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SEMrush vs Ahrefs: An Honest Review After 5+ Years of Use 

 December 19, 2020

SEMrush vs Ahrefs: Which SEO tool is worth your hard-earned cash?

If you're looking for an SEO tool to help you perform keyword research, grow your organic search traffic, and outrank your competition, these two tools are the titans of the industry.

However, how do you know which is better? Ahrefs or SEMrush?

Today, I'll give you an honest breakdown of each tool after using them both professionally and personally for the last 5+ years.

Why Should You Listen to Me?

Why Shouldn't You Listen to The Other Google Search Results?

Either head to the Table of Contents to skip around, or just keep reading!

SEMrush vs Ahrefs Comparison Chart

SEO Tool

Lowest

Pricing

Features

Best For

Trial

Offer

Header
Ahrefs Logo

$99/

month

SEO

Professionals

$7 for

7-Day

Trial

semrush-logo

$99.95/

month

Business

Owners

7-Day

Free

Trial

What Can These Tools Do?

Ahrefs and SEMrush are software as a service (SaaS) companies. They are both considered "SEO tools". Meaning, they assist with things like keyword research, competitive research, link analysis, technical SEO audits, and more.

While these two tools can both do all of these things well, they also have some subtle differences to be aware of.

SEMrush Overview

SEMrush is "the world’s leading competitive research service for online marketing" and is also the most popular SEO tool you'll find. With all it's features, it's sort of like the "Swiss Army Knife" of the SEO world.

It was released back in 2007 under the name "SeoQuake" by Oleg Shchegolev and Dmitry Melnikov. It actually started as a Firefox extension!

SEMrush 2019

Ahrefs Overview

Ahrefs was released a little later in the game, back in 2011, by Dmitry Gerasimenko. They pride themselves on being "the world's best backlink analysis tool". And I agree!

Ahrefs is probably the single best tool for strictly SEO-related tasks, with an incredibly accurate link database.

Ahrefs 2019

Direct Comparisons

Now that you know what these tools are and what they can do, let's compare them neck and neck on the major SEO tasks you'd want to buy them for.

Keyword Research

Winner: Tie

Keyword research is the most basic of SEO tasks—and arguably the most important. Choose the right keywords and you can make a lot of money. Choose poorly and you can waste a lot of time and money.

Both keyword research tools perform equally. My favorite keyword research method is the content gap analysis, which both tools have. So let's pit them together - Ahrefs vs SEMrush!

For the sake of consistency, we'll use https://www.thewanderingrv.com/ as the primary domain and gorving.com as the competitor.

In the first corner, we have Ahrefs, with 1,188 keywords found:

Ahrefs Content Gap Tool Results

In the second corner, we have SEMrush, with 17,830 keywords found:

SEMrush Keyword Gap Analysis

SEMrush is the obvious winner here. You may need to do more filtering, as Ahrefs' built-in filters get rid of a lot of crap keywords, but overall SEMrush wins.

Now let's compare SEMrush's Keyword Magic tool to Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer. 

We'll use the keyword "weighted blanket" to find ideas (my wife wants one so it's on my mind!).

If we compare broad match with all potential keyword ideas, we get 20,787 keywords from Ahrefs.

Ahrefs Keyword Explorer

SEMrush, on the other hand, brings us 12,129 keywords.

SEMrush Keyword Magic Tool Results

This time it seems Ahrefs is the winner. I also really like Ahrefs' categories to break down the keywords by "Newly Discovered", "Questions", "Phrase match", etc. 

There are other methods of keyword research you can do with each of the tools, but in all my years as an SEO I've barely used them, so I'll leave the comparison as-is.

Conclusion

Overall, these two keyword research tools are about tied in the keyword research department. However, SEMrush can search for PPC and PLA (Product Listing Ad) keywords, which Ahrefs doesn't do. So if you're also doing search engine marketing, SEMrush may be better.

Backlink Analysis Tools

Winner: Ahrefs

Next we have another crucial SEO task: Analyzing competitor backlinks.

Backlink analysis helps you find link building opportunities, catch bad links to disavow, and see which of your pages has the highest authority for internal linking, among other things.

Here's Ahrefs backlink report for our page https://www.thewanderingrv.com/rv-accessories/. It returns 137 backlinks from 40 referring domains.

Ahrefs Backlink Analysis Results

I know this is accurate because I personally built the majority of these links. Typically, after building a link to one of my pages, I would see it in Ahrefs within a few days to a week or so depending on the linking site's domain authority and crawl budget.

