Decoration Circle
Advanced SEO Textbook

The SUSO Method: Competitor Research Using Surfer SEO

In this chapter you will learn how to optimise the content on your website by taking advantage of the top ranking pages that Google is currently rewarding.

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Clock icon Time: 26
Difficulty Intermediate

The Importance of Competitor Research

Competitor research is a crucial part of ranking any website. Your top ranking competitors have already created strategies for the keywords you have in common, so it’s more efficient to reverse engineer pages that Google is already rewarding than to create your own strategy from scratch.

Competitor research can involve assessing your rivals technical SEO or link building strategies, but in this section we will focus specifically on what this means for content (given that this is the Content Optimisation module).

So let’s discuss the main types of content competitor research and discuss the SUSO methods for each.

Finding Content That Matches User Intent

As we discussed in the Semantic Search module, correctly identifying and satisfying the intent behind a user’s query is more important than ever before when it comes to Search.

Google’s sophisticated algorithm is rapidly improving in its ability to determine what the user is looking for, based on the terms searched, pages clicked on and other metrics.

Therefore, by finding what your competitors are providing users for a given keyword, you can decide to create or optimise content to better satisfy their needs.

The SUSO Method: Identifying User Intent

As mentioned previously, understanding user intent requires you to figure out what question the user is asking, and what they want to see as a result.

At the time of writing this, the best way to find out the user intent for a given keyword is simply to search it in Google. Whilst it can be time consuming, there’s no better way to figure out which type of content ranks well than to see what ranks at the top.

When most think about user intent, they typically consider whether content is informational, transactional or navigational. Whilst this may be the case, there are a number of ways in which the content itself can vary. For example, some pages may provide a long article whilst others a short answer; some may even include images, whereas others may opt for a list based article.

At SUSO, we break these down into the following categories:

1. Content Medium – Whether they use text, video or audio.

2. Content Creators – What are the type of sites that are ranking.

3. Content Page Type – What page types are ranking, blog post, category, homepage?

4. Content Purpose – What is the purpose of the post, a review, a guide, an op-ed?

5. Content Angle – What is the specific framing of the content? Is there a theme between ranking posts? “For beginners” “top 20 tips”.

These are the different ways that you can view the content, in order to find the factors that may be leading to a site’s success. So let’s show the practice of finding user intent in the SERPs by asking these questions.

So let’s say you want to rank for the keyword “best grills 2020”, let’s go through the SERPs following these steps.

1. Content Medium = For this keyword we can see that Text is used.

2. Content Creators = Unsurprisingly a mixture of large Media Outlets / Niche Affiliates.

3. Content Page Type = also rather unsurprising, as all the pages are Articles.

4. Content Purpose = Reviews of all of the best grills on the market from 2020.

5. Content Angle = there is a distinction of whether the grills are gas, charcoal and another type.

Important takeaways from this example:

The stand out content factor that we notice for this query is the importance of the content angle. When looking in the SERPs, the page by in 9th position focuses more narrowly on gas grills which are under $500.

As we scroll down the SERPs we see that focus of price is very uncommon, which suggests that this more limited selection of grills – based on price – does not fully satisfy the user intent. It is most likely that this page has a higher authority, which allows them to outrank pages which are better targeting the intent for this keyword.

This shows you the importance of eliminating variables such as high link authority that may be contributing to a site’s success, in order to figure out what the user intent truly is.

Finding New Keyword Opportunities

Whilst most SEOs likely have a solid mastery of keyword research, that doesn’t mean you will automatically know every possible keyword opportunity for a given topic.

Many keyword opportunities are not always immediately obvious, and it requires looking at competitors in order to find those more obscure topics.

Not looking at your competitors’ keywords is just increasing the chance that you fall behind, and waste time by doing all the work from scratch.

The SUSO Method: Finding New Keyword Opportunities

Luckily for us SEOs there are many keyword tools out there that will help us, so we don’t have to sort through data manually. One of our favourite tools at SUSO is Ahrefs, specifically, the Content Gap feature, which allows you to easily locate relevant topics that are ready for content creation.

This is most useful if you are looking to quickly find opportunities based on your competition. When we are looking to find a more thorough keyword landscape by finding all keywords that you or your competitors rank for, we use the Ontological Keyword Research method.

Ahrefs Content Gap Feature

To use the Content Gap feature, you search for the domain that you would like to find keyword opportunities. Then, if you open up a new tab for the Competing Domains section, you can get a list of the sites which rank for the same keywords as you, also showing keywords that are unique to your site and theirs.

You are looking to find the competitors which have the largest keyword overlap (so the biggest green bar) and also the largest amount of unique keywords (the yellow bar). This will give you sites that are topically relevant to your own, which also have keywords that you do not yet rank for.

Make sure to select competitors of a similar size and scale to your site. In some cases, their sites will cover topics far outside your content capabilities, for example if you are a site that reviews televisions, then TechRadar or CNET will not be suitable because they also review products such as headphones, phones, laptops and tablets, things you do not have the resources to cover.

Once you’ve found the most relevant competition, head over to the Content Gap report and copy those domains into the empty fields. In this case, we are comparing between three websites, but you can add up to a total of five.

Hit Show keywords, and you will be provided with a list of terms that your site does not rank for, which the competition does.

You can then export the keywords by clicking the Export button. Once you have exported the results,copy all the keywords and run them through the Keywords Explorer tool.

This provides you with the parent keyword for each, which you can also export.

This allows you to sort the keywords by their parent grouping, to give a better idea of which keywords are similar. This way when deciding which terms to build into your content plan, you can see at a glance if multiple keywords might be providing the same user intent.

Optimising Content to Match the Competition

As with all forms of marketing, getting people’s attention requires you to understand your target audience and be able to provide them with value.

