Digital Marketing

How To Use SEMrush for PLA Keyword Research

This is a guest post by Marta Dalton, Manager of Web Marketing at ANSYS & Phillip Brooks, Content Marketing Manager at SEMrush.

 Google Product Listing Ads (PLAs) are image-based paid advertisements for specific products (or SKUs) that appear in the SERPs triggered by searches for related keywords. The Google Shopping platform allows e-commerce vendors to build a database of hundreds, even thousands, of individual products within their Google Account and target ads based on a myriad of criteria, such as: keyword, demographics and geographic location, season and amount of inventory.

As with Google AdWords, an inefficient PLA strategy can be costly for any online business. Moreover, a successful strategy for either platform requires regular re-assessment of performance and goals in order to maximize performance. Successful digital marketing cannot rely upon a "set it and forget it" strategy.

Competitive Analysis

We're going to show you how to use SEMrush to perform a competitive analysis using our PLA tool that will identify keywords in three capacities:

  • Keywords unique to your domain
  • Keywords unique to your competitor/s domain/s
  • Keywords shared by both your domain/s and that of your competitor/s

Each of these data sets can provide you with different kinds of actionable information. For example, keywords unique to your domain may be indicative of keywords for which you need bid defensively, as this represents an opportunity for your competitors. Alternatively, keywords that are shared by both you and a competitor may demonstrate opportunities for growth for either side.

This would allow you to check which ads are appearing for that keyword and which aren't. This gap analysis shows conversion opportunities you might be missing out upon. Finally keywords that are unique to a competitor could show you which keywords represent an opportunity for you.

I want to stress that this is only a snapshot for a particular timeframe and this kind of analysis should be repeated on a regular basis to ensure your strategy remains viable.

SEMrush PLA Tool

It stands to reason that if we're going to be performing competitive analysis, we must first identify just who our competition is. SEMrush has a feature within the tool that can help us do this quickly and efficiently. Our PLA Tool is a relatively recent addition, but it's rapidly become very popular with our community.

Let's look at the shoe retailer, There should be some pretty healthy levels of traffic going both to their domain as well as the domains of their biggest competitors. Search volume for individual titles/products/SKUs carried by these retailers will also be robust as users search for the best places to buy from.

PLA Research

Within the PLA Research Tool, enter the domain, and select "PLA Competitors" and SEMrush will deliver a list of competing domains sortable by competition level, common keywords and other metrics.

Here's an example of PLA Competitors report:


SEMrush scales and sorts competitors using two parameters:

One is the number of common keywords--that is, the number of keywords for which both domains/advertisers appear in the same PLA block.

The other factor is the number of uncommon keywords. These factors are designed to ensure that competitors listed fall within the same industry.

For example, one site may have fewer common keywords but be listed as more competitive because it has fewer keywords in total--meaning that the majority of its business competes directly with the site being queried.

With this data we can not only can see what sites are competing with Gamestop, we can also extrapolate the domains competing with its competitors by feeding those domains into SEMrush for further analysis.

Competitive Analysis Using PLA Positions report


  1. Use PLA Positions
  2. Filter by the brand or the product category to ensure the CSV download is both manageable and usable.
    NOTE: in some cases you might want to start with a broad term and filter in Excel, or you might want to focus on a specific sub-category
  3. Hit apply and export to CSV
  4. Check out the URL structure and see if you can extrapolate category and/or item model number from there. Some competitors make it nice and easy.
  5. In this case we can get category and brand from the URL. Copy the "URL" column data to a new column, then use Excel's "Text to Columns" tool to delineate the data based on how they’re separated (sometimes it's a hyphen, in this case it's a slash).
  6. Now we've got both "manufacturer" and "category" in separate columns--for the most part, anyway. (It seems that "accessories" here doesn't follow the format, so we can isolate that manufacturer and then just move them over to the right by one column so that "accessories" lines up with the other categories.)
  7. With both "manufacturer" and "category" (maybe sub-category and the product too) off by themselves, we can filter and see what keywords are being targeted by this competitor in these areas.



