What is Surfer SEO?
Surfer SEO is a cloud-based platform that helps you to plan, write, and optimize SEO content (like blog posts and website pages). And in doing so, helps to improve your organic visibility in the SERPs so you can drive more organic traffic to your site.
The basic gist is that you use Surfer to discover keywords, plan your content strategy, and generate outlines/briefs for individual posts.
Then, you write your content following those outlines. And as you write, Surfer analyzes your written content against hundreds of on-page SEO ranking factors by comparing it to the first-page search results for your target keyword.
It scores your content in real-time, and lets you know what you need to change and what terms you need to add to improve your chances of ranking.
The idea behind this is that the first page results must be doing something right if they’re already ranking. So you stand a better chance of ranking alongside them if you structure your content in a similar way and cover the same topics/keywords.
Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that. And there are a few more things Surfer can do besides the above, but we’ll cover all of that when we get into the actual features.
What features does Surfer SEO offer?
Surfer SEO comes with a ton of powerful features that, when combined, can help with every aspect of the content creation process. The main ones to know about are:
- Keyword Research
- Content Editor
- Domain Planner
- SERP Analyzer
- Grow Flow
- Keyword Surfer
Next, we’ll take a closer look at each of these features and how they work in practice.
Once you’ve signed up for Surfer, you’ll be brought to your dashboard area:
From the left-hand sidebar, you can access all the tools you need.
Surfer’s Keyword Research tool can help you to plan your content strategy and discover hundreds of new topic ideas in minutes.
To get started, just enter a seed keyword (a broad topic related to your niche), choose the geographical area you want to pull results from, and click Create Keyword Research.
Once Surfer is finished doing its thing, you can click the results to open up the report, which looks like this:
What’s super cool is that, as you can see, Surfer doesn’t just generate a list of related keywords alongside their search volume, like most other keyword research tools out there.
Instead, it groups similar keywords together into Topic Clusters that are related to the main topic.
For example, we searched for topics related to the seed keyword ‘best SEO tools’. And Surfer came back with topic cluster suggestions like these:
- Link building tools
- Content marketing tools
- Best WordPress SEO plugin
- Local SEO
- SEO extensions for Chrome
Each one of these clusters is like a bucket that contains around a dozen individual closely-related keywords.
You can take a peek inside the bucket by hovering over the cluster and clicking Open Detailed Review.
Inside, you’ll be able to see all the individual related keywords alongside their monthly search volume and keyword difficulty.
And at the top, you’ll see the combined monthly search volume and total traffic you can expect if you target the whole cluster.
Taking this sort of cluster-based approach toward keyword research is much better from an SEO perspective. Because Google’s algorithm is a lot smarter these days.
Search engines like Google now understand the intent behind search queries and serve up results based on how well they cover the topic the searcher is interested in, not just how well they’re optimized around a very specific search query.
So it no longer makes sense to target individual long-string keywords. Instead, it makes much more sense to target broader topics that cover lots of closely-related keywords in the same post.
Once you’ve found a topic cluster you want to target in your content strategy, you can click the purple icon next to it to import it to the Content Editor, which brings us neatly onto the next feature…
The Content Editor is very much the ‘core’ of Surfer SEO. You can use it to outline, write, and optimize all your website posts and pages.
To get started, click Content Editor from the left-hand sidebar.
Then, add the keyword(s) you want to target in the post and click Create Content Editor. Alternatively, you can import content from a URL, or add topic clusters from the keyword research tool, as we discussed above.
Surfer will then generate a detailed content outline and brief for the target keyword, complete with SEO guidelines to help you write it.
The Content Editor itself looks like this:
There’s a main window where you write your content and a sidebar where you can view optimization recommendations.
The main editor window works just like any other text editor. You type sentences onto the page and change the formatting (H-tags, alignment, etc.) using the toolbar at the top.
As you write, the Content Score widget in the sidebar will update based on how well-optimized your written content currently is for the target keyword. The higher the score, the better the chance you’ll have of ranking.
