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SEO for Competitor Names

SEO Tactic - Ranking for Competitor Brand - Competitive Jiujitsu
Competitive Jiujitsu: Should ranking for a competitor's brand name be part of your SEO strategy?

It's an effective SEO strategy that isn't widely employed -- adding pages on your own website that are optimized for your competitors' names.

As an example, for Walker Sands, which is a tech PR firm, I might add a page to the Walker Sands website that is optimized for Edelman PR. Edelman is a large global public relations firm.

If somebody is searching for "Edelman" in Google, I'd love it if the Walker Sands website appeared in the search results and they paid us a visit.

Edelman is a great firm with a long and illustrious history, but I truly believe many Edelman clients would be better served from a results and "value for money" perspective if they opted to engage Walker Sands instead of Edelman. So why not create SEO content that gets me in front of prospective customers just as they are searching for Edelman's contact information in Google?

At first blush, it doesn't seem to pass the ethics test. I've never endorsed unethical "black hat" SEO tactics, but, to me, after thinking it through, creating search-optimized pages for competitor names is a completely legitimate, and highly effective, digital marketing tactic -- provided that it's done correctly.

Optimizing a Site for My Competitor's Name -- Right or Wrong?

When it's done right, and I'll elaborate on what that means shortly, here's why it's legit to put your competitor's name in a title tag and build a website page that is optimized for their name.

First and foremost, you are not using the tactic to unethically displace your competitor altogether from the search results or steal the #1 ranking spot that is legitimately theirs. They will still be #1. In fact, unless I added thousands of pages, all optimized for Edelman, to our site, there's no way that we would outrank Edelman for "Edelman."

Second, this tactic is legit if it conveys useful, meaningful and actionable information to the Google user (or Bing or Yahoo user). Optimizing a page for Edelman PR and then selling performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals on that page would clearly be wrong -- blatant web spam. But if you are legitimately a viable alternative to your competitor and take the approach of honestly and objectively educating your site visitor as to why that is the case, then certainly it passes the SEO ethics test.

Mistakes to Avoid When Building a "Compare Us to Our Competitor" Website Page

Remember, the page has to be built primarily for users, not for search engines. That's a basic principle of Google's Webmaster Guidelines. Google's guidelines also advise that you:

  • Don't deceive your users.
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you'd feel comfortable explaining what you've done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?"

For a Walker Sands vs. Edelman page, what sorts of content would cross the line on these quality guidelines?

Let's say I put "Edelman PR Case Studies" in my title tag and wrote a description meta tag, using text that wasn't anywhere on the body of the page, that said "Edelman PR represents the world's largest brands. Read about our Edelman PR case studies," but then in the body of the content, I only have content about how great Walker Sands is and I mention Edelman only in ways that I hope will game the search engines enough to make my page rank well.

That's clearly an ethical and a website quality fail if I take that approach. I would be deceiving site visitors into thinking that they were visiting Edelman's site and I'd have a hard time explaining the page to Richard Edelman, Edelman's President and CEO, if we were to get together for coffee.

A page like this would clearly cross the line and constitute deceptive or manipulative behavior. You don't ever want to cross that line -- doing so could ultimately lead to "complete removal of a spammy site from Google's search results," as Google explains in their quality guidelines.

So, be sure you don't:

  • Just use the competitor's name as a standalone in your title tag. Instead, use a title tag like "Compare Us to [Competitor Name Here]," which more accurately explains what the page is about.
  • Lure people into an ambush, in which you trash the competitor and never talk about any of their strengths, nor talk about any of your own weakness. If the competitive analysis is clearly biased and manipulative, you're not doing anybody any favors.

Who Should Use This Marketing Tactic?

This tactics is best used by Davids who are fighting Goliaths -- and who are legitimately competitive to Goliath. Alternatively, it can be effective when two Goliaths are locked in a head-on battle for market share. The latter use is the web equivalent of the old Coke vs. Pepsi taste test commercials -- if you can present evidence that you are better than the competition, why not put it on a web page?

