Competitive analysis comes in all shapes and sizes. But there might be no faster way to understand your competitors’ priorities than PPC analysis.

Why is PPC (pay-per-click) analysis so powerful?

Because you learn where their money’s going.

At its core, a competitor PPC analysis involves identifying what your competitors are paying to own a slice of certain search queries.

How much, in dollars and cents, do your competitors value literal strings of words, and their chance to appear alongside them?

But you need to pay attention to the right details.

Let’s discover what those are. 👇

What to track in your competitive PPC research

We’ll start with the “five W’s” of PPC competitor analysis. This simple framework gives you a sense of where to begin with your analysis.

  1. Who is the competition?
  2. What kind of competition are they?
  3. Where are they choosing to compete?
  4. Why are they choosing to compete there?
  5. When are they choosing to compete?

Answer these questions, and you’ll have a strong understanding of your competitors and their paid search strategy. This, in turn, can help you devise the perfect search marketing strategy for your business.

One: Who are your competitors?

First, identify the competition.

You know your own product inside out. And when it comes to running a paid search advertising campaign, there are particular search queries, or “keywords”, that people type into Google to find solutions like yours.

Of course, if you can market to people already looking for a product like yours, half the job’s done already. This is why PPC advertising works so well.

But no product exists in a vacuum. Competitive alternatives are out there and they’re trying to get the same sets of eyeballs on their product instead of yours. So your competition will target a similar list of keywords as you.

The (un)usual suspects

You’ll often be surprised to find who you’re competing with for high-value searches. Even if you’re familiar with your product’s core competition.

There are certain tools that spring to mind when it comes to making this research and analysis process quicker and easier.

You’ll probably already be using Google’s own Auction Insights tool to give you feedback on campaigns and bidding wars. SEO and PPC tools like Semrush, SpyFu and iSpionage, however, act as combination tools to offer insights into both organic and paid search strategies.

SpyFu competitive analysis tool search bar
SpyFu and similar tools offer an easy way to investigate your competitors' organic and paid search strategies.

But at its simplest, you can find this out by searching these phrases in search engines and taking a note of who you see appearing in the advertisements.

Two: What kind of competition do they constitute?

Let’s say you sell a SaaS sales enablement tool. You might have the search query “best sales enablement tool” in mind.

screenshot of google search results page for the term "best sales enablement tools" with the first three results highlighted

The first three ads in the screenshot above are from other vendors of sales enablement tools. No surprises there. These constitute your strongest competition.

Now look at the final ad in the list.

screenshot of google search results page for the term "best sales enablement tools", with the final result highlighted

The final ad isn’t from a vendor. It’s from Capterra, a third-party review website whose aim, according to the homepage, is to “help you find the right software for your website”.

The term is clearly valuable to them since answering the query demonstrates to users the value of their service.

But since they’re not a vendor, you wouldn’t consider them “direct” competition to your PPC campaign. Still, they’re bidding on a term you’re after. And if they bid higher than you? They’ll win the term and the corresponding traffic, not you.

When you’re able to categorize your competition in this way, you’ll better understand their motives, in turn helping you strategize against them.

Three: Where are they choosing to compete?

Which of these search terms are your competitors choosing to bid on?

There’s quite a bit of detail to dig into here. Collecting a list of the terms your competitors are bidding on is useful, but you also want to track the following information:

  • Where are they winning?
  • Where are they spending the most?
  • How does this relate to their organic search strategy?

Paid and organic search strategies go hand-in-hand. Some businesses won’t bid for ads on a term they rank highly for in the organic results. Others will bid aggressively on such terms. Why? Because multiple results for their website on a high-value query boosts the chances of searchers clicking to their site.

Strategy aside, though, you want to identify which terms are driving the most traffic for your competitors. You’ll need to use tools like Semrush and the Auction Insights report from within Google Ads itself to find this out.

Screenshot of the Google Ads Auction Insights report
The Auction Insights report in Google Ads. Credit: Karooya

Also pay attention to which terms they’re winning and the CPC (cost per click) of these terms. If they’re winning on high CPC terms, they either have a lot of budget at their disposal (useful to know) or they really value that term.

