Is it wrong to target the same terms as your competitors?

Keyword targeting is essential if you want to stand a chance at driving the right type of traffic to your website. Whilst there is nothing wrong with targeting the same terms your competitors are, proceed with caution as some keyword targeting could be seen as black-hat practice and cost you a penalty.

What is black-hat practice?

Black hat is the name used by SEO gurus for unethical ways of optimising your site to game the search engines. Search engines have such sophisticated algorithms these days that enable black-hat practices to be quickly spotted and penalised.

So, what differentiates good from bad when it comes to targeting your competitors’ keywords?

The good

Competitor research is a fundamental exercise when setting your online objectives. A competitor analysis enables you to measure your online presence against that of your competitors and understanding the level of rapport required to reach or their benchmark. Part of that competitor research is understanding what keywords your competitors are using and noting their rankings.

There are a number of tools you can use to identify the search terms your competitors have optimised their site pages for.

Screaming Frog and Xenu are two programmes that output a list of URLs for HTML pages. Part of this data includes the page title, which contains the main keyword used for that particular page.

You may already have a working list of keywords you’re targeting, but using Screaming Frog or Xenu allows you to compile a full list of keywords that your industry competitors are targeting. These might coincide with what you are already targeting. Or, you might find new keywords to target.

Once you have a developed set of keywords, you can then find out where each competitor ranks for each of these keywords, against where you rank. You can check these rankings by hand if you wish, however there are two things to bear in mind when doing this:

1 – Do an incognito search and make sure you aren’t logged into Google. This will prevent you from getting a results page based on your location, which isn’t the same as others would see.

2 – If you conduct too many Google searches in a short space of time, Google will disrupt your search by blocking certain actions.

As an alternative to laboriously checking rankings by hand, you can use programmes such as Web CEO and

These programmes work by scanning your list of keywords for one competitor at a time and outputting a ranking for each one depending on the search engine you have asked it to output rankings for (you can select multiple).

Granted, it may take a few hours to scan each individual competitor and involve manual intervention at the beginning and end when you set the scan and then export the results, but the results are more accurate, meaning less human error and more time to be getting on with other SEO tasks.

Tracking your competitors’ keyword performance like this and bench marking your own means you can see where you are positioned and plan a strategy for monthly activity to work on specific keywords and improve their rankings beyond that of your competition.

Where you rank is important in determining the level of traffic your site receives. For example, on the first page of Google, position 1 receives 32.5% amount of traffic for a search, position 2 receives 17.6%, position 3 gets 11.4%, position 4 gets 8.1% and position 5 gets 6.1%.

So, you see, one position difference can be a big deal, especially for a search that has a reasonable high volume, such as 1,000 searches per month.

google page rank

Image Source: Search Engine Watch

The Bad

As with anything SEO related, there’s a host of red tape around any practice. In the capacity of competitor keywords, this comes down to an issue of ethics. Using a competitor brand name or branded product name is considered a black-hat practice in the SEO arena.

Optimising your sites pages for a competitor’s brand might seem like an unlikely route but many a business desperate to outrank their competitors have used these types of tricks to get noticed in the search engine results pages.

One of these techniques, which Google has fortunately clamped down on, involves companies hiding or masking the keywords on a page so that the text is visible to search engine spiders, but invisible to users visiting the page. Such jiggery-pokery includes adding text in the same colour as the background so it can’t be seen by the human eye.

This is most certainly considered spammy practice in the eyes of Google as it appears unnatural in the webpage content. Even if you do get past the gates of Google and your site gets indexed, it’s likely to get rumbled at some point and probably cost you a fair penalty, such as a drop in rankings or a delisting at worst.

In certain cases, keyword optimisation for your competitors’ brand terms is acceptable, such as in the case of PPC (pay-per-click).  Businesses often bid on other business’ brand keywords so that they appear in the list of secondary, tertiary etc ad spots under the one that was searched for. This is so that the user is presented with similar companies that offer the same service or products to that of the competitor that was searched.

Technically bidding on competitor brand name is not banned by Google, however there is still a debate over whether or not this is ethical. If a business using a competitor brand name outranks that actual brand with a higher ad spot because its ad copy was more relevant to search, this is arguably unethical.

Are you a business looking for advice on your SEO or PPC strategies? Whitefish Marketing is a digital marketing agency based in Folkestone Kent. We help businesses to plan their keyword and content strategies to ensure they are competitive online within their industry. Get in touch with the team on 01303 720 288.

About Chris Surridge

Chris Surridge is an experienced Digital Marketing Director with a wealth of knowledge on Search Marketing Strategies and Conversion Analysis. His value is in strategic planning for client accounts, and his consultative services.