Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with new tools and content to help you in your spying and crushing efforts. 😉
Original Publication Date: June 25, 2018
Growing up, I was a sucker for spy toys.
Anything that might make me feel like a secret agent also made me beg my mom to buy it.
From password protected journals to rearview sunglasses, I couldn’t be stopped.
And just like invisible ink that slowly fades away, so have my Nickelodeon-style spy toys.
But one thing has never changed over the years. I’m still fascinated with being sneaky and smart.
And while I may no longer be roaming the aisles of Toys “R” Us (just kidding, I’m there once a week), I still find major value in knowing what my
secret spy enemies PPC competitors are up to.
Because if I can learn from what them, I don’t have to waste a ton of time, money, and effort trying to catch up to what they’re already doing.
In a sense, my spying fascination has helped reduce the learning curve of our own pay-per-click agency and numerous clients as well.
Let’s get to it.
Know Your Spying Goals
You may think you know who your competitors are just from looking at the Google search results. But what about the ones who are making a killing on the Display network or on Facebook advertising?
Maybe you’re spending $50,000/mo on Google Search, and they’re spending $100,000/mo on Google Display alone.
If that was the case, then you’d be more curious in knowing how they do that vs. your search competitor who’s bidding on the same keywords right?
I hope so.
Because what you’ll find in this article is that it isn’t cool to target more keywords, spend more money, and get more volume that way.
What’s really cool is finding brand new channels, offers, and other gold mines that you’d never considered.
It’s also vital to know what you’re going to do with your competitive data. Changing your entire strategy just because you find a competitor doing something different doesn’t make much sense.
What if their traffic and landing pages look attractive to you, but their backend funnel and sales cycle is as deep and intricate as the ocean?
Don’t be the Titanic. Respect what’s beneath the surface.
So in addition to the Google Search network, let’s find those other pockets of competitor gold that will help you get closer to a billion dollars, faster.
Finding Your PPC Competitors
The biggest PPC management platform out there is Google Ads.
And most of you reading this will be much more versed on the Search Network than on the Display Network, so let’s start there.
Google Ads Search + Other Search Network
Inside your company Google Ads account, there’s a report called Auction Insights that you’ll want to run.
In it, you’ll find a list of current domains that are bidding on the same keywords you are.
It looks like this:
To find your Auction Insights report, you’ll want to go to the Details button and select “All” under Auction Insights.
This will show you all your competitors from the account level. You can then drill further down by only selecting campaigns, ad groups, or keywords.
Now, the competitors you see here are only showing competitors that you’re going against. If you’re not advertising nationally, then there are a lot more competitors out there that won’t be shown in the Auction Insights report.
You can find those sneaky suckers too. You’ll want to use a tool like iSpionage (more on them later too), to uncover the ones that might have slipped from your Auction Insights report.
Competitor Keyword Discovery
You can find some seriously extensive lists of old, current, and new advertisers that have keyword overlap with your domain with these tools.
The example above shows more than 5,000 competitors. We’ll never have enough time to look at all of them, so we’ll just focus on the ones with additional keywords that don’t overlap with yours.
SpyFu has the most beautiful user interface (UI) of all three keyword tools. One of my favorite features of theirs is the competitor Kombat Venn diagram.
You can click on any part of the Venn diagram to uncover keywords a competitor is bidding on that you’re not.
SEMrush also offers useful functionality for tracking competitor keywords. You can see which keywords your competitors are bidding on and uncover Product Listing Ads (PLAs) and YouTube intel too.
Paid And Organic Competitor Reach Analysis
Another helpful competitor analysis tool that combines both paid and organic research is Serpstat. This tool is quite helpful for PPC advertisers as it not only provides helpful keyword information, but highly valuable competitive data.
Serpstat allows you to view the CPC of each of your keywords. On top of that, you can view any related keywords that Google’s top-ranked domains are also bidding on. This is a great place to start identifying winning keyword opportunities (even if they may sometimes come with high competition).