It also tells you the average Content Score of the articles that are already ranking for the search term on page one of Google, so you know what to aim for.
Below the score widget, you’ll see some SEO guidelines.
First off, there are structural guidelines. These tell you the word count and number of paragraphs to aim for, and how main headings and images to include.
Then below that, you’ll see some suggested terms to include in the content.
These term suggestions are based on NLP (natural language processing) and SERP analysis.
Basically, Surfer analyzes the search results for your target keyword and looks at what kind of words and phrases the top-ranking articles use in their content, and how frequently they appear, and then uses this data to recommend terms that you should include too.
Adding more suggested terms should move the needle on the Content Score tab and improve your ranking potential.
There are also a couple of other tabs in the sidebar worth mentioning.
The Brief tab is useful if you’re working as part of a team or outsourcing to content writers. You can add notes about the content for your writer (like deadlines or benchmarks) and they’ll show up here. Plus, it also contains a list of competitor articles that the writer can use for research.
And the Outline tab is even more useful. It contains AI-generated titles, headings, and question sections that you can add to your post in one click and then edit manually.
This is a fantastic time-saver, but don’t expect miracles. AI-generated content can’t fully replace content written by a real person, but it can speed up your workflow and help you to get some ideas on the page, which you can then heavily edit and expand on.
Now that you’re familiar with what everything does, there’s one more important part of the interface that you need to be aware of – the customize button.
Before you start writing anything, you’ll want to customize the content that Surfer SEO is optimizing against. Initially, the tool will guess which content it makes sense to optimize against.
It won’t always get it right but it does a damn good job all things considering.
This is important because it wouldn’t make sense to optimize this Surfer SEO review against a review page on a site like TrustRadius or G2. Just like it wouldn’t make sense to optimize a regular blog post against an ecommerce product page. They’re different types of content with different search intent.
If Google wants to rank an ecommerce product page, it’ll rank an ecommerce product page. It’ll only start ranking a blog post instead, if it determines that the blog post better solves the search query. Search intent matters.
Here’s a quick example:
Surfer was smart enough to recognize most of the articles we didn’t want to optimize against. We de-selected a few more for good measure.
But what if there are certain terms/phrases you don’t want to appear in Surfer’s recommendations when you optimize your post? Scroll down to the Terms section of the customize menu. Then, you can deselect any terms you don’t want.
Once you’ve finished writing and optimizing your content in the editor, you can copy-paste it over to your CMS, or export it to WordPress via a plugin. And then mark it as Done so that Surfer can start tracking it (more on this later).
Before we move on from the Content Editor, one more feature to mention is the Plagiarism Checker.
This is a relatively new tool that can check your content to make sure it’s 100% original before you publish. And that matters, because unoriginal/plagiarised content hurts your site’s SEO.
To use it, click the three dots at the top of the Content Editor, and then click Run Plagiarism Checker.
It can take a while for Surfer to scan your content. But once it’s done, it’ll let you know if plagiarism is detected or if you’re good to go.
Optimize content within Google Docs & WordPress
If you’d prefer to write your content in Google Docs than the Content Editor, but you still want to take advantage of Surfer’s optimization suggestions and Content Score, you can install the Google Docs Chrome extension and integrate the two together.
From the Content Editor, just click Share > Get Chrome extension for Google Docs to open up the landing page.
Then, click Add to Google Chrome and install it through the Chrome Web Store.
Once it’s installed, open up a Google Docs document and it should auto-load a Surfer sidebar.
You can then select the keyword you want to target, and you’ll see all the usual optimization guidelines and Content Score widget on the page.
Note: This Chrome Extension also powers Surfer SEO’s WordPress integration. Just open up your post in WordPress, activate the Chrome Extension, and connect the relevant content editor. Then, you can optimize your content directly within WordPress.
Surfer SEO doesn’t just help you to write new content, it can also help you optimize your existing website pages via the Audit tool.
First, click Audit in the sidebar. Then, enter the URL of the page you want to optimize, and the keyword you want to optimize it around, and click Create Audit.
