How To Stay A Step Ahead Of Your Hungriest PPC Competitors

There’s an old story of two hikers who come across a hungry-looking bear in their path. The first hiker starts running for his life. The second hiker stops, sits down on a rock, takes off his heavy hiking boots off, reaches into his backpack and pulls out a pair of running shoes.

The first hiker yells back at him, “What the heck are you doing? You know you can’t outrun a bear!” To which the second hiker matter-of-factly responds, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.”

To me, running PPC campaigns is a lot like being chased by a hungry bear twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Most of the time, I feel like I am running flat out just to keep even with competitors and to keep traffic and conversions flowing profitably from our campaigns.

Today, I’d like to take a few moments to pause, sit on a rock, and think like that second hiker.

What can we do to leave our competitors in the dust once and for all rather than have them nipping at our heels all the time? What does it take to create real, sustainable long-term advantage in competitive PPC markets?

Short Term Advantages Disappear Quickly

The first thing we all have to realize that nothing inside our campaigns today gives us any long-lasting advantage.

No matter how big our keyword lists, how clever our ads, how scientifically we set our bids and how attractively laid out our landing pages are, it doesn’t take long before competitors can see exactly what we are doing.

Think your great keyword inventory gives you a sustainable advantage? Fuggedaboudit!

Keyword research used to be one of the secret high-arts of paid search magicians. You could sift through some keyword tool reports, create long keyword lists, write a few ads and then sit back to enjoy all the traffic from your campaigns. Not any more.

Now, keyword research is so easy, even kids can do it. As a matter of fact, as I look around at search conferences lately, it is clear that kids are doing it! Well, okay, maybe it’s just me getting older. (Note to self: time to update author bio photo.)

Google and Microsoft offer amazing keyword suggestion tools for everyone. And no matter how clever your keyword research, or how well you guard it, it does not take long for competitors to discover what words you are bidding on and how much you are spending by subscribing to tools like Adgooroo, SpyFu, Keyword Competitor, and SEMRush, to name just a few.

Think your great ad copy is a sustainable advantage? Think again. The minute your ads go live, your competitors can see them and react to them with ideas, counteroffers and calls-to-action copied right from your ads. Your advantage may last less than a day.

Think your new landing pages give you a sustainable advantage? Why?

Landing pages are also public and available for anyone to see – just one click away from the new ads you put online. Maybe it takes a few days or few weeks for aggressive competitors to redesign landing pages of their own, but that’s about it.

On a relative scale, here is how long these advantages will last:

Tactical Changes vs. Strategic Improvements

Don’t get me wrong. All of the campaign changes you make, day-in and day-out, adding keywords, writing ads, adjusting bids, and launching new landing pages, and are highly important. However, they are also very tactical and only impact short-term performance.

I have seen account managers in many companies, (myself included) make changes one day, forget what they did and why they did it, and reverse the changes a week later.

The problem is that making changes is really, really, easy to do and gives you such a power feeling of accomplishment. Spur of the moment inspirations are as likely to hurt performance as much as improve it.

Here are some common examples:

  • Accepting AdWords optimization suggestions and letting AdWords decide what ad group they belong in.
  • Changing match type from phrase to broad to increase traffic, or changing match-type from broad to phrase match or exact because you CPA was too high yesterday.
  • Increasing search keyword bid to get more traffic without regard for ad position.

If you are spending most of your time and energy tweaking things this way, you will always have hungry bears breathing down your neck.

Your Only True Sustainable Advantage: Better Process

Okay, so I’ve made the point that any competitive advantage you enjoy today will go away as quickly as your competitors see what you’ve done. It may take a few days, weeks or months, but sooner or later, your competitors will try to match you step for step.

This is especially true if you are the recognized leader in your marketplace.What your competitors can not emulate are the thought processes that drive your decision-making. The better your decision-making process and the faster you can implement improvements, the harder it becomes for competitors to keep up with you.

So what constitutes better process?

Better process starts with a mindset that you want to get better every day, regardless of what your competitors are doing. Rather than looking over your shoulder to see what hungry competitors are on your tail, focus instead on your own company’s unique challenges and work hard to improve yourself. I guarantee you there is enough work there to keep you busy for years to come.

