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How To Pick Organic Competitors for SEO Analysis To Maximize Your On-Page Optimization Success Rate

Karolina Gawron
January 8, 2020

Inside this article:

The thing that people love about Surfer is that it gives instant recommendations on improving on-page SEO. It's one of the most efficient seo tools for keyword research which can give your business a competitive edge, and hopefully allow you to rank higher on search engines. Surfer has a keyword research tool which is proven to help with search engine results.

But what if after using this keyword tool you introduced the suggested changes and nothing happened? Or worse! What if you dropped in rankings for your money-making key phrase and you saw your competitors rank even higher than you?

There can be two reasons for that:

  • Some other factors are holding your page back  (lack of link building, poorly optimized internal structure, slow website speed, etc.)
  • You based your work on wrong assumptions

And today, I will walk you through the process of preparing your environment for analysis in Surfer. Therefore you'll increase your chances to rank your page with on-page optimization.

We will focus on three major things:

  • Analyzing user intent and other important Google ranking factors
  • Picking organic competitors for analysis + competitor keywords
  • Defining the sentiment for your page to establish domain authority

Why is competitor seo analysis important?

The right prep-work distinguishes great SEOs from mediocre ones. And since you’re here, I’m sure you belong or at least aspire to the first group.

Making content decisions based on data from search results is definitely a great idea and a good practice. The SEO glory usually lies on the first page—since those websites ranked well, chances are they’re doing something right.

But not every first page in the SERPs is the same.

Sometimes it’s a mix of e-commerce and review articles. Other times there are service pages and directories of local providers. Or maybe Wikipedia and high authority pages with bazillion links.

Should we plan page optimization based on all of them?

No, we shouldn’t and this is one of the common errors some SEOs make. Basing our analysis on the wrong competitors might result in ranking drops.

Let’s have a look at the example. The author followed recommendations from Surfer and noticed he lost a few positions. Later, when he adjusted the content and gave more attention to websites he used as a benchmark, he moved from page two to page one.

Results from and Surfer optimization

As you can see, this is an essential step that will make or break your content. If you nail the pre-work process, everything that follows will be a breeze.

So how to make sure your assumptions are correct?

1. Define search intent

Search intent is big right now. SEO experts like Viola Eva, Josh Hardwick, and Florian Kluge agree that satisfying the search intent is THE thing that will improve your SEO performance.

Search intent defines what users expect by typing a keyword. Are they looking for information? Want to make a purchase? Find a short answer to their nurturing question?

Google’s job is to serve the most accurate results that will satisfy the users’ needs. That’s basically the core of its existence. Knowing the search intent behind a keyword is critical when you plan your next page. For example, if in one SERP we’ve got mostly how-to guides, you’ll have a hard time to rank your transactional landing page.

Let’s have a look at the “ergonomic chair” phrase in the UK:

"ergonomic chair" serp example

To figure out the search intent, go page by page, and check their content. For my keyword, I’ve got 7 transactional pages where the user intent is to make a purchase and 3 research pages where the searcher looks for more information.

Based on that, I’m pretty sure I’ll have better chances to get to the top by creating a transactional page than a catalog with ergonomic chairs images.

According to Kane Jamison from Content Harmony, we can classify search intent like this:

  • Research - searcher is looking for more information
  • Answer- searcher is looking for a quick answer
  • Transaction - searcher is looking to buy a product
  • Local - searcher is looking for a local answer
  • Visual - searcher is looking for a visual inspiration
  • Video - searcher is looking for video content
  • Fresh/news - searcher is looking for the latest news
  • Branded - searcher is looking for a specific brand
  • Mixed - searcher may have several of various intents

But there’s more than that.

Some keywords like “seo strategy” may require we understand who is using the keyword, too.

SERP for "seo strategy" in the US

I can clearly see that actionable guides are favored for this search term. However, there are no articles for a senior SEO manager who’s looking for advanced techniques or case studies. And that’s for a reason. Therefore, if we tried to rank such article we would undoubtedly struggle.

