How to Find Competitor Keywords | Approach and 6 Toolsets

There are a couple of different approaches to identifying competitor keywords and there are six tools you'll want to consider using in this analysis.

November 10, 2023
Written by
Nate Matherson
Reviewed by
Charles Purdy

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Keyword research is one of the first steps in building a content strategy and an SEO channel.

And it’s often a fairly manual process. You’ll frequently need to prepare a list of ideas to use as a starting point. However, one way to expedite this research is to perform competitor keyword analysis.

There are a couple of different approaches to identifying competitor keywords. And there are several tools that specialize in this — they show you which keywords your competitors rank for and which keywords you might be missing out on.

After you’ve identified those keywords, you’ll need to take a number of steps to filter them and create a plan of action. In this article, we’ll explain what competitor research is and how to get started once you’ve identified competitor keywords. We’ll also highlight six toolsets that you can use in this process.

What Are Competitor Keywords?

Competitor keywords are keywords or phrases your competitors rank well for in search engines.

There are many different types of keywords, including head terms, which are often broad and short phrases: for example, “SEO.” And then there are long-tail keywords, which are more specific and longer phrases: for example, “how to fix keyword cannibalization.”

Using your competitors as inspiration for which keywords to attack is a great strategy. With several of the tools mentioned below, you can see not only the keywords your competitors are ranking for but also the amount of traffic they’re driving from those keywords and the value of that traffic.

There are also a couple of types of competitors you should consider comparing your website against. There may be websites you compete with directly, and then there might be those that are in your general industry or topic area but that are not truly competitors in a business sense. Both types of competitors are worth researching.

2 Approaches to Finding Competitor Keywords

Before using a toolset, you’ll first want to build a list of three to five competitor websites, either direct competitors or related websites. If you have trouble finding actual competitors, it’s best to start with a number of general searches related to your core product or service. From there, you can select a number of the high-ranking websites that appear for those terms.

After you’ve identified the competitors you’re interested in, you’ll want to perform two different steps for each competitor.

Step 1: Content Gap Analysis

As a first step, you’ll want to perform a content gap analysis. A content gap analysis is a quick comparison of the keywords your site currently ranks for and the keywords a competitor ranks for.

We highlight a number of tools for conducting content gap analysis toward the end of this article. Three popular toolsets are Positional, Semrush, and Ahrefs.

With each tool, you simply insert your domain and then insert a competitor domain alongside it.

After running a report, you’ll be presented with a list of keywords that your competitor ranks for and that you don’t. In addition to providing a raw list of keywords, these reports typically show the monthly search volume, keyword difficulty, and current ranking position of the competitor for each keyword. 

Some tools also provide you with an estimate of the amount of traffic the competitor is driving to their website from that keyword. Traffic estimates are typically calculated by multiplying the monthly search volume for the keyword by an estimated click-through rate from the search engine results pages (SERPs). 

It’s worth noting that the monthly search volumes listed for each keyword are also estimates. These estimates are calculated using a sample population of searchers and aren’t always completely accurate, especially for companies in emerging or new industries.

You likely won’t want to go for all of the keywords that your competitors rank for. You should base your keyword choices on their relevance to your customer and their traffic potential. More on this later.

Many tools allow you to enter multiple competitors at once and will then allow you to apply filters so you can see the keywords that, for example, all three of your competitors rank for and that you don’t. While it’s tempting to plug in many competitors at the same time, you should start with one-to-one comparisons, as you’ll likely miss opportunities if you cross-reference too many competitors in one go.

Step 2: Identify Opportunities to Improve on Existing Keywords

In addition to running a content gap analysis during your competitor research process, it’s also helpful to zoom out and look for opportunities to improve on your existing keywords.

Many SEO tools have site performance features that show you which keywords a website ranks for over time and which pages perform well without considering your website’s keywords.

By zooming out, you can sometimes identify keywords that your website might be ranking for but that your competitors are ranking a lot better for. Many of the keyword research tools will perform this analysis for you automatically — comparing your current performance for a keyword against your competitors.

While the result of this step might be similar to that of Step 1, zooming out to a higher level without doing a gap analysis specifically can be helpful for identifying pages on your site that might be ranking for a keyword but not as well as your competitors’ pages. For these keywords, you’ll likely want to go back to the existing pages on your site and re-optimize them.

6 Tools for Competitor Keyword Research

There are many different tools that you can use to find competitor keywords and perform keyword research.

