French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “In football, everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team.”
As it stands, competitor activity shapes what we pay, where and when our ads are shown, and how many people click through to our sites.
There is a balance to be struck, of course. Marketers need to keep an eye on competitors, but this should not come to the detriment of pushing their own brand’s goals.
Moreover, paid search is an industry in constant flux, so we need the right tools at our disposal to cut through the noise and deliver quick, reliable insights.
We can apply some rigor to this by following a consistent plan, beginning with a thorough audit that can be updated on a regular basis.
Within this article, we fill first assess the elements required for a successful planning phase, before delving into the details of the tools that help deliver insightful outcomes.
Define the questions you want to answer
There are so many moving parts within a paid search campaign that it is very important to have a clear view on why you are conducting a competitor analysis. Otherwise, it is all too easy to get lost in the data or to reach for conclusions that lack substance.
This can be achieved rather simply through the process of defining the exact questions to which you would like your analysis to reveal the answers.
Common questions in this field would include:
- Who are my main PPC competitors, and do they differ across product categories?
- Which keywords do my competitors focus their efforts on?
- Do competitors increase activity at particular times of year?
- Which ad extensions do my competitors make use of?
- Is there evidence of a joint SEO and PPC strategy within their keyword coverage data?
- Which devices are my competitors spending most of their budget on?
- How much room for improvement is there for my brand within my budget?
- Which USPs do competitors push within their ad copy?
This list of questions provides some structure to the next phase of the investigation.
Which data will help answer your questions?
The first step within this phase of the process is to discern the types and quantities of data at your disposal. It may not be possible to answer some of your proposed questions, if the technology you have access to does not carry out the appropriate types of analysis.
Take a step back and look at the capabilities of your current PPC tools stack. It can be helpful to plot this out to identify any gaps; hopefully the list of tools provided later in this article will help with sourcing solutions.
Typically, the areas for assessment in a competitor analysis will include the following:
- Ad extension usage
- Keyword prioritization
- Historical performance
- Impression share
- Bidding strategies
- Desktop versus mobile performance
- Ad copy variations
- Brand positioning
Already, we can imagine the types of data we will need to analyze to conduct a thorough review of these areas. For example, we will require quantitative analysis of keyword and bidding strategy data, along with qualitative resources for analysis of ad copy and brand positioning statements.
From here, we can assess the strengths and weaknesses of some paid search competitor analysis technologies in helping us achieve our objectives.
AdWords Auction Insights
AdWords Auction Insights is an invaluable resource, available to all Google Search and Shopping customers via either the Campaigns, Ad Groups or Keywords tabs.
Auction Insights is invaluable precisely because the data comes directly from Google. Third-party tools have many great, supplementary features, but their data will not be as accurate as Google’s.
The Insights report for Search provides an instant glance at 6 key areas for competitor analysis: impression share, average position, overlap rate, position above rate, top of page rate, and outranking share. Google provides a definition of each measurement  that you can refer to.
As such, this is typically the best place to start your competitor analysis. Auction Insights will show who your competitors are, how they differ across ad groups, and how much coverage the competition is getting. This is a useful indicator of a competitor’s Quality Score, too.
This tool does lack the capability to view historical data in a user-friendly way, but there is a handy (and free) workaround to this from PPC agency Brainlabs. Brainlabs’ Auction Insights script  makes it much easier to view historical competitor performance and also to filter the data in Google Sheets.
In essence, we can say that Auction Insights provides a great platform for some initial descriptive analysis of competitor performance. We can benchmark our performance against our main rivals for impression share and see how successful they are across our target keyword groups.
Nonetheless, we require more information before we can start to infer the strategies that competitors are employing with any degree of certainty.
Spyfu builds on the data from Auction Insights by showing all of your competitors’ ad copy variations over the course of the last 11 years.
Alongside these ad copy samples, Spyfu also reveals which have been the most successful in terms of clicks and click-through rate. As a result, we can start to build a psychological profile of the audience through knowledge of the messages that resonate most.
The screenshot below illustrates the AdWords History feature in action, with an abundance of data for paid search marketers to work with:
Ad copy is a particularly revealing aspect of a competitor’s activity. Within such a succinct format, brands needs to capture a consumer’s attention and convince them to take an action. The way in which they choose to do this shows a lot about both their brand and acquisition strategies.
Combined with performance data, we can see how well these strategies are working, and also see how agile a brand is in response to consumer feedback.
Spyfu also contains a range of visualization features that reveal trends in competitor strategies and it includes organic search data, so we can assess whether rival brands are targeting the two disciplines in tandem.
Based on these insights, Spyfu also proactively recommends the keywords your brand should be bidding on. Of course, this comes from an entirely quantitative perspective, so it cannot be expected to be 100% in line with a brand’s positioning every time. Regardless, it is a helpful feature that will at least spark discussion.
Overall, Spyfu benefits from its perspective as a third-party authority, giving it the freedom to provide recommendations and also the willingness to include SEO rankings data alongside PPC data.
Also worthy of mention here are SEMrush (which also includes Facebook insights and supports more international territories than Spyfu) and iSpionage, which provides some simple reports as part of its free version. At an enterprise level, Adgooroo is a great paid platform for uncovering competitor keyword strategies, along with their landing page performance.
What Runs Where
Undoubtedly, mobile advertising  has been the growth area for marketers over the past 5 years. And yet there are surprisingly few tools that specifically target competitor analysis on mobile devices.
This is where the Mobile Ad Intelligence  feature from What Runs Where comes into its own. Although not specific to paid search alone (display ads are its forte), this tool is still hugely beneficial when running competitor analysis.
By assessing over 90 ad networks and 15 international territories, What Runs Where shows four years of historical competitor data across all of their mobile advertising campaigns.
It can therefore reveal how creative strategies differ across device types and countries, along with the keywords against which ads are shown.
One of the core features of this platform is the ability to see how ads differ on the mobile web compared to mobile apps. As Google continues to push its AI-driven Universal App Campaigns product, it is more useful than ever to glean some knowledge of a competitor’s creative approach.
It is worth noting that Similarweb provides some similar functionalities, although it does not provide as much detail on historical performance. Nonetheless, it is also worth checking out if you need a tool that will provide cross-channel insights at a high level.
As we have seen above, there are multiple options for paid search practitioners, both directly from Google and from third parties. There is significant overlap between these tools, fittingly enough, and often the choice will come down to individual preference.
The cornerstone of this activity is the planning phase. If you can pinpoint the questions you want to answer and the data you need to get there, the selection of competitor analysis tools should be entirely natural.
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- ^ paid search (searchenginewatch.com)
- ^ Carlos Muza (unsplash.com)
- ^ Unsplash (unsplash.com)
- ^ definition of each measurement (support.google.com)
- ^ Auction Insights script (www.brainlabsdigital.com)
- ^ Ad Preview and Diagnosis Tool (support.google.com)
- ^ mobile advertising (www.clickz.com)
- ^ Mobile Ad Intelligence (www.whatrunswhere.com)
- ^ mobile (www.clickz.com)