Surfer SEO will then analyze the page to identify opportunities to improve its search performance and present them in an easy-to-understand report.
In the report, you’ll be able to see the page’s Content Score and a list of any issues that may be impacting the SEO performance, as well as how to fix them.
For example, that might include missing backlinks from domains that point to your competitors but not to your page, so you can target them in your link-building strategy.
Or it might include internal link suggestions, a list of important terms to include, page structure recommendations, speed optimization suggestions, or suggestions on how to improve your meta description.
You get the idea.
Note: The Content Audit feature is extremely useful but I find it easier to optimize existing content by generating a Content Editor document, then installing Surfer SEO’s browser extension so I can load their optimization recommendations directly in WordPress. But this doesn’t mean you should ignore the content audit feature – it provides some other useful insights that are worth paying attention. We typically use the Content Audit feature inconjunction with Content Editor as we audit and optimize legacy content.
The Domain Planner is another useful tool for analyzing existing content.
It’s a lot like the audit tool, but instead of analyzing a single webpage, it analyzes your entire domain to identify quick wins and missed SEO opportunities.
Just enter your domain, hit Create Domain Planner, and open up the report to get started.
Here, you’ll see a complete list of the top 100 best-performing pages on your site alongside their Content Score, monthly search volume, traffic, ranking position, and impressions.
You can sort the results by a bunch of different metrics.
Sorting by Content Score: Low to High enables you to quickly identify the pages on your site that need the most to bring them up to scratch in terms of SEO.
Or you can switch the Low Hanging Fruits filter on to find your easiest optimization wins that will have the biggest impact on your SEO visibility for the least amount of effort.
Clicking Advanced View underneath each page gives you more information about the keywords the page ranks for, as well as other data points.
Once you’ve found a page you want to work on, you can click the purple icon to open it up in the Content Editor, then edit it based on Surfer’s suggestions and republish it in your CMS.
The SERP Analyzer tool is another one of Surfer’s standout features.
It basically gives you a super detailed breakdown of the search engine results pages for a given keyword, so you can quickly see how different on-page factors correlate with organic ranking positions.
For example, in this analysis of the term ‘Spotify user statistics’, we can see that the pages that rank in the top 10 spots tend to be around 1,800 words on average, so we know that this is a good benchmark to aim for if we target this keyword.
And that’s only the beginning. There are plenty more useful data points to uncover in the SERP analysis report.
For example, you can see key metrics like the Domain Score (which tells you the strength of a page’s backlink profile) and the Content Score of all the top-ranking pages for a given keyword.
This is super useful as it allows you to quickly assess how competitive the term is and whether or not you stand a chance of ranking.
You can also see data on things like common/popular words, phrases, and questions that appear in the SERPs for the target keyword, common backlinks that ranking sites have in common, and more.
From the left-hand sidebar, you can even dig into data about really specific things. For example, you can bring up data on how the number of characters in the meta description correlates with the SERP ranking position. Or data on the HTML size or load time (ms) on the top-ranking pages for a given keyword.
It’s crazy how granular you can get. And to be honest, it’s a little overwhelming. The sheer number of variables available is great if you’re a data scientist but for the average user, it might be a little too much.
Trying to factor all that data into your strategy is just not practical, and being presented with it all in one report is enough to give you a headache.
Grow Flow is Surfer’s AI-powered Growth Management platform.
It analyzes your site using data from Google Search Console and presents you with weekly, bite-sized tasks to do to improve your website’s SEO performance. So you always know what you need to work on next.
And we really like it.
Grow Flow has been a game-changer for us.
The tasks it serves up are genuinely useful and it usually only takes a few minutes to complete each one, which is super useful for busy site owners/marketers who are short on time and need to prioritize the efforts that’ll have the biggest impact on overall SEO performance.
