Surfer SEO Review: a Powerful Content Optimization Tool

 

I won’t bury the lede: Surfer SEO is one of my favorite content marketing tools — full stop.

I’ve been using it for under a year, and it’s quickly become one of my most used tools in my arsenal.

But as the founder of a content agency, I’ve also used tons of other content optimization tools. So I understand the nuances of what makes Surfer SEO good as well as what its limitations are.

If you’re on the fence and trying to determine if Surfer is for you, read on. My goal is to make this a deep dive – the ultimate guide to Surfer SEO, including its downsides and limitations. This will be a long one, so here’s a table of contents:

What Is Surfer SEO and What Does It Do?

Surfer SEO is a content optimization and analysis tool that analyzes the top-performing pages for any given keyword and spits out data-driven recommendations to help you improve your own content.

In short, it’s designed to help you write better content that ranks higher in Google.

It does this primarily by reverse engineering the on-page SEO ranking signals that it finds on other pages that currently rank for the keyword you’re targeting. I’m not sure of the exact methodology, but they say they “analyze the content of a page against “500+ on-page” signals.”

Not sure what exactly that means, but from my understanding, they take a keyword — let’s say “best live chat software.”

Then they look at the top few pages that currently rank for that keyword, analyze the text and structure, and determine through machine learning which keywords and formatting is important to include in your post.

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It then gives you recommendations on word count, related LSI keywords, headlines and subheadlines, and images. They give you a content grade out of 100 (the higher the better):

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The software is relatively new, having only been around for a couple of years. But in that short time, it’s made a big splash in the SEO community.

I first heard of Surfer SEO last year. I had already been using Clearscope a lot through my agency, and I’d messed around with MarketMuse in the past.

To be clear, I love Clearscope. It’s just a little too expensive for me to use on my own personal blog. And MarketMuse is enterprise priced – way outside of my price range.

Surfer SEO also had the distinct advantage of being integrated with Jasper AI – my favorite AI writing software. So I gave it a try.

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I wasn’t disappointed.

Surfer SEO is an incredibly powerful tool that can help you take your content from good to great.

The best part? It’s really easy to use, even if you’re not a tech-savvy person. In fact, Surfer SEO is one of the most user-friendly SEO tools that I’ve ever used.

Surfer SEO’s User Interface and How to Use It

When you first log in to Surfer SEO, you’re greeted with a clean and simple interface.

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The dashboard gives you an overview of your recent activity as well as quick links to the most important features of the software, including the content editor, audit feature, content planner, SERP Analyzer, Keyword Research, and if you’ve set it up, their new Grow Flow product.

There are only a few things on the dashboard, which I appreciate. Surfer SEO isn’t overloaded with features and options like some other tools are.

Next, let’s dive into each of the above features and get a glimpse at how they work, what they do, and any potential downsides or weak spots of Surfer.

Later on, I’ll tell you exactly how I personally use Surfer (how it fits into my content creation process), and some of the things I don’t like about it.

An In-Depth of Surfer SEO Features

We’ll cover the main features of Surfer SEO, which include their:

  • Content Editor
  • Content Audit
  • Content Planner
  • SERP Analyzer
  • Keyword Research

And we’ll also cover, briefly, their new Grow Flow product.

Content Editor

Any Surfer SEO review must start off with its primary feature: the content editor.

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The Surfer SEO content editor is designed to help you write better content, faster.

It does this by giving you real-time data and recommendations as you’re writing.

For example, let’s say you’re writing a blog post about skin care for sun protection. You enter your target keyword “skin care sun protection,” and here’s the blank page it produces:

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You’ll notice a few things right away.

First, you have a content editor much like Google Docs or WordPress and you can write directly in the interface.

Second, there are tons of data points on the right hand side of the screen, the most obvious of which is the “content score,” sitting at 22/100. It’s starting you out there because you’ve already got the headline “sun protection skin care,” which is the target phrase, verbatim

Click into “outline” and it gives you headline and subheadline suggestions based on other pages that are ranking for this keyword.

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The “brief” view gives you competing pages and the ability to add additional notes.

