ready to get going, don’t forget to get a SEMrush trial here and do it yourself!

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