In the book Art of War we can read about military strategies in the late sixth century BC. Quotes and references to this book has been (over) used for strategic business thinking many times since then. It’s interesting to draw parallels from ancient times to current. Whether you agree or not, the first chapter covers laying the plan, and setting up the calculations, and that makes good sense for any ‘annexation’. There are essentially five key factors to success at this stage (the Way, seasons, terrain, leadership, and management). Subsequent chapters get into the challenge, plan of attack, weak points and the use of spies and intelligence.

We can use elements of this model, and competitive spying with our online marketing. Specifically PPC. The data is available (some for free, others paid).

How can you find out what your competitor is up to?

What you are looking for is bid pricing, ad copy, URL/landing page use and traffic they are getting. Now, many tools use scraper technology, and not always exact, but they are meant to give you ‘insights’, not ‘actual data’. And some tools are pretty good at that.

SEMRush is a database of keywords and domains in many countries, a top favorite. This, along with SpyFU will give you lots of invaluable data. If you want to pay higher prices, sign up for the keyword analytics with

The free, external Google keyword tool is where many will begin their competitive research.

It makes sense. Google reveals a lot of info here, and if you use it correctly, you can get a good sense of your keyword landscape. Make sure to set the Matching Type to “Exact”. Then see results with the checkbox for “Only show ideas closely related to my search terms”. Run several searches on variations of key terms. Don’t just run it once or twice. Start tracking this into an Excel sheet. This includes negative keywords. Then, look deeper at the keyword landscape and trends with Google Insights for Search. Make sure you are logged in to get the full effect, and try the Google traffic estimator also.

Now, once you have tabbed lists (tabs in Excel), start running them through the aforementioned tools, and see where you competitors are showing up. Export that data and compare across all keywords, from the traditional head (1 word) keywords, chunky middle (2-3 words) and of course, the long tail (3-6 keywords). Use both keywords and domains, as available.

You should be able to get a clear picture of where they spend their money, what traffic they are seeing, and what copy (ad text) ideas you can build from. (don’t copy!).

Only your competitors web analytics will show actual data, but you can get pretty close, and it should help you.

What have you tried before? Survey says “yes, you should do it”. You are not alone.


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Entrepreneur Magazine says Jon Rognerud is one of the most sought-after Digital Marketing Experts. His clients extend from high-end brands and middle-tier businesses in both B2B and B2C. His SEO website optimization book, "The Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Website" from Entrepreneur Press is in bookstores now.