When you understand the intent behind the search, you can provide accurate content, get a better understanding of its length and phrases that should be included on this page.  

Complying with the search intent is critical. If you see two different types of user intent and you can test two types of pages, go for it. Just beware of keyword cannibalization and don’t run such experiments within one domain.

2. Pick competitors for the analysis

If you have defined what kind of intent your page will serve and the right angle for it, selecting competitors is a piece of cake. Especially if you’re using Surfer’s Content Score feature that can serve as a single point of reference for evaluating your competition’s content quality.

This is how to pick the right competitors from the top 10:

  • Define your content type. Even if you’re going for a “research” search intent, you need to know if you’re writing a blog post, creating a video, or a landing page.
  • Exclude pages that serve different intent.
  • Include the first few pages (minimum five, maximum ten) with the highest Content Score. They must have done something right with their on-page SEO to rank this high. You want to match or outdo them. Generally, pages that have a Content Score of 67 and higher have a good quality and relevance.

Excluding competitors with strong domains is not necessary (provided that they have a high content score, of course). After all, we’re talking only on-page SEO here and if a given website is doing well in that regard, you should treat is a benchmark no matter what.

Pages that are left after following these three steps are the organic competitors you should include in your analysis in Surfer.

If you’re not using Content Score, your best bet after defining the content type and search intent is to:

  • Exclude outliers (pages that are much shorter or longer than the other search results) that will negatively impact your average-based content outlines
  • Exclude pages that draw the biggest traffic. In their case, we can assume that they rank on account of their authority and backlink profile, not on-page efforts.

Local services example

Exclude research articles because they target people who are not ready to buy. And you want to attract people who want to buy your services. Exclude Yelp or other directories if their Content Score is low— it means they are ranking for other reasons than great on-page.

Then, exclude pages with 100 (or fewer) words—they rank due to a developed backlink profile, brand, or other factors than on-page. Now, assess your page against your direct competitors that have the best Content Score and, if possible, an amount of content similar to what you're targeting.

Blog post vs. e-commerce example

If your goal is to write an article or blog post and you spot product pages (e.g. from affiliate websites) in a SERP—exclude them from your analysis.

In the opposite situation, if you’re creating an e-commerce page exclude blog posts and long-form articles. There are different user intents behind them, so you have to focus on comparing yourself to other pages that are the same type as yours.

Not following this rule can ruin your rankings not only when writing but when optimizing content as well. The structure and type of content we use for these types of pages are vastly different. They will warp the results when you look to create comparable content. The most frequently excluded page will be Amazon, for example—no surprise here.

Then, it’s just a matter of picking websites with the highest Content Score and going to town!

Skyscraper articles example

So-called skyscrapers are long-form articles that discuss a subject in-depth from different angles. They usually rank for keywords where the search intent is educational. The skyscraper technique is also based on one crucial assumption—your article should outmatch its competition in terms of quality and, most importantly, length.

When you plan such an article, make sure that it fits in the niche and specific search intent— if the user is looking for a short answer to a specific question, your 10k word monster won’t fit.

If you only see three similar long articles in the top ten, run your analysis just based on them. It applies to the short forms as well. Long articles usually have much lower keywords density. In this case, comparing your short form with them won’t get you anywhere.

User intent and competitors determine content length, terms you should use, and the type of communication.

The fewer pages you have to exclude from the top ten, the more suitable the keyword is for your page to rank.

In a perfect scenario, you will include all the top ten pages in your analysis. Based on them, Surfer will give you precise data to act on. However, if you’ll choose your competitors wrongly, the optimization may hurt your rankings

3. Sentiment analysis

The wrong sentiment of your content can be a disaster for your article.

For example, try to write an article rich with positive sentiment for the “smoking” keyword and get into the top 10 with it. Or even top 20! I bet you’ll have a hard time, and it makes sense from a user’s experience.

