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MarketMuse vs Surfer

22 min read

We’ve updated this page to account for Surfer’s change in pricing model. Content teams are finding that the true cost of Surfer is substantial. Here’s why:

  • Surfer offers a base feature set with very stringent usage limitations. You’ll need to pay more if you want to do more.
  • Accessing more features requires purchasing add-ons. These too have strict usage limits. You’ll have to pay even more to go beyond those usage limits.

With a MarketMuse Team subscription, you get unlimited use of:

  • Optimize — to help you optimize existing pages and creating new content.
  • Research — to discover what questions your audience is asking.
  • SERP X-Ray — to discover the type of content Google is surfacing for a specific query analyze the SERP.
  • Heatmap — to run competitive content quality analysis, on the SERP or any website
  • Connect — to get internal and external linking suggestions.
  • Keyword Research to help build out a cluster of content.
  • MarketMuse AI — to write better content with the help of AI.
  • Content Briefs — to provide clear and structured guidance, improving the efficiency and quality of content creation.

If you’re only producing a couple of articles a week, Surfer can cost less. But once you hit those limits and start adding things on, it quickly gets very expensive.

Surfer costs less but MarketMuse offers far more value.

There’s no shortage of Surfer reviews written by members of its affiliate program. But if you’re wondering how it stacks up against MarketMuse, we’ve put together this comparison. Although Surfer costs less than MarketMuse, it’s not the bargain it seems to be. If you’re not up for a long read, here’s the summary.

  • MarketMuse patented method of topic modeling is better than that achieved by Surfer’s TD-IDF based process. So, you’ll get better content optimization suggestions.
  • MarketMuse tracks your content inventory, analyzing your content and site for better content strategy and planning. That’s something Surfer cannot do.
  • MarketMuse offers personalized content metrics, while Surfer has none.
  • MarketMuse competitive content analysis heatmap instantly reveals content gaps from which the competition suffers. Surfer does not have this ability.
  • MarketMuse content outlines are highly detailed and structured, while those of Surfer are simple and superficial.
  • MarketMuse employs NLP as a foundational component, starting with its topic modeling. Surfer offers NLP as an afterthought, employing the services of third-party APIs.
  • MarketMuse offers actionable insight on data points that make a difference. Surfer overwhelms users with many data points that have little, if any, impact.

Topic Modeling

The quality of the topic model is where it all starts. Without a high-quality model, everything else is irrelevant. Worse than that, low-fidelity data can lead to poor choices, wasted time, money, and effort. So it makes sense to get this right from the start. 

The best way to illustrate how MarketMuse and Surfer differ in their approach to topic modeling is to use an example. Let’s compare the topic ‘how to get more traffic to your blog.’

Here’s the output from both MarketMuse and Surfer.

MarketMuse Research.
Partial screenshot of MarketMuse Research Application.
Screenshot of SurferSEO Content Editor.
Surfer Content Editor

Although MarketMuse provides 50 relevant topics, plus up to 50 variants for each topic, we’ll just compare against the same number of suggestions we see in the Surfer screenshot.

(sorted by relevance)
how to get traffic to your blog
blog traffic
blog post
social media
website traffic
guest post
blog article
google analytics
facebook groups
guest post
promote your blog
website traffic
target audience
yoast seo
long-tail keywords
yoast seo plugin
increase blog traffic
high-quality content
(sorted by?)
how to get traffic to your blog
how to increase
how to promote blog
how to promote your blog
how to promote a blog
how to get your blog noticed
blog post
traffic to your blog
blog posts
search engines
social media
increase traffic
target audience
search engine
social networks
drive more traffic
organic traffic
google search
drive traffic

MarketMuse scans the competitive content from across the entire web to develop robust topic models. Not so with Surfer. 

There are a lot of irrelevant one-word topics in Surfer, plus a lot variants on the tame topic. I think the winner is clear about which model offers better suggestions on what topics to cover.

Content Strategy and Planning

The bigger the site, the harder it is to prioritize. Even with a few hundred pages, it becomes difficult trying to determine what is the best course of action. Everyone wants to become an authority, but how do you do that in the most efficient way possible. This is where machine learning and artificial intelligence can be of immense value to content teams of all sizes.

Content Strategy and Planning With MarketMuse

MarketMuse has a deep understanding of your content, its associated topics, and the content of your competitors. It’s why we call it a content intelligence platform. MarketMuse keeps track of the inventory on your site. With the help of personalized content metrics, you can create AI-driven content plans with high confidence that they will succeed. 

For any given topic, MarketMuse can determine how well your content could perform, were you to write something on that subject. It does this by assessing how well you’ve covered the topic in the past, how it has performed, how the competition has fared, and other factors. It uses this information to create personalized authority and difficulty scores. 

MarketMuse is the first to offer a personalized difficulty score, ever, in the industry.

