A Step-By-Step Guide To Competitor-Based Keyword Research

Competitor-based keyword research is a modern approach to finding low-competition, high search volume keywords, and it’s one that’s becoming increasingly popular among SEO’s and content marketers.

Unlike the traditional approach, this relies a much larger data set which makes using a premium keyword research tool all the more necessary. That said, the competitor-based approach can still be broken down into 4 steps.

  • Step #1: Find Seed WebsitesUsing a number of strategies, research competitors and create a list seed websites to use in step 2.
  • Step #2: Plug Seed WebsitesPlug those seed sites into a competitor-based keyword research tool to uncover a list of proven keyword opportunities.
  • Step #3: Filter Keyword OpportunitiesSort and filter the list of keyword opportunities based on both monthly search volume and SEO data.
  • Step #4: Evaluate DifficultyEvaluate the strength of your remaining keywords based on a keyword difficulty metric and manual SERP analysis.

And here’s some eye candy to illustrate the step-by-step process:

Competitor Based Keyword Research Graph

As I said, it’s a lot more difficult to pull this off with free tools but it is possible with some sacrifices here and there. I’ll cover your options either way.

Step #1: Find Seed Sites (Competitors)

With traditional keyword research, you start out creating a list of seed keywords in order to generate an ever larger list of semi-relevant related keywords.

This first step is where the two approaches really differ.

With competitor-based research, you start out creating a list of seed websites in order to generate a list of proven keywords.

The idea is to take competitors domains with similar (or lower) authority and reverse engineer their organic rankings for proven keyword opportunities.

How do you find these competitors?

For starters, you’ll need a tool to help you measure authority.

MozBar https://moz.com/products/pro/seo-toolbar

Mozbar For Kw Research

MozBar is a free Chrome extension that gives a good indication of the overall strength of any domain using Moz’s Domain Authority (DA) metric.

It also allows you to gauge strength of your competition in Google’s search results, which is exactly what you’ll be using for this.

Next, head over to Google and search for your “niche + blog”.

As you can see, not all results will be relevant so it’s good idea to actually open them up and give them the eyeball test.

Another strategy you can use here, which may also be obvious from the first result above, is to leverage curated lists.

Here’s some queries you can use:

  • Top “niche” blogs
  • Best “niche” blogs
  • List of “niche” blogs
Survival Blogs Google Search Results

These guys have already done half the work for you by rounding up a bunch of blogs in your niche, all you have to do now is check how authoritative they are.

With MozBar enabled, you can see this by simply visiting the site.

Using those 2 strategies alone should yield a pretty juicy list of seed competitors.

Step #2: Plug Seed Sites (Competitors)

Reverse-engineering your competitors rankings requires access to a large, and constantly updated database.

And you guessed it, that s**t ain’t cheap.

So while you can do this using free tools (or freemium tools, to be specific), you’ll be severely limited on both the number of searches you can make each day, and how many results you get back for those searches.

I hiiiiighly recommend investing in a tool for this, but it’s your call.

{{ blue pill, red pill meme }}

So this pretty much comes down to two tools. SEMRush, and Ahrefs.

Some people prefer SEMRush (read the review), other prefer Ahrefs (read the review). After reviewing both tools, we found Ahrefs performed better overall, so that’s what we’d recommend you use.

That said, both tools have limited free versions, so you can alternate if you’re going that route but be prepared for this:

Ahrefs Limited Free Version

Okay, enough chit-chat. Let’s get into the meaty stuff.

For this example I’ll be using Ahrefs, but they both work the same way.

Start by plugging your first seed URL into the tool to bring up the organic results for that competitor.

Thesurvivalmom Organic Keywords In Ahrefs

You’ll notice it sorts by the % of traffic a given keyword brings to the site. And that’s exactly what you want to see.

It’s a good start, but there’s still work to be done.

Step #3: Filter Keyword Opportunities

If you look at the number of keyword suggestions I got back from that 1 seed website, you’ll see why filtering is so important.

Thesurvivalmom Organic Keywords Results Ahrefs

The filtering options are found at the top.

Thesurvivalmom Ahrefs Keywords Filtering Options

Everyone’s preferences will be different here, but I tend to get the best results when I filter by position, volume, and keyword difficulty.

I’ll explain why:

Organic Position:

The whole point of this process is to identify keywords that are working well for your competitor, which are basically keywords ranking on the first page of Google. Anything else can go.

Search Volume:

This is probably where most people will differ on opinion, but it’s unlikely you’ll want to shoot for keywords with almost zero search volume, so it’s best to filter them out.

Keyword Difficulty:

This is actually less important than it would be for traditional keyword research because your (close) competitor has already proven the keyword to be “rankable”. That said, Ahrefs has a solid KD metric, so I’m happy to use it as a second point of reference.

Ahrefs Orgnic Keywords Filters

As you can see, applying those filters has taken me down to only 90 keyword suggestions.

Not only will it save me time, but these keywords are MUCH more likely to fit the bill.

Step #4: Evaluate Keyword Difficulty

Now that you’ve got a handful of promising keywords lined up, you’ll need to validate keyword difficulty.

Essentially, all that means is, make sure it’s not too difficult to rank for.

As I mentioned above, the sheer fact that your competitor is ranking for those keywords means there’s a strong possibility you can also rank. That is, assuming you have similar or higher domain authority.

That said, page level authority also determines where a page ranks, so if your competitor has a ton of links pointing to a given page, that keyword will likely be a lot harder to rank for.

This is why a manual SERP analysis is crucial, regardless of how you conduct your keyword research.

In Ahrefs, you just click the little arrow to bring up the SERP analysis:

Kw Difficulty Evaluation Ahrefs SERP Analysis

And from here, you can reference a bunch of data to help you evaluate the true difficulty of this keyword.

The most important metrics to look at are the Domain Rank, URL Rank, Backlinks and Referring Domains. Other tools name these slightly differently, but they all represent the same thing.

Kw Difficulty Evaluation Ahrefs Serp Analysis Metrics

Here’s a quick rundown of what they mean:

  • Domain Rank
    “Domain Rating” shows the strength of a given website’s overall backlink profile. DR is measured on a logarithmic scale from 1 to 100, with the latter being the strongest.
  • URL Rank
    “URL Rating” measures the strength of a target URL’s backlink profile and the likelihood that the URL will rank high in Google. UR is measured on a logarithmic scale from 1 to 100, with the latter being the strongest.
  • Backlinks
    “Backlinks” measure the total number of backlinks pointing to the target URL.
  • Domains
    “Domains” measures the total number of referring domains pointing to the target URL.

So with that in mind, let’s take another look at the keyword phrase above – “how to build a faraday cage”.

This would be my general thought process…

Keyword Difficulty Evaluation Process In Ahrefs

As you can see, there’s very little ‘science’ to a manual SERP analysis.

Once you’ve narrowed down your keywords using the appropriate metrics, the rest comes down to your ability – and confidence in your ability – to hustle your way to the top.


Competitor-based keyword research is quickly becoming the default approach for many SEO’s, simply because of how effective it is at finding proven keywords.

That said, traditional keyword research still has it’s place when it comes to finding keywords your competitors aren’t even aware of.

To learn more about the competitor-based approach to keyword research and how it breaks down, read our step-by-guide.

And if you’re interested in learning which tools are best for either approach, check out our keyword research tools roundup post.