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Identify your PPC Landscape with Competitor Research

Before you jump into a campaign, you need to get a firm grasp of what your PPC landscape is.  You can do a little competitor research, and really think about where you are targeting your ad dollars.

Imagine that you’re opening a brick-and-mortar retail store. You’re selling something that you’re really passionate about, and this store is the fulfillment of a life-long dream. You’ve spent countless hours designing the interior, paying smart people to pick out the best colors, the best fixtures, and the optimum layout. You feel like all you need to do now is rent a store, open up shop, and open the floodgates – advertising floodgates.

With the above hypothetical scenario in mind, I’d like to pose a question. Are you just going to hop on Craigslist, find the first storefront for rent, and put down a deposit sight-unseen? Probably not. I’d like to translate this into PPC. You need to understand what you’re going to get, and who’s going to be around you, before you throw money in the ring.

Location, Location, Semantic Location

Semantic location isn’t a buzzword; it’s just something I say to myself when I start PPC research in unfamiliar territory. However, feel free to use it – ‘semantic’ is a really great ten-dollar word to throw around, and you’ll sound smart as heck. What is ‘semantic location’ though?

Semantic location (noun): The area of a given market where the PPC advertisers buying a particular keyword are located.

It really sounds a lot smarter than it is, because it’s a pretty simple concept. Basically, it’s a question you need to ask yourself: who else is bidding on a keyword I’m interested in? Are they your direct competitors, or the top positions dominated by Amazon and eBay? Conversely, is there opportunity here? If there is sparse competition for a keyword, is there a very good reason? Before you throw in money and time into a keyword that doesn’t work, let’s answer some of the above questions with real actionable methodologies.

Finding your actual competitors

First off, do you know who your real competitors are? They’re not the people bidding for the really broad keyword at the top of your vertical – you can let Amazon.com throw their money at that, because their budget is basically unlimited while your’s is likely not.

You need to find the people who you directly compete with. So, if you’re a small business that does window installation, you’ve got to look at other small businesses that do window installation. We’re talking local search, geo-targeted ads, longer-tail keywords, and so on.

A great tool and strategy here is to use SimilarSites, which is a really cool piece of internet engineering that shows you what sites share the same visitors as you. They have their own toolbar, and partner with many others, to be able to show you what sites people visit before and after they visit yours. When you type in your website, you’ll be presented with a list of other websites sorted by similarity score. If someone visits your site, then visits three or four related sites – most likely, this is a potential customer shopping around. The sites that share the greatest number of such visitors with your site are likely going to be your direct competition.

Finding non-ambiguous transactional keywords

If you’re a window installer, what keywords lead to people calling you for window installation? “Windows” is dominated by Microsoft and Lowes Home Improvement– a very confused mish-mash for a very ambiguous keyword. How about “install windows” – who is searching for that? Is it people looking to install windows on their house, or install Windows on their computer? It might not be the best keyword.

There’s a better tactic here. If we’ve discovered your actual competitors via SimilarSites, we actually have a really great starting point. In order for those sites to share visitors with you, the visitors need to find them somehow. I’m willing to bet a lot of it will be through paid search. Let’s play statistics.

If you have a sample size of at least three direct competitors, it’s time to make a spreadsheet. We’re going to look for keywords that all three of them bid on together. It’s pretty simple actually. If one guy bids on a keyword, he might be making a mistake. If two guys bid on it, it could be a coincidence. However, if three or more sites are bidding on the same keyword at the same time – it’s not a mistake. Most likely, the keyword is transactional and converts. Using a method like this, you’ll probably find that “window installer” is way better than “install windows.”

Putting it together

There are a lot of great tools that can help you with this kind of research. I’ve already mentioned SimilarSites for competitor discovery – I talk about it so much, that people must think I work there! I don’t. To find keywords that sites share in common, SEMrush actually has a really great Domain vs. Domain tool that will do it automatically, and let you export it to a spreadsheet.

The list of keywords you’ve built up by identifying the PPC landscape you plan to invade has a really awesome property – the market research has already been done. You’ve let your competitors figure out if each keyword converts, and you’ve made a list of only the ones that do. You know exactly where to put your PPC dollars to get a return. Assuming, of course, that your landing page and website are up to snuff – but that’s a whole different conversation!
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About the Author

Sean Malseed is a regular speaker at conferences, such as SMX, SES, Online Marketing Summit, OMCap and Search Marketing Day. During the day, he works at SEMrush, handling API integrations. He's worked with companies like Wordtracker, Brightedge, Ask.com and others. In his spare time, he enjoys developing mobile applications for iOS and Android, and being involved with the Philadelphia tech scene.