Screenshot of MarketMuse topic inventory showing topic along with the following metrics; opportunity, authority, difficulty, competitive advantage, and personalized difficulty.
MarketMuse Topic Inventory

As you make decisions about what new content to create and pages to update, these can be assigned to content plans within MarketMuse. Plans are useful for keeping work organized, tracking what tasks have been done, and creating briefs.

Content Strategy and Planning With Surfer

You cannot perform any content strategy or planning with Surfer. Keyword research, which Surfer does provide, is not content strategy. 

Surfer lacks personalized metrics that are necessary for creating high-performing plans. It’s just an SEO tool to which they’ve recently added a content editor. That editor can’t help you determine the topics around which you should be creating new content or optimizing existing pages.

Content Research

In the hyper-competitive worlds of content, it’s impossible to manually research what’s required to create a truly comprehensive piece of content. Thoroughly understanding the buyer’s needs, search intent, competitive content, and your own content performance require the help of AI.

Content Research in MarketMuse

MarketMuse extracts massive amounts of data from the web. We pull content from thousands of pages, using natural language processing to determine not only who covers this topic at an expert level, but EXACTLY what you need to do better. 

Going the extra mile ensures high-fidelity data resulting in high-quality recommendations. Our topic model suggests 50 related topics to cover for any given subject. 

Plus, our Compete Application enables you to quickly research competitive content to understand how well they cover a subject, including their content score, word count, and content gaps.

Content Research in Surfer

Surfer does not support any workflows that allow for content research. Enter a keyword into their Content Editor and you’re immediately funneled into a workflow to set up a content guideline. There are no specific modules for investigating the related topics for a subject, the most important questions, or the best links to use. 

While Surfer does offer keyword research, that is no substitute for content research. If you’re not sure why then read this post on how keyword research doesn’t help create better content.

Competitive Content Analysis

Competitive content analysis reveals the level of quality necessary to successfully position your site as the expert on your topic. For any piece of content, you want to know what are the must-have topics, the important topics, and gaps where you have the opportunity to differentiate your content from the competition.

Competitive Content Analysis With MarketMuse

MarketMuse uses a heatmap to display competitive information from the top 20 results in the SERP so you can quickly identify content gaps and other topics that are important and necessary to include within your article. 

It also provides a content score for each URL. This Content Score is a reflection of how well the page covers a given topic.

Screenshot of MarketMuse Compete Application showing a heatmap/
Competitive content quality analysis of the SERP

You can also conduct competitive content analysis on sany website. For larger sites, you can control which parts are included and excluded — great for drilling down deep.

Competitive content quality analysis of a website

Heatmap shows the 20 most semantically relevant pages ordered from left to right.

Competitive Content Analysis With Surfer

Surfer is incapable of analyzing the content of a page. There is no content score to provide insight into how well the competition covers a particular topic. Also, their data points are based on a very small collection of documents (corpus) which has a dramatic impact on its accuracy.

Surfer SERP Analyzer takes the approach that more data is better. Content marketers have more than enough data; what’s required is better insight.

Don’t count on Surfer to help much in this regard. For example, knowing how many bold words, paragraphs, or images the competition uses won’t help create better quality content.

Although they claim that text length, keyword density, and the number of headings are ranking factors, that’s simply not true. The concern here is that following this sort of ‘advice’ can lead you seriously astray.

Writing With an AI Assistant

MarketMuse AI

MarketMuse AI gives you the power to craft content that resonates, informs, and captivates your audience like never before. By seamlessly blending the capabilities of large language models and knowledge graphs, MarketMuse AI empowers you to:

  1. Elevate Your Content: Create engaging and authoritative content that not only captures your audience’s attention but also educates and influences them.
  2. Enhance SEO: Boost your website’s search engine rankings by producing content that’s not just well-written, but strategically optimized to drive organic traffic.
  3. Unleash Creativity: Break through creative barriers with a tool that augments your ideas and knowledge, helping you generate fresh and innovative content effortlessly.
  4. Save Time: Streamline your content creation process with MarketMuse AI’s efficiency, allowing you to focus on what matters most – your core business objectives.
  5. Stay Informed: Leverage the power of knowledge graphs to ensure your content is backed by the latest, most reliable information, establishing your authority in your industry.

MarketMuse AI keeps humans in the loop enabling them to make informed decisions and maintain control over the content creation process.

MarketMuse AI is your secret weapon for crafting content that stands out, engages your audience, and drives your success to new heights. Experience the future of content creation today!

Surfer AI

You can use MarketMuse AI to create unlimited articles. That’s not the case with Surfer AI which, as of this writing, costs $29 per article.

With Surfer, you need to define everything upfront and hope that the output meets your expectations. If not? Who knows! They don’t mention anything in their documentation about what happens if you’re not satisfied with the resulting output.