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Overall, I find their research and planning tools (including “outline” and “brief”) quite weak compared to other content optimization software, including Frase (best in class at research) and Clearscope (pretty good).

Surfer is very good at suggesting related keywords to include in your piece, however. It gives you a list of suggested keywords, weighted by perceived importance, and even tells you how many times they should appear in the blog post.

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When you begin writing content, Surfer alters the score based on these factors. I generated a bunch of AI copy using Copy AI to give you an example. We’re now at a 46/100:

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So here’s how it all works:

When you enter a target keyword, Surfer SEO will analyze the top-performing pages for that keyword and give you recommendations on how to improve your content.

The recommendations appear in a sidebar next to the editor and are divided into three main categories:

  • Content Length
  • On-Page SEO Factors
  • Content Structure & Formatting

Each category has its own set of subcategories.

So, in the content length category, Surfer SEO might recommend that your blog post be at least 2000 words long.

In the on-page SEO factors category, Surfer SEO might recommend that you include your keyword in your title and throughout your blog post.

And in the content structure & formatting category, Surfer SEO might recommend that you use headings, images, and subheadings to break up your content.

Surfer SEO’s recommendations are based on data from the top-performing pages for your chosen keyword.

So, if the average word count of the top-performing pages is 2000 words, Surfer SEO will recommend that your blog post be at least 2000 words long.

At the end of the day, these are decisions the writer and editor should be making about the quality of the blog post. But Surfer can help give you loose guardrails and something to aim for.

And it’s not just a bunch of empty recommendations. The theory behind reverse-engineering on-page SEO signals seems to be legit, at least to a certain point. Anecdotally, I’ve found that using tools like Clearscope and Surfer do seem to increase my odds of ranking for target keywords.

Content Audit

Next up we have the content audit tool. This one is used much more as a diagnostic tool to identify and fix potential issues that are preventing your blog posts from ranking in search engines.

The Surfer SEO content audit tool is designed to help you improve your existing content.

It does this by giving you an overview of your content and highlighting areas that need improvement.

To use the content audit tool, simply enter the URL of one of your blog posts or web pages and a target keyword into Surfer SEO and click “create audit.”

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Surfer SEO will then analyze your content and give you a list of recommendations, similar to those it gives you when writing in the content editor tool. But this one is MUCH more robust and complete.

I actually think the content audit tool is underrated.

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You can see it gives you a high level overview of your content score, but then dives into missing backlinks and internal links.

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The backlinks report is okay. But I already know I should be getting more high quality backlinks, and that’s harder to control.

Easily my favorite feature here is the internal links tool, which shows you other pages on your website that you could be including internal links to your piece.

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Internal linking is such low hanging fruit, but it’s easy to forget. This tool brings it front and center for your updates.

Then it goes into minor technical issues like title and meta description length, load time, page speed, etc.

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There are clearly better SEO performance tools out there (Screaming Frog, Ahrefs, Semrush, etc.), but honestly, it’s great having a miniature version in the tool you’re *already* using to optimize the rest of your piece.

Finally, it goes into page structure in quite a lot of detail. It gives you tips on paragraph elements, subheadlines, images, bolded and italicized phrases, etc.

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I want to continue to make this point throughout the piece: these are just “best practices” that have been filtered through a bunch of correlational data. At the end of the day, YOU know what makes high quality content good. The tool just helps you identify things you could have missed.

Still, I really like the content audit feature.

Content Planner

You’ve heard of the “pillar and cluster” model, maybe?

Or “topical authority?”

The thesis is that building a deep and wide base of knowledge in a similar topic area helps Google deem you an expert in that area. Thus, as an expert, it becomes easier to rank for blog posts in this topic area. You’re trying to build a rising tide (topic expertise) to lift all boats (individual blog posts).

The content planner tool helps you do this.

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Let’s take a look at the seed topic “AI copywriting.” I’ve written about this before (many times), and I consider myself an emerging expert in this area generally (because I use these tools, work with one of them through my agency, and have a background in both data and content marketing).

So I enter that seed keyword and it gives me several different clusters that are related:

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Within each cluster, it gives me a few specific keywords. For example, in “ad copywriting,” there are two keywords. “Emotional copywriting” gives me two more keywords.

