SEMRush Review & Tutorial
Being the first marketing tool to focus on competitor-based keyword research, SEMRush quickly became popular with SEO’s and marketers. Today, not so much- especially when compared to it’s closest competitor, Ahrefs. Not only did it underperform if some areas, but it completely lacked the tools needed to properly evaluate keyword competition.
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Review of: SEMRush
Use: Competitor keyword research
It finds a good # of keyword opportunities, but analyzing SERP competition is a pain
It’s expensive for what you get. Ahrefs does the same and more for pretty much the same price.
Ease of use
The interface is a little confusing at first, but doesn’t take too long to get the hang of things
Support options are pretty standard, but I did get a speedy and quality(ish) response via email
- Easily uncover your competitors organic rankings
- Check top performing pages for winning content ideas
- Quickly identify the keywords with the highest traffic potential
- Find thousands of competitors using a single seed URL
We Don't Like
- Keyword difficulty metric is unusual and unreliable
- Backlink analysis reports some very inaccurate data
- The traditional keyword research functionality (still in Beta) is weak
- Unable to carry out any manual SERP analysis from within the tool
- User interface could be a little overwhelming for newbies
You know something?
I NEVER watch a movie these days without checking reviews.
Whenever I hear about a new release, I’m straight on Rotten Tomatoes for a quick percentage check. Anything lower than 70% and I’m out.
Same way I almost never go to a restaurant without checking Trip Advisor anymore. It’s just standard procedure and something most of us have adopted over the years.
And it makes sense.
Other people have already shared their own experience. It’s almost like sending an army of personal assistants to check it out for you and report back. Why would you pass up that information?
And believe it or not, you can apply this EXACT same “crowd-sourced” approach to keyword research.
Instead of shooting in the dark on keywords that look good in theory, you can leverage the thousands of webmasters in your niche who’ve already separated the wheat from the chaff.
I’m talking about tapping into an endless supply of tried-and-tested keywords with a simple click of a button. And when you do it right, it’s easily the most powerful keyword research strategy you can use to grow your organic traffic.
But it does take some know-how, and the right tools.
SEMRush is an all-in-one competitor analysis tool, founded in 2008 by the same guys behind the popular browser-extension, SEOQuake.
Unlike any other keyword research tool around at the time, SEMRush gave way to a very unique approach to finding profitable keywords.
Reverse-engineering your competitors organic rankings.
Being the first tool to have this kind of capability, it had first movers advantage. Almost overnight, it became a must-have tool in the SEO and online marketing world.
But things have come a long way since then. A lot has changed. The question is, does SEMRush still deserve a place in your toolkit?
Let’s find out.
How Well Does It Perform For Traditional Keyword Research?
Traditional keyword research is using seed keywords to identify the actual search terms your target audience are using.
The way you do that is by looking directly at search data, and then analyzing individual keyword phrases in terms of both monthly search volume and overall search engine competition.
So, how does SEMRush help you do that?
For a long time, it didn’t. You couldn’t do traditional keyword research with SEMRush because it was purely for competitor analysis. But that was until recently, when SEMRush added a new feature called ‘SEO Keyword Magic’.
Now, I actually cover this in the review so I won’t get too much into it here. I will say though, even with the addition of this feature, I still didn’t find it 100% viable for traditional keyword research.
If you’re interested in taking the traditional approach, I’d recommend getting one of these tools instead:
How Well Does it Perform For Competitor Keyword Research?
As I mentioned before, competitor keyword research is about taking your competitors sites and reverse-engineering their organic search rankings.
By looking at the search terms your competitors are ranking for, you can target keywords that are already proven. All other factors being equal, you know there’s a good chance you can aso rank for those keywords by creating similar (and better) content.
So, how does SEMRush help you do that?
Since SEMRush was built for deep competitor analysis, it’s not surprising that one of the main features allows you to uncover anyone's organic rankings. As long as the domain appears in Google’s top 100 positions, you’ll know about it.
More than that, it allows you to sort and filter that (sometimes huge amount) data using metrics like ‘SERP position’ and ‘traffic %’ to find the “hidden gems” as quickly and easily as possible.
