SEMrush Competitive Research Toolkit: a Phlywheel review

Zachary Green

Zachary Green

Zach lives and breathes SEO. After spending some time in the music business, he transitioned into digital marketing where he has kickstarted growth for small businesses like Filthy Rebena, Museum London, and Forest City Film Festival.

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The Competitive Research Toolkit is one of many toolkits available with SEMrush, who are offering a seven day free trial of their platform now. So naturally, we thought we’d try it out. Below are the findings of our content optimization expert after letting him loose with the software. Spoiler: he loved it.

Phrases like “understanding the marketing strategies of your competitors” are thrown around a lot in this industry. However, there are very few tools that genuinely do precisely that. The SEMrush Competitive Research Toolkit gives specific data on your competitors that allows you to see their “big picture” strategy. Just how big of a picture, you ask? Well, you can break down and analyze competitor marketing strategies from pretty much every angle, including:

  • Display advertising
  • Organic search (SEO)
  • Paid search
  • Link building 
  • Content
  • PR
  • Social Media 

The toolkit provides the resources needed to make accurate, data-driven decisions based on your opposition’s metrics. There’s no more guesswork because you’ll have specific data that shows you what (and how) the competition is doing. Your findings will then allow you to adapt your strategy better to increase conversions, ROI, and other goals. Let’s take a closer look.

The big picture

Hand holding instant photo, pink background.

The best place to start would be with what SEMrush calls the “big picture” tools. These tools help you to broadly understand your competitor’s marketing strategies at a high level. There are three big picture tools:

Domain Overview 

Pulling a Domain Overview report on a competitive business is a great way to start your SEMrush journey. It’ll detail many keywords (both paid and organic), backlinks, and display ads. This high-level report gives you quick insights into what’s working for a particular domain. Now that you’ve got the lowdown, it’s time to dig a little deeper.

Market Explorer

Using the Market Explorer tool, you can find niche market-specific data. You’ll find insights such as the top players in your market and prospects for your business. You can even use this tool to gain a better understanding of audiences and benchmark your growth.

Traffic Analytics

Using the Traffic Analytics tool is basically like getting the keys to your competitor’s Google Analytics and sneaking in, Mission Impossible-style. For example, you can see previous engagement metrics such as pages/visits, average visit duration, and bounce rate. SEMrush provides easy-to-read charts that display changes over six months, twelve months, and all time. Typically, you’d have to be on their marketing team to see this kind of data. But, being the smooth SEM secret agent that you now are, you’ll escape with data on how many users are engaging and where traffic is coming from.


Now for the SEO tools in the kit. There are four tools: Organic Research, Keyword Gap, Backlink Analytics, and Backlink Gap. These tools allow you to drill down into the SEO tactics that give other brands organic visibility and traffic from search engines. 

Organic Research

Using the Organic Research tool, you can learn which practices work best for your competitors in SERPs (search engine results pages). You’ll also be able to see the domains you are competing with, ranked for the top positions in Google – this is your hit list!

You can pull the SERP stats of a competing domain, URL, or even a subfolder. You can also view a list of keywords and positions your competitor is ranking for and any changes that might be happening. With this useful information, you’ll discover whether your competitors are growing, or if they have been stagnant. From here, you can understand what is and isn’t working for them and plan accordingly. 

Within the tool itself, there are many helpful charts and graphs. The Top Organic Keywords list shows your competitor’s entire keyword list, their current positions, and the amount of traffic each keyword sends to their site. For example, if your main competitor has two thousand keywords while you only have five hundred, you probably have some keyword research to do. Here’s an example of some 5G-related keywords:

While this is an excellent snapshot of what’s going on SEO-wise, you’ll want to get a deeper understanding of historical metrics, too. This is where we turn to the Organic Keywords Trend graph. It shows how the keyword list has changed over time and is broken down by the number of keywords in each ranking position segment. If your competitor is getting more and more total keywords as the months go by, it means they’re doing SEO right, and their search presence is growing.

Keyword Gap

Using the keyword gap tool, you can see a side by side comparison of keyword profiles of up to five competitors at once. This is an excellent method of finding a competitor’s target keywords that you may have overlooked. You’ll also be able to discover keywords for Google Ads, and PLA campaigns, too.

