Using Competitive PPC Intelligence Effectively

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Earlier this week, an interesting discussion started on the PPCChat hashtag on Twitter regarding the use of competitive PPC intelligence obtained from tools such as SEMrush, SpyFu, and iSpionage, as well as visiting competitor websites. I commented that I was doing competitor research, and wondered how many remarketing ads I’d see as a result.

A few PPCChat’ers suggested some ways to avoid being retargeted. Shashikant Kore recommended using the incognito window of Chrome. Dan Nicholson said he uses a separate Google account or user in Chrome to avoid that problem. These are great suggestions if you don’t want to be followed around by irrelevant remarketing ads.

The discussion then turned to competitor landing page reviews. Julie Bacchini asked:  “Is it one of your standard practices to visit competitor sites too to see their remarketing?” John Ellis replied, “Yes, not only visit the site, but explore different pages to get the most variety possible.”

I do this as well – at a minimum, I’ll visit competitor landing pages and take screen shots to share with our clients. Often, we get ideas from competitor landing pages – or at least we learn what not to do!

But what if you want to see what competitors are doing with remarketing? There are definitely instances where this would be helpful, especially if your clients are asking for this information.

Julie Bacchini said she subscribes to email lists of competitors and follows them on social media. I’ve done this before, or I’ll set up Google Alerts for the competitor name to see what shows up.

Steve Seeley took it a step further: “I do the same, then target Gmail users with their domain and advertise better offers.” Great idea (and very sneaky!)

We then got into a lengthy and detailed conversation about the accuracy of competitor PPC intelligence on traffic volume and spend. Timothy Jensen put the following out there:

General PSA: don’t ever rely on a competitor tool for competitor spend estimates that are anywhere close to accurate.

I agreed, saying we use the data directionally, rather than as the exact amount. For example, if the tool says your client is spending $10,000 per month and Competitor A is spending $50,000 per month, you can assume that Competitor A is outspending your client by a factor of 5 to 1.

But Kirk Williams argued that even directional data can be off the mark: “When I analyzed my clients it ranged from like -200% to +500% in accuracy.” Jason Channell countered by saying he’d tested several of the tools against campaigns where he knew the spend, and the tool was accurate within plus or minus 20%. That’s been my experience as well. I can live with a margin of +/- 20%.

So why is Kirk seeing estimates that are that far off? It could be that some competitors (or his clients) are using dayparting, geotargeting, or even device targeting that’s throwing off the tools. Remember, competitive PPC intelligence tools scrape the SERPs and estimate – they don’t actually KNOW what everyone is spending. They scrape and guess. So things like geotargeting can throw off the accuracy, or even cause the tools to report no spend at all.

If tools are really so inaccurate, should we even use them? The consensus seemed to be that yes, competitor intelligence tools still have value, especially those that show the ads and keywords competitors are using (most tools do this). As far as spend goes, Kirk Williams had a great idea: just say “tool estimates aren’t exact, but it does look like you’re on the low end of spend.” I always include a caveat in any competitor report saying the numbers are estimates only.

Finally, I loved the suggestion from Kevin Cronin: “I try to shift conversation from competitor spend to ‘is this the right channel/targeting for you? If yes, take advantage.’” I’ve written many a post on this blog about PPC strategy, and that’s what Kevin’s point gets to – what is your ultimate goal anyway? Focus on that and not your competitors. One of the great aspects of PPC is that the “little guys” can compete with advertisers with deeper pockets, simply by sticking to their own goals and finding their niche.

How do you use competitive PPC intelligence data? Do you find it to be wildly inaccurate, or is it good enough? Share in the comments!

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  1. There is an underlying assumption when looking at competitor data that the competitor knows what he is doing.

    This is not always the case as anyone who has ever inherited a ppc account will testify. There are some really poorly configured accounts out there spending shedloads of money… badly.

    I do, of course, look at what my client’s competitors are doing – and I try to figure out why. But in many cases there is no rhyme or reason. So be careful when following someone who may well be more lost than you!

  2. Can I triple endorse Steve brilliant point? Well I do.

    Not only do companies often have no strategy or flawed strategies, but even Google “Partner managers” give terrible advice. I offer them my competition’s phone number’s suggesting they need PPC help.

    But following the wrong example issue comes up everywhere.
    Google KW suggestions
    Google CPA Bid
    Google “Smart Goals”
    Facebook “look alike audience”

    So many of these tools have potential – Potential to have campaigns spiral out of control when there is no guiding strategy. And that strategy better have a foundation in targeting INTENT, not pure volume, not because your competitors use the term and not because your sales channel manager heard about it at his last triple your growth seminar. Do it when it is perfectly aligned with the intent you wish to derive from a well defined target audience you are pursuing.

    Choir you can go home now.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Haha! And so true. I see competitors bidding on ridiculous, single-term broad keywords all the time. It’s crazy.

  3. Thanks for including my thoughts on this. It is such an interesting topic and I love hearing how other people manage with less than perfect tools and data!

    One more thought – there is also value in understanding where potential customers are likely to see a competitor’s ad (or also organic links). I agree that you have no idea if their tactics are working, but you do/can know if they are displaying. I always stress to clients that you need to assume that your potential customers have visited AT LEAST one of your competitors’ sites. Knowing who it is they are most likely to see, and what they are saying in their ads, can help to map out messaging.

    Also, a critical piece it do just do some manual searching yourself. Not only does it cross-check what tools might be telling you, but in my opinion, there is no better way to really get a feel for what an actual person might see than to do real searches!

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Totally agree that doing manual searches is important. There’s nothing like seeing the actual SERPs to get a feel for what’s happening. I do this frequently as well.

  4. I wrote this over 4 years ago but it seems to still hold true It backs up what both you are saying Mel, and what Kirk is saying. Our clients who had been running longer had a more accurate Spyfu spend estimate. The clients who had only been running a few months had much less accurate (along the lines of what Kirk saw).

    Embarrassingly, I forgot how inaccurate Spyfu can be and made a budget recommendation to a client that is in a relatively new market (meaning few people are searching for this service on Google). Spyfu showed their #1 competitor as having a budget of $15,000 so I told them there was easily enough search volume for a $4,000 budget. Turns out there wasn’t enough search volume on their relevant terms and we expanded to less and less relevant terms (and lower conv. rate) and we never got to a profitable level. Lesson learned!

  5. SpyFu is a create concept and has some data that gives you context. That said, we have found that all accounts, 10 years old spending over 100k/mo as well as young accounts with 1 year and 10k/mo are all extremely inaccurate.

    SpyFu is also a cumbersome tool to use as an agency. You can’t keep a profile of a client and their competitors and simply generate reports across all their data points. Instead, everything is a one off report. On the plus side, the ability to easily view competitor ad creatives over a specific time frame is very useful.

    SEO data – Well we all know how accurate SEO data is on any tool.

    In a world of multi-device visits, search suggest, localized results, incognito browsing and withheld KW data from Google. SpyFu, Moz, SEMrush and others can only provide context, not True BI that one can design a bullet proof strategic plan around.

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