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With so much media attention being paid to the NSA and so many people up in arms about the privacy of their data, have we all forgotten that sometimes spying is cool? Have we all forgotten about Skyfall already? Did we collectively get hit with crazy purple knockout gas that comes out of an ordinary looking pen?

In paid search, information and data are the most valuable commodities you can have, especially when it comes to knowing what your competition is up to. Since a lot of advertisers in the same vertical are often working with similar pricing and items/services, knowing as much as possible about the PPC efforts of your biggest rivals can help you not only keep up with your competitors, but to take what they’re doing and do it better. Clearly, a little bit of spying can go a long way when it comes to paid search.

This is where SpyFu comes into play. Think of SpyFu as a secret high-powered microphone, detonator and ejection seat trigger all rolled into one. There’s a whole lot you can do with SpyFu, although it’s not all smooth sailing along the way. Let’s take a closer look at what SpyFu can do for you in the world of paid search espionage.

Spy Earpiece

The Good

If you want to know what someone is up to, the oldest method in the book is to bug their hideout and listen in on their conversations (That’s ‘Spying 101’). Since this is more difficult and illegal than James Bond would have you believe, you’re going to have to find a different way to spy on your PPC competition. This is where SpyFu really shines. Just put a competitor’s URL into the search box, and SpyFu will show you a dashboard full of all kinds of useful information. Let’s use Best Buy as an example.

SpyFu Dashboard

The first thing we see is the average daily spend for this website’s PPC campaign, as well as a daily average for every month going back 3 years. This is incredibly useful for businesses that may be new to paid search and want to get a good idea not just of what their competitors are spending, but the trends of that spending over time. Seeing patterns in increased/decreased spend can point out PPC seasonality trends and potentially the growth patterns for some companies. If a website started with a daily budget of $100 for their paid search two years ago and has steadily climbed to $2,000 a day between then and now, it stands to reason that paid search is a profitable and important source of business.

SpyFu’s basic subscription ($79 a month) also provides access to a list of each competitor’s PPC keywords. Checking out what terms your competitors are bidding on is a good way to make sure you’ve got all the keyword coverage you need, especially when first starting a campaign. Being able to mine the keywords of your competitors means there’s less of a chance a keyword with a profitable ROI slips between your fingers. Reading and downloading a competitor’s ad copy by campaign is also available. These keyword and ad copy lists are downloadable in Excel format for easy searching and comparisons. Looking at competitor spends, ads and keywords is probably about 90% of what you’ll use SpyFu for. If that kind of information sounds extremely valuable to you, I cannot recommend SpyFu enough.


The Bad

That doesn’t mean that SpyFu is a flawless product. For as much information as they give you, you have to be careful how much weight you give to it. One thing to remember when looking at whatever information SpyFu gives you is that it’s all an estimate. No one has the exact specifics for a paid search account except for Google. So while the information you get from SpyFu gives a great ballpark figure to information that would otherwise be too time-intensive to gather yourself, it’s important to remember that nothing you see is an exact picture. For example, if keywords were tested out and discarded by a competitor for being unprofitable or for bringing in a good amount of unqualified traffic, they’ll still show up in SpyFu. Since there is no indication on any of the reports which keywords are being currently bid on and which ones are paused, you have to watch out. Simply exporting the keyword and ad copy from a competitor and uploading it into your AdWords account is extremely dangerous, like carrying around your poison tipped pen without the cap on it. The cap to those things can fall of for basically no reason.

The Ugly

The ejector seat is a long-time staple for any high tech spy car. Nothing beats being able to deal with a rogue agent sitting in your passenger seat by throwing them out of the top of your Aston Martin at the push of a button. But how many times have spies accidentally ejected an innocent bystander from their front seat while trying to do nothing more than shift into reverse? That kind of risk can be a dealbreaker for any spy, and SpyFu is not without its potential dealbreakers.

The biggest problem I’ve run into using SpyFu is that downloading a keyword list, or any other report for that matter, can sometimes take quite a while, if at all. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve needed to download a report from SpyFu only to have nothing happen when I hit the “Export” button. The page starts to export and sometimes you’ll get the infuriating circle icon showing you that yes, the page is actually doing something. 80% of the time, I have no problem exporting information from SpyFu. The other 20% of the time, it can take hours, usually with a nice break in the middle. And when SpyFu is in a grumpy mood, prepare to see this screen a lot:


Again, the majority of the time everything works smoothly. But especially for smaller advertisers, $79 a month is a lot of money to pay for a service that only does what you want it to 4 out of 5 times on average.

One other small thing to remember is that if you have the non-agency subscription, you can only have one person log on at once. While this is completely fair (you are paying for one subscription after all), in this day and age where you can hook up 12 different people to a single Netflix account, some people just assume one password can be shared between two or three people. This is not the case with SpyFu. As soon as a second person logs in with a username, all other people also using that same username are immediately booted out. Again, that’s nothing but fair, but a good warning that anyone planning on having multiple people use SpyFu, you’re going to need the Agency subscription.

Does the good outweigh the bad and the ugly in this one? Absolutely! Like I said, the majority of the functions you’ll want from SpyFu work almost every single time you need them to, which is about the best that can be said for the majority of the internet when you think about it. The amount of advantage you can get from your competitors makes SpyFu more than worth its cost.

Also, using SpyFu is a lot easier to do than becoming an actual spy. Make sure to have a spare tuxedo or black turtleneck to wear while using it to complete the effect.