The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly For this review, I fired up SEMRush to see how well this competitor-based keyword research tool fares next to it’s competitors (and Ahrefs in particular).
Since SEMRush isn’t just used for keyword research, there will be a number of features that I haven’t mentioned in this review.
I will, however, do my best to mention all the features I feel are relevant to keyword research and give my overall experience using them. (and I’ll point out what I liked and didn’t like along the way, of course.)
First Impressions Of The User Interface
The user interface can be a little overwhelming the first time you use SEMRush. There seems to be a lot going on with all the colors and everything calling out for attention.
In reality, it’s actually not a complicated tool and it almost feels like they’re trying to fill the space to make it appear more advanced than it really is.
For example, the first thing you see when you log in is the dashboard. And here, we’ve got not 1, but 2 options to “add a project”.
We’v’e also got links to their blog and news articles.
And the footer alone takes up most of my screen.
I’m being a bit critical here and it’s not a terrible interface by any means. But taking away all the notifications and stripping everything down to the essentials, you start to realize how unnecessarily cluttered it is.
You notice this stuff even more after using tools like KW Finder, which use a minimal approach:
I think we can all agree this bare-bones interface feels a helluva lot more intuitive.
SEMRush is built around the concept of reverse-engineering your competitors, and that’s ultimately where your keyword research starts.
Once you’ve gathered your master list of competitor domains, you can then start plugging them into the tool, one-by-one.
Within a few seconds, you’ll get back a TON of data for that domain, which again, can be a little overwhelming.
Of course, this is just an overview of everything. The key here is to have a goal in mind and understand exactly what it is you’re looking to reverse-engineer.
Is it their organic rankings?
Is it their backlink profile?
Is it their paid advertising campaign?
Whatever it is, you can use the sidebar navigation to dive into that specific set of data and really get your hands dirty.
Go Behind The Scenes With Organic Research
At the heart of this tool is it’s ability to perform deep, organic research. This translates into a bunch of different uses and it’s by faaaar the most-used feature of SEMRush.
To get to it, just click “Organic Research” in the sidebar and it’ll take you straight to the “Positions” analysis by default.
It’s important to note at this stage, this data isn’t global.
By default, you’ll be looking at US specific data. But you can change that for most areas of this tool - so just keep that in mind.
So that’s the formalities out the way.
Let’s get into the nitty gritty and talk about some of the things you can actually do with this thing (and why they matter).
Spy On Your Competitors Traffic Stats
The first thing you’ll see here is the Organic Traffic Estimates analysis
This gives you an idea of both a website's organic traffic volume, and the trend of that traffic over time.
Of course, this is only based on organic traffic, which is why it’s considerably lower than you might expect for some sites.
Want the full story?
SEMRush does allow you to zoom out and look at a sites overall traffic statistics. All you need to do, is click “Traffic Analytics” in the sidebar.
And here you’ll get a complete breakdown of how traffic flows through a given competitor's site.
How reliable is this estimate?
Firstly, SEMRush doesn’t include mobile traffic stats, only desktop. Since mobile traffic accounted for 60% of all traffic in 2016 (and still rising), that’s already a huge chunk of missing data.
Important: Currently, our reports only show estimates of website traffic generated by desktop internet users (not mobile users)
Secondly, it’s not an exact science. It’s just an estimate based on keyword search volumes, organic rankings and average click-through rates.
In other words, it’s never going to mimic what the webmaster will see in their personal analytics, but it’s still a reasonably good indication of traffic.
And don’t worry, I know what you’re thinking…
“But Lewis, you didn’t really answer the question. HOW reliable is SEMRush for traffic estimates?”
Relax. I got it covered.
We compared the number of unique monthly visitors from our own sites with the traffic estimates from SEMRush.
(Remember, this is US-based organic traffic, excluding mobile)
As you can see, SEMRush was really off, particularly on Authority Hacker. That’s why these traffic estimates are best taken with a pinch of salt.
Steal The Best Performing Keywords
Let’s take a step back and return to the Organic Research tab.
This is essentially what most marketers think of when you mention SEMRush.
