To kick off this blog post, I’m going to ask you to participate in an imagination exercise.
Close your eyes. You’re sitting in an auction for avid Beyoncé fans. Beyoncé’s iconic outfit from the recent 2016 Super Bowl halftime show is up for bid. The auctioneer is warming up at the podium, buzzing and wriggling his lips. Sitting right in front of you are your two biggest competitors – Kelly Rowland (who, I guess, has a vested interest, or whatever) and Blue Ivy (mommy issues). The two are gripping their paddles, ready to enter the ring and throw their punches – anything to win the auction.
And you’re off! The auctioneer begins spitting fire. You raise your paddle rapidly, eyeing Kelly and Blue Ivy as they follow suit. The bid level rises higher and higher, but you continue to pursue the prize, sweat dripping from your brow. As your competitors become weary, you battle on, until you’re confident you’re the last bidder in the mix. To your dismay, you hear a voice behind you make a final, ridiculously high bid, beyond what you’re able to afford. Who is this mystery bidder? Were they participating the entire time without you knowing? You turn around. JAY-Z?!? WHERE THE HELL DID YOU COME FROM?!?
Okay, so this weird little fantasy scenario I’ve conjured up is to help illustrate a point. If you didn’t know it already, search engine SERPs are competitive. Google set up the auction format for a reason:
1) To make moolah, and
2) To force advertisers into following their best practices to create the most relevant search environment possible.
And while I’m someone who doesn’t identify as being aggressively competitive, I understand that competition can be a good thing. Rivalries can be healthy, spark innovation, and even push the underdog to accomplish things she would have never imagined. But for some, PPC competitors can be incredibly difficult to manage, whether they come in a constant stream, or show up out of the blue (you know, like Jay-Z blind-siding you and crushing your dreams).
So it begs the question: Do you know who your PPC competitors are?
Did you hesitate when you read that question? How often are you monitoring and tracking competitor impacts on your paid search campaigns? Are competitors bidding on your branded keywords? What is your impression share on your top non-branded terms? Are any other advertisers using your trademark in their ads?
If you feel uncertain about any of the above, never fear! Below are the 5 “W’s” (Who, What, Where, Why, & When) every paid search marketer should use to analyze and understand their competitive landscape.
WHO are your competitors?
Many advertisers assume that their online competitors are the same as their perceived offline competitors. But this often isn’t fully true. It’s important to take a look at which domains are actively showing on the keyword sets you’re bidding on to determine two things:
- Who are my relevant competitors in PPC?
- If nearly all of the domains I’m showing ads with aren’t relevant to my company or my offering, am I bidding on the right keywords?
So what should you do first?
Step #1: Pull the data!
Get familiar with AdWords and Bing Ads’ Auction Insights, which can be accessed via the “Details” drop down in both platforms. The metrics you’ll want to look at are:
- Impression Share: How often another advertiser received an impression, as a proportion of the auctions in which you were also competing. Note that your impression share is a measurement of the number of impressions you received divided by the estimated number of impressions you were eligible to receive.
- Overlap Rate: How often another advertiser’s ad received an impression when your ad also received an impression.
- Position Above Rate: How often the other advertiser’s ad was shown in a higher position than yours was, when both of your ads were shown at the same time.
- Top of Page Rate: How often you or your competitor’s ad was shown at the top of the page, above the organic search results.
- Outranking Share: How often your ad ranked higher in the auction than another advertiser’s ad, or your ad showed when theirs did not.
Step #2: Take the data and make it actionable
My all-time favorite tool for visualizing Auction Insights data is from BrainLabs, who have a great guide for setting up their Google Apps script for Auction Insights. Since Auction Insights data isn’t available in AdWords Scripts, this app script is a fantastic workaround solution. By pulling segmented campaign and Auction Insights data and plopping it into a Google Sheets doc, you can automatically generate graphs that illustrate competitive metrics alongside your trending CPCs.
WHAT kind of competitors are they?
All of your competitors are not created equal. Some may be big budget bullies. Others may be overlapping on just a few of your keywords and barely break through < 10% impression share. Some may not even be what you’d define as true competitors. Closely look at who you’re up against in the auction and determine if a competing domain may be negatively impacting your impression share (though you’re both aiming for a common goal):
So are you competing against:
- Affiliates: Marketing partners that use a third-party link directing to your brand site in order to earn commissions on sales
- CSE: Comparison Shopping Engine that lists products that send to outbound links for your retailer website
- OTA: Online travel agency site where searchers can book travel-related services
- Partner: Marketing partner who is not an affiliate and helps promote your brand’s product or services
- Search Arbitrager: Site who works to attract traffic to a page that shows additional ads
- Reseller: Retailer that sells your brand’s products or services
- No Trademark: Advertiser who doesn’t have permission to use your trademark but is doing so
So where do you begin?
Step #1: Do your research
Keep an eye on which keywords your SEM affiliates, partners, or approved resellers are bidding on. Have discussions on keyword alignment ahead of time to ensure you’re not unnecessarily inflating CPCs. Track impression share weekly to identify any major fluctuations.
