How to steal the competition’s best keywords: A 3-step guide

Whether you’re new to paid search or an old pro, one of your biggest challenges is figuring out the right keywords. Pick the right keywords and your business will thrive. Pick the wrong keywords, and you might as well be flushing your ad spend down the toilet.

Now, with enough time, effort and money, most advertisers can usually put together a decent keyword list. The only problem is, this takes time, effort and money — something most businesses are a little short on.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to make the process more efficient?

The good news is, while identifying the right keywords won’t ever be easy, there is a quicker way to find the right keywords for your business. All you have to do is steal them from the competition.

Learning from the competition

If you’ve got competitors — especially successful, well-established competitors — there’s a strong chance that they’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into finding the right keywords for your market. Odds are, they’ve got a good feel for what works and what doesn’t.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get that information?

Fortunately, there is a way. With the right approach, you can quickly identify the competition’s best keywords and beat them at their own game. All takes is the right analytics setup, a competitive analysis tool (iSpionage and SpyFu are good options) and a testing budget.

1. Analytics

The key to any paid search strategy is great analytics. After all, how do you know which keywords are producing the most profitable conversions and sales if you aren’t, you know, tracking conversions and sales?

So, before we dive into identifying your competition’s best keywords, let’s take a moment to talk about the analytics information you’ll need to make this strategy work.

Both Bing and AdWords make it pretty easy to set up conversion tracking. The easiest types of conversions to track are form submissions and online transactions, but odds are you’re not just interested in form submissions — you want people to chat in, call you, make an offline purchase and so on.

Each of these actions is a conversion and an important indicator of how a keyword is performing. So, if you want to know which keywords produce the best results, you need data on every single one of those conversion actions.

Getting all of this set up can be a bit of a headache (especially if a lot of your conversions happen offline), but if you aren’t tracking the results of your paid search campaigns, you’ll never be able to improve your performance.

At first glance, this might seem kind of obvious, but after auditing over 3,000 AdWords accounts at Disruptive (disclaimer: my company), we’ve found that less than 30 percent of advertisers are actually tracking all of their important conversion actions.

In our study, AdWords advertisers who were only tracking some of their conversion actions were missing out on more than a third of their conversions. Just imagine what it’s like trying to optimize your campaigns with a margin of error of 33 percent!

With all that in mind, it should be obvious why analytics is the key to this tactic. Stealing the competition’s keywords is great, but if you really want to know which keywords produce results, you need analytics.

2. Competitive research

Advertisers love to talk about competitive research, but it’s often hard to know what is working for your competitors and what isn’t. Does their success come from their ad copy? The testimonials on their landing page? Or just the keywords they’re bidding on?

In many cases, you’ll probably never know. You can take your best guess, but you really have no idea what is working for your competitor and what just looks nice to you. More importantly, even if a certain catch-phrase or testimonial is the key to their success, you can’t assume that the same elements will work well for you.

So, while competitive research sounds nice, it’s often hard to use in a practical way.

When it comes to keywords, however, competitive research is incredibly practical. With the right competitive analysis tool, you can know exactly which keywords the competition is bidding on. In most cases, all you have to do is hop on a site like SpyFu or iSpionage, enter the competitor’s domain, and you’ll get a list of all the keywords your competitors are using.

From there, all you have to do is identify which keywords actually produce value for your business.

Unfortunately, most advertisers bid on way too many keywords. In fact, while auditing all those AdWords accounts I mentioned earlier, we found that only 6 percent of the keywords in the average AdWords account are producing conversions.

So, if you just assume that every keyword the competition is bidding on is profitable and use it in your own account, you’re going to end up wasting just as much money on paid search as your competitors are. To really make the most of this strategy, you can’t just copy and paste a competitor’s keyword list. You have to beat them at their own game.

3. Stealing the competition’s best keywords

If you want to steal the competition’s best keywords, you need to know which keywords are worth bidding on and which ones you (and probably your competitors) should ignore.

That’s going to take a bit of testing.

I typically recommend that you invest about 20 percent of your paid search budget into testing new ads, keywords or other changes to your account. Obviously, the newer you are to paid search, the more of your budget you’ll want to test with, but this is a good rule of thumb for most established accounts.

Once you’ve identified the competition’s keywords, build ads around them and use your testing budget to try them out for around three months. Assuming that you have a good analytics setup, this should give you enough data to determine which keywords are profitable.

Next, open your paid search account and take a look at the three months of data you just gathered. Go to the Keywords tab and filter your keywords for Conversions < 1.

This report will show you all the keywords you are bidding on that haven’t produced conversions in the last three months. By clicking on the “Cost” column, you can further sort these keywords by how much money you’ve spent on these keywords.

Now, if this weren’t a test, all the money you spent on these keywords would have been completely wasted. However, the point of your testing budget is to identify useful keywords, so you’re not wasting money — you’re just paying for education.

You’ll have to use your individual judgment to decide which of these keywords should be cut and which deserve a little more time or refinement. But, this filter should help you identify which of your competitor’s keywords are producing unsatisfactory results.

In contrast, you can reverse this filter (“Conversions > 1”) to see which keywords are producing results. These keywords are often your competition’s best performers, too. However, since they probably aren’t tracking conversions effectively, they probably don’t know how valuable those keywords are.

But you do.

Once you’ve identified a great new keyword, all it takes is a little more time and effort to dial in your bids, ad copy and landing pages and edge out the competition. Guess what? You just beat the competition at their own game!

Conclusion

When you get right down to it, it’s not that hard to steal the competition’s best keywords. All you need is a good analytics setup, a competitive analysis tool and a decent testing budget.

By combining these three elements, you can quickly identify which of a competitor’s keywords are valuable to your business and which ones aren’t. Then, you can focus your ad spend on their best keywords and beat the competition at their own game!

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