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How to Spy on Your Competition

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • How to gain competitive intelligence from public sources
  • Tools to monitor online advertising and SEO tactics of their competition

Marketers want to know what their competition is up to. Setting up Google Alerts and following your competitor's Twitter feed can get you only so far, and the old "hide your badge trick" at tradeshows is just annoying. Does it ever work... or does it just arouse suspicion?

So what's the best way to gather competitive intelligence?

Some of the information you want is not public. Other information is just hard to find and takes some work. Luckily, with the troves of information now online, plus some new tools, it's never been easier.

January is auspicious in the history of covert intelligence-gathering. At a lunch on January 24, 1946, President Harry Truman appointed the first Director of Central Intelligence.

In honor of that just-passed anniversary, we're going to look at some CIA-style techniques for spying on your competition. I won't tell you all of my secrets, nor pick favorite tools, but here are five bits of tradecraft.

1. Ad Spying

Ever wanted to know where your competitors are advertising and what they are saying? Maybe you come across their banner ads here and there, but how big of an investment are they making? Are there places where they are advertising and where you should advertise, too?

Some tools let you actually see where companies are advertising. Two of the more prominent are AdBeat and WhatRunsWhere. These tools crawl sites every day to find out what ads are running, and you can find out just what ad creative your competition is running and where.

2. SEO Keyword Spying

Knowing what keywords your competition is bidding on can be very valuable. Sure, you can try out keywords and see what ads pop up, but a much better way is to use a tool to automate the task.

Two tools that do so are SpyFu and iSpionage. Enter a keyword or domain, and you can find out which keywords your competitors are bidding on, what ad copy they're using, and which landing pages they're using.

3. Web Traffic Spying

SimilarWeb is a cool tool that lets you look at the traffic to and from any website. My favorite way to use it is to see what sites are sending people to my competitors.

By looking at the top referring sites (which you can see for your own site with Google Analytics), you will gain some insight into content that's sending clients to your competition. Maybe there's a blog that mentions them. Maybe they have some type of referral or affiliate agreement.

You also get a nice summary of their overall traffic, what geographies it's coming from, how much is coming from social media, and some other nice nuggets of info.

4. SEC Filings

The lives of most CIA researchers are not as eventful as Robert Redford's in Three Days of the Condor. Not everything in the spy world is cloak and dagger. The Agency employs hundreds of analysts who read newspapers, financial filings, and other public documents to see what they can find.

SEC filings can reveal a lot about a public company. Aside from the usual financial information, over the years I've found the following: office lease expenses, severance agreements, technology licensing deals, and details of acquisitions.

Make sure to read the footnotes; that's where a lot of miscellaneous and interesting stuff is hidden in plain sight.

James Underwood, author of Competitive Intelligence for Dummies, has a quick tutorial on how to find and navigate the various SEC filing documents. He includes a tip on a smoking gun that can really be valuable: "Always check to see if the auditors have filed a 'Going Concern Letter' on the company. That usually means that they have serious concerns about the future viability of the company."

5. Job Sites

Don't ignore job sites. You can find out a lot about a company's focus and strategy. Your competitor is looking for a bunch of mobile engineers? Ten new sales reps in Germany?

Glassdoor is a site that solicits employee and interviewee feedback, so you can learn a lot about a company's culture there. You can also sense the health of a company.

I looked up a company that had just raised a nice Series C round of financing (sounds good!), but I saw a comment about a big layoff (not so good!).

Glassdoor also lets you set up alerts, so you get this stuff in your inbox. Even the CIA is on Glassdoor: "A mixed bag" at 3.9 stars out of five.

* * *

Remember, spying takes patience and diligence. In the words of espionage novelist Graham Greene, "Most things disappoint till you look deeper."

Have other ideas? I would love to hear about them, spy to spy.

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Tim Matthews is VP of marketing at Incapsula and the author of The Professional Marketer. He occasionally publishes thoughts on marketing at Matthews on Marketing.

Twitter: @timmatthewssv

LinkedIn: Tim Matthews

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  • by Steve Faber Fri Feb 6, 2015 via web


    Nice piece. Another powerful technique is to rip a page straight from the spy handbook. Build relationships with competitors in your market. They'll often come right our and tell you things that may prove useful. Even small tidbits they mention in passing may add up to useful business intelligence.

    That relationship can go far beyond intel gathering, and include myriad other business advantages such as joint ventures and M/A opportunities.

  • by Rachel Tracy Fri Feb 6, 2015 via web

    I'm a big fan of SEMrush for gathering keyword intelligence. Tons of great tools like site comparisons, unique keywords, ad data, etc.

  • by Tim Matthews Fri Feb 6, 2015 via web

    Good ideas, Steve. I didn't include it in this post, but I typically have my teams call our competition once a year and see what they can learn from the inside rep or SDR who answers. You can find out all kinds of things, esp. when you ask how they compare to your company...

  • by Ken Barber Fri Feb 6, 2015 via web

    Great article Tim. Most people don't realize how much competitive intelligence is available, and just much more detailed it is than Google Alerts or manually web analysis. Wanted to add a few other benefits of online ad intelligence for your readers"

    1) BUDGET SPYING: Using impression and rank and share data, good companies can estimate with great precision any company's cost-per-click and monthly budget. This becomes super helpful to ask your boss or client for more money, to defend current spend levels, or to choose where to re-allocate funds

    2) AFFILIATE MONITORING: A crucial function of competitive intelligence is to make sure your partners, re-sellers, and affiliates are obeying their agreed-upon rules. Many don't, and will bid on restricted keywords incl. trademarks, out rank you, and hijack your URL for their benefit. They do it because they think it's near impossible to be detected. Companies like ours ( can use crawling technology with high-frequency, geo-targeted crawls to prove them wrong and detect abuses. It's a must

    3) SEARCH PRESENCE: The tools you mentioned above should also help a CMO score their company's *overall* search marketing presence - paid, organic, and PLA - in one holistic manner. Many companies evaluate each separately (they are often in 3 different departments), but searchers see the page as one page of results. This one score should be looked at weekly in relation to key competitors since just improving by, say, 10% is actually a loss if competitors are improving by more.

    Again, great article on the importance of learning from your peers. Ken

  • by Scott Stern Thu Feb 12, 2015 via web

    Speaking as a former CIA officer-turned-marketer, it's so true that there're a great many similarities between spying and marketing! As spies, we were looking for much the same information about our targets' motivations, pain points, etc. so we could craft approaches (i.e. campaigns) to influence them to do what we wanted. We would have killed (not literally, of course) for much of the info that marketers readily have access to.

    I laughed out loud when I read your post b/c I was working on a couple analogous content about lessons marketers can draw from the CIA over on my own blog -

  • by Tim Matthews Fri Feb 13, 2015 via web

    The ultimate validation, Scott. Good to know I passed CIA muster.

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