It's not for everyone, and, frankly, if everybody did it, Google would might need to adjust its algorithms to not have the entire first page of the search results for a brand name be the company website as #1 and the next nine results be variations of "Company X Competitors, "Alternatives to Company X" and "Compare Us to Company X." The lack of diversity in those results would get Google's engineers tweaking things in a heartbeat.

Is it Hard or Easy to Rank for a Competitor's Name?

Whether it's simple or difficult to have your site be found when somebody searches for your competitor's name depends on your specific circumstances. Are there many pages out there already ranking for their name? If so, you've got an uphill battle. How strong is your site in terms of its authority and presence? If your site is a 98-pound weakling, then odds are your competitor-optimized page will end up not ranking high enough to have any material impact.

But, generally speaking, it's much easier to rank for a competitor's name than it is to rank for a generic phrase about a product. As an example, let's say I run the #6 payroll service in the world and I compete against industry giants ADP and Paychex who are #1 and #2 respectively. Having worked with a client in this situation, we have real-world experience on this particular scenario.

So, is it going to be easier for me to rank for, say, "alternatives to ADP " than it is for me to rank for the generic keyword "payroll"? (By the way, if the answer to that question isn't immediately obvious to you, I'd recommend that you hire an SEO agency.)

The answer is it is way, way easier to rank for the first phrase. Indeed, we used this SEO strategy to elevate the #6 company to what was arguably the #3 spot, at which point they were swallowed up by #2. This is not just theory -- this is an SEO strategy that often works!

Reasons This Marketing Tactic Isn't More Common

There are three main reasons why we don't see this effective SEO tactic used as often as one might expect.

First, and sadly, when you look under the covers, most companies get a D or F grade on SEO and content marketing. They've barely got the basics down, let alone being ready for more advanced tactics like this one. Before you rush to build pages on your site that include your competitor names, hire a competent digital marketing firm to look at your site infrastructure, content strategy, and on-page SEO. Fix the foundational issues first before you move on to this tactic. If you don't yet rank well for what you sell, it's more important to focus on doing that than to rank for a competitor's name.

Second, there's supposedly this "Golden Rule of Marketing" that you never want to mention your competitors' names: "Why on earth would I let people know about the competition? Won't they then be more likely to go do business with them? If I hadn't informed them about my competitors, they'd have given me the business!"

OK, if that's your take on this, you've got some "bigger fish to fry" issues. If you can lose to the competition for some simple reason, then spend your time fixing those competitive and marketing defects. This strategy is not for you.

Plus, you're missing a key point of this strategy. You're not educating prospects about your competitors because the only way that a prospect will find a competitor-optimized page on your site is if they already know that competitor's name.

In fact, the situation you are trying to intervene in is one in which a prospective customer knows your competitor's name but they have never heard of you. This SEO tactic effectively allows you to say: "Hey, I see you are thinking about buying from my competitor. I'm just as good as them and better in many respects, so why not add me to the shortlist of firms you are evaluating?"

Remember, this is not front and center on your home page. It's a detail page that might be a little tough to get to if somebody is navigating through your site. If somebody knows about you but doesn't know about your competitor, odds are they will never see the pages that are optimized for your competition.

The third and last reason that people shy away from this tactic has to do with reasons I've already touched on. Is there even the slightest risk that Google might ban you for this tactic? Even if the chance is .000000001 percent, some folks won't spin that roulette wheel. But if you are David fighting Goliath, you may take a more aggressive approach.

As an add-on to this third reason -- which effectively centers on possible negative consequences of the tactic -- doing this to a competitor enhances the likelihood that a competitor will go "tit for tat" and do the same thing to you. Do you want to escalate things and will you be able to stand the heat when the kitchen warms up to inferno temperatures?

Is it Legal to Optimize a Page for a Competitor Name?

OK, there's one more important reason that just came to mind: is it legal?

Is it against the law to try to rank for my competitor's brand name? This is a question for your attorney. I'm not an attorney, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night, so here's my perspective on the legality of this marketing tactic.

There are two issues at play: trademark infringement and competitor disparagement.