Now let's compare this to SEMrush:

SEMrush Backlink Analytics

SEMrush picked up 161 backlinks but only 17 referring domains. From what I can tell, SEMrush didn't pick up very low-authority sites like getcouponnow.com. But they also didn't pick up the highest authority site on the list—bigcommerce.com—with a domain authority (DA) of 91. Very odd, and I'm not sure why.

I checked a few other pages as well to test this theory. Some pages Ahrefs told me I had over 10 links, yet SEMrush didn't pick up a single one—even from sites like sumo.com with a DA of 83!

Conclusion

It's no competition—Ahrefs has the more complete backlink data by far. SEMrush can still work as a backlink checker, but it's not nearly as reliable.

Content Explorer &
Topic Research

Winner: Ahrefs

When it comes to topic research, I prefer to brainstorm keywords first, topics second. That way I know every page on my site has a target keyword it can rank for.

However, sometimes you need to create content strictly for link-building purposes or as social media fodder. In those cases, Ahrefs Content Explorer tool (and SEMrush's equivalent Topic Research tool) really come in handy.

Ahrefs recently unveiled Content Explorer 2.0, with a bunch of upgrades to their former 1.0 version. Specifically, Sam Oh says you can use this tool for:

  • Trends data
  • Data-driven content research
  • Broken link building

The broken link building feature, in particular, is unique to Ahrefs and it's awesome. But rather than comparing results or explaining how these work, here's a video from Sam Oh who explains it much better than I could:

But what about SEMrush's Topic Research tool? Well, it may not be quite as robust as Ahrefs, but there are still plenty of great uses.

Below is a video by SEMrush sharing how to use their tool. It's not nearly as clean or concise as Ahrefs, unfortunately, but if you want to learn it's worth watching.

Conclusion

Ahrefs content explorer tool has a few more features than SEMrush's, so it just barely edges them out. But both tools are great.

Technical SEO Audits

Winner: SEMrush

Let's be real—neither of these tools was built to be a technical auditing tool. They have the feature, but it's only a basic audit. For deep technical SEO audits, you're better off using a tool like Screaming Frog or DeepCrawl.

But since they both offer it, let's compare!

Running Ahrefs site audit on https://www.thewanderingrv.com/ I get these results:

Ahrefs Technical SEO Site Audit

The tool gave our site an 89% health score out of 2,657 crawled URLs. It says 164 internal URLs have errors. Here are some of those errors:

Site Audit Errors

These errors range from "information" (the orange "i" icons) like 3XX redirects to warnings (the red "!" icons) like missing meta descriptions.

If you click on one of these items, it will often have an explanation of what it is and how to fix it.

3XX Redirects How to Fix

Overall, Ahrefs site auditing tool is easy to understand and use. It provides enough basic information to see glaring technical errors and even teaches newbie SEOs how to fix them, which is a plus!

Now, here are the results from the same site's SEO audit using SEMrush:

SEMrush SEO Site Audit

It shows a similar "Health Score" at 86%. But the first thing I notice (and really like) is that the dashboard shows you the errors and warning right away. If you click the red or orange numbers, it will take you straight to what's wrong with the site

Compared to Ahrefs, this is easier to navigate, in my opinion.

Similar to Ahrefs, you can click on the issue to figure out what it is and how to fix it. Here's an example:

Fixing Technical Issues SEMrush

And here's an overview of some of the warnings SEMrush gave me:

SEMrush Warnings

Conclusion

SEMrush is the winner in my eyes. Their site audit tool is very easy to use and intuitive. The tool makes it easy to see what's wrong and how to fix it. Ahrefs' auditing tool is still good, but it's new and not as refined yet.

Rank Tracking

Winner: Tie

One of my favorite features of any SEO tool is rank tracking! Few things are as exciting as watching your keyword rankings go up from your efforts. (Or maybe that's just me being an SEO nerd?)

Ahrefs Rank Tracker tool allows you to add a "Project" and track rankings for specific keywords on specific websites.

Ahrefs Rank Tracker

You can also keep an eye on competitor's rankings, as well as see rankings only in certain locations or on certain devices, your average position across all tracker keywords, how much traffic you get, and more.

Overall, this is a feature I use often, especially with clients, to see how well my efforts are paying off and to warn me of sudden ranking drops. Then I can check to see if it's a technical issue, Google penalty, or a competitor stealing the rankings.