Six popular toolsets are:

  • Positional
  • Semrush
  • Ahrefs
  • SpyFu
  • WordStream
  • Google Keyword Planner


As mentioned earlier in this article, Positional’s Competitor Research tool can be used to identify keywords that your competitors rank for in organic search and that your website doesn’t rank for. 

With Positional, you can quickly perform a content gap analysis and see monthly search volume and difficulty for each keyword. You can also see your competitor's current ranking position for the keyword.

You can add as many as three competitors at once, which allows you to cross-compare multiple competitive websites against your website. However, we recommend one-to-one searches at the start of your research process.

Positional makes it easy to save keywords as you are doing your keyword research. You can select a keyword and then add it to a Keyword List to keep track during the research process.

Positional is currently in private beta. If you’re interested in joining Positional’s private beta, you can join the waitlist on our homepage or sign up for a quick demo with one of the co-founders.


Semrush is one of the most popular SEO toolsets, with more than 100,000 paying customers.

Semrush has a number of features for everything from keyword research to backlink tracking and social media planning.

Semrush also offers four competitor research tools: Traffic Analytics, Organic Research, Advertising Research, and Social Media Tracker.

These tools can be used to identify the keywords that your competitors are targeting. Semrush provides a large amount of data — including monthly search volumes, keyword difficulty, and ranking performance — as well as tools for traffic analysis.

Semrush offers three pricing plans: Pro ($129.95 per month), Guru ($249.95 per month), and Business ($499.95 per month).

Each of the company’s plans offer different functionalities and levels of data access. For example, the Pro plan allows for five different projects, while the Business plan allows for as many as 40 projects. All of their plans include access to keyword analytics, which should be sufficient for most companies just getting started in competitor research.

Learn more about Semrush


Ahrefs is another very popular SEO toolset. Ahrefs offers a suite of tools for content marketing and SEO teams, including but not limited to Site Explorer, Keywords Explorer, and Rank Tracker.

The company’s Site Explorer and Keywords Explorer tools are helpful for doing competitor keyword analysis. Like other toolsets, Ahrefs provides keyword search volumes, difficulty, and ranking position data for your competitors’ keywords.

Ahrefs has four different pricing plans: Lite ($99 per month), Standard ($199 per month), Advanced ($399 per month), and Enterprise (which starts at $999 per month).

All of the company’s plans include access to Site Explorer and Keyword Explorer, albeit with different levels of historical data and access. To get the company’s Competitive Analysis tool, you’ll need to be on the Standard plan or higher.

Learn more about Ahrefs


SpyFu offers both paid and free tools for competitor keyword research. 

Using the company’s free tool, simply enter the competitor’s domain, and you’ll be provided with a number of metrics in their Overview tab, including the amount of traffic that the website is driving from organic search and the number of keywords that the website is ranking for.

Click into the Keywords tab, and you’ll be shown five keywords that the website currently ranks for in organic search, as well as the monthly search volume, keyword difficulty, and the current ranking position in the search results for that competitor’s website.

However, five keywords are likely only a starting point. To see the full results, you’ll need to upgrade to one of their paid plans. SpyFu offers three different paid tiers: Basic ($16 per month), Professional ($36 per month), and Team ($149 per month).

SpyFu also allows you to perform a content gap analysis by comparing your website against competitors.

Learn more about SpyFu


WordStream is a toolset created by LocaliQ, a digital marketing company. 

WordStream offers a tool known as the Free Keyword Tool. And that’s just what it is.

Using this tool, users can enter any website, and they’ll receive keyword ideas. These ideas, however, are based on something other than the current search engine results; rather, they are based on the context that WordStream is able to gather about the website. 

WordStream’s tool is primarily used for ideation when creating paid Adwords campaigns and not for SEO. It does not provide ranking position data, but it does provide monthly search volume estimates and a competition score from Google’s Keyword Planner.

This tool might help generate high-level ideas on which keywords might be relevant to a competitor's website. Still, it’s unhelpful in that it doesn’t give you actionable data based on the current search engine performance of those websites.

Learn more about WordStream’s Free Keyword Tool

Google Keyword Planner

Google’s Keyword Planner, while free, is only so helpful for competitor research. Using Keyword Planner, users are able to enter a domain and generate keyword ideas based on that domain.

While this might be helpful context, Google provides only a limited number of suggested keywords based on the context it’s able to gather from the website.

Google will provide an estimate of the total number of searches for the different keywords. However, Google does not provide keyword difficulty scores or the current ranking position of the competitor for the keywords in their organic search results. Google will provide a rough estimate in terms of competition, for example, Low, but that competition score reflects the competition for the keyword in Adwords and not from the perspective of SEO or organic search.