To be clear, I don’t think this is the perfect way to build clusters.

A better way is through customer research and understanding the topic map that exists in your niche. Only real experts can do this well.

Outside of that, I think it’s better to use a combination of two tools: Ahrefs and AnswerThePublic.

Within Ahrefs, I find my head keyword and related topics:

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Honestly, this gives me a great start and at least 5 article ideas.

But then I can further explore long tail variants using AnswerThePublic:

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This combination of SEO tools is incredible. And AnswerThePublic is a free SEO tool, so that’s great.

But again, there’s value to having it all in one tool, so even if Surfer’s isn’t top tier, it’s a solid addition. I give this feature a 2.5/5 utility, but it’s better than not having it at all.

SERP Analyzer

The SERP analyzer feature goes a bit deeper in the competitive insights regarding the search engine results page itself.

It gives historical context to the word count of ranking pages, and shows the Surfer content grade for each ranking page to give you a bit of correlational analysis as to what kind of competition you’re dealing with.

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Couple this with something like Ahrefs’ backlink analysis, and you’ll have a great plan of attack as to what it will take to rank for your target keyword.

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Personally, I find this feature less valuable than simply doing a manual SERP review. There’s nothing like picking through the SERPs with your own discerning eye to infer what the search intent is and how you should craft your piece.

However, this will speed things up. Especially for quick bits of data like the number of backlinks, common keywords included, and other potential ranking factors, this can give you a good gauge as to whether or not you should go after this topic, and if you choose to do so, how to do it.

Keyword Research

The last major feature of Surfer SEO is their native keyword research tool.

I’ll say this up front: it’s got nothin’ on other keyword research tools like Ahrefs and Semrush. But again, it’s better than nothing.

Surfer SEO’s keyword research tool is designed to help you find the best keywords to target for your content – namely, related keywords and long tail variants of your core topic.

To use the keyword research tool, simply enter a seed keyword into Surfer SEO and click “create keyword research.”

Surfer SEO will then generate a list of related keywords.

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For each keyword, Surfer SEO will give you data on search volume and the SERP similarity (i.e. how much of the SERP is the same as your seed keyword).

If you click into a given keyword, it then sends you to the SERP Analyzer, which then gives you an absolutely massive amount of interesting data on the SERP for the keyword in question:

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This top chart shows you the word count for pages rankings in positions 1-10, 11-20, 21-30, etc. You can see the, correlationally, the higher the word count, the higher the piece ranks.

They also have tools to look into backlinks (domain and URL) and search visibility for pages that rank.

Overall, this gives you a ton of strategic insight as to whether or not you even want to try to go after a given keyword. Especially the SERP view here that shows you content grade, domain score (out of 10, a version of Ahrefs’ domain rating),

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And if you do decide to target a keyword, well, you’ve got the content editor to help you out with that 🙂

I think my summation of their features is this: most of them are just okay, but the content editor and content audit tools are amazing. They’re the ones worth paying for, and the rest are just bonuses.

Grow Flow

I want to do a brief overview of their new project management tool, Grow Flow.

It’s ambitious in its aim: an AI growth management platform to manage all of your organic traffic related work.

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This one takes into account your whole domain. I plugged in my domain, alexbirkett.com, and get this overview page:

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Basically, I had to complete some onboarding tasks, like watching tutorial videos and setting up what I wanted to be tracked.

A few days later, I clicked into it again, and it gave me actually interesting optimization suggestions, like adding more missing keywords to one of my articles:

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In my opinion, Grow Flow is a bit overhyped.

It’s basically a proactive reminder system to update content, increase keyword density, add links, and fix small technical issues.

A good marketing team will already dedicate resources to doing this both proactively and reactively. I, for instance, do an audit like this once per quarter and prioritize my fixes based on ease and potential impact. It’s part of my content optimization process.

If you don’t have the time to do this, Grow Flow can help. But I wouldn’t solely rely on this for your project management and prioritization.

The Downsides of Surfer

Surfer SEO isn’t perfect. Far from it.

First off, content optimization tools all suffer the same problem: just because it’s “data-driven” doesn’t mean it’s helpful.

