n this review, we take a detailed look at both the SEO and Content marketing toolkits offered by leading search engine marketing platform SEMrush. As this is an in-depth dive into what that suite offers we have added in an index to help you navigate around this review article.
-Keyword Gap Tool
-Backlink Gap Tool
-Keyword Research Tools
-Using Google Disavow
-Link Building Tool
-SEO Rank Tracking
-On page SEO Site Audit
-SEO Logfile Analysis
-SEO Writing Assistant
-What is TF- IDF for SEO?
-Content Writing Template Tool
-Working with Google Docs Content Writing Addon
It’s been a couple of years since we have reviewed SEMrush and the very first thing we noticed upon getting our hands on a trial account was “They have been very busy!” You are presented with a dizzying array of toolsets with over 28 different tools to explore on even their basic Pro level account at least that’s what their sign up and comparison pages promise…
Navigating the SEMrush Toolsets
The completeness of SEMrush’s toolsets across so many different job functions excited us. Here potentially was “one toolset to rule them all,” we thought to ourselves. In reality, that wasn’t entirely the case as you will see in our summary but there is much of merit anyone involved in search engine marketing should understand about this tool and explore.
To help you to navigate around all their tools, the interface designers at SEMrush have don’t a great job by breaking them down into toolsets that would appeal to users based upon their job function. Each project in your account can be set up to monitor and manage the core functions of search marketing.
The project dashboard gives you a great overview of which features you have set up and working for anyone website property you manage. To further help you there’s a collected toolset for content marketers, one for social media, another for SEO and one for advertising all at top level within the left-hand navigation. Breaking down the 28 currently offered tools in the suite this way is a great way of helping users navigate to the right tools relevant to their job function.
Competitive Advertising Intelligence
The advertising-related tools in SEMrush are fascinating, but since both Bing and Google separate advertising from their organic search results, for this review, we are not going to be covering them. However- since you get those tools as part of the overall subscription, be sure to take the time to look at what they can do in terms of competitor campaign analysis. It’s outside of the scope for this review, but the tools are fantastic and well worth getting to know!
For this review, we are going to focus on tools within the SEO toolset and will also expand it to review some of the tools available in the Content Marketing toolset because well optimised and researched content and SEO in our opinion have a big overlap if you want to perform well.
The SEO Toolkit
This toolkit is the place to start if you want to focus on your sites on-page SEO. The toolset comes broken down into four key focus areas.
Organic and Paid Competitive Research
One of `SEMrush’s big strengths has always been its ability to perform competitive research. You can grab data and statistics on almost any site and get a detailed analysis of that sites’ performance as well as in-depth SEO and PPC metrics. Much of the data is scraped and compiled like it is in many spy tools, but you benefit from multiple country databases of data that you can access. This kind of research is what SEMrush is well known for but if you haven’t seen it in action you should definitely take a look. Some of the insights it can give you will really help you to win on increasing your overall search volume.
Domain Overview Report
The toolkits domain overview tool provides you with powerful insights into any domain or website. The tool uses SEMrush’s own database of data which scans and calculated millions of websites and domains. The metrics it gives you are, of course, calculated from known variables and are not necessarily 100% accurate, but they do give you a good sense of overall trends for any particular domain. We tested the metrics we were given on a variety of sites which we had Google Analytics access to and found them surprisingly accurate. The tool was able to predict month on month drops or increases in traffic to within 5-10% accuracy.
Traffic levels and measurements of unique users was less accurate on the handful of sites we tested it out against but was still within 16-18% accurate in our tests. ( in our limited testing we found it tended to overinflate numbers rather than underestimate) Even dedicated website analytics struggle to provide definitive black and white numbers, so to get this close without actually having access to individual websites analytics was impressive. However, don’t take our word for it. Test out what the tool says for your website and see for yourselves. Like most spy intelligent tools on the market, there is a margin of error in the reported data, but any analysis like this is more about overall trends and patterns you can benchmark against.
Traffic analytics enables you to find out where your main rivals invest most of the marketing efforts. Armed with this, you might choose to adopt their experience into your marketing strategy. As standard, you get a very rough breakdown of top-level mediums and countries, but if you pay for the $199 a month analytics package, they share a lot more insights with you. They do offer users a free 7-day trial but be aware this requires a credit card number to activate it.