What’s more, you can track the performance of your competitors’ domains and their progress over time. Serpstat can also generate keyword maps of competitor websites.
Marketing teams and PPC agencies also use Ahrefs to track ranking positions and see the number of backlinks their competitors have.
Its functionality lets you see which phrases are being bid on, how their ads look, what landing pages they use, and more.
For example, in Ahrefs Organic Search Report, you can see the exact keywords for which your competitors rank in organic search and the amount of traffic driven by each of them. Ahrefs has data for 150 million keywords in the U.S. alone, so their reporting is pretty comprehensive.
The Top Pages report shows which pages send the most traffic to their sites. Ahrefs also has a Content Gap feature to uncover the keywords your competitors rank for but you don’t.
As you can see, the competitor information you can grab just from these tools is seriously abundant.
Now you just have to know what your competitors are doing on other PPC channels and how to be effective with all that intel. (More on that later.)
Google Ads Display + Other Display Networks
The Google Ads Display network is one of my favorite places to go digging.
Because unlike the Search network, competitors on the Display network can be super creative when it comes to offers and their funnels.
Most of this has to do with visitors being in different stages of the conversion cycle, so advertisers have to get smart when it comes to getting people’s feet in their door.
You can use third-party tools like those listed above to see where your competitor’s Display placements are. (In other words, the individual websites their image ads are showing on.) Tools like WhatRunsWhere just need a domain to find the information you’re looking for.
These tools can give you intel on:
- individually targeted placements
- which other media channels (beyond Google Ads) they’re getting traffic from
- their best performing image and text ads
WhatRunsWhere has, by far, the most in-depth view of where display traffic is coming from. And not just through Google Ads, but through other media channels like Media Buy, AppNexus, and others that Google doesn’t have access to.
Once you’re there, you can drill down and look at traffic sources. The direct placements can be exported a spreadsheet and even uploaded to your own Display campaign.
You can take it one step further and click on one of the Publisher sites. This shows what other advertisers have ads on those Publisher sites. From there, you can see if they have other placements that make sense for you to target.
Inside WhatRunsWhere, you can also look at your competitors’ banner ads and sort by something called AdStrength. AdStrength showcases which banner (image) ads that have been seen most often, through multiple placements and for the longest period of time.
More PPC Spy Tools For The Display Network
In addition to some of the things WhatRunsWhere does, AdBeat allows you to see spending levels and trends on individual media buying platforms. (It also has a nicer interface than WRW.)
If you’re an app marketer, MixRank will be the place to go. MixRank allows you to tap into the app directory side of things and separate data by device and operating systems, such as iOS and Android.
It also helps you find leads and contact information on key decision makers that your competitors could already be targeting.
If you want to see what other competitor sites are out there based on the domain you’re looking for, SimilarWeb can help with that. It will tell also show you organic referral traffic, as well as social metrics.
This tool isn’t as strong when it comes to PPC intel as the other ones are. It IS awesome, however, for building a list of competitors that we’ll use later.
Free Display Network Spying Tools
Now, if spending money isn’t your thing, then you can use a free Display ad spy tool called MOAT.
MOAT has a deep collection of image ads from bigger advertisers. Though it isn’t as thorough as WhatRunsWhere, MOAT also shows you where a specific ad was last seen (placement).
Social PPC Spy Tools
Now as both you and I know, PPC traffic doesn’t just come from Google.
Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are huge PPC traffic drivers as well. You’ll want to make sure that you don’t ignore any competitors that are using those channels to their advantage.
TrackMaven is a seriously impressive tool that helps you see what content performs well for your competitors across various social networks. The tool reports on shares, backlinks, and more so you can craft better content to promote via your own PPC channels.
Another awesome social spy tool is SimplyMeasured.
For example, one of the biggest social PPC networks is Facebook. (Ever heard of it? 😉 ) SimplyMeasured can analyze paid and organic reach for Facebook pages and break engagement down to regular ads, mobile-specific ads, and sponsored stories.