The Organic Search Positions feature.
In a nutshell, it shows you all the keywords any domain (or specific page) is ranking for, allowing you to reverse-engineer their best performing keywords.
By default, SEMRush will sort these results by ‘Traffic %’, or the keywords that are estimated to bring in the most traffic.
I like that SEMRush does this automatically because it’s easily the most effective way to to uncover a sites most valuable keywords.
So yeah, #efficiency
Going back to our example, we can immediately pick out the best performing keywords for QuickSprout.
These keywords are fundamentally different to the keyword suggestions you get with the traditional approach because they’re already proven.
Assuming you’re own site has similar (or preferably higher) authority, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to steal these keywords from under their nose. (Again, this stuff is covered in a lot more detail in our guide to competitor research)
But we’re not done yet.
This is something Ahrefs also does very well and given the tools comprehensive index, I’d be crazy not to test it against SEMRush.
So I plugged the same domain into Ahrefs and checked the “organic keywords” tab to see what comes back.
Ahrefs returned 70,716 total results against the 117,644 (US only) results from SEMRush.
In terms of raw numbers, SEMRush does bring back more results.
Of course, the problem with having more results, is that it becomes even more important to be able to quickly and easily identify the hidden gems.
Filters and sorting can only take you so far. You still need something to give you a clear picture of what’s going on behind the scenes.
And that brings me to my next point...
Quickly Discover Keyword Competition Level
Using a single metric to calculate keyword difficulty makes sense in an ideal world, but as we’ve seen before, there’s no industry standard for this kind of thing.
And unfortunately, these numbers vary wildly from tool-to-tool, and it makes it hard to know which one to actually trust. That said, some tools do it really well, and when it works, it really works.
SEMRush shows you keyword difficulty (or KD) for each of your results:
And just to illustrate how varied this score system can be, we ran the same keywords through multiple tools to show you how they stack up:
Keyword Research Tool
Ahrefs Keywords Explorer
Long Tail Platinum Cloud
As you can see, not only is SEMRush reporting insanely different difficulty scores, but it’s also showing them as percentages. (Wtf?)
I won’t go too much into this, because Perrin actually wrote an entire post comparing the reliability of these scores, and SEMRush was included included in that list.
To sum it up, SEMRush performed the worst in our testing and we deemed it the most unreliable tool for evaluating keyword difficulty using this metric.
Ahrefs, on the other hand, performed the best in our testing.
Easily Evaluate SERP Competition Strength (Or Not)
Given how bad the keyword difficulty metric is in SEMRush, you might expect the tool to give you an alternative...
...you know, a way to check the competition strength in the search results?
Well, not exactly.
SEMRush doesn’t have any kind of interface that allows you to analyze the SERPS, like what you get with Ahrefs:
...or KW Finder.
This is something that for me - even using a tool that does provide a reliable keyword difficulty score - is still super important for traditional keyword research.
With SEMRush, the best you get is an actual link to the SERPs. (lol)
You pretty much have to rely on competitor based research and the fact that:
- A competitor is ranking well for a given keyword
- That competitor has an equal or lower authority than you
- As a result, you should also be able to rank for that keyword
And while that does work, it’s not completely fool-proof. For example, you’re not able to see specific link metrics which could play a massive role, particularly at page-level.
Find Promising Keyword Opportunities
Nothing in this world is ever constant.
The stock market crashes.
My girlfriend puts on a few extra pounds (ughh).
And, of course, Google’s always juggling the SERPs to figure out what should rank where.
The “Position Changes” analysis shows you changes in organic rankings for any domain or URL.
This allows you to check the top 100 organic search results for:
- New keywords
- Lost keywords
- Improved keywords
- Declined keywords
And you can filter out results based on either of those categories:
Now let’s talk in practical terms because not every reporting option will be useful and that definitely applies here.
Essentially, you’re only interested in keywords that are performing well, which narrows it down to the “New” and “Improved” filters.
(The filters themselves aren’t new and improved)
This allows you to identify tons of long-tail keywords that your competitors are ranking for, as well as keywords that are climbing in the SERPs.