This tool allows you to see what works best for your competition. It is still using SEMrush’s scraped and calculated data but as you are only after overall trends this isn’t a bad use for this data. It’s great to be able to review what the core keyword phrases driving organic traffic volume for any website are. That kind of information is something you don’t get in many keyword research tools. It’s great for checking out your competitions possible strategic focus, but it’s also a useful way of exploring new keyword landscapes by going beyond your obvious commercial competition and exploring other possible audience interests your customers may have to find a new and exciting niche.
Keyword Gap Tool
SEMrush’s keyword gap tool enables you to size up your competition from a keyword perspective. It’s an interesting tool but perhaps more suited to google Ads advertisers wanting to ensure they get maximum exposure so the PLA and Ads filter comes as no surprise. Gaining maximum keyword domination from a competitor would be an enormous task for any SEO, but it’s useful to be able to view the SEMrush data set from this perspective.
Backlink Gap Tool
The Backlink Gap tool is more interesting from an SEO perspective. Input your competitor’s domain names and compare and contrast which has backlinks from where. You tell it which of your comparisons is your domain and the tool will filter for backlinks your competitors have which you don’t. A number of the SEO suites now have this kind of filtering functionality because it’s useful so its inclusion here is good. You have to work the tool to get valuable insights but once you have them they are so actionable. The filtering capabilities of this tool give you the option to slice and dice the data there in a number of ways to mine exactly what you want.
Keyword Research Tools
SEMrush gives you access to 4 separate keyword research tools. The keyword overview tool does what its name suggests. Nothing too fancy here, just a broad overview of main players in any given keyword space and associated keywords. Similarly, the keyword difficulty tool gives you a nice way of getting instant answers and a comparison of specific keywords. You can analyse up to 100 at a time.
SEMrush Magic Keyword Tool
The tool that really grabbed our attention in this toolset was the magic keyword tool. At the start, you just give it your main target keyword and the magic all spirals out from there. Any initial search you do gets stored so you can go back and review the data you found. Having the ability to revisit different strands of your keyword research thinking is great. We never find keyword research a very linear process so this one simple feature helped us to stay on track.
We really liked the SERP features filter which gives you a great insight into Search engine results pages features that have been seen on any given keyword. That’s not the kind of data you get from tools like the Google Keyword Tool and it’s super-valuable to know what potential SERP powerups lurk in dark keyword spaces as you investigate. It starts to get you thinking about SEO keywords like a PPC campaign manager would, grouping them together into like buckets and selecting the most relevant terms. The tool automatically groups keywords together which is so useful when it comes to including and excluding target groups. For sure you could do this kind of thing with a bit of effort on a spreadsheet but when your keyword research tool does it for you- why not.
Backlinks are still the mainstay of any SEO campaign because the search algorythms take much notice of them. SEMrush provides you with all the reporting you need to analyse both your own and competitors backlinks. Backlink Analytics is a good dashboard to check up on new links you have recently gained and any you may have lost. The focus is on providing you with actionable data. If you are new to this, the tool includes a handy link to 9 creative ways to action the data the backlink tools can provide you with.
Effective Backlink campaigns need backlink data. All the top SEO’s recommend making use of as many different backlink databases as you can to compile as complete a picture as you can of your sites backlink profile. Out of the box, you get to make use of SEMrush’s extensive backlink database, but for those of you who want to wisely delve deeper, you can also connect the backlink audit tool to other services such as Google Search Console, Google Analytics and Majestic SEO if you have set up and run accounts for those services. Doing this greatly enhances the backlink data you will be able to make use of and report on. Once you have built your backlink profile the tool can audit all of your backlinks and highlight dangerous/poor quality backlinks and also potentially dangerous/poor quality backlinks. You can then perform a manual review of these sites and either request the link be removed or add the site to your disavow file. The disavow file will be formatted ready for submission to Google’s disavow service.
Using Google Disavow
Google has for a long time been quite clear about how and why to use the disavow service. You can read more about Google’s views on its disavow tool and how to use it.https://www.searchenginejournal.com/google-disavow-tool/289871/#close
Google’s guidance is that it should only be used for poor quality links that you or your SEO team are directly responsible for. Its their way of allowing naughty seo’s to come clean about links that may have been built in a desperate attempt to game the search engine. However, the debate still rages in SEO circles on the validity of disavowing any poor quality links you may find. Some SEO’s report that running backlink audits and disavowing poor quality links has helped their clients but we would urge caution here. Many other agencies also claim the first thing they do upon taking up a new SEO account is to remove the disavow file if they find one. At Target Internet we have taken the view that Google is smart enough these days to know forced search engine gaming links from the bad quality links most websites will inevitably gather over time. For sure, a lot of SEO tools include backlink audit tools but unless you truly know what you are doing with disavowing tools its best to leave this to an experienced SEO professional who knows the space and has experience working with genuinely toxic backlink profiles. Pressing the magic “Disavow all my toxic links” button may or may not have the effect you desired.