Google also suggests the costs of bidding or advertising on specific keywords. But again, this data is most relevant for a company looking to analyze keywords for a paid Adwords campaign.

You can build a list of keywords by toggling and saving keywords as you do your research. 

Learn more about Google’s Keyword Planner.

Taking Action (Filtering on Volume, Difficulty, Intent, & Clustering)

By this point, you may have built a fairly large list of competitor keywords. The next step is filtering that raw list of keywords into something more actionable.

Filtering on Keyword Difficulty and Monthly Search Volume

By this point, you may have built a fairly large list of competitor keywords. The next step is filtering that raw list of keywords into something more actionable.

As mentioned above, each keyword in your list will typically have an accompanying monthly search volume and keyword difficulty.

While monthly search volume and keyword difficulty can vary depending on which tool you’re using, the numbers are typically pretty accurate.

Keywords are usually assigned a difficulty score between 0 and 100. A difficulty score of 100 would mean that the keyword is very difficult to rank for in organic search, whereas a difficulty score of 25 would indicate a very easy keyword that you’d be able to rank for and drive traffic with fairly quickly.

In the early days of building your SEO channel, you’ll want to focus on easier keywords. Generally, any keyword with a difficulty score below 60 or 65 is more gettable. Many teams will focus on keywords with difficulties between 0 and 40 in the beginning and prioritize those at the front of their editorial calendars.

You can certainly go after more competitive keywords, too. Just know that it’s going to take you longer to rank for them and drive traffic and that you may need to build backlinks to increase your domain authority.

As far as monthly search volume goes, you could use a minimum to filter down your list of keywords. Many teams use a 100-searches-per-month minimum to narrow down their keyword list. But if a keyword is high intent or directly related to your customer, it’s completely fine to go for it even if it has less volume than that.

Identify Search Intent

You’ll often hear about search intent. Search intent is simply the purpose of, or the reason someone is conducting, a search.

There are four types of search intent:

  • Commercial keywords — searchers looking to investigate brands or services.
  • Informational keywords — searchers looking for an answer to a specific question or general information.
  • Navigational keywords — searchers intending to find a specific site or page.
  • Transactional keywords — searchers intending to complete an action or purchase.

You’ll want to identify the intent of each keyword you’re targeting, as well as the stage in the sales funnel the keyword falls. You can use this information to determine which pieces to create first and refer to it during your content outlining process to create a better webpage.

Cluster Those Keywords

After you’ve narrowed down your list of keywords, you’ll want to go through a clustering or grouping exercise to determine which pages you should actually create on your website.

Keyword clustering is the process of grouping similar keywords and targeting them all with a single page on your website. If the search results and search intent are very similar for two different keywords, you’ll want to group them. But if the search results and search intent are very different for two similar keywords, you’ll want to split them into two different pages.

You can do this process manually, or you can use a third-party clustering tool. At Positional, we have a keyword clustering tool that will do this grouping and splitting for you, but there are a number of other tools on the market that do this, too, including Semrush and Ahrefs.

Final Thoughts

Competitor research is a fundamental part of any keyword research process. And today, finding your competitors’ keywords is relatively easy.

There are many tools that can be used in this process. These tools will provide you with the data you need — for example, keyword rankings and search volumes for the different keywords that your competitors rank for. 

In this process, it’s often helpful to perform a content gap analysis or a specific analysis looking for keywords that your competitors rank for in organic search and that your website doesn’t rank for.

Once you’re armed with the list of keywords and their accompanying data, including search volume and keyword difficulty, the next step is to prioritize those keywords, based on the business value to your company and the traffic potential to your website.

After you’ve identified the keywords you’d like to hit, the next step is to cluster those keywords into the actual pages to create on your website. 

You could either create this content yourself or hire a content writer to help you in that process. And, of course, you’ll want to optimize the content you create for the keywords in view.

At Positional, we offer a number of tools for everything from competitor keyword research to technical SEO and content optimization. We also offer tools for content analytics and conversion rate optimization.

Nate Matherson
Co-founder & CEO of Positional

Nate Matherson is the Co-founder & CEO of Positional. An experienced entrepreneur and technologist, he has founded multiple venture-backed companies and is a two-time Y Combinator Alum. Throughout Nate's career, he has built and scaled content marketing channels to hundreds of thousands of visitors per month for companies in both B2C (ex financial products, insurance) as well as B2B SaaS. Nate is also an active angel investor with investments in 45+ companies.

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