Your competitors can choose from options that include the desktop newsfeed, mobile newsfeed, sidebar, affinity networks, and more. It’s crucial to see where they’re focusing their Facebook PPC dollars.
PPC Landing Page Spy Tools
Maybe you’ve already got the competitive PPC side on lockdown.
Maybe you want something a little more crucial. Something that isn’t exactly PPC related but has a huge impact on PPC performance.
If you haven’t already guessed it by the headline above, then it’s time we talked about the importance of spying on your competitors landing pages.
Landing page testing is one of the fastest ways to improve PPC performance. We won’t go into the trillion things you can do to improve your conversion rates here, but you should care about it. Deeply.
Because if you can improve your conversion rates by just 20% overnight, you can effectively reduce your PPC ad spend and get the same results. Or better yet, use that improved performance to be more aggressive with your traffic acquisition efforts.
Okay, let’s look at two of my favorite PPC spy tools for landing pages out there.
iSpionage isn’t only a search network competitor spy tool. It has a landing page spy feature tool that you’re gonna love.
Once you give iSpionage the PPC keywords and competitor domains you want to track, the tool itself will alert you any time it sees your competitor’s landing page change.
Maybe your competitor is testing a new headline, brand new design, or better yet, a new offer?
Could you imagine checking each of your 29 competitors manually, even just once a week?
Sometimes the changes your competitors make are pretty minor. This tool will still catch it. Eventually, it can be an excellent resource for testing inspiration and continued improvement.
PPC Spy Tools On A Budget
Now let’s say your budget is tight and you want to start out small.
I won’t judge you. I’ve been there too.
If that’s the case, then you’ll want to check out Stillio’s automatic screenshot tool.
Starting at only $3/mo, you can start tracking specific competitor URLs. That could be a mix of homepages and landing pages too.
And the cool part, you can even decide on what time of day you want the screenshots to be taken.
What does that matter, you ask? Great question.
I haven’t figured that out yet, but it’s cool.
Additional PPC Spy Tools
Everything that the visible eye can see has now been taken care of. Keywords, display placements, and landing pages… what else could there possibly be?
How about all the backend tracking and testing tools your competitors could be using to their advantage?
If you use Google Chrome, you’re in luck.
Datanyze offers some more advanced tools for lead collection and sales prospecting, which we don’t need today. Instead, I’ll focus this section on the free tool, Ghostery.
Here’s a quick look at our own website:
If you’re the curious type (like me), you can immediately search those company names to find out what they offer and how they might be useful to you.
Conversion rate optimization software like Picreel and Visual Website Optimizer won’t be found in the PPC spy tools we covered earlier, but are a huge deal to your competitors to get more out of their PPC advertising.
Install Ghostery to Chrome and start looking at your competitors’ sites and landing pages. Which secret tools are they using to get an unfair advantage on you?
One Tool To (Almost) Rule Them All
We’ve covered a lot of tools so far, and they all do different things. Would you be interested in knowing if there’s one tool that does almost everything we’ve covered so far?
(I thought so.)
It’s called Follow, and it uses the APIs from different tools to give you a holistic snapshot on a lot of different PPC fronts that you’ll be interested in.
With Follow, you can take advantage of either their Chrome or Firefox extension and get competitive insight when you’re on a competitor’s page.
It also allows you to get 40% off pricing when you buy an annual plan.
Which leads me to the best advice I can give you…
If a tool you want to try has a free trial, then take advantage of it. Play around with it. See if that particular tool makes sense for you to pay for.
If not, consider using Follow to get the best of all worlds.
Drilling Down and Using Competitor Data
Don’t be. You’ve done some serious competitor research and have a ton of data.
Now comes the fun part. You get to use that data to improve your own PPC performance.
Let’s take a look.
If you’ve used any of the PPC keyword spying tools, then make sure you have those keywords in Excel files.
If you’ve used any of the Display spying tools, then also make sure you have those placements in Excel files.