There are a bunch of different types of tasks it can serve up, but some of the main ones are:
- Adding missing keywords to posts/pages on your site
- Writing and publishing articles about topic clusters that Surfer recommends targeting
- Adding internal links to improve your site architecture
Grow Flow also helps streamline your workflow so that the task is super quick to complete. For example, let’s say you want to add some missing keywords.
Just click the task to open it up, then tap Copy all keywords to save them to your clipboard.
Open up your CMS and add them in, then go back to Surfer and hit Mark as Done. It’s that easy.
And if you’re not sure how to complete a task, Grow Flow also serves up short, <1-minute tutorial videos that show you what to do.
Keyword Surfer is a free Google Chrome extension that Surfer SEO offers. Anyone can use it, even if you haven’t purchased a paid subscription plan.
Once you’ve installed it through the Chrome Web store, it allows you to see estimated monthly search volumes directly on the SERPs, as well as other metrics like CPC and on-page data, plus keyword suggestions.
You can select the country you want to pull search volumes from.
And when you see a keyword you want to target in your strategy, you can add it to your keyword collection in one click for easy bookmarking. Then, export your collections as a CSV whenever you’re ready.
Now, what’s great about Keyword Surfer is that it’s one of—if not the—only free keyword research tools that shows you keyword volumes in the SERPs. Every other Chrome extension we’ve tried either doesn’t work or charges a subscription fee.
This makes it invaluable for cash-strapped SEOs who don’t yet have the budget to invest in a paid subscription.
Our experience using Surfer SEO
Since July 2020, I’ve slowly introduced Surfer SEO to my team of writers (and my editor). Mainly for its content optimization functionality built into their Content Editor tool.
Fast forward to today and all of my writers optimize every article using Surfer SEO. And my editor has begun optimizing legacy content with the tool.
We’ve done this because Surfer SEO’s content optimization functionality is easy to use and gets results.
Instead of publishing content and wondering whether our content will include all of the right terms/phrases as our competitors, we know that all those boxes have been ticked (so to speak).
And since using Surfer SEO, we’ve outranked more of our competitors than ever before. More of our articles rank and get traffic on average (compared to not using Surfer).
Now, it’s worth mentioning that there are other tools on the market that offer this feature – tools like Frase, Scalenut, and WriterZen come to mind (more on these later).
They’re all great tools with slightly different feature sets but they all offer some sort of content optimization feature that allows you to optimize against top-ranking content.
I’ve tried them all and had a very positive experience with each one. In fact, I still use some of them for their other features (Frase has some useful AI tools, for example). But I find Surfer SEO’s content optimization recommendations easier to work with. This, however, is subjective, so your mileage may vary.
But, I would say that if you’re not using a tool that offers this type of content optimization, you’re missing out. It’s incredibly useful. It’s also saved a lot of my time for me and my editor in terms of writing briefs. At a glance, I can see average word counts of competing articles, titles, headings, questions, related topics, etc. It saves us time and helps our content rank.
What about our experience with other features? The Google Docs integration has been a huge time saver. And if Google Docs isn’t an option, I can just generate a Content Editor and send a share link to my writer so they can use the document.
The keyword research and content audit tools are extremely well-thought-out. What I particularly like is the Grow Flow tool – the AI-based recommendations it provides are quite useful.
I juggle the management of a number of sites and have a growing team of writers. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone else provide some recommendations for what to do to improve rankings/traffic for my sites – Grow Flow does just that.
Finally, it’s important that I give a special mention to Surfer SEO’s support team. I’ve never had an issue. Every query has been resolved quickly and without any drama. Clearly, they care about their customers.
The result? I switched to annual billing, upgraded my plan to the next tier and never looked back.
How much does Surfer SEO cost?
Surfer offers several different pricing plans: Lite, Essential, Advanced and Max.
All plans include the core features (with some limitations to the Lite plan) however, have different usage limits.
Let’s run through each one:
Lite ($29/month) – Is aimed at individuals and hobbyists who don’t require a lot of usage.
- Content editor limits – 3/month
- Keyword research – 10/month
- Organisation seats – 0
Essential ($89/month) – Targets small to medium businesses.