There are many disadvantages to this approach. We know first hand from experience, because it’s what we did a couple years ago when we introduced our original generative AI.

Content Outlines

Content outlines provide a framework for writers to create an article and against which editors can evaluate. The purpose of an outline is to ensure each piece of content is comprehensive and meets the necessary performance criteria. A well-structured outline also reduces the burden of research and increases writer efficiency.

MarketMuse Content Briefs are more detailed and structured with multiple sections, each with its own list of topics to mention, questions to answer, and links to include. There are outlines for new content as well as existing pages, taking into account content on the page. Surfer outlines are much simpler with no structure, a basic list of terms to include and questions to address. They offer no outlines for optimizing existing pages. 

Content Outlines With MarketMuse

A MarketMuse Content Brief consists of three sections; the executive summary, outline brief and Optimize. There are two types of content briefs; one for creating new content and another for updating an existing page. Both are very similar, but briefs for existing pages take into account the content that already occurs on the page.

Anyone can access a specific MarketMuse Content Brief through a shared link like this

Screenshot of MarketMuse Content Brief Executive Summary.
Click to see the full content brief.

Let’s examine each section to understand their purpose and function better.

Executive Summary

As its name implies, the executive summary provides a marketing executive with the background necessary for why this content should be created and how it will be done. The summary opens with information about the target score, potential increased monthly views, and suggested word count, along with a description of what these indicators mean.

Insight found in MarketMuse Content Brief Summary

Determine ideal user intent and audiences.

This section explains who the audience is and why they are searching for this topic.

Discover questions to answer when you’re writing.

This section looks at some relevant questions surrounding this topic so you can make sure your content is focused on what’s important to your audience.

Choose your article title.

Here we see several titles that are ranking for the topic plus suggested terms to include in your title to set yourself apart.

Find the most relevant subheadings.

Similar to the previous sections, you see subheadings that rank for this topic plus some terms that you should include to differentiate your post from the competition.

Terms that can guide your content toward topical authority.

A list of all the relevant subtopics related to the subject. The size of this varies with the number of subheadings and target word count.        

Link to external and internal pages

Suggested links and anchor text for the most appropriate internal web pages. Same thing for external links, but these are to non-competitive sites.

Information in the Outline Brief is designed to help writers create better content faster. This includes an article structure complete with subheadings so that writers spend less time on research and get more done.

Suggested Word Count

On the right side of the brief is a suggested word count based on the average and taking into account the target word score. Each section also has a recommended word count displayed as a percentage of the total word count. This gives writers an idea of how much space to devote to a subsection without getting side-tracked in meeting a specific word count target.

Suggested Title and Title Variants

One suggestion is provided along with several variants should the writer wish to refine the title further.


This is a list of subtopics to mention, some of which can be included in the article’s introduction. ‘Suggested Dist.’ refers to the number of times to mention a topic without it appearing awkward and unnatural.


A MarketMuse Content Brief typically contains several subheadings. Each one follows the same format:

  • Suggested subheading
  • Suggested word count for that section (expressed as a percentage of the total word count)
  • Questions to answer
  • Topics to mention including their suggested distribution
  • Internal link with anchor text (the anchor text is a highly relevant topic, while the suggested link is a page that’s a good match for that topic)
  • External link (the anchor text is a topic with lower relevance with a suggested link of high authority and quality)

Note that each section has its own set of related topics. While there is some overlap between the sections and the main topic, the resulting list is far more extensive than what’s found in Surfer.

External links are chosen based on anchor text with low topical relevance for a special reason. We want to link to a high-quality, authoritative source that’s not in direct competition with the topic our article targets. This is achieved by choosing topics that are adjacent to the central theme, thus providing value to both the audience and search engines, while helping to achieve the goals of the article as well.


The third tab in this shareable MarketMuse Content Brief is Optimize. It works just like the Optimize app, except it’s prepopulated with topics from the brief. Writers can use this in two ways:

  1. Craft the article directly in Optimize (content score and word count automatically updates as you write)
  2. Create a post using your favorite word processor and then check it with Optimize prior to submission

Surfer outlines

Surfer refers to their outlines as guidelines. A guideline for a topic is based on a list of competitors. Users are expected to choose from the top 10 in the SERP, in order to create the competitive data that drives the outline.

Requiring users to determine their competition is a serious flaw in the Surfer workflow. Every URL that appears in the SERP is a competitor. To think otherwise is a grave mistake.

Also, using such a small corpus results in data quality and fidelity issues, with a topic model that doesn’t tell the full story.

The first section deals with the content structure, specifically the number of words, headings, paragraphs, bold words, and images. This data, based on the chosen competitors, is for the most part irrelevant. 

Let’s first look at the number of bold words and images. What is that!? These are completely irrelevant metrics. The quality of your content and its performance won’t suffer if it fails to meet these suggestions. As for the number of headings and paragraphs. Not helpful! These metrics provide no insight. Editorial decisions like this need to be based on your content and its subject matter. 