Notes give you access to a notes function in SEMrush where you can add or view notes made on any tool within the SEMrush suite. Having the ability to leave notes anywhere in the tool is a great addition. On any sizable site, activities within different tools can quickly become convoluted, and if you are working as a team, these notes can prove invaluable. We also loved the ability within this main dashboard to add up to four of your competitor’s domains so you can keep an eye on how they are performing compared to you. Just add the domains names in and the system will keep tabs on them giving you plenty to investigate on an ongoing basis.
Fixing broken backlinks
Within the SEMrush backlink Audit tool, it is possible to filter for broken links. This functionality opens up your ability to monitor backlinks to your own pages that have broken. But also if you run audits on other high ranking websites publishing content within your keyword area you can potentially find backlinks other website owners have to other competitor resources which are broken so you can reach out to them with a helpful – ‘found a broken link on your site, and we have a resource you could point to.’
Link Building Tool
Included in the suite is a database-style tool for keeping track of all your link building outreach communications. The tool’s creators have clearly thought about adding as much as they can to make the link building process easier. As well as tracking opportunities in progress, the tool will automatically analyse your efforts and make suggestions on potential link building opportunities. You can of course manually upload your own link building targets if you have some identified via other tools or teams you might be working with. Also on hand are customisable email templates to streamline your outreach process. The tool can be linked up to Google Search console so it will automatically update any new links that it finds. You can schedule daily, weekly or monthly progress reports and link the tool to the mail service of your choice.
SEO Rank Tracking
Rank position tracking within SEMrush is one of its strengths. Obviously you can filter keywords you rank on like just about every other tool out there. However, look beyond that and you will see that the SEMrush engineers are trying that little bit harder. Their reports also indicate what features available in different keyword spaces and that can be super useful. At a glance, you can see high ranking pages where you perhaps aren’t benefiting from Search features that are available on those keywords. The adage is you don’t know what you don’t know. With most of the other tools, we have reviewed that’s exactly where you will remain when it comes to SERP results you are getting or not getting on your high ranking terms. The way they have implemented this is visual and simple, and it opens up all sorts of opportunities for those really wanting to benefit from the additional traffic some featured SERP elements will drive for your organisation. We also loved the fact that if we set up competitor tracking for up to 5 competitors in our project we could then see how those competitors were ranking for all of the keywords that we were monitoring. You also get regular email updates on that so you not only see what gains or losses you have made but also the position tracking gains or losses your competition have made in the same period.
However, once again we found the system limits the degree to which you can track rankings on more than one search engine unless… you guessed it- you pay for an upgrade. To effectively track ranks you will typically want to see how your pages and their target keyword phrases are tracking and performing in multiple search engines. In today’s search landscape that means not only knowing how you perform on google desktop but also google mobile and potentially many localised locations important to your business. to do this you will require what SEMrush term multi-tracking and it’s not included in the pro version of their tool. to get this you will need to double your subscription to the Guru level.
On Page Site Audit tool
SEMrush’s site audit is robust and comprehensive. It’s every bit as good as dedicated site audit tools and will automatically find you a whole host of issues and errors which if fixed could technically help you to perform better in the search rankings. The overall site health score out of one hundred gives you a useful benchmark of your site performance. We usually start off by aiming at around the 80 mark when performing on-page optimisation tasks. Following the advice in this tool that’s relatively straight forward if you make use of the tips and directions, the audit gives you on any errors it finds. It’s also great to give the issues graded into Errors – try and fix these elements quickly, Warnings, -not so urgent but worth fixing) and Notices -other things you could attend to if you have extra time to investigate and fix. All of the reports can be delved into and the results exported to CSV or Excel files for actioning. You can also do site audit comparisons which help to show the progress your on-site optimisation efforts have made. Like many site audits, you can schedule these audits to run regularly and to email you with reminder results. Just remember to action those emails when you get them.