Backlink Analytics

In terms of Google’s organic ranking algorithm, backlinks are super important. Enter the Backlink Analytics tool, where you can gather in-depth, functional data on any domain’s backlinks. You can also explore their referring domains, IPs, and top-level domain (TLD) distribution. This will allow you to reveal link-building opportunities by analyzing your rival’s lost links.

Backlink Gap

Much like the Keyword Gap tool, this backlink counterpart allows you to compare the backlink profiles of five competitors (against yours) at the same time. You’ll see exactly where your rival’s links are showing up to build a list of domains to target in your SEO adventures. Congratulations, you’ve just discovered your untapped backlink potential.


Why waste your ad budget targeting the wrong areas when you can let your competition make all the mistakes instead? The advertising tools help you see how others in your industry are spending their dollar and what keywords they’re targeting in the paid sphere. This particular toolbox includes three tools: Advertising Research, Display Advertising, and PLA Research. Let’s get to it!

Advertising Research

Using the Advertising Research tool, you’ll discover your main paid search competitors and their top paid search keywords, landing pages, and even the copy of the ads themselves. So if you’re looking to dive into your opponent’s pay-per-click (PPC) strategy, this is the tool for you.

A great way to use this information is to study the composition of your competitor’s copy. Is it engaging? How do they provide value? What tone are they using? Now you know the tactics that your competitor is using and knowledge is half the battle.

Display Advertising

With the Display Advertising tool, you can see how much a domain advertises media and display ads through platforms such as AdSense and Google Ads. This is great for creating a list of the most successful display ad publishers in your market. It’s best to take a look at exactly what they’re doing to get consumers coming to them in droves. Use these insights to then inform your ad campaigns on desktop and mobile.

PLA Research

But what about shopping? I hear you ask. Well, using the PLA (product listing ads) Research tool, you can upgrade your Google Shopping strategy by – you guessed it- analyzing those competitors on the Google Shopping Network. Again, here we see those usual metrics that you’ll need to understand what others are doing, such as keywords, keyword triggers, pricing, and positioning. If e-commerce is your game, this is the cheat code that gives you invincibility.

Content and PR

Next, we move onto the content and PR tools. These are broken down into three tools: brand monitoring, topic research, and post tracking.

Brand Monitoring

Here you’ll track, analyze, and benchmark things like where your rivals are mentioned in other publications or websites. This is great for not only keeping an eye on your competitor’s online reputation but also discovering where you might want your brand to show up instead.

Topic Research

Want to find websites that cover similar topics to you? You’ve come to the right place. Simply throw some topics into this tool, and it’ll provide you with a bunch of subtopics and associated questions that you can use to brainstorm some content ideas. These lists can be visualized in different ways, like cards, or a mindmap. You might even find some subtopics that inform some new keywords, too. What’s even better is that you can specify your competitors’ domains to see the subjects that they’ve already covered. Result!

A great way to use this tool is to take advantage of the trending subtopics feature located at the top of the dashboard. Writing about trending topics is a good way for your brand to capture traffic and stay relevant. For example, if you write about social media marketing and are looking for ways to get in front of your audience, then you should compare the topics of your current content strategy to the tool’s topics. Here we can see social media subtopics laid out in card format. Following this, I could use the headline and question generator to get super specific about writing for my topic.

Post Tracking

Using the post tracking tool, you can compare the success and engagement of different content across various websites and social platforms at the same time. So if you’re running a report on your opposition’s content publishing strategy, you’ll be able to see their engagement, backlinks, and even keyword rankings. 

Social Media Tracker

Last but definitely not least – the Social Media Tracker tool. As you might assume, you can manage and track all of your social media profiles and competitors as well. It’s perfect for monitoring audience growth and even boosting your posts. However, I love seeing what audience interests my rivals are trying to trigger and exactly how. Again, like with the other data you’ve pulled up to this point, you’ll analyze top-performing content to enhance your own strategy.

The Last Word

So, as I said initially, I was obviously skeptical about trying out SEMrush. But once I’d had some time to play around and run some reports, my biggest problem became how I’d be able to talk about everything it does without writing a novel! This is but one of the toolkits that SEMrush provides, and as time goes on, I look forward to exploring more and more. It’s like having the marketing version of x-ray vision, so try it out.

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