The word “spying” definitely has a negative connotation at first. Call it “competitive market research,” however, and it quickly becomes an essential business activity.
Whatever you call it, having insight into your industry and specific competitors leads to better decision making than if you were operating in a vacuum. If a competitive golfer only benchmarked his performance against a personal best, he would be unprepared to face other golfers who had been training against each other and the best golfers in the world. The more precise and realistic the benchmark, the more likely you are to improve your performance.
Search engine marketers, in particular, can benefit from increased competitive knowledge. Search marketing is a competitive sport at its roots since advertisers are forced to bid against each other to determine where ads show and what they pay.
A search marketer well-versed in his competition can make simple changes to a campaign — such as bumping up a cost-per-click or borrowing ad copy from the market leaders — and improve performance significantly and quickly.
Further, the major search engines make it extremely easy and inexpensive to test different marketing approaches and campaign settings and get the results very quickly. The result is that the industry is always improving and if you don’t know what’s working, you will fall behind.
Highly effective search marketers need access to three things:
1. Benchmarks for their particular vertical. Comparing themselves to electronics if they sell bath soaps isn’t going to help.
2. The names and performance of the leading advertisers in their vertical. This tells them what’s possible in terms of maximum performance — so they do not sell themselves short — and who they should be researching closely on an ongoing basis.
3. Actual performance of specific competitors. This data will tell them how to perform to stay competitive, and what they must do to steal share from the competition
Many search marketers don’t realize that this data is readily available. A whole industry has built up around monitoring search engine activity and selling it to search marketers.
What exactly is available? You’ll be surprised. For starters, you can discover how ads from your competitors appear to searchers. More specifically, you can learn what they say, what rank they show up in, how often they appear, when they start and end, and even in what parts of the country they appear.
You can also find amazing engagement data, including clicks and click-through rates and what retailers spend for these clicks (example: cost-per-click and even monthly ad spend).
The next common question is: How is this data collected? These tools use automated scripts to ‘crawl’ the web as often as every few hours and record everything they see. The really good tools crawl the web from different locations—both in the US and globally–to paint the richest picture possible. These tools then combine this screen-capture data with other data sources and proprietary algorithms to produce a broad and deep portrait of industries and competitors.
A few popular companies providing competitive search monitoring tools include: SpyFu, iSpionage, KeywordMonitor, and The Search Monitor.
How do you select?
- First, the data must be precise. Precision is a function of how often websites are crawled and how many data points are captured. Precision also comes from how rich the data is. You want lots of history and lots of categories.
One last note on precision. Make sure you select a company who has been monitoring search engines for long enough to be able to accurately estimate the harder-to-get metrics such as cost-per-click and monthly ad spend.
- You also want lots of control. You want to be able to select your own keywords or have the tool tell recommend keywords to look at. Control also includes the ability to customize the data to produce benchmarks for your specific industry and competitive set. It doesn’t help if your competitive data only compares you against the Walmarts and Amazons of the world.
- If you are a retailer, make sure to select a tool that monitors Google’s new Product Listing Ads (PLAs). The future of search is definitely more visual and retailers need to know how to best leverage this new ad format.
- Lastly, you want to avoid vendors that simply take what Google puts out for free — which is infrequently updated and not that detailed — and then re-packages it.
Go ahead, spy on your competition. Everything you wanted to know about the search marketing activities of your peers and your industry leaders is available. If you pass it up, you can be sure that many of your competitors won’t.
NOTE: This article originally appeared here in my Digital Marketing column in the Denver Business Journal on December 23, 2013.
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