Surprise, surprise. Ahrefs does this too.
It’s called “Movements” and it works almost exactly the same way.
Easily Uncover Thousands Of Competitors
If there’s one ingredient that defines the results you get from using SEMRush, it’s an understanding of your competition.
Knowing WHO your competition is gives you the keys to hundreds, if not thousands of proven keyword suggestions. But you’re not limited to just one key.
Alright, I’ll cut the riddles.
The more competitors you plug into SEMRush, the more results you’ll get back. Simple.
And while I do recommend some manual research for this part, the tool actually helps you identify competitors at scale using the “Organic Competitors” analysis.
From a single URL, SEMRush uncovered 19,277 similar websites.
But more than that, it gives you a useful insight that allows you to sort and filter the domains that MATTER.
We’ll start with competition level.
In a nutshell, this tells you how many similar keywords each site is ranking for in respect to that sites overall number of organic keywords.
More in common = higher competition
It’s basically using the ratio of ‘common keywords’ versus ‘overall keywords, which in theory makes a lot of sense.
From my testing, it actually worked pretty well. They were sorted well and even at the lower end I could still see a ton of very relevant domains.
I should say though, the number of results you get back is a little misleading.
As I dug deeper into it, things got a bit rocky. From the 19,277 competitors it found, I probably wouldn’t use more than 1% as part of my research.
Overall, SEMRush does cast a wide net on this but the competition level metric makes it super easy to find the cream of the crop. I likes it.
Switching over to Ahrefs again, the “competing domains” report only returned 43 results. A little surprising, I have to say.
SEMRush gets this one.
Reverse-Engineer Proven Content
On occasion, you stumble across a really juicy competitor.
You discover they’ve got a bunch of great keywords you can swipe, and it’s probably worth doing some deeper analysis to see what else is working for them.
The “Pages” analysis lets you jump into your competitors best performing pages, and identify which pieces of content drive them the most traffic.
This is a slightly broader strategy than targeting individual keywords, but it has it’s place.
For example, if you find a specific piece of content from a competitor (with similar authority), and it’s ranking for a large number of keywords… well, it’s probably worth slotting into your editorial calendar.
You can do the same in Ahrefs with the “Top Pages” report.
In this case, Ahrefs brought back 1,089 results compared to the 1,111 results I got in SEMRush. Not much in it.
But even then, there’s another factor you have to consider.
Just because a competitor is ranking well with a specific piece of content, doesn’t necessarily mean you will too. It’s not quite as black and white as that. Sometimes, content will rank purely off the back of a sites domain authority.
Of course, there are times where backlinks are doing all the heavy lifting, and if that’s the case, SEMRush isn’t really going to know about it.
The pages analysis doesn’t give you nearly as much insight as it should. You can click the “Info” button to check for backlinks, but even then, SEMRush has a notoriously bad backlink index.
In the example above, SEMRush reports the top URL having only 390 backlinks, but Ahrefs is significantly better at this.
That’s over 15x as many backlinks as reported in SEMRush. More than “just a little off” by anyones standard.
The Notoriously Bad Backlink Analysis
I just outed SEMRush for having a crappy link index, but I’m still going to give it a dedicated section in this review.
Because SEMRush gave it a dedicated section in their own tool, and it’s just as bad.
I mean, it’s not lacking in depth. Everything is there and it looks promising on the surface. It’s just completely inaccurate.
To highlight what I mean, I’ve compared link metrics for 3 example URLs against the 2 top backlink checkers in the industry.
Ref Domains (#1)
Ref Domains (#2)
Ref Domains (#3)
When it comes to checking these off-page metrics with SEMRush, it’s about as reliable as a handbrake on a canoe.
Old School Traditional Keyword Research
Keyword research was always about generating long lists from seed keywords and evaluating each result on a case-by-case basis.
Then SEMRush came along.
Instead of looking for the needle in a haystack, it allowed you to find the right haystacks with the right needles.
By looking at what’s working for your competitors and reverse-engineering their success, you almost eliminate the need for traditional keyword research. Almost.