Step #2: Determine if you’re getting the full story
PPC auctions aren’t always clear-cut. If you’re partners or affiliates are pointing to the same domain as you, then Google and Bing won’t be able to differentiate you both in Auction Insights and will lump you both under the same domain (listed as “You”).
Managing resellers vs. non-approved trademark users can also be difficult (especially if you have a multitude of resellers). Remember that it’s also challenging for the approved resellers on the other side of the equation. If you find an advertiser breaking editorial guidelines and running unapproved with your trademark in their copy, you can escalate through AdWords’ trademark policy channels.
There are also helpful resources and tools from companies like BrandVerity, AdGooroo, and SEMRush that allow you to monitor your PPC competitors, track the trends of top branded PPC keywords in your vertical, or do direct channel activity comparisons between your domain and another.
BrandVerity – Snippet from Q3 2015 Branded Keywords Report
AdGooroo – Share of Voice Reporting
SEMRush Domain vs. Domain Reporting
WHERE are they competing with you?
You’re going to end up pulling out your hair if you try to track every little impression share or ad positioning change across your entire account. There are simpler ways to investigate beyond the campaign or ad group level and identify where you should focus your optimization time.
Step #1: Label top performing keywords
Use labels within publishers or third-party bidding tools to monitor any major changes on your top performing terms – those cash cows are going to see the quickest impact if a competitor comes in and begins to push you out. You can utilize the Dimensions tab to quickly pivot your data and look for changes or pull ad-hoc reports.
Step #2: Set up alerts, reports, & automated bidding rules
Set up automated Search Impression Share reports for top performing campaigns, ad groups, or keywords to send to your email. Use Google and Bing’s automated rules or Google’s flexible bidding strategies like Target Search Page Location to keep keywords from slipping from positions that result in the best return.
WHY are they competing?
Every once in a while, you’ll run into a competitor domain bidding on your keywords solely for the sake of causing you pain – examples are competing brands who bid on each other’s branded keywords for the purpose of inflating CPCs. (Yes, it’s a real thing, and yes, I’ve had it happen with clients. I once had a client where it got so bad, they reached out to each other to agree to what they called a “gentleman’s agreement” and ceased their bidding war.)
But many of your competitors will be trying to show ads on your keywords for the same reasons you are, and you won’t be able to beat them with just bidding alone. Take the time to review your competitor’s strategy on the public SERP and develop an action plan around your learnings.
Step #1: Review your competitors’ messaging regularly
We all know how to search on keywords directly on a given search engine. But this method leads to increasing impressions on your ads, mucking with CTR. To get a sense of what the SERP looks like in real time, you can use the Ad Preview & Diagnosis Tool as a starting point. But if you’re looking for more detailed data on your competitors’ ad copy, there’s quite a few tools to help you from SpyFu, iSpionage, and SEMRush.
SpyFu AdWords History Report
Pluses: includes color-coded tables which outline a competitor domain’s historical ad copy trends, as well as highlights top performing ads.
iSpionage Ads Report
Helpful option to review your competitor’s ad copy for both Google and Bing, as well as when ads were first and last seen, therefore showing you when your competitor launched and updated ads.
SEMRush Ad Copies Report
Great for advertisers who are interested in reviewing competitor ad messaging in other countries.
Step #2: Test your ad copy strategy
You don’t get to control exactly what your competitor puts in their ads, but you can test your own messaging. What are your competitors offering? Are you using clear calls to action? If you’re in a crowded vertical, how can you stand out from other ads? How often are you considering your competitor’s strategy when writing your copy for ad testing?
WHEN should you take action?
Don’t spend every waking moment thinking about your paid search competitors. Your first priority should be driving results for your account. But competitors can rock your boat, and knowing how to steer the ship through that is the first step in the right direction.
Lastly, the most important step…
Take your EGO out of it! When that imaginary auction with Jay-Z ends, you can’t let yourself get worked up enough to verbally attack him (#1 because he’s probably your best option for developing a friendship with Queen Bey, and #2 because he’s Jay-Z, WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?).
Jokes aside, attacking your PPC competitors with all ego (AKA jacking up bids and throwing your goals out the window) and no intelligent thought, planning, or strategy is going to result in a whole lot of cost and very little pay-off. Next time you feel your ego creeping in or see your competitors start to make bigger moves, take a deep breath, recite the 5 W’s, roll up your sleeves, and kick off your best competitive PPC game!
About the author
Maddie Cary is a Senior Client Manager at Point It Digital Marketing in Seattle. She currently is the Global SEM Program Lead for Point It’s largest client, leading a team comprised of 20 account managers, 30 client contacts, and 60 markets. 2015 was a humbling and exciting year, during which she won the US Search Award for “Young Search Professional” and spoke at SMX, Janes of Digital, and PubCon. She was also featured on SearchEngineLand’s "4 Super Smart Rising Stars in PPC" and was listed #1 on PPC Hero's "Top Rising Stars in PPC". Outside of working with the best PPC team ever, the things that make her happiest include laughing hard, eating desserts, and singing and dancing to Queen Beyoncé.