Whilst we may think we know how to do this, there is a good chance that we are misunderstanding their needs, and in doing so not providing the key topics or headings that Google is assessing to be important.

Therefore, looking at the following factors is vital to make sure that you are creating highly relevant pages:

  • Exact match keywords
  • Partial match keywords
  • Related Terms
  • URL structure
  • Headings
  • Word count
  • Bold Text

As you may have guessed by now, the easiest way to do this is just… checking out the top-ranking competition.

As with finding new keyword opportunities, finding ways to optimise content can be done manually, however, this is a time consuming and inefficient practice.

That’s why at SUSO we choose to use Surfer SEO, a tool that saves lots of time, allows you to see clear trends in ranking factors and provides great data that can be used to optimise your content.

Competitor Research Using Surfer SEO

What’s Surfer?

Surfer SEO is a cloud-based optimisation tool that specialises in finding the on-page factors that have the highest correlations for the top-ranking results.

Although the tool has several other features, the ones that we use for competitor research are the SERP Analyzer & Content Editor.

SERP Analyzer

The SERP Analyzer crawls the top 50 pages that rank for your chosen keyword, taking relevant SEO data from each site and displaying it in graphs simple to read. This allows you to easily compare a vast selection of on-page factors to find the most important ones for any given keyword.

How to Use the SERP Analyzer

Once you search your keyword on the SERP analyzer page, you get taken through to the results page, which you can see from the screenshot above.

Once you search your keyword on the SERP analyzer page, you get taken through to the results page, which you can see from the screenshot above.

At the top of the page is the correlation graph, which shows you the averages of each page of the SERPs for whatever factor you are viewing (by default it is set to compare word counts). You can even turn off the averages button to view all results individually. This is extremely useful for finding any outliers that may be distorting the data.

As mentioned, it does this for the top 50 results, and you can play around with whatever factors you desire in the left hand sidebar. For each factor, a small bar chart is shown on it’s right, indicating the strength of that correlation. This allows you to get a quick idea of the most important factors that you should focus on.

Below the dynamic graph is a selection of quick comparisons, showing common backlinks, keywords and other information that it finds relevant to the selected keyword.

Then finally, at the bottom of the page is the pages found in the SERPs. For each page you can select the glowing ‘eye’ icon to omit them from the results above.

There is also the audit page which provides a breakdown of how individual pages compare against the top positions for on-page factors, and a couple of technical and backlink comparisons.

Here is an example of the audit page:

Content Editor

The Content Editor is essentially the tool that allows you to make changes to your content in real-time, based on Surfer’s suggestions.

It allows you to write or optimise content that is perfectly matched to the top competitors. It does this by allowing you to select the most relevant pages ranking in the top 10, giving suggestions based on the results.

Setting Up The Content Editor

Step 1: Search the keyword that needs content to be optimised.

Step 2: Click on the results and select the pages that are relevant to your selection. You can open up the page by clicking the small orange box with an arrow, in case you need to view it to help make your decision.

Step 3: Save the changes, then scroll down to the next section. Click on any terms that seem irrelevant to you or that you would otherwise like to remove. You can come back to this stage later if you change your mind.

Step 4: Add any questions that you think will be important for the copywriter to add.

Step 5: Add any notes that you want to relay to the copywriter regarding the editing.

Step 6: Click save, and now the editor is set.

Using The Content Editor

Below you will see the screenshot of the screen you will see once the editor is set up. As you can see there is the customizable option that allows you to change the settings you’ve just made at any point. There are all the usual formatting and editing options along the top of the text box, as well as an export to HTML button.

This is one of the best methods for adding the content to the site once it’s been edited, as you can copy and paste the HTML into the text box depending on your CMS. However your method of adding the content may vary.

This includes the following on-page elements that you can see on the right hand side of the above screenshot:

  • Number of Headings
  • Bold Words
  • Paragraphs
  • Number of Words
  • Number of Images
  • Partial Keyword Density
  • Keyword Density

The main focus is on the terms used – or keywords – which can be found in the Important Terms To Use section (right hand side of the above screenshot).

This gives you a real-time count for the frequency of the keywords suggested, with upper and lower ranges for each term based on your competition.

All of these suggestions change as you edit the text in the editor box, which makes it perfect for writing content that is perfectly optimised. Here is how the fields change for each suggestion as you edit the content:

  • Not included – Red
  • Included once – Orange
  • Included to the suggested range – Green
  • Included beyond the suggested range – Red with Warning Sign

At this point, you can carry out the edits yourself, or there are a variety of options for sharing the data at the top of the page, if you need to send it to a content writer or member of your team.

All that’s left is to edit the page based on the suggestions from Surfer as best you can. At this point, it’s important to be flexible and to be able to scan through the suggestions for the keyword frequencies, to make sure that they are included naturally and that the content still flows. If any keywords seem unnatural for the text, or the frequency the tool suggests you include it is too high or low, you can make changes to the settings to reflect this.

Remember, Surfer is not perfect. It’s a tool designed to help guide you in the right direction to optimise the text, and is by no means a definitive measure of what your content should include . Use it as a guide, not verbatim.

Key Takeaways

In conclusion, competitor research is a vital part of the content process. It saves you time and allows you to optimise your site to provide Google the information it considers to be valuable for users.

Parts of the process require manual analysis of SERPs and competitor pages to make sure you are spotting factors and trends that may be contributing to a site’s success, but there are an increasing range of tools that will help to speed up and enhance the process.

To summarise, below are three main takeaways of why you should conduct competitor research:

1. Find content types that better match the user intent

2. Find keywords that you aren’t currently targeting

3. Optimise content so that it matches the top-ranking posts