It's not 100% accurate, of course, but it's pretty damn close.

SEMrush's data is about the same; it shows roughly the same positions as the Ahrefs' rank tracking tool across my tracked keywords. It has many of the same features, including competitor tracking and location- or device-based rankings.

SEMrush Rank Tracking

Conclusion

Ahrefs and SEMrush perform the same tasks in virtually the same way. Their data is almost exactly the same. The only difference is that Ahrefs' rank tracker has a cleaner UI so it's easier to quickly see important information.

Browser Extensions

Winner: Ahrefs

Both Ahrefs and SEMrush have browser extensions that help you quickly evaluate a website's domain authority, estimated backlinks, and other basic data.

The big difference is that SEOquake (SEMrush's browser extension) is free, which Ahrefs SEO Toolbar only works with a paid account.

Here's what the SEOquake bar looks like:

SEOquake Browser Extension

Sorry if it's hard to see. Basically, it shows the number of pages on Google's index for that site, the number of backlinks pointing to that particular page, and the site's Alexa rank and age.

Honestly, most of this information isn't that useful. I don't even use Alexa rank and I think most SEOs don't these days (remember, this is a toolbar that started in 2007 before the Penguin update when SEO was all about link spam).

Let's compare that to Ahrefs toolbar:

Ahrefs Browser Extension

Their browser extension shows page-level stats (# of backlinks & referring domains, estimates search traffic, estimated # of keywords it ranks for, and the URL rating) as well as domain-level stats (same things but domain-level) and the Ahrefs rank, which is Ahrefs own way of calculating how strong a domain is.

At a glance, these stats are much more useful to me. If you click any of them, they open in Ahrefs and you can see more detailed information.

Of course, both tools have a lot of other functions, like seeing stats on the SERP page, but I won't get into too much detail there as I honestly don't use it enough. (Not to say it's a bad feature, but I just use Keywords Everywhere, a free browser extension that gives similar information.)

Conclusion

SEMrush's toolbar just seems dated and not that useful. Ahrefs is the winner for me. (Though you do have to pay for it!)

User Interface & Ease of Use

Winner: Ahrefs

User interface is important to me. I like when my tools look as good as they work, and it makes my life easier seeing crucial information in easy-to-digest charts and graphs at a glance.

Ahrefs' UI is fantastic. Other than their site audit tool, all of their other SEO tools present information in a really easy-to-understand way and their features are intuitive and easy to use.

Here are a few pictures of their different tools and UIs:

Dashboard

Ahrefs Dashboard

Site Explorer

Ahrefs Site Explorer

Keywords Explorer

Ahrefs Keywords Explorer

SEMrush, on the other hand, is a bit dated. And because they have so many features, it can be hard to learn the tool and know everything it does. It's all over the place.

Here are some similar images of the various SEO tools SEMrush has:

Dashboard

SEMrush Dashboard

Domain Overview

SEMrush Site Overview

Keyword Magic Tool

SEMrush Keyword Magic Tool

Conclusion

Ahrefs' UI is better in my opinion. It gives you fewer options per page, which makes it easier to learn and use, and it presents information in an easier-to-understand way. That said, the SEMrush UI is improving all the time, and it's still fairly easy to understand.

Packages & Pricing

Winner: Tie

Alright, so what's all this gonna cost?

First up we have Ahrefs, with four plans you can choose from:

Ahrefs Pricing Packages

I currently subscribe to their "Standard" plan at $179. I used to have their Advanced plan, but couldn't justify the cost once we started taking on fewer clients.

Their Lite plan is not enough, in my opinion. It limits you pretty heavily. Mainly, you can only see the keyword positions up to position 20 and you can't see the recent or historical index, so you can see keyword position movements over time.

There are other limitations as well, but I won't get into all that here. Just know the Standard plan is the way to go.

Note: Annual billing saves you 20%. This changes the prices to $82, $149, $332, and $832 per month, respectively.

Now let's look at SEMrush's pricing:

SEMrush Pricing

The SEMrush Pro level plan doesn't feel as limited as Ahref's Lite plan. The only big limitations are seeing historical keyword data and comparing rankings by location or device (i.e. mobile vs desktop).

Note: Paying annually reduces these costs to $83, $166, and $333 per month, respectively.

Conclusion

Both tools charge very similar prices, with SEMrush being slightly more expensive. However, the Lite version of Ahrefs is a bit more limited than the corresponding Pro version of SEMrush.

