This is the first of what will be a new category on this blog: SEO tool reviews.

We’ve been using SEMRush at Resolution Media since it was SEODigger, so when I was recently asked to write a review it wasn’t a hard decision. While it has limitations, as a low-cost competitive research and new business tool it is one that we use frequently and one that I recommend to small businesses looking for a low-cost alternative to enterprise SEO tools.

What is it?

SEMRush is a database of query data for Google US that provides rankings and traffic for 40 million keywords and almost 15 million domains in the US, and 88 million keywords and more than 41 million domains worldwide. It’s analogous to having a Google search query report for any domain or keyword you can think of, without having to verify any sites to see it.

SEMRush is generally more affordable than enterprise SEO tools, with free plans available and PRO plans starting at $69.95 per month. More money gives you access to more results and more support, with Enterprise plans starting at $499 per month.

How does it work?

SEMRush’s FAQ doesn’t specify exactly how it gets its data, but it’s likely by pinging Google, which is technically against Google’s terms of service. Users of SEMRush aren’t violating the TOS directly, because they don’t send automatic queries, but they are using a service that probably does. If you have issues with this, SEMRush probably isn’t the tool for you. Google usually penalizes egregious violations of the TOS by removing offenders from the index, however, and SEMRush currently has over 2 million pages in Google’s index, so it’s likely that they’re not aggressively using Google resources for the service, or are using parameter-based rankings to gather the data. More on SEMRush’s crawl in this somewhat dated interview with SEMRush CEO Michael Goldfinch.

SEMRush data is available through the web interface at, and programmatically through an API.

Why is it valuable?

There are a few uses for SEMRush that make it worth the price of admission for clients that don’t have budgets for enterprise SEO tools like Bright Edge or Conductor. Here are four we keep coming back to:

1)      Find your client’s true competitive set

Many brands still think of their competitive set as those brands they compete with offline, and quickly discount online-only competitors as harmless if they’re aware of the competition at all. Tools like SEMRush and AdGooRoo are great for identifying online competitors quickly. For example, Coca-cola may think their biggest competitor is Pepsi, but when it comes to the keyword [cola] in Google, they’re also competing with and Cost Of Living Adjustment, neither one of which has anything to do with soft drinks. Understanding this at the beginning of a campaign, be it SEO or paid search, can help level-set expectations and benchmark performance more accurately.

Of course, this information is readily available by doing a keyword search in Google, but the data in SEMRush is already processed, and can be easily accessed through the API for more complex reporting without using Google resources unnecessarily.

2)      Do a quick SEO audit for potential clients

One of the techniques that I covered in my presentation on Advanced Keyword Research Tools at SMX Advanced this past June was how to create a poor man’s SEO X-ray with SEMRush data. When it comes to quickly assessing keyword performance for a new client or prospect, SEMRush is one of the best tools to have in your toolset. It even has an advantage to most enterprise SEO tools, which typically require some time to set up a new client and their target competitors.

3)      Data mining, modeling and other more advanced applications

If you have a lot of data about search engine results, you can start to model that data to tell you more about attribution, forecasting, relevance and other applications that would be difficult, if not impossible, without the data. See Myron Rosmarin‘s presentation from SMX Advanced Seattle 2011 for an example of one such application using SEMRush data: Data Mining for “Importance” (SMX Advanced login required).

4)      Mine competitor keywords

When I first started doing SEO, one of the best ways to find keywords that competitors were targeting was to run a keyword density report on their web pages or open their source code and view their meta keywords. It was never a great way to mine competitor keywords, but it was all that was available at the time.

With SEMRush, you can pull a list of keywords your competitor is ranking on organically, and a list of keywords they are bidding on in Adwords, which is a better way of quickly understanding which keywords they may be targeting. This information might not be right for the brand that you’re optimizing, but it can be used to help you find the keyword targeting strategy that’s right for your brand.

What’s missing?

1)      Mobile

This should be obvious to most readers of this blog. Given that mobile search will soon outpace desktop search to become the preferred method of access, and that it now accounts for 14-30% of Google query volume, and that mobile rankings can differ dramatically from desktop rankings, not having mobile search results and rankings could dramatically affect campaign results.

2)      Vertical search

Given that YouTube is the second biggest search engine after Google, it would be nice to have data on YouTube rankings as well. Video SEO is not always easy to quantify, and having ranking data could make video search easier to monetize. Same with Local SEO, Image SEO, and a number of other interfaces that bring relevant traffic that aren’t included in SEMRush.

3)      Bing

Again, because SEMRush just includes Google search data, Bing is nowhere to be found. Because Bing’s current market share is around 30% (comScore), it’s becoming less and less advisable for search engine marketers to completely ignore Bing when planning SEO campaigns. If you’re just using SEMRush data to assess the health of your campaigns, you have no option but to ignore Bing.

4)      More actionable reporting

SEMRush contains a lot of great data, but in order to understand and act on that data it’s necessary to export the data and manipulate it in Excel, sometimes for several hours. Enterprise SEO tools like Bright Edge and Conductor get around this by doing the manipulation on the back end, and providing very specific optimization recommendations up front. For SEMRush to get to the next level in terms of the value it provides, it really needs to follow suit, modeling the data and presenting it in a way that is immediately actionable, which it generally falls short of today.

5)      More than ranking reports

While it’s a great database of ranking and traffic data, it doesn’t include link data, social data, on-page optimization data, or any other data that SEOs typically use to optimize campaigns. If you’re looking for a one-size-fits-all SEO tool, this is not it.

In closing

Overall, SEMRush is a great alternative to running manual ranking reports, and should be considered by every small business owner or agency still running Webposition or Advanced Web Ranking. It’s not the Taj Mahal of SEO tools, but it has a lot of great data that search marketers can use to optimize their SEO campaigns, and for a price that small business marketers and smaller agencies can afford.