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SEM Espionage: Gather Intel to Build Keyword Lists

Published: December 5, 2013

Author: Jake Favaro

Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.
-Sun Tzu
Any good business (hopefully) knows its own value proposition, strengths, and weaknesses, but when you are entering into thousands, if not millions, of ad auctions per day, also knowing the strategy of your competition can go a long way. I recently worked on the competitive research for a prospective client who is expanding into a new geographic market and I came away with a few simple steps to get a client’s Paid Search efforts off on the right foot when they are entering a new space filled with stiff competition.
 1) Use the Right Tools of the Trade
There are a handful of tools out there for competitive research, but I’ve found SEMrush paired with the Keyword Planner in the Google UI to be a winning combination. Google’s Keyword Planner is a worthwhile tool for any keyword expansion, but if the only information you have to go on for your initial campaign build is the suggested bid and average monthly searches for potential keywords, you can spend a lot of time and money during the testing phase getting outbid in auctions by established competitors with hefty budgets. That’s where SEMrush comes into play. The Ads Keywords reports from SEMrush will allow you to see how your competitors are spending their Paid Search budgets and, more importantly, how you can strategically allocate your clients’ ad dollars.
First, search SEMrush for your client’s top 5-10 competitors (or however many you see fit) and click on the Ads Keywords report in the main dash. This report is chock-full of valuable information about everything from competitors’ estimated monthly spends to what percentage of total ad cost they allocate to each individual keyword they bid on. The Ads Traffic Price metric is a great starting point in figuring out your initial strategy; if your client’s budget is in the same weight class as that of their competitors, great! You may be able to outbid the competition in the most sought-after auctions for head terms and simply pay your way to victory. However, if your client is working with a smaller budget or your primary goal is low CPA, it pays to play smart and out-think the competition rather than try to overpower them.
2) Let the Data Tell a Story
Any report is only as valuable as the way a savvy Search Engine Marketer slices and dices the data, and this is no exception. Once you’ve pulled the Ads Keywords reports, do the extra legwork (tedious though it may be) of compiling all of the data into one sheet and assigning each keyword to a segment – first by brand vs non-brand terms and then into category buckets that are relevant to your client’s value proposition. If your client is an ice cream company, some segments could be flavors, cones, toppings, generic dessert terms, etc.
Pivoting the data by your shiny new segments will give you the ammunition you need to pick apart your opponents’ strategies and capitalize on their weaknesses. You’ll be able to see what percentage of their budgets each competitor spends on branded vs. non-brand terms and evaluate which keyword category segments and long tail keywords will be easy wins for your client and which should be avoided so as not to bleed out their budget.
3) Head Back to the UI
Armed with the knowledge gained from SEMrush, you can make Google’s Keyword Planner results much more valuable. Having identified high-opportunity, low cost keyword segments, you will be able to focus your efforts on strategically researching and building out keyword lists that will make your client’s ad dollars go the furthest and give them the greatest chance of success out the gates rather than just initially test any keywords that relate to your client in general. Grouping and pivoting the keyword ideas from Google’s Keyword planner into the same segments you used in the SEMrush reports can also give you valuable insight into which keyword categories offer the most monthly searches and even help you define your initial ad group and campaign structures.
Have any other tips on besting your clients’ foes? Leave a comment!

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