Some SERPs are very one-sided, like in the example I mentioned. When you analyze SERPs dominated by affiliates for “X review”, on the other hand, you’ll probably see pages with highly positive sentiment. It’s hard to earn any dollars from a negative review, right?

But most phrases will have various sentiments—positive, negative, maybe some neutral ones. And Google may experiment with those SERPs like in case of “buy Instagram followers” keyword. Shoutout to Rad Paluszak for his outstanding presentation during CMSEO 2019 and this slide:

Sentiment analysis for "Buy Instagram followers"

As you can see, over the course of 18 months Google has been changing which pages it favors in terms of the sentiment. In May 2018, it presented mostly pages with positive sentiment, for example transactional landings offering Instagram followers to buy.

But the SERP has been changing a lot. And if you see mixed sentiment for your key phrase, chances are it will keep changing for the next six months or so.

At this moment in time, focus on the results of your analysis in the present, check if the top-ranking pages have a positive or negative sentiment. If there are 7 positive ones and 3 negative—it will be easier to outrank one of the 7 pages with positive sentiment.

84% SERPs are dominated by positive results. We analyzed 17,500 pages sentiment - read the full story.

Finishing this step, you’ll have all you need to run your analysis with Surfer.

  • You determined search intent for your keyword
  • You excluded pages that might skew your analysis
  • You decided whether your page will have a positive or negative sentiment.

That means you’ll have a strong foundation for further work that 99% of SEOs don’t.

Now let’s put that in practice.

Example: “Software Outsourcing” for the US

Picking the right competition for the Audit

This works for optimizing an already existing piece of content—in this case, a blog article.

You can find the Audit feature in the nav bar of Surfer.

I'll type in my main keyword, URL, and decide between a mobile and desktop analysis.

When the analysis is ready, I enter the query. I can already see recommendations based on a pre-selected set of competitors, but I can still select my own set by clicking the "Select competitors" icon.

By default, the Audit is based on the top pages with highest content scores. At Surfer, we can promise the tool makes the best recommendations possible. But for extra competitive keyword, like our "software outsourcing ones", it's always best to re-check and pick ONLY the most relevant competitors.

The SERPs rarely have only one type of search intent, althought, if we chose the keyword well, one should be dominant.

Here, I can see:

  • Blog rticles on the subject (1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)
  • Service landing page (3)
  • A quora question (10)

Going by Content Scores, search intents, and content types, the pre-selected list of competitors is almost perfect.

However, for such a hard keyword, I want to be extra careful, so I would still unselect number 3, the landing page, and select number 2, since it has a decent content score and ranks high, so it must have done something right.

Then, I just have to confirm my choices, and my audit will re-calculate accordingly. Voila!

Picking the right competition in Content Editor

This is the option for you if you're about to create a new piece of content from scratch.

Go to Content Editor in the app navigation, and just as previously, put your keyword and location. The input looks the same for Content Editor and SERP Analyzer.

Enter the query from the dashboard.

The competition-picking process looks the same as with the Audit. The guidelines are already provided, based on the pre-selected set of competitors, but you can still check them out and select your own by clicking the "Customize" icon at the top of the side panel.

I will now choose my competitors the very same way I did with the Audit.

Once you click “Let's go,” Surfer will re-calculate the optimal content length, structure recommendations, and a list of important phrases.

That’s all your copywriter needs to know to create an optimized content piece.


Recommendations from both SERP Analyzer and Content Editor are much more reliable when you compare oranges to oranges. Word count varies massively, so does keyword density and other similar metrics across different types of content. Including the wrong types of pages in your audit will result in warped data which would lead you to optimizing your content incorrectly.

Follow user intent and the type of content that is favored by Google. If Google is ranking service pages in 8 out of 10 o the first page results, logic suggests your review page might really struggle to get ranked. Analyze pages that are your true competition and use the data for your advantage.

Good luck!

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