It’s a good strategy. My preferred strategy, in fact. But I still think there’s a lot to be said for the traditional approach and that’s something SEMRush lacked… until the release of SEO Keyword Magic (Beta).
This tool works similarly to Ahrefs Keywords Explorer and Long Tail Pro. Just feed it a seed keyword and it’ll spit out thousands of keyword suggestions.
It does give you back a pretty good number of results.
And it has the usual filtering options, including an option to filter keywords categorically, which is cool.
But that’s where the “magic” starts to wear off.
I get that it’s still in Beta - I can account for that. But there’s literally missing data all over the place, and no way to pull it in.
Considering the keyword difficulty metric is the only thing we really have to evaluate the strength of a keyword, it makes it a nightmare to work with.
That’s without mentioning the endless bugs, which stopped me from being able to actually use the filters.
Ahrefs, over to you.
Of course, Ahrefs have their own traditional keyword tool, and it’s called Keywords Explorer. In fact, it was recently rebuilt from the ground up and branded version 2.0.
I probably don’t have you to tell you, Ahrefs is light-years ahead of SEMRush on this one. There’s no comparison.
A Helping Hand With Speedy Email Support
When it comes to buying any kind of tool nowadays, it’s always nice to know someone has your back if you do happen to run into problems.
Personally, I feel like live chat has become a standard for online support, and it’s something I always look for before I hand over any cash.
It’s not that email support and ticketing systems are bad, but it’s usually the difference between having your problem solved in a few minutes versus a few hours (or sometimes days).
And it's clear the SEMRush community agrees with me on that:
So what support options do you have with SEMRush?
Well, you get the usual FAQ style page, of course.
And if you don’t find an answer there, you can scroll down to the contact form.
I sent them a quick email to test reply speed and quality. The results are in.
It took ~3 hours to get a response back which was much quicker than expected. And the response itself was reasonably good.
Bit of a porky pie with the whole “we show most of them” line, however.
Finally, as it turns out, they did listen to their customers and have since introduced live chat support in Europe (but currently not in the US).
I wasn't able to test it since I'm not in Europe at the moment, but hopefully they roll this out for everyone in the near future.
Is SEMRush Right For You?
It’s great giving my opinion on the different features and functions of the tool, and how they actually contribute when it comes to finding good keywords - but that’s not what you really want to know.
What you really want to know is, should you actually buy SEMRush or is it a waste of your time / money?
Let’s break it down.
If your main concern is keeping costs down, then brace yourself.
...SEMRush aint cheap.
With plans starting at $99.95 per month and reaching as much as $399.95 per month, SEMRush just isn’t a viable option for budget bloggers.
(Unfortunately, Ahrefs is also similarly priced at $99 per month)
So what do I recommend instead?
The free plan only gives you a handful of searches a day, and the results are limited, but you can still find some excellent keywords using this approach.
Then, I’d recommend combining that with the paid version of KW Finder.
Not only is this a much cheaper option, but it will allow you to properly analyze the keywords you find with the free plan of SEMRush. (And it’s our favorite tool for traditional keyword research.)
If you’re just starting out, I wouldn’t recommend SEMRush for keyword research.
Firstly, as a beginner it’s easy to rely on the keyword difficulty metric, and that’s fine. But this tool is just waaay off with its estimates.
Secondly, since there’s no easy way to do a manual keyword difficulty review, you’ll never know be able to tell the difference until you really know your s***.
But it’s not all bad news.
There are far more “beginner-friendly” keyword research tools available, like the one I mentioned above, KW Finder.
Even though KW Finder is mostly used for traditional keyword research, it does have a very reliable keyword difficulty algorithm. In other words, it’s an excellent sidekick for carrying out competitor research with SEMRush.
If you’re a veteran marketer and you’ve read this far, I’m sure you’ve seen a trend in the comparison between SEMRush and Ahrefs.
SEMRush is a good tool, there’s no doubting that. But it rested on it’s laurels for far too long. It stopped growing. Stopped innovating.
Ahrefs, on the other hand, had bigger ideas. It wasn’t long before they were able to build something that did the same job faster, better and more efficiently.