My belief is that as long as you have something on your site that says "All trademarks are properties of their respective owners" or you explicitly acknowledge that the competitor owns its trademarks, you are not going to be guilty of trademark law violations. In addition, nothing in the copy that is on the page can give the impression that you own the competitor trademark.

As for falsely disparaging the competitor, you need to be extremely careful. The Lanham Trademark Act extends claims for false advertising to misrepresentations about competitor products. Make sure that every sentence on your web page is either explicitly true or not explicitly false.

All of the above notwithstanding, lawyers being lawyers and postage being inexpensive, you may still get a "cease and desist" letter in the mail. At that point, you can always take the page down -- or you can lawyer up and fight.

Still Nervous? Here's an Alternative Approach

In offering this advice to you, I'd be negligent if I didn't give you a couple of alternative strategies.

First, you can always put this content on a third-party site instead of on your site. There are a million blogs out there that will happily post good competitive comparison articles or competitive reviews.

Second, instead of taking the SEO route, you can always buy your competitors' names as keyphrases in Google Adwords or other PPC programs. As I write this blog post, Google won't allow you to use the competitor name in ad copy but you can buy a competitor name as a keyword. However, ideally, in order for the landing page to get a high Quality Score, it needs to mention the competitor; it's not required, but you'll end up paying more for the ad click if the landing page isn't relevant to the search phrase…and of course conversions are likely to be low to boot.

Defending Against This Tactic

So what if you are on the receiving end of this SEO tactic that involves a competitor optimizing a page for your brand name? There's the "tit for tat" approach that I mentioned earlier: do unto your competition what they have done unto to you. Then there's also the tried and true "cease and desist" letter that I've already mentioned. You can also complete a Google Spam report and request a manual review by Google's spam team.

But the best defense is to leverage reputation management tactics that make it hard for others to rank for your brand name. For example, to prevent Walker Sands from ranking well for "Edelman," they would be wise to build out microsites for Edelman Careers and other topics, build out their social presence on various social sites, and get as many positive pages as they can to show up when somebody searches for their brand. Once they've done that, it can make it very difficult (but never impossible!) for me to rank well for their brand name and do a little competitive jujitsu on them.

Getting Started and Monitoring Success

Thinking about trying to rank for competitor names? Like all marketing initiatives, it's a best practice to begin with a pilot. Start with one or two competitors and build out content on two pages that allows site visitors to compare you to the competition. Blinding glimpse of the obvious -- make sure to link to the pages so that search engine crawlers can find and index the page.

Remember to apply WWMCD to the task at hand. That's SEO jargon for "What Would Matt Cutts Do?" Matt is an incredibly nice and talented guy who runs Google's anti-spam team. If he were sitting by your side and reading through your content, would he give it the bless? If not, re-read the Google Webmaster Guidelines and go back to the drawing board to rework the content. The content has to be useful, good and not manipulative. It's a pretty simple checklist.

Since you're not objective about your own company, I suggest you have somebody else take a look at the content and tell you if they think it is fair, accurate and informative.

Once the pages are live, success will be achieved when you search for your competitor's name or phrases that contain it and you see your website coming up relatively high in the search results. Have somebody else do this on the other side of the country too because, these days, the results you see can be very different from what others see. Alternately, do the search in Incognito or Privacy mode to get a slightly better view of how your site ranks for the phrase.

In addition, you'll want to look at Google Webmaster Tools to see if you are ranking for a given competitor name, and you'll want to monitor Google Analytics to see if you are getting organic search traffic for competitor brand names. Lastly, are you getting conversions? In other words, does somebody take the time to learn more about your offerings by visiting many pages on the site, fill out a lead form or call you to schedule a sales presentation? When and if you see that happening, you'll know that this is an SEO strategy that has paid off for you.

Need help with SEO? We're happy to help. Odds are you're not ready for this particular rank-for-competitor-brands strategy and need to get some basic SEO building blocks and housekeeping in place first.

Reach out to us at (312) 235-6171 and we'll take a look at your site and let you know what we think. If we can help, we'll quickly get you a reasonable and thoughtful proposal to help you improve your digital presence.