SEO Logfile Analysis
The inclusion of this tool surprised us. Logfile analysis is quite a technical and advanced SEO subject but if you want to better understand how search engine spiders might view your site and crawl it, Analysing the log files is a great place to start. You get to take a view on what their inky feet did as they crawled your pages. You do need to have a technical understanding of what log files record, but if that’s you and you want to get a top-level sense of what’s in those log files, give it a go. We tested the tool out and were impressed at the speed it worked and the clear reports it generated. What went in was hundreds of megabytes of log file data. What came out was an easy to follow report focussed on Website crawler activity. It chewed through 3 months of a busy ecommerce site’s log files we threw at it, and showed some interesting issues around crawl-ability of some sections of that site which we fed back the site’s development team for further investigation.
The educational support provided within the SEMrush interface is excellent. You will find them in the top menu bar under the title Academy. When you first log in it looks like they have set up some exams, but don’t fall for that. There is a wealth of free high-quality training available and all of it delivered by some marketing superstars. Click on the view all courses and exams and filter for courses.
Each of the core toolkits has the training behind it. The toolkit videos for Social Media, Advertising and SEO toolkits have great content in them, but clearly the team at SEMrush got better at creating their video content as the older videos in this archive are a testimony. Start with the content marketing toolkit. it is way more polished and engaging and will help you get started.
In addition to teaching you about the tools, the Academy also has some tremendous in-depth training. SEO fundamentals is a free 4 hours course presented by SEO superstar Greg Gifford ( if you have ever attended Brighton SEO you may well have met Greg. He is as engaging as any presenter could ever hope to be, and it’s exciting to see 4 hours with him as a free video course. Other modules include a free 2-hour Social media Marketing course with Neal Shaffer, a 5-hour Technical SEO with Bastian Grim, and a 5 hour PPC fundamentals with Joel Bondorowsky. Don’t be put off by the long durations listed here. Each course is broken down into bite-size chunks. All of this training is provided entirely free to anyone who has signed up for a trial account.
SEMrush Content Marketing Toolkit
The content marketing toolkit is a curated list of tools within SEMrush, aimed at those working in content marketing. As content marketing is so key to earning backlinks there is naturally a big overlap between that discipline and that of search engine optimisation. Anyone working in this field should be seriously interested in understanding on-page optimisation so they can create not only great content but great content that will get found and linked to. It’s for this reason we are also delving into some of the tools in this toolset within this SEO tools review. We won’t cover all of the tools here, but the stand out ones we feel will really help to make a difference. ( Please note that since we reviewed this tool, access to this toolkit is now only available via the more expensive Guru Subscriptions. You can trial its features on Pro level account but it’s extremely limited.)
Seo Writing Assitant
One of the most interesting tools in this toolset is the SEO Writing Assistant. This tool can be hooked into Google Docs as a google docs Add-on or you can install it directly into WordPress using SEMrush’s Free WordPress plugin. ( Just want to try this feature out without installing anything? Try it here http://bit.ly/2K1nWSe)
We imported our original SEMrush review from a few years ago into Google Docs to give the tool a bit of a test drive. That document was optimised for SEO by the original reviewer but this tool had all sorts of additional and useful recommendations based around making the document more readable and useful. Armed with your core focus keyword the tool will happily grab the associated / closely associated keywords directly from Google. So how and why might that work?
What is TF- IDF for SEO?
If you have been involved with SEO optimisation for many years you will remember SEO’s early obsession with keyword frequency. It was once widely believed if you used a keyword more than your competitors content did you could win on the search engine rankings. That theory has long since been disproved but the process SEMrush follows is a lot more sophisticated than simple keyword cramming. It utilises a technique known as TF-IDF. That stands for Term Frequency- Inverse Document Frequency.)That’s a geeky way of saying “Why don’t we attempt to match the number of times we mention specific important keywords compared with how every other document we have indexed does it.. TF-IDF has been a mainstay of document indexing techniques since before the internet came along. There is a very good chance Google is using a variation of it in their algorithms but would actually be able to rank documents based on all of the billions of other documents it has in its databases. That’s something obviously only Google has the power and data processing to do. But maybe if we just did a similar- ish thing with the top-ranking pages for our target keyword phrase we would get a useful guide on keyword overall usage that matters to the search engine? That’s how most TF-IDF keyword scoring tools for SEO work. What’s clever is if we know our use isn’t outdoing the average of the currently top-ranking pages then it acts like a safety net to stop us over baking the whole keyword frequency game.