Better process requires improving your ability to test, measure, report and analyze your campaigns so you can generate deeper, more valuable insights and more granular, higher-quality information.

We all have plenty of data to work with; what separates winners from losers are the strategic insights they generate from their testing and reporting systems. There is no more powerful competitor than one who takes the time to understand their data, and by extension, their customers better.

None of us is born with the innate ability to design, implement and measure PPC test results. And even though we even know how important testing is in PPC advertising, few of us have formal training in statistics and experimental design.

Sure, we can rattle off expressions like A/B split testing, multivariate testing and the Taguchi method, but do we really understand what they mean? What does it mean to design a test, establish a good control and isolate variables.

We all have heard the expression “wait until you have statistically valid results” but would any of us recognize a valid result if it walked up to us and shook our hand? What is a confidence level, anyway? What is an F-test?

No matter what you know or don’t know now about testing, right now, start now to set aside time for learning. Dust off that old stats book and get ahold of books and blogs dealing with experimental design, testing and measurement.

In the short term, of course, you’ll have less time to mess around inside your PPC campaigns, but in the long run, you will develop a solid foundation for campaign optimization that will keep you miles ahead of your hungriest competitors.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | How To | Intermediate | Paid Search Column


About The Author: is President and founder of Find Me Faster a search engine marketing firm based in Nashua, NH. He is a member of SEMNE (Search Engine Marketing New England), and SEMPO, the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization as a member and contributing courseware developer for the SEMPO Institute. Matt writes occasionally on internet, search engines and technology topics for IMedia, The NH Business Review and other publications.

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  • alexandra_murashova

    Very nice post. And from my side I’d like to clarify that tools mentioned in this article are not alike. Adgooroo, SpyFu, and SEMRush provide its users with data from ISPs that has been stored for many many days. Make conclusions. While KeywordCompetitor searches the Internet on demand. That’s the difference.

  • Matt Van Wagner

    Thank you, Alexandra, for reading the post and leaving a note. Though I fail to see that any clarification was necessary, I am sure readers will be absolutely fascinated to learn that your tools are different than other tools.

  • Luke Alley

    @Matt I really like the idea of improving the processes. Steven R Covey called it “Sharpening the Saw”. Although it’s important to hear about how to do bid changes, kw research, write ads, etc., it’s refreshing to read about how to improve elsewhere. Thanks!

    Oh and KeywordCompetitor… fuggedaboudit.

  • SteveBaker

    Hi Matt,

    Good post – totally agree with almost all of it.

    Not sure that I’d agree that the effectiveness of your bid adjustments is dependent on your competitors’ activity, though. Since the value of a click to you is unaffected by competitor activity (with the possible exception of their advert text copying your USP’s, making them less U), but is determined by conversion rate and conversion value, then whenever we’ve studied this in the past, we’ve found that the optimal bid is almost completely unaffected by bid changes from competitors (again, unless their advert is very similar to yours, and their bid change moves them from below to above you).

    Whilst your competitors’ bid changes impact the overall profitability of your account by pushing your advert up or down, and thus changing the volume of clicks and sales that you pick up, with few exceptions, any bid adjustments to compensate for this will result in reduced profits. Assuming that your bid was the most profitable for you before they changed their bids, it probably still is.

    As I said, there are a few exceptions to this, such as when many or all of the adverts are similar, their bid adjustments push you off the first page (particularly an issue on mobile devices), or the product being searched for and its price are fixed.

    All of that said, I totally agree with your main point, that becoming fixated on what your competitors are doing is largely futile (though identifying different selling points is important, if your advert is below theirs), and that testing is the only way to optimise your account in the long term.

    It’s good to hear that somebody else recognises that statistical significance isn’t necessary when advert testing (I think this was your point?), and that Taguchi Testing on adverts doesn’t work (as it requires the elements of the test to be independent, which they won’t be). I pray that the wider community will stop repeating these myths, but I’m not holding my breath!


  • alexandra_murashova

    @ Luke
    “Oh and KeywordCompetitor… fuggedaboudit.” – why?

  • alexandra_murashova

    I mean, I know that the article is not about comparing keyword tools of course. :)


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