The Art of War and Digital Marketing

Sun-Tzu wrote The Art of War, a 2,000-year-old-book that still has some of the most pragmatic strategies for success in business and in life. Chapter 13 covers spies and gathering intelligence. In the realm of digital marketing, knowing what your competition is doing is so important, and it makes me think of one of my favorite SEO tools: SpyFu. This free tool displays your competitions’ efforts so you can learn what paid and organic terms they rank for and which terms you should negatively match within your own paid search campaigns. It also shows you the results of your competitors’ historic ad copy.

Here are some helpful tips for using SpyFu to “spy” on your competitors’ digital marketing efforts, according to the timeless lessons of Sun-Tzu:

“The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”

By learning what works—and doesn’t—for your competition, you can improve your own digital content strategies. To do this, you must first define your online competition, which is often different from your retail competitors. In the SpyFu tool, begin typing your website address to learn who your organic and paid competitors are within the Overview section. I love riding bicycles, so I’m going to use Trek’s website for the following examples, including the one below:



Trek’s top organic competitors (in green) are Specialized, Marin Bikes and Giant. Their top paid competitors (in blue) are not big-name vendors; they’re ecommerce sites like Road Bike Outlet, Bikes Direct and Bike Shop Warehouse. When paying for visibility online, you need to know who you’re competing against, not just the brands that sell products similar to yours.

“If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”

As content marketers, we study our analytics and ranking reports to track our progress for content creation. However, if you’re not looking at how your competition is doing, you’ll find yourself in the dark—and vulnerable.

Here, we can view the total number of terms you and your top competitors rank for (keyword universe), the terms they outperform you on (weakness) and the terms you outrank them on (exclusive keywords):


You can hover over the different sections of the diagram or the tiles on the right to get additional details. Review the yellow Weakness section. It contains terms you don’t currently rank for, so you can create content strategies to increase the keyword density within your own site.

spyfu 3

Unlike Trek, both Giant and Specialized organically rank for terms like bike petals, mtb saddle and road bike handlebars. If I, too, want search traffic to come to my site through these keywords, I need to optimize my site to pull the traffic.

“What is of supreme importance in war is to attack your enemy’s strategy.”

How often are you doing deep competitive reviews? Annually? Quarterly? Now think about how often you’re studying your own paid search campaigns. Don’t you think you should know what your competition is doing in great detail as well? You should, and here’s why: If you track their data on a regular basis, you can pick up on trends and be able to quickly respond—as well as pick up on any new targeting they begin to do.


By entering a competitor’s URL, you can sort through their paid search data by best and worst performance, or alphabetically for easy location. On the right of the image above, you can also see the text for the top-performing ads, along with their average position.

“Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.”

Play with keyword tools to determine which terms or strategies you should focus your attention on. Let’s say Trek wants to compete to organically rank for mtb saddle (mountain bike seats). Using the Keyword Research application, you can see under the SERP Analysis section the top pages that rank for that term. You could then review these pages to find out their keyword density, domain strength, backlinks, Meta elements, etc. By learning from the best, you can become stronger.


“Great results can be achieved with small forces.”

When it comes to link building to increase your SEO, quality always trumps quantity. Spyfu’s Backlinks application shows you the best sites to target to request links back to your site that will help you rank for the search term you apply (in this case, I was still working with mtb saddle).


The recommended backlinks above helped Trek’s competition rank for the term by having outbound links pointing to those sites.

By channeling your inner SEO spy through the wisdom bestowed upon us by Sun-Tzu, you can improve your organic and paid search visibility by using SpyFu, an awesome search marketing research tool.

Keep reading in Strategy