Spy On Competitors, But Don’t Copy Their Mistakes

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Maybe it’s just me, because I’ve spent years ingesting the Purple Cow Kool-Aid. But I can never get over the number of cookie-cutter, copycat businesses that spring up online. Choosing the exact same business model as someone else almost appears to be a favorite pastime in North America these days. Kind of a macho, or at least masochistic, thing. Like training for a marathon, or riding in the Tour de France without Lance Armstrong’s genetics.

And that tough situation leads to an expectation of optimizing implementation of things like paid search campaigns to an almost suicidal level of detail. As I pointed out in an earlier column, this race is damn competitive. By choosing to copy a competitor’s business model exactly, you make the competition that much tougher on both of you.

But for the sake of a frank discussion of the most optimal forms of optimization that a mad optimizer should pursue, I’ll put aside my trepidation about cookie-cutterism and go forward today on the often-true premise that if you really do manage to place first or second in the mad race to optimize everything perfectly, you can make a pretty decent living.

And when you’re trying to win an Olympic sprint, along with training and eating right, what’s the thing that typically pushes you over the top? Yes, that’s right! Cheating!

In our world, that’s where spying on your competitors comes in. Maybe some of the tools are on the IOC banned substances list, but I don’t expect that to stop you.

Based on a recent experience with Keyword Spy, I thought I’d share with you a few of the things I learned to improve in an account, and a few things that reminded me just how screwed up many of your competitors are. Copying them is a bad idea because many of them are making the same old boneheaded mistakes.

But first, the good stuff.

Using a tool like Keyword Spy, I am able to quickly access:

  • Competitors’ ads, in order to gather ideas. You can get the same type of info from a more mainstream paid search management platform, such as Clickable.

  • Keyword ideas that I wouldn’t have automatically thought of, including:
  • Foreign language terms
  • Geographic ideas
  • Weird misspellings outside the norm
  • More than misspellings, odd forms of misstatements that can only have come out of a competitor deeply mining their site search and search referral logs
  • Long phrases

It’s not all good. Many of the long phrases aren’t actually helpful because you could have reached those same users by using matching options. The longer phrases may actually be diluting overall account performance. Maybe they’re less likely to convert, not more. Finding out will cost you.

And by using them, are you now promising to bid much lower on your broad versions of those terms, so that you can be more certain that your ad will actually be served against the long phrase instead of the broad variant? If so, now you’ve compromised your ad position on the broad-matched inventory, so you’ve lowered your volume overall, and potentially your total profit.

Without going into a big song and dance about it, to me, spying on competitors’ 20,000 keyword list is something of a thankless task. If you can scan quickly, to access keyword and ad ideas that you want to try on your own, great. If you stumble across some torso words that you’ve forgotten, great.

Much of the rest of it is a jumbled, difficult to organize mess. Some of the phrases, like “funky insurance policy,” or “the stranglers minus hans,” will be odd anomalies that have no particular meaning that you can capitalize on. That is to say, the idea that there may be a piece of music or a live concert recording that someone might purchase involving the band The Stranglers, minus their original keyboard player, isn’t always going to turn out to be an insight you can use to make money with on a consistent basis. For starters, whatever it is you’re selling might not apply to that user. The chances of it being out of stock, or you screwing up the landing page, are high.

Spying on competitors recently taught me that things haven’t changed hugely since 2002. Many advertisers are doing things wrong, dumping big lists of words into too few ad groups. The boneheadedness of this strategy is roughly twofold: (1) these large lists of low volume phrases aren’t amenable to coherent analysis, and aren’t as relevant to the ad as they should be; (2) without an equally-energetic effort to show users landing pages that are relevant to all these funky keyphrases, users lose scent and abandon their quest, so you’ve just wasted money on a “bargain” word that doesn’t convert.

Such is the long tail, and such is the case with overspying. Snoop, learn, and build your own strategy from there – don’t obsess and over-narrate the data. And whatever you do, don’t copy their mistakes. If Fred jumped in the lake, or BillyBob married Angelina, does that mean you would too?

Andrew Goodman is the founder and principal of Page Zero Media and author of Winning Results with Google AdWords. The Paid Search column appears Mondays at Search Engine Land.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Paid Search Column


About The Author: is the founder and principal of Page Zero Media and author of Winning Results with Google AdWords.

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