SEMrush content template tool
You can get a much more detailed view of where the tool is getting these keyword insights from if you look at SEMrush content template tool. Simply give the tool your main and most obvious target keyword phrase and it will grab the top 10 listed content on Google and analyses how they are using keywords and will even pull all 10 articles for you in full so you can read them word for word. That tool drops the full brief into a word document which you can supply to your copywriter as part of a brief but in our experience is that amount of detail is massively overwhelming and kills creativity dead.
Working with the Google Docs addon
If you are writing content, it’s handy to have a handful of target keyword phrases to hand which you can work into your writing if and when they become relevant. The content writing tool does this. This is a really handy guide to have at your fingertips while working in your google docs word processor. As you include the phrases you will see them highlight green to show they are included in the document.
Not all the related keywords are going to make sense but a lot of them will and can be worked into your article to act as a hook for search engines looking for relevancy. Of course, the golden rule is to write for the humans, not for the search algorythms and this crutch is going to help you do both well. It can even help you to broaden out what you cover so you end up with a better article. Just be careful it doesn’t become a ‘writing by numbers’ exercise. Always write for ‘humans not algorithms’. Your content needs to read well and be engaging, and ideally unique and inspiring. Ultimately that’s what Google is trying to second guess and surface as content for its users anyway so be smart and audience lead.
Overall the content marketing toolkit provides some really useful and actionable content suggestions and improvements. We haven’t covered them in this review but you also get content research tools, brand mention monitoring, guest post tracking and even content auditor tool to track social shares and backlinks for all your latest content. However, following a pricing restructure at the end of September 2019 the Content marketing toolkit can only seriously be used by new subscribers if you have a Guru level subscription. Prior to this pricing change, we would have claimed SEMrush was one of the best value SEO suites available but with this change, our feeling is they have levelled the playing field. Is it worth almost doubling your monthly costs from Pro to Guru level so you can access these Content features? Our view is, it perhaps isn’t. This kind of functionality can be accessed through other tools we have reviewed and for free. It’s lovely to have it all in one place and SEMrush has a slick well joined-up implementation of it but they aren’t the only tool in town with this type of functionality. For example, take a look at SEO Powertools TF-IDF report in their website auditor tool or take a glance at a pro-level subscription for the excellent SEO Yoast Plugin for WordPress which comes with readability scoring and guidance as well.
As at September 2020 pricing, Pro level subscriptions only allow for 1 user and Guru level only allows for a maximum of 2 users ( your additional user will cost an additional $140 a month at Guru Level) so if you are a larger team of more than 2 you would need to consider a $399.95 a month Business subscription which can have up to 9 additional users at the cost of $140 each a month. What initially looked like a very affordable tool just became a big-ticket item. Like many of the tools we have reviewed, there are 20% savings if you pay for your licenses annually but we would advise calculating your costs and comparing to other complete suites so you get a good overview of the total costs before you commit.
So in conclusion, we think SEMrush offers one of the most complete search engine marketing toolsets available, going far beyond what you might expect from a purely SEO toolset. However, all of that functionality comes at a cost. If you want the content marketing toolset, you need to be on a minimum of the Guru Subscription which at almost $200 is a pricey toolset in our opinion. New functionality is continuously added but all to often out of reach unless you upgrade your account or pay the £200 a month additional charge per user to gain the competitive insights package.
Wasn’t competitive insights what SEMrush was all about? Do we really need to pay this much to access the additional data they have or is the basic package going to cut it? We have our doubts. Playing with the Pro level subscription we found much more affordable toolsets like SE Ranking had many times more competitive data available for both SEO and Paid search competitive Analysis but for a fraction os an SEMrush pro subscription. Maybe if we had paid an additional $200 a month we would have seen different but the whole pricing model feels mercenary in our opinion.
Be warned. Calculate your costs before you leap. You might not realise the true cost of this toolset until you have put a considerable amount of time and effort into getting everything set up and moved over to this new platform and by that time it’s going to be a lot more painful and difficult to back out and find an alternative. What SEMrush does is brilliant but it comes at an increasingly large cost. If you are on tight budgets take time to properly cost up what you need before leaping to the new shiny toys the suite tempts you with.