As a writer or editor, you need to make your own judgment calls on how to create high quality content. A tool can help you out, but it can never overtake good judgment.

Surfer, I find, is less accurate than others about which keywords to include as well. It’s all over the place. If you took all its recommendations at face value, your content would be shit. I can’t put that bluntly enough.

It’s a spray and pray approach, without consideration for context. You don’t want to be a glorified keyword stuffer. That’s why it’s best to look at these as merely suggestions, not mandates.

Now, for the Surfer specific downsides:

Outside of the content editor and content audit features, most other features are mediocre at best. Grow Flow is overhyped and not very useful. SERP Analyzer is basic compared to tools like Semrush. The content planner tool is okay for building clusters, but you’re better off using AnswerThePublic and your own judgment. The keyword research tool is basic AF.

All that said, it’s still worth the price tag because of the content editor and the content audit features.

Now: price.

Surfer SEO is a bit pricey. Surfer SEO plans start at $49/month and go up to $399/month. The basic package gives you just 10 Articles / month, so if you’re running a high velocity content program, you’ll have to upgrade quickly.

It’s still cheaper than Clearscope and MarketMuse, but Frase and Dashword are a bit more affordable.

Surfer SEO Pricing & Packages

Surfer SEO offers four different pricing plans:

  • Free
  • Basic
  • Pro
  • Business
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The starter plan is $49 per month (when paid annually) and includes all of the core features, like the content editor, content audit, SERP analyzer, and keyword research. However, you just get 10 articles per month for the content editor and 20 Pages / month for the content audit. You can only track one website with Grow Flow on this plan.

Pro is much better for scale, allowing you to track 5 websites with Grow Flow and allowing up to 30 articles per month in the content editor. This one starts at $119 per month when paid monthly.

The free version is incredibly limited, but at least it gives you a glimpse at some of the cool features you could have if you upgrade.

Surfer SEO Support

Surfer SEO has a ton of educational materials. Honestly, this is super impressive for their company size.

They have an academy, two writing courses, a blog, knowledge base, and community Facebook group. Plus, they have solid customer support.

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Surfer SEO has a pretty robust help center that covers all of the basics, like how to get started, how to use the different features, billing & payments, and more.

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If you need more help, you can also contact Surfer SEO’s customer support team directly through live chat in the app or on the website.

Surfer SEO also offers a few other resources, like an SEO blog and YouTube channel.

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In my opinion, they’ve got some of the best customer support as well as supporting educational materials of any company in the content analysis and optimization space.

Surfer SEO Alternatives: How Does it Stack Up?

Surfer SEO is one of the best content optimization tools on the market.

However, it’s not the only one.

If you’re looking for Surfer SEO alternatives, I would recommend checking out Clearscope, MarketMuse, Dashword, or Frase.

Each of these tools has its own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s important to choose the right one for your needs.

To help you make a decision, I’ve compared Surfer SEO with its main competitors.

Surfer SEO vs Clearscope

Clearscope is actually my preferred tool for content optimization.

What I like about Clearscope is that it’s very specialized and absolutely the best in class tool for optimization and updates.

Their content editor, for instance, is much better than Surfer’s:

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Quite frankly, it’s easier to use and their keyword suggestions are much better than Surfer’s.

Their competitive tools are pretty much the same as Surfer’s. So equal footing here:

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And their keyword research tool is much better than Surfer’s, giving you more data like competition and cost per click (and actually good related keywords, unlike Surfer’s).

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So here’s my take. Clearscope is better at:

  • Content optimization and editing
  • Keyword research

Surfer’s benefits:

  • It’s cheaper
  • It’s got way more features.

Clearscope costs $170/mo and has no free trial, so it’s a much steeper starting point. For teams serious about SEO, though, that can afford Clearscope plus another tool like Ahrefs, I’d go this route.

Surfer SEO vs MarketMuse

MarketMuse is the O.G. enterprise content optimization and content planning tool. To be honest, I haven’t used it a ton, but that’s because the full plans are expensive AF.

It’s basically got all the same features as the others, but for like 3X the price.