Not only that, but for the same price you’d pay for SEMRush, Ahrefs gives you a whole suite of tools to help you with other areas of your marketing, including a Keywords Explorer for traditional keyword research.
It’s a no-brainer.
And if for some reason you’re still not convinced, check out our full review of Ahrefs.
How to Find Informational Keywords with SEMRush
Informational keywords are terms and phrases people use to find an answers to problems. Unlike commercial keywords, you’re not trying to sell anything with your content, at least not directly.
To find these informational keywords with SEMRush, start by finding at least 1 competitor blog with similar, or less authority to your own. (You can check any sites domain authority with the MozBar)
Plug that domain into SEMRush and run a search set to “Organic Research”. For this example, I’ll use QuickSprout again.
At this point, you’ll thousands, if not hundreds-of-thousands of results, and you’ll need to filter them down using modifiers.
Modifiers are words or phrases people use as part of their search query, and you can use informational modifiers to find these types of keywords.
Informational modifiers include things like:
To filter out results in SEMRush, just type one of the modifiers into the “Filter by keyword” search box.
This will limit the results to only keywords containing that specific modifier, the majority of which will be informational keywords.
Now, even though SEMRush has a horrible keyword difficulty algorithm, it still gives us some indication of competition.
That’s why I also like to sort results by ascending KD.
And at this point, you can easily pick out potential keywords, like “how long is 1200 words” with 590 monthly searches:
You can do a SERP analysis (to get an accurate gauge of difficulty) with the free MozBar extension, or just use a premium tool like KW Finder, which uses a much more reliable algorithm for calculating keyword difficulty.
Of course, you can always continue to use the sorting and advanced filtering options to drill down even further.
So for example, I might add a position filter to show only keywords appearing on page 1 for this domain, and a volume filter to show only the keywords with a decent amount of traffic.
And as you can see, that process took me down from my original list of 117,000 keywords, to just 38 viable targets.
It’s just a case of repeating this process using all the different modifiers with all your competitors sites. That way, you should end up with hundreds of great informational keywords to go after.
And don’t be afraid to loosen your filters a little if you’re not happy with the results. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, be flexible and adapt your approach to the number (and quality) of results you get back.
How to Find Commercial Keywords with SEMRush
Commercial keywords are terms and phrases people use when they’re looking to buy something and as a result, these type of keywords convert really well. Unlike informational keywords, the primary goal is to sell something.
The process of finding commercial keywords is similar to the way you find informational keywords -- but with 2 key differences.
Difference #1: The type of site that you use.
Instead of using general blogs, you’ll want to focus more on affiliate sites and ecommerce stores. These types of sites are far more likely to rank for commercial keywords because of the nature of their business.
So for this example, I’ll plug in TheWireCutter for some organic research.
And just like before, you’ll want to use modifiers to zero in on keywords with specific intent. And that brings me nicely to...
Difference #2: The type of modifiers you use.
Since we’re looking for commercial keywords this time, you’ll be using commercial modifiers instead.
Commercial modifiers include things like:
And just like before, all you need to do is apply some additional advanced filters to get this huge list of results down to a handful of solid targets.
From that, I was able to find the keyword “z wave controller reviews” with 720 monthly searches:
And KW Finder confirmed it…
Again, don’t be afraid to loosen your filters if you need to. The same filters won't be optimal for every domain so you just need to find that sweet spot.
SEMRush was the first of it’s kind. A tool that flipped keyword research on it’s head and showed you what’s already working.
It was such a unique and effective approach, that it ultimately triggered a new breed of copycat keyword research tools. In the end, SEMRush couldn’t stay ahead of the curve.
Ahrefs, on the other hand, had bigger ideas. It wasn’t long before they were able to build something that did the same job faster, better and more efficiently.
Don’t get me wrong, SEMRush isn’t a bad tool, and it did outperform Ahrefs in some areas. But when you factor in the sucky keyword difficulty algorithm, the lack of a reliable link index and the inability to do real traditional keyword research… it’s just not worth the price tag.
As I’ve mentioned multiple times throughout this review, I think the following 2 options are a much better alternative than a paid subscription to SEMRush.