SEM – How to Target Your Direct Competitors

Michael Jenkins
Michael Jenkins

CEO - Shout Agency
[email protected]

An old proverb says, “All is fair in love and war” – and the same holds true in marketing. Online websites have to compete with their competitors for search traffic.  It’s a dog eat dog world out there, and if you want to claim your share of the pie, you’ve got to be prepared to fight for it.

In an ideal world, the only thing businesses would have to do would be to make the best products or marketing content possible and reap the rewards. But sadly, that’s not usually the case. There are a lot of shady, underhand marketing techniques going on out there that are a little less ethical, especially in the SEO and SEM world.

In this article, we’re going to be sharing some of these techniques and showing you a few ways you can tactically target your direct competitors in SEM to steal some of their traffic. 

But first, a quick foreword: I’m not saying these methods are ethical – they’re almost certainly not. arNor am I saying you should do them. In fact, you probably shouldn’t do them. 

However, it’s still good to know them, even if only so that you know how to defend against these kinds of SEM attacks if you’re ever on the receiving end of them. After all, your competitors might not be as ethically-inclined as you are. 

Alright, now that’s covered, let’s dive into the first strategy.

Target your competitor’s brand terms in AdWords

The chances are your competitors get a big chunk of their traffic from people searching for their specific brand keywords like their brand or product names. You can steal some of this traffic by running SEM campaigns targeting these same terms.

Your competitor is probably already ranking top of the organic search listings for their brand terms, but you can jump ahead of these by running ads that appear at the top of the page.

Samsung gave us a real masterclass in this strategy back in 2015 when they launched an Adwords Campaign targeting competitor Apple’s iPhone 6s branded keywords. When customers searched for ‘iPhone 6s’, they saw this at the top of the page instead.

It’s definitely a stroke of marketing genius, but whether or not it’s ethical is another question entirely. I bet Apple wasn’t too happy about it.

If you’re on the receiving end of this strategy, there is little you can do. The only real defense your competitors have against it is to pay for ads for the same brand terms. As it’s their brand, and they can use it in their landing pages, they get lower CPCs, so they can probably outlast you in an ad-battle if it comes down to it, but it sure is annoying for them. 

If you attack your competitors with this strategy, at best you’ll be stealing some of their brand traffic, and at worst, you’ll be forcing your competitors to pay for traffic they were previously getting for free and running down their marketing budget. Either way, it’s a win for you.

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Just be aware that it can hurt your brand reputation, and your ads might not convert very well. After all, if a user is searching for a specific brand, they’re probably committed to buying from that specific brand.

Check other search engines and partners

Following on from the above strategy, don’t just stick with Google Adwords, check other search engines too. 

Even if your competitor starts running their own branded term SEM campaign on Google to stop you from stealing their traffic, they might not yet be on other search engines, like AOL.com, Ask.com, and Bing.com. If your competitor isn’t already running ads on these sites for their brand terms, try running your own. 

And don’t underestimate these search engines. While they might not be as big as Google, they can still send a ton of valuable search traffic your way.

Drain your competitor’s PPC budget

Most SEM services, like Google Adwords, operate on a PPC (pay per click) payment structure. That means your competitors have to pay every time a searcher clicks their ads.

An old tactic that shady marketers would use was to target their competitors by buying software or paying a service provider to click their PPC ads in the search results en-masse. As these clicks would be unnatural, they obviously wouldn’t convert to sales, thus draining their competitor’s PPC budget so that they could swoop in and dominate the SERP ads.

However, this is essentially ‘click fraud’. It’s very, very shady and, in fact, may even be considered illegal. I would absolutely not advise you to try this strategy, but being aware of it is important in case you’re a victim of it. 

The best way to protect yourself from this kind of SEM attack is to monitor your ad campaign closely and identify unnatural clicking activity. You can also use software solutions that help you to identify and block fraudulent clicking.  

Also, note that this strategy is relatively ineffective these days as Google now does a pretty good job of identifying and blocking unnatural clicks on its own.

Negative SEO

A final strategy worth mentioning is negative SEO. While not specifically related to SEM, it’s relevant to your broader search marketing efforts.

Negative SEO involves attacking your competitor’s website in such a way as to hurt their rankings in the SERPs. While definitely unethical, there are nonetheless many negative SEO marketing service providers out there that carry out these targeted attacks every day, so it’s important to be aware of it.

Negative SEO often involves black hat SEO, like building hundreds of ‘spammy’, low-authority, unnatural backlinks to a competitor’s domain in order to damage their domain authority and land them a Google penalty.

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