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Operation Camouflage: How to Hide Your PPC Ads from Competitors

The benefit of hiding your PPC (Pay-Per-Click) ads from competitors is pretty obvious.

PPC advertising is extremely competitive. You compete not only with your direct competitors but also with big-budget advertisers like Amazon and Ask.com who seem to bid on every term under the sun.

Which is why hiding your ads from competitors is a great idea—so they can’t copy your ads and so they won’t be able to study the latest PPC strategy you’re testing.

Once you’ve found a headline, ad copy, and display URL combination that works, you don’t want your competitors being able to study what you’ve done and reverse engineer your ads or new landing page strategy. It takes time and money to find a winning combination, something you don’t want your competitors to copy simply by studying your ads.

So it’s obvious why businesses would like to hide their ads from competitors. The more difficult step is figuring out how to hide your ads from the competition. Sure, everyone would like to do it, but how do you set things up so your direct competitors can’t see your ads. Is it even possible?

The answer is yes, and this post explains two different ways to do it.

Option #1: Use Geotargeting to Hide Your Ads

The first option is to use geotargeting to hide your ads. The upside is that this is the easiest option to implement, the downside is that it’s not quite as effective as option #2.

To use geotargeting, you first need to know where your competitor’s office is located, something you can easily uncover by going to your competitor’s Contact page and making a note of where their office is located. If it’s in Seattle, for example, then you know to focus your geotargeting efforts on Seattle.

Next, you need to change your geotargeting settings so your ads won’t show up in the city where you’d like to hide your ads. You can do this by clicking “Settings” at the campaign level, and then scrolling down to locations, searching for the city you’ve chosen to target, and then clicking “exclude” as seen in the screenshot below.

joe p picture 1

Once again, the upside with this option is that it’s easy to implement and can be done in a matter of minutes; the downside is that it’s not quite as effective as option #2 and you’ll miss out on potentially valuable clicks by customers who live in the same city or region where your competitor’s office is located.

This means you’ll need to do a Risk vs. Reward analysis to see how important it is to hide from your competitors. If you’re in a highly competitive industry, it may still be worth it, but if you can’t afford to miss clicks from the area you’re targeting, then you’ll need to either use option #2 or possibly consider not hiding your ads at all.

But just in case option #2 is a better fit, let’s go ahead and move on to that now.

Option #2: Blocking Your Competitor’s IP Address

For the next option, you’re going to exclude your competitor’s IP address so they can’t see your ads.

At some point, Google created IP exclusion so advertisers can block specific IP addresses from seeing their ads. The purpose for this feature is to block addresses that may be costing a business a lot of clicks without generating conversions or might be coming from a malicious source. The good news is that this feature can also be used to also block competitors from seeing your ads, so long as you know their corporate IP address.

Here’s how it works: First, you identify your competitor’s IP address. Next, you enter their IP address into AdWords to exclude the address from seeing your ads. The result is that your competitor’s can no longer see your ads from their office.

This ends up being more bulletproof than option #1 and means you don’t have to sacrifice showing your ads to an entire city or region just to block your competitors from seeing your ads.

So how do you get your competitor’s IP address? This is where it gets a bit tricky…

One way is to send an email to someone at the company and then to record the outgoing IP address from the reply. There’s a good chance that the IP address matches the corporate office, but it’s also possible that the IP address is from the email provider. Either way, go ahead and exclude it just in case it is the competitor’s office IP address.

The next thing you can do is look at your website server logs and match visits to your site from IP addresses that originate from where your competitor’s corporate office is located. This takes a little bit of time and is more imprecise, but if there are a lot of pings over the course of a year from the same IP address in the city that matches your competitor’s corporate office address, then there’s a good chance it’s from someone from their office checking out your website. You might accidentally block a customer, but you’ll definitely block fewer customers than you will with option number one.

Once you’ve recorded the IP addresses you believe belong to your competitors, click on “Settings” again, scroll down to IP exclusions, and then add the IP addresses you’d like to exclude as seen in the screenshot below.

joe p picture 2

Bonus Tip: Blocking Competitor’s from Specific Campaigns

Another option is to only block competitors from campaigns where you’re bidding on their brand name. This means they won’t see your strategy for bidding on their branded terms, but you won’t block everyone from a certain city from seeing your ads.

In the example below, Volusion uses a comparison landing page while bidding on the term “shopify.” They then go on to explain how their customers earn on average four times more than those who sign up for Shopify.

joe p landing page

(You can see the full landing page here.)

This is the kind of page or campaign you’d want to hide from the competitor who’s brand term you’re bidding on.

To do so, simply set up an AdWords campaign for a single competitor or for all of the competitor terms you’ll be bidding on. Next, follow the steps from option #1 above to hide your ads from your competitor campaigns without cancelling all of your ads for a particular city.

Should You Take the Time to Block Competitor Ads?

The answer to this question depends on your business and your industry. If you’re in an extremely cut-throat industry (think companies like Geico and Progressive or Volusion and Shopify), then it’s definitely worth the effort. It will take a bit of time to get things set up, but being able to hide your ads from the competition will pay off in the long run.

It also makes sense if you’re a small company going up against a large corporate advertiser. Hiding your ads at the outset means you won’t wake a sleeping giant at the point when you’re attempting to gain as much market share from a company with nearly limitless resources.

Sun Tzu also teaches a valuable lesson about hiding from your enemy in the Art of War where he says, “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

You still need to figure out how to optimize your AdWords campaigns so you can “fall like a thunderbolt,” but hiding your ads gives you the advantage of testing new campaign variations so that your plans are “dark and impenetrable as night.”

What will you do? Will you hide your plans from the competition, or do you not think it’s not worth the time and effort it takes to set this up? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

About the Author: Joe Putnam is the VP of Marketing at iSpionage where they make it easy to download competitor keyword lists and also are the only company to offer landing page surveillance which saves screenshots of competitor PPC landing pages for easy review and an endless stream of new A/B testing ideas for PPC marketing managers and teams.

  1. These options may work for competitors manually searching for terms and discovering your ads. But what about using competitive tools to research keywords and ads, such as SEM Rush? I always use these tools first, then may perform manual searches.

  2. Joe, the idea is good, but don’t you think that if your competitors are smart they will simply use dynamic IP or VPN for research?

  3. A remote workforce would be difficult to block with this method, too. I use Spyfu to see competitors’ ads. Seems like there should be a way to block these tools we SEOs use from accessing our ads, though.

  4. Okay do you have a tip for preventing mobile competition from spam clicks? We use click monitoring, but I mean, if I take my cell phone and and enter airplane mode then disable airplane mode, I get a new IP. How does banning IPs prevent this?

    • It’s impossible when they have a dynamic IP. A large percentage of our campaigns are being attacked daily and there’s no way to stop it. This is ridiculous.

  5. Wesley Parker Mar 15, 2016 at 8:05 pm

    Hi Joe, Blocking your competitors from seeing your ads is a good idea in principle, however I’d argue that your time would be better spent just putting your top performing keywords into their own single keyword ad groups (80/20 rule). One thing that I’ve noticed form consulting is that the top ads may not be the best with regards to CTR or even be profitable, so its best to exercise caution when copying your competitors ads.

  6. Luiz Centenaro Sep 23, 2016 at 6:37 pm

    Thanks Joe, I’m eager to find a way to block competitors but won’t be moving forward with either of these options. #1 is too broad and #2 takes too much time and doesn’t guarantee anything if they search from coffee shops, their phones or while traveling.

    Going to just accept that a certain percentage of clicks will be competitors. I’m sure you’ve clicked on your competitor ads too.

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