Now, go into your own PPC accounts and export both your keywords and placements (if you have any) into Excel files.
You should now have at least two Excel files, one with keywords and/or placements from your competitors and one with your own data. Now take those columns and add them together in one Excel sheet.
Next, use the “Remove Duplicates” feature inside Excel (this varies depending on what type of Excel software you have).
This will then leave you with the non-overlapping keywords and placements and only give you one of each.
Preventing Your PPC Competitors From Spying On You
You may be spending a ton of time spying on competitors, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise if they’re spying on you too.
To make sure you limit their ability to do that, you’ll want to do two things within your Google Ads account.
1) Exclude Competitor Office Locations
This should be done with some cautious fingertips.
Let’s say you know where the offices of your competitors are, but you also know that you’re getting legitimate business from those areas.
So instead of excluding a city entirely, make sure you know for a fact that your competitors are clicking and spying on your ads.
If your suspicions do warrant a city-specific geographic exclusion, then add that to your campaigns so your competitors won’t be able to see your ads while in that city.
But how do you know if competitors are clicking your ads?
2) Exclude Competitor IP Addresses
There are tons of IP logging tools out there on the market. They can help you see which IP addresses are visiting your site and/or landing pages.
Unfortunately, Google Analytics doesn’t provide this insight. If you’re serious about knowing how often people are visiting you and the exact company name behind the visit, then I suggest you try Snitcher.
Snitcher helps you see which companies have visited your site, for how many times, for how long, and which pages they were on.
Not only does this help you see potential competitors that are coming back again and again, but it also helps you see which legitimate leads might be taking their time to decide whether or not they want to work with you.
So it doubles as a lead generation tool as well.
What To Do With Your Newly Found Spy Intel
Many people will tell you not to copy your competitors out of the fear that it may not work for you, and while that could be true, I’ll always try to emulate first, and then figure things out after.
Try the same offers, designs, and ads that your competitors are using. And if you can, steal their ideas and make them even better.
But there’s one thing you don’t want to do, and that’s become stagnant.
Because while it’s fun to track things and feel on top of the world, it’s even better to be actionable with that data.
Click To Close Tracking
No matter what idea you uncover from using these PPC spy tools, you’ll want to make sure you double down on your click to close tracking.
What do I mean by that?
If you’re in the lead generation space, then a lot of your conversions will never turn into sales.
But what if a specific keyword, ad, and landing page combo yield a 30% higher closing rate compared to all other leads you’re getting? Wouldn’t you want to know about that?
To do so, you’ll want to make sure you’re using Google’s ValueTrack parameters to append to your Final URLs and other PPC channels too.
When you get data back, you’ll be able to attach the lead data with raw PPC data as well, and learn which campaigns bring the highest quality conversions and add more budget to those.
And it’s not just for lead generation.
You can do the same for SaaS and eCommerce, and see which combos bring the higher average order values too.
To take it one step further, you can use a tool like Woopra to run a cohort analysis or a sales funnel picture, at the keyword level.
In your PPC account, you may only be tracking first step conversions (like an opt in).
But what you really need to know, is how far those keywords travel through your sales funnel before they actually become profitable for you.
When you have this data, you’ll be able to quickly pause keywords and channels that look good in your PPC account, but horrible in your bank account.
These back end tracking tools will help you be extremely smart with your money. You also stand the chance to eventually outperform your competitors at their own game.
What You Should Do With Your PPC Spy Tools Next
Some things to keep in mind:
- What works for your competitors may or may not work for you, so always look at what you learn with a bit of caution.
- But don’t be afraid of looking at everything your competitors are doing, and trying to understand why they might be onto something and you aren’t.
- If you find that you’re not expanding into new and profitable traffic sources or improving your conversion and sales rates, then the tools above mean nothing.
Keep that in mind as you pursue your growth.
Have fun spying 😉
P.S. Did you like what you read here? Gained some insight? Tweet and post this to your peeps to share the wealth.