Things Only Ahrefs Can Do

There are a bunch of Ahrefs-specific tools that only Ahrefs can do. They are:

1. Traffic Estimations for Top 10 Search Results

Surprisingly, Ahrefs is the only SEO tool that provides traffic estimated for search results. Here's what I mean:

Ahrefs Traffic Estimates

Essentially, you can see how much monthly organic traffic the search results for a given keyword receive every month.

This is great for determining good keywords to go after, as a high traffic amount potentially means a primary keyword has a lot of secondary keywords that also get searches.

2. Extremely Accurate Link Analysis

Ahrefs is by far the most accurate and largest database when it comes to backlinks. They are head and shoulders above any other SEO tool I've used or heard of.

They also have the Referring Domain History feature, which allows you to see referring domains over time. This is great for seeing how fast or steady a website is growing, as well as to identify negative SEO attacks.

Referring Domain History Graph

3. See The Ranking History Of All Pages

Like historical referring domains, you can also see the ranking history of all pages' keywords, as well as a trends graph that shows rankings over time.

Ahrefs Organic Traffic Trends

Things Only SEMrush Can Do

Remember how I referred to SEMrush as the "swiss army knife" of the SEO world? Well, there are a lot of things you can do with SEMrush that you can't do with Ahrefs.

1. Search Engine Marketing Features

SEMrush is a much better tool for Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising (aka Search Engine Marketing (SEM)). It has a lot of SEM features Ahrefs doesn't have, such as:

  • Competitive PPC analysis (see what keywords competitors are bidding on, how much their spending on average, and what their ad copy is).
  • A CPC (cost per click) map that shows you average CPC based on state.
  • And more!
SEMrush PPC Map

Honestly, SEMrush is just as robust of a PPC tool as it is an SEO tool. That's part of the reason I find SEMrush to be of better value for business owners with their hands in many marketing tasks.

2. Social Media Features

One major benefit of SEMrush vs Ahrefs is that you can replace other tools, increasing it's value. SEMrush is also a full-feature social media scheduling software, similar to Buffer or Hootsuite.

SEMrush Social Media Scheduling

In addition to scheduling posts to all the major networks (including Pinterest, which has very few available schedulers), you can also see reporting and analytics, as well as competitor insights. Here's the competitor tool:

SEMrush Social Media Competitor Tracking

3. Content Marketing Features

Finally, SEMrush also has some cool content marketing and SEO features that Ahrefs doesn't have, including:

  • Brand monitoring
  • Post tracking
  • A content audit tool

Of these, my favorite is the content auditing tool. It's basically an on-page SEO checker and content writing assistant that helps you better optimize your content using LSI keywords and a better readability score.

The technical term for what this tool does is called TF:IDF (term frequency-inverse document frequency). Basically, Google looks at the frequency of particular terms (keywords) within your article to help it rank your content.

Here are some suggestion the tool will make based on your content:

SEMrush Content Audit

You can also use it to help optimize content as you're writing it. I normally use CognitiveSEO ($100/month) for this feature, but since SEMrush does it as well, that's another tool I don't need to pay for.

Here's what the Real-Time Content Checker tool looks like:

SEMrush Real-Time Content Checker

As you can see, it gives you an overall score based on all the metrics (readability, word count, LSI keywords, and other suggestions).

I particularly like the "Recommended Keywords" section, as it tells you what words you should use in your content to better optimize for TF:IDF.

Recommended Keywords

Conclusion: Which Tool Is Best For You?

There you have it—an Ahrefs vs SEMrush showdown on a feature-by-feature basis.

Based on everything you've seen, here's my conclusion:

  • SEMrush is best for business owners who need one tool that accomplishes multiple tasks (social media, SEO, SEM, and content marketing). Because of it's robust features, it can save you money by cutting other tools.
  • Ahrefs is best for SEO agencies and SEO professionals who don't need any other features. If you just want the absolute best tool for SEO that doesn't try to fit the needs of other marketers, Ahrefs is the way to go.

What do you think? Are you going with Ahrefs or SEMrush? Did I miss any major features? Let me know in the comments!

Read Next: SEO for Dummies: A ​Beginner's Guide to Search Engine Optimization

Bill Widmer


Bill has a passion for teaching others how to build and grow their own online business. He's started and grown several sites from $0 to over $10k per month and has worked with many prestigious clients such as Sumo, Shopify, and Single Grain.

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