Is Advertising on a Competitor’s Name Effective?

By Tad Miller | Jan 5, 2017
More Articles by Tad

A Brief History of Why Marketers Meddle With Competitors Through Advertising

“Because I CAN! That’s Why!” That’s the answer I got once when I asked a client why he felt the need to take on his direct competition in search advertising by advertising on that competitor’s company name.

However, in terms of this being a good idea, the metrics were telling us a different story. The practice of “conquesting” another brand in search advertising has historically been the worst-performing search advertising tactic across multiple business types in the 11-plus-year history of our agency. It’s expensive, has horrible click through rate, almost non-existent


You are going to have to fight me for this customer

conversion rate, and incredibly bad time-on-site metrics. Yet, for some marketers, the metrics don’t matter—they believe that if they aren’t trying to take down their competitors in some way with search, they are giving the competition unfettered ability to do whatever they want. Some people are so competitive that it’s just as important to try to take the competition down as it is to make online sales for themselves. It’s really a “zero-sum game” in their minds, in that the mindset is that there aren’t enough customers to go around and every sale the competition makes is a sale that their company can’t make.

Hardcore online marketers think differently. When you use data as a guide for strategy, you tend to look more inward as a strategy for improvement, with greater emphasis on things like:

  • Conversion performance on non-branded keywords
  • Landing page performance improvements
  • Shopping cart abandonment problems
  • Slow mobile page speed issues

But for some marketers, there is no walking away from trying to win customers from their competitors, and for them, I have a better way to do it. That’s right—a way for both of us, the ultra-competitive marketer and the data-driven-strategy guy, to come together and compromise for a better more efficient way to accomplish the online customer conquest.

Why Search Conquesting Isn’t Very Effective

When you’ve been in the online advertising game as long as I have, you’ve seen a few things and done a few things.  Experience is more about learning what not to do than it is aboutWhat you need to know learning what to do.  Many of the “if I could do it differently” tactics of my early forays into online advertising involved the idea of “conquesting.”

Conquesting is the least effective online advertising tactic you can do (mostly because of costs). It’s pretty well known in agency circles that it’s mostly ineffective, but it’s still widely used today.

We are subscribers and fans of an SEO tool called Ahrefs. It has great features for evaluating competitor SEO and link patterns, but it’s likely less known as a tool to get intelligence on the keywords that competitor’s are advertising on. We like to use it for competitive intelligence on our client’s competitors and our leads for new business. Using Ahrefs as a tool to see pay-per-click (PPC) advertising keyword lists and traffic estimates has really allowed us to get a much greater insight into the prevalence of advertising on someone else’s branded keywords and to what extent those advertisers are using it as a primary advertising tactic.

Perhaps no other industry segment appears to be leading with this advertising tactic more than higher education. We have stumbled upon several universities, especially for MBA programs, that are spending the majority of their search advertising budget on competitor names and degree programs:


So the top keyword is someone else's school name?

So the top keyword is someone else’s school name?

This particular school in the example above is not alone—I found 10 different schools whose leading PPC strategy was to mostly advertise on the names of their competitor’s programs.  This can be incredibly expensive to do and honestly pretty unproductive from a lead generation standpoint. Because the costs per click are so high (because Google Quality Score’s usually hit 1 or 2 out of 10),  just a few clicks can use up all of your advertising budget in a hurry.

A More Cost Effective Way to Conquest

Evil Plot

Hatching an evil scheme requires that you hold your hands like THIS.

What if you could mess with your competition and do it for pennies on the dollar vs. the cost of search ad conquesting? What if you could deliver an almost unlimited number of ad impressions for yourself on the very people that are interested in that competitor or that competitor’s product or service?  It’s actually pretty easy to do.

First of all, you need to change ad channels a little bit. Abandon search advertising on competitor brand keywords and the ridiculous cost per click that it’s going to require.

Instead, switch to the Google Display Network and utilize their “Custom Affinity” ad targeting. Custom Affinity audiences allow you to target people with a desired recent search history or browsing history.  You can enter those competitor brand names or branded product or service names as “search interests” and add the product/service page URLs of those competing products to hit the recent browser’s of those web pages (it’s like remarketing with someone else’s pixel!)  As an example:

Custom Affinity Audiences

Google even gives you the demographic breakdown on your selected audience.

The results: At a minimum, you get traffic, and a lot of it. You can literally trade those $10+ search keyword clicks for clicks in the $0.25 to $1 range. This allows you to get exponentially more traffic from your target audience for the same amount of ad budget. Google allows you to put ad frequency caps on how many times a display audience might see your ad throughout the day, but if you want unlimited reach, you could have that audience see your ad every time they visit a Google Display Network partner site (the biggest display network in the world).

You can layer almost all of the display targeting options available from Google AdWords on top of the Custom Affinity Audience to improve performance, including:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Parental status
  • Placement where the ad shows
  • Topic of the page where the ad shows
  • Ad viewer location down to the zip code level or IRS average household income of that zip code
  • Device type (desktop, mobile, tablet)

If you are really feeling frisky and want to go after existing customers of a software as a service product, you could add the URLs of the log-in pages of those products. You could target viewers of product reviews of those competing products.  You can even go add the URLs of the social media profiles of you competitors to create that audience.

If you are a little nasty, you can really make it miserable on your competition.

If you are a little nasty, you can really make it miserable for your competition.

The point is that there is a smarter strategy for spending your marketing budget to be an online pest to your competitor than paying Google a lot of money for the privilege to show up in search results under the competitor’s ad. You can hit those audiences for pennies instead of dollars a click and be as visible to them as you want throughout the day, rather than just at the time of search.

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