Reprinted with permission from the Lyris.com blog archives.
By: Dane Christensen

In the previous two parts of this series I covered two effective keyword discovery methods: search engine query analysis and permutation. Now we’ll take a look at another powerful way to build a massive keyword footprint: competitive intelligence.

While search engine query analysis produces keywords that people are actually typing into their search engine, and permutation deals with words that they theoretically might type in at some point, competitive intelligence is oriented to what keywords your competitors are advertising on. The idea is that your competitors are doing keyword research too, so if you gather together all the keywords they are bidding on you are basically capitalizing on their keyword research.

There are a number of competitive intelligence tools on the market and they will all cost you something – typical pricing is from $50 to $200/month. Leading competitors in this space include:

What they all have in common is that they constantly harvest the major search engines (typically it’s the Big Three – Google, Bing, and Yahoo) to find out who is advertising on what keywords. Some will make competitive claims about how frequently they update their database, but the fact is they all do it frequently enough, so any difference in the keywords you’ll harvest will be marginal. All the top keywords are usually bid on by most of your competitors, and most of the long-tail keywords are probably bid on by at least one of your competitors.

So how do you go about using these programs?

A typical session might start with you entering the domain name of a competitive Web site. Presto! You get a list of keywords they bid on. Along with each keyword, it also shows the number of companies bidding on that keyword. Click on that and you see the list of all those companies. Click on any one of those companies and you’ll see the list of keywords they are bidding on. It’s easy to see how you could quickly gather up all the keywords from all your competitors.

The ability to export into a .CSV file is a standard feature, so you can very quickly and easily assemble a huge list of keywords.

Information Overload

Another common feature of competitive intelligence tools is to provide data about how many clicks each keyword is expected to get and the approximate cost. From my experience, this falls into the category of information overload and is not particularly useful.

First, the data is not very accurate. The search engines don’t just hand over that data. These competitive intelligence tools have to infer it through various methods. I’ve observed many situations where I could tell that the estimates were way off, or the range was so wide as to be meaningless. Besides, the results you will get with your unique campaign structure, ad text, and Web site copy may be completely different than the average for any given keyword.

Even if the data was accurate and representative of your results, we’re talking about potentially thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of keyword phrases here. Are you really going to look at the metrics for each one and decide whether to harvest it based on that? No. You export the whole batch, plug it into your search engine marketing campaigns, and then prune any keywords that don’t perform.

While keyword performance metrics may seem like an excellent feature, my opinion is that it’s a red herring that’s more about making the application look robust than adding any useful functionality for you. Having said that, you may be able to glean some insights from those metrics here and there. Just be careful not to get sucked into an “analysis paralysis” situation.

All these competitive intelligence tools boast various features or twists on the above features designed to help you stay ahead of your SEM competition. There are far too many differences to cover here. And many of those features are, like the keyword metrics, more about puffing up the product than adding any real value. But the core functionality – the ability to identify and export all the keywords used by all your competitors – is extremely useful.

But remember, this technique does not replace permutation or search engine query analysis. There will certainly be plenty of overlap, but you’re bound to discover unique keyword phrases through each of these methods that you wouldn’t have found through the other.

For more information about keyword discovery read: Five Methods to Expand Your Keyword Footprint