The next section covers the terms to use in the content. These don’t appear to be sorted by relevance making it hard to determine what’s most important. Also, there are a lot of questionable terms in their modeling. For example, the primary keyword ‘seo services’ includes terms like ‘touch,’ ‘popular,’ ‘providing,’ ‘read,’ ‘star’ and a dozen other similar suggestions.

The last section addresses the questions to answer. These aren’t questions that have been uncovered through content analysis. Instead, these are question-type keyword phrases related to the primary keyword. You’ll find this data to be limited and of questionable quality.

Content Optimization

Content optimization is about creating the best content experience for your readers. For this to happen, the most relevant topics on a given subject need to be adequately addressed.

Content Optimization With MarketMuse

The MarketMuse topic model is very robust. As a result, the Optimizer application shows 50 related topics for a given subject (focus topic).

Content Score 

MarketMuse Content Score takes into account the proper usage of related topics in competitive pieces across the web. In Optimize your content score is updated live, based on your coverage of relevant topics, as you write. It shows how your content stacks up against the competition.

Every mention of a topic in the related topic list earns a point, with a maximum of two points for each item. Since there are 50 related topics in the list for any given topic, the theoretical maximum is 100.

The Average and Target Content Score section breaks down significant ranges of Content Scores. The Average number shows how comprehensively articles ranking for this term are commonly written. The Target score shows the coverage you want to meet or exceed.

The current Content Score visualization graph displays your progress toward a target content score, showing if your content currently has below average (red), average (yellow), or target coverage (green).

Word Count

MarketMuse also tracks your word count and shows how it stacks up against the rest of the content performing well for your query. This is the word count of the content you are working in the writing area and changes as you write.

Average and Target Word Counts are derived from extracting content across expert pieces that cover this same topic.

The word count bar shows how close you are to fulfilling the target word count. It will fill up as you write, being filled all the way means the target was hit or exceeded.

Related Topics Table

This table shows the essential topics to include in your article and approximately how often they should be mentioned. The core related topics are ordered by relevance to the focus topic.

MarketMuse related topics table.
MarketMuse related topics.

Distribution, abbreviated to DIST, shows a range of how often you mention this topic in your piece. Suggested Distribution shows MarketMuse’s recommendation concerning the number of times you may want to mention this topic. Clicking on a related topic in this list reveals a slide-out with variants of that topic you can use to enrich your writing.

Content Optimization With Surfer

SuferSEO offers a similar content optimization experience but misses some critical details. First, they have no method of scoring the content, making it difficult to discern the extent of topical coverage. Furthermore, it’s difficult to determine how your content compares to the competition

Screenshot of SurferSEO content editor.

Second, the suggested terms don’t appear to be sorted by relevance, making it hard to understand which are the most important.

Third, the poor visual layout of the list of terms creates extra work for the user. You can’t quickly determine which terms are frequently used and which are not; that requires some mental gymnastics.

Fourth, the word count feedback lacks an adequate frame of reference. That means the only context a user has is how close they are to the target count. The critical part of the equation that’s missing is how their content relates to the average. A detail like this is what provides greater insight.

Natural Language Processing

How MarketMuse Uses NLP

Natural language processing is embedded deep within the MarketMuse platform, from our patented method of topic analysis to the way we surface appropriate questions and generate text via MarketMuse NLG Technology natural language generation. 

How Surfer Uses NLP

Surfer has bolted a couple of NLP APIs onto their platform in a way that almost feels like it’s a solution looking for a problem.

They use APIs from both IBM Watson and GoogleNLP to determine article and entity sentiment analysis respectively. For the most part, understanding the sentiment of the top 10 competitive articles or the entities within doesn’t help to create better content. 

At best, sentiment analysis is a distraction when it comes to writing articles. At worst, it can be extremely misleading resulting in a waste of effort and resources.

Surfer also relies on Google NLP API to provide additional terms that are “important to rank for a given search query.” But Surfer only sends the top ten ranking pages to the API, which is a very small collection of documents from which to draw conclusions.

Take Away

Although Surfer is inexpensive, cheap might be a more appropriate description. Their approach to topic modeling leaves much to be desired as their content recommendations are shallow at best and often inappropriate. Much of your time will be wasted on following suggestions that have no to little influence on content success.

MarketMuse has an industry-leading topic model, designed to help content strategists and marketers make informed decisions and act quickly and efficiently on creating and optimizing the right content. From personalized metrics and insightful competitive analysis to in-depth content briefs and topical insight, MarketMuse can set you up for bigger wins. 

Stephen leads the content strategy blog for MarketMuse, an AI-powered Content Intelligence and Strategy Platform. You can connect with him on social or his personal blog.