It makes sense at first blush. If your competitor’s have already done the research and hard work to determine what the best key words and keyphrases are, why not just follow their lead (assuming you otherwise have completely original content, of course)? Unfortunately it’s not that easy, according to new research from the Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences.
You might have been able to piggyback when you were in school by cheating off your smart neighbor’s paper, but things are a little trickier in the world of search engine optimization (SEO). According to the study featured in Marketing Science, buying keywords from top competitors who appear on the biggie search engines like Google and Bing can seriously backfire.
Bait and Switch
The research revealed that most companies that engage in keyword purchases don’t limit themselves to “just” generic keywords but also buy up the actual brand names. It’s like if a local coffee chain decided to buy keywords like “Starbucks” and “cookie Frappuccino,” which are clearly Starbucks brands and products. Even if you reel in someone with those shoddy tactics, they’re going to know right away you’re not Starbucks and back click to find what they really want.
Company leaders might think this is a means to get some virtual real estate space close to their industry leaders via search ads, but do you really want to stack yourself up (literally) against bigger and potentially better competition? Plus, sometimes these brand purchases can get so extreme that it’s borderline plagiarizing and definitely a bait and switch scheme.
For example, if a brand like Volkswagen Passat decided to buy “Ford Mustang” (which never happened), that’s a pretty comparable brand even though they’re clearly not the same thing. But if No Name Model decided to purchase “Ford Mustang?” That’s a problem when it comes to quality comparison.
According to Woochoel Shin, one of the authors of the study, when you put an inferior product next to a superior one, you’re not fooling customers—you’re just highlighting the disparity that isn’t in your favor. Shin, also a professor at the Warrington College of Business Administration, points out that this will actually just raise the brand reputation for the superior product (your competition) while simultaneously making the inferior product (ahem, yours) seem even worse.
Of course, if you are the superior product, that begs the question of why you’re buying up inferior keywords to begin with. The only brands and companies engaging in competitor keyword purchases are inferior.
Let Go of the Coattails
It might seem like an SEO hack to ride the coattails of your competition, but it often comes back to bite you. Of course, optimizing keywords for search advertising is challenging and constantly evolving. However, there are no real short cuts in SEO, and you’re better off having a pro research and analyze the best keywords for you instead of taking the road of least resistance.
Play your cards right and someday inferior companies might be buying your keywords. And when that happens, you’ll smile all the way to the bank knowing they’re doing nothing but making your brand look even more appealing.