What I like: their editor includes highlights and pretty good suggestions.

What I don’t like: the user interface is much less friendly, and a bit annoying to use.

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I’m a much bigger fan of Surfer than I am MarketMuse. They do have a free plan, but it’s limited, and the next plan starts at $7,200/yr. I’d recommend going for an alternative to MarketMuse.

Surfer SEO vs Dashword

Dashword is cool.

They mainly focus on the content brief side of things, but you can also use it for content optimization.

They’ve got similar tools as Surfer: reports (which are content briefs with suggested keywords and outlines), keyword research, and articles. One differentiator is they recently launched a monitoring feature to help you proactively update articles before they lose traffic.

The report feature starts with competitive intelligence, which I don’t find super helpful:

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Once you click in, however, you can open their content editor which helps you craft a piece of content with better odds of ranking it:

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I find it slightly lower quality than other tools on this list, but they do have some unique features.

They also have an AI writing tool to generate meta descriptions. Kinda useful I suppose.

Dashword has a free plan, so that’s a huge advantage. It’s also affordable at $39/mo (BUT — you only get 5 NLP reports per month with that).

Content monitoring is the biggest reason to choose this one in my opinion.

Surfer SEO vs Frase

Frase is the most feature-rich of the Surfer alternatives. It not only includes optimization features, but really robust content planning and research capabilities. Honestly, I used Frase to research and build the outline for this piece:

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It’s also got an AI writer included, so it basically has everything you need to go from content ideation to production.

Frase is underrated in my opinion. And it’s affordable. $44.99/mo for the starter plan, which includes AI copywriting features. So this one is actually more feature rich than Surfer for slightly lower of a price tag.

But what I prefer about Surfer is its optimization features and content audits. I also like that they integrate with Jasper.

A Caveat on Content Optimization Tools in General

Content optimization tools are trying to approximate on-page SEO ranking factors using historical data and correlations.

All they can do is analyze the pages that currently rank and infer recommendations based on the keywords and topics they write about.

That doesn’t mean these signals matter to Google, nor do they mean your content will be better if you use them

At the end of the day, SEO is part art and part science. Plug a keyword into Surfer and write the content with Jasper, and sure, you get an article. But guess what? All your competitors can do the exact same thing. You can’t differentiate this way.

You best bet? Use these tools as guidance, but not as God. You — the writer, the strategist, the marketer — you have the say at the end of the day.

If you, for instance, find that Surfer recommends keywords you don’t think matter…well don’t include them. It’s your content, and you’re writing for readers. Not for a software program.

How I Personally Use Content Optimization Software like Surfer

Okay, so here’s how I use these tools for my personal blog.

Every few months, I do a big content roadmap report. It includes topics from keyword research, audience research, and just my own general interest (hey, it’s my blog, and I’ll write what I want to).

This results in maybe 200 topics, organized by cluster and priority.

I pick a piece and start writing with ZERO input from Surfer or any other content research tool. If I’m targeting a search keyword, I’ll take a quick look at the search engine results page to see what the intent is.

But that’s it.

Otherwise, I write the piece that I want to write.

Then, after the first draft, I plug it into Surfer. That’s when I punch it up. I add additional keywords and topic areas based on what it suggests. I don’t aim for a specific score.

Usually, I hit somewhere between 65 and 85. But I don’t let the content score dictate my content. I let it guide my hand, but not force it.

After I punch it up with Surfer, I do one final stylistic pass through and publish it.

Surfer is a supplement to my content creation process. You want to be the master of your tools, not vice versa.

Conclusion

Look, I use Surfer SEO. So what I do is more important than what I say. Skin in the game FTW.

It’s clearly useful to me, and it fits in my budget range. I’ve gotten a ton of value from it.

That said, I’ve presented, to the best of my abilities, all of the features including their downsides. I’ve also presented competitors.

So it’s really up to you if you think Surfer SEO is worth a try. They have a free plan, so I’d recommend giving it a go.

Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a product growth and experimentation expert as well as co-founder of Omniscient Digital, a premium content marketing agency. He enjoys skiing, making and experiencing music, reading and writing, and language learning. He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog, Biscuit.

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