Finally, link this information back to your own keyword campaigns.

Are there any keyword gaps, where your competitors are all targeting queries you’re not? If so, is that a conscious strategic decision on your part, or could you work those terms into your strategy?

Four: Why are they choosing to compete on these terms?

Understanding the motivations behind what you see from your competitors’ PPC strategies is key.

Again, a tool like Semrush can help you identify the terms your competitors are winning on, and which are driving the majority of their traffic.

Tools like Semrush and SpyFu offer ways of analyzing your competitors’ organic and paid search marketing strategies.

Tie in the CPC of each paid search query they target into your analysis. The higher the CPC, the higher the value of the term. Commercial search queries like “best basketball shoes” always have a higher CPC than terms with a less buyer-ready intent.

Why some terms have higher CPC

Let’s go back to our earlier example, “best sales enablement tools”. If you’re a vendor of an SE tool, it stands to reason that you’d want your product alongside such a term. Not least because you believe your product is the best sales enablement tool out there.

Since all your competitors believe the same thing, you’ll all bid aggressively on that one term, driving up the price. But you do this because you believe you can sell more products if buyers searching for this term see your name alongside it.

That’s because the term has a ‘commercial’ or ‘transactional’ intent, which means most people searching for that term intend to buy, or make a crucial purchasing decision, at the end of their search.

💡
Taking a note of the terms where your competitors spend the most gives you a good sense of what they value most.

Taking a note of the terms where your competitors spend the most, where they win, where they bid aggressively, etc, gives you a good sense of what vendors that sell products similar to yours value most. And, in turn, what you should consider valuing too.

Remember, though, you need to take into account what kind of competitor you’re looking at. If you believe they have a much larger budget than you, then bidding aggressively on a term they value highly will trigger a bidding war you can’t win.

Instead, identify the terms your competitors have left alone, but that you still believe to have value. Win those terms with the budget you have.

Five: When do they compete?

Seasonality is a big factor in any advertising campaign. If you’re advertising a finance product to folks on Wall St, you probably won’t run any ads during the summer months or at the end of the year as the holidays approach.

Those folks make a lot of money, work long hours, and take extended vacations. If they’re not thinking about work for several months of the year, then they’ll have no use for your product (or your advertising) during those times of the year either.

💡
Keyword search volumes can fluctuate seasonally. But your competitors will also spend more aggressively at certain times of year.

Tools that reveal seasonal search volume fluctuations for keywords are helpful here, but you can also pay attention to what the competition does.

If competitors pull all their bids on particular terms at the start of July and don’t put them back on until the end of August, there’s going to be a reason. Find out what it is, and use that intel to inform your own paid search strategy.

How to use this information to build a paid search strategy

When it comes to advertising on Google’s search engine results pages, you don’t have a whole lot of room to stand out. You get a title and some descriptive text.

Beyond that, all you have is a position in a lineup. Biggest spenders at the top, lowest is at the bottom.

Some queries have just two ads listed. Others have four or more, while still others also list ads at the bottom, beneath all of the organic search results.

You’ve got a budget, and so do your competitors. So spend wisely.

You need to keep an eye on what’s winnable and, when it comes to paid search, that means estimating the size of your competitors’ budgets, the value of each term to them, and judging how much they might be willing to pay for that term.

Contrast that with how much they’re spending on the term right now, and with the highest amount you’d be willing to spend on that term.

TL;DR

Let’s summarize what we’ve learned.

The Five W’s offer a framework for looking at your competitors and their PPC strategy.

Follow them to get a handle on:

  • Who your competitors are.
  • What type of competition each is.
  • What they’re targeting.
  • Why and when they’re targeting it.

Pay attention to:

  1. The balance between your competitors’ organic and paid keyword strategies. Which keywords are they targeting with organic? Which with paid? Why and what success are they having?
  2. The CPC of those terms. How much would it cost you to compete on the same or similar terms?
  3. How likely are you to be able to win terms from particular competitors if you were to bid against them?

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