Bonus Hack #1

Sometimes the URL's aren’t that pretty and they're just words separated by hyphens in no particular order (or the order changes based on SEO or the title). This is where the 80/20 Rule comes into play. We will focus on the categories or products that are most important to us and pull them out using the Find and Replace tool.

Copy the URL to a new field and label it "categories," "sub-category," "manufacturer," etc. Create a heading for whatever data you want to separate out.

In this case, we've made a field to show "sub-category" which will extrapolate "Xbox," Playstation," "Nintendo," and their model type. From this, we can pick the top 10-20 items we want to find and use wildcard characters in front of the text to grab them (in this case, we noticed that the syntax uses hyphens so we could search for "xbox-one," "xbox-360," "ps4," etc.)

We can apply this search parameter to the data, which results in the nicely filtered result you can see on the image to the right:


From here we can copy the URL to a new column to pull out manufacturer and repeat other data from the URL using the same method.

Bonus Hack #2

Now that we have stand-alone fields separated using Bonus Hack #1, add-in the data from the "manufacturers" and "categories" headings of your other competitors (we also added a new column for the "competitor company" name,) we can use Excel's PivotTable feature to see how many keywords our competitors are using in each category. If our competitors have a lot of PLA keywords in a category that is strategically important, or in which we have a lot of stock, we might want to revisit our strategy for those terms.


Bonus Hack #3

With this hack, we're able to pull a manufacturer product code/model number from the URL. We can then see what prices our competitors are charging for the items in question and adjust our pricing and sales promotion strategies accordingly.

Now we just need to make sure we have active PLA's running on those items and enough stock to meet the increased demand!

Bonus Hack #4

Once we have the data sorted by "category" and "manufacturer," we can use Excel's VLOOKUP function to check against our product list to see what we have in these categories that our competitors are NOT advertising on. If VLOOKUP returns "#N/A," we know we've got a winner that they don’t have.

Using the data we’ve already gotten from the PLA Competitor tool, we want to examine PLA Keywords/Product Names that your site shares with competing domains.

We can accomplish this via a side-by-side comparison between our performance on Google Shopping and that of our competition.

Go to SEMrush → Tools → Domain vs. Domain, enter the domain and up to five competitors’ domains into the input fields, select "Keyword Type" option, "PLA" and press "Go."

With this data, we can:

  • See whether or not those domains compete in paid search results for your keywords and compare their PLAs’ rankings for each search term.
  • Generate reports for your domain’s unique keywords (excluding common keywords) to see search terms for which you are an uncontested leader.
  • View competitors’ unique keywords to understand the opportunity that you may be missing; and get ideas for improving your product feed in order to appear in paid search results for more queries.

Keyword research

So now we know who our competitors are. It's time to identify where our opportunities lie. This is where keyword research comes into play.

From the Domain vs. Domain report we ran above, we can look at which keywords we share in common with a given domain, but we can also look at those keywords which are unique to each domain as well. These often represent opportunities that we can target.

We can use filters to pull out the headings that we want to focus upon. Then sort that data by "competitor position" or by "search volume" to find potential add-ins for your PLA’s.

PLA Copies Report

We can also use the Find and Replace method (from Bonus Hack #1) on the export from the PLA Copies Report to roll up keyword totals by heading (like we did in Bonus Hack #2.)



This report is particularly handy for creating a "hot list" of items. If we know we have overstock on a specific set of items (talk to your merchandising or purchasing team to see what you have a lot of and/or what stock is about to be written off because it's aging) we can see what keywords our competitors are going after for those specific item(s.)

Are you using PLAs as part of your overarching digital marketing strategy? If so, what other methods are you using to identify keywords that correspond to products that your site carries?

We'd love to hear about them in the comments!

About the Authors

Marta's background is an eclectic mix of technology and marketing, and she considers herself fluent in translating "techie" to English and vice-versa.  Her background includes a B.S. in Electrical & Computer Engineering and an MBA, both from Carnegie Mellon University, and a winding path that's seen her lead digital initiatives under both CIOs and CMOs.

Phillip Brooks is the Content Marketing Manager for SEMrush, the leading competitive intelligence tool for digital marketing. He is a prolific content creator who has worked on campaigns for companies both large and small, including Electronic Arts and Turner Networks.

AdStage Team