- Content editor limits – 7/month
- Keyword research – 100/day
- Organisation seats – 2
Advanced ($179/month) – Best for teams who require more usage.
- Content editor limits – 25/month
- Keyword research – 100/day
- Organisation seats – 5
Max ($299/month) – Is aimed at agencies and professionals who don’t need limitations.
- Content editor limits – 50/month
- Keyword research – 100/day
- Organisation seats – 10
Save by signing up for an annual subscription.
You get get add-ons for your plan such as Grow Flow which are $9 for each domain, and Audits which are $49/month for 100/month (free on Max plan).
If their plans don’t meet your required needs you can contact their sales team to discuss an Enterprise plan.
Surfer SEO pros and cons
Now that we’ve looked at Surfer SEO’s features and pricing options, here’s what we think the platform’s biggest pros and cons are.
Surfer SEO pros
- Rank faster and save time. We’ve used Surfer for over 2 years. During that time it has saved us time creating briefs, writing content, and optimizing it. Most importantly, our content ranks higher than before.
- Fantastic Content Editor. Surfer’s Content Editor is the standout feature—and we can hardly fault it. The UI is much better than other Content Editors we’ve tried and the suggestions it serves up actually help move the needle on your organic ranking position, which is more than can be said for some competitor platforms.
- Flexible Content Editor customization options. You can choose exactly which top-ranking content you want to optimize your article against. While Surfer will make an educated guess, it doesn’t lock you in. You can also hide terms so they don’t appear in the editor while you’re optimizing content.
- Seamless integration. We love how all the different tools and features in Surfer SEO are seamlessly interconnected. So for example, you can open up a keyword research report and then add the topic suggestion straight to the Content Editor from the same page. Likewise, when you audit a page on your site, you can then open it up in the Content Editor to fix identified issues in one click.
- Integration with WordPress & Google Docs. This is an important one for both those editing content and those writing it. The content editors work great, but with Surfer’s browser extension installed, you can seamlessly connect your Content Editor in Surfer with a blog post in WordPress or Google Docs document with one click.
- Easily export content into WordPress. Once you’ve written your content in Surfer’s Content Editor, you can export it directly to WordPress – and it’s very easy.
- Topic clustering. Another thing we really like about Surfer is the way it clusters keywords together into broader topics, so you can target several related keywords in one post. This is really how all marketers should be approaching their content strategy going forward.
- Excellent support. Our experience with Surfer’s support team has been excellent. They’re always super responsive and friendly, and can usually resolve even very complex queries quickly.
Surfer SEO cons
- SERP Analyzer UI needs improving. The SERP Analyzer feature is bloated with unnecessary data points that most SEOs won’t make use of. The UI of Surfer in general is fantastic, but when you open up the SERP Analyzer, it takes a nosedive.
- Domain Planner only supports the top 100 pages. This tool is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. But I’d prefer it if it could show all the pages on my site. Typically, it’s the underperforming content that needs improving most.
- Minor bugs. Over the course of my time using the tool, I noted a few very, very minor bugs. For example, in the Content Editor, Surfer doesn’t recognize that you’ve added a suggested term if it’s hyperlinked. Also, on rare occasions, loading reports feels like it takes longer than it should (I waited at least 30 seconds for a keyword research report). Not a huge deal and it is rare these bugs occur, but we’re nitpicking here.
Final thoughts on Surfer SEO
That concludes our Surfer SEO review.
I’m a big fan of Surfer, and so are my team. It’s the best content optimization and SEO tool on the market right now, which is why we use it here at Startup Bonsai (and for our other projects).
After testing a large number of similar tools, I settled on Surfer primarily because of how its content optimization functionality works. The UI is slick and easy to work with.
Plus, Grow Flow is a game-changer that can help you to prioritize your SEO efforts with weekly to-do tasks that have a big impact on your overall performance.
If you want to try it out for yourself, you can click the button below to sign up
Or if you’d prefer to explore some of your other options, check out our roundup of the best content writing tools for SEO here