• How to prevent competitors from seeing your AdWords ads

    by  • February 20, 2009 • Pay Per Click • 27 Comments

    For whatever reason, you might decide you don’t want your competitors from seeing your AdWords ads.  The reason can be as simple as suspecting your competitor might be clicking on your ads or perhaps a competitor keeps stealing your ad copy.  Or you could just want your competitor to be searching for the golden keywords and not see any of your ads in sight, giving them the false sense of security that you must have pulled all your AdWords ads.  And, of course, there are more nefarious reasons why one might want to do this 😉

    By preventing your competitors from seeing your ads, it can also help preventing bidding wars for your best converting keywords.  If Ad Ranks are equal between you and your competitor, top dollar wins.  And if your competitors sit at their desks, checking their best keyword phrase and see themselves firmly planted at the top, they won’t bid higher and displace you from the top… even when the rest of the world clearly sees you at the top.  It wouldn’t be the first time an advertiser sees their positioning data in AdWords and assume it must be some kind of glitch, or something to do with quality score, because when they search they can’t see anyone else’s ad above their own.  And if they can’t see you are above them, they won’t start trying to outbid you, which means not only are you preventing your competitors from seeing your ads, you are also saving money by doing so.

    So if you are wanting to block your competitors from seeing your AdWords ads, here are a couple of methods that will allow you to do this.

    Geo-targeting against your competitors

    Do you know were your competitors are located?  Ideally, they are located in a less populated area where you can block a specific location or region from displaying your ads, or show your ads to other states only.  However, if it is in a larger metropolitan area, such as New York City or Los Angeles, you have to take into account that you could be blocking a big chunk of potential traffic too.

    There are two ways you can do this – by setting up campaigns for specific regions, or the far easier one of targeting all geographic locations, such as the entire United States, and then exclude specific regions.  To exclude specific regions, you need to edit on a campaign level:

    • On the Campaign Summary page, click the checkbox next to each campaign you wish to edit.
    • Click Edit Settings.
    • Click Edit next to Locations to change your campaign’s target locations.
    • Once you’ve selected locations to target, click ‘Exclude areas within selected locations.’
    • Browse the list of available areas and select those you’d like to exclude.
    • Click Done excluding.
    • Click Finished.
    • Click Save Changes.

    Don’t forget to take into account if your competitor has two partners located in completely different areas of the country, it is much more common than you think.  If you aren’t sure, check whois data and “about us” pages.  And if they have open profiles on LinkedIn or Facebook, many often list their locations, or if they are on Twitter, check and see if they have listed a location or have twittered something about their location recently.  Or just ask others, someone is bound to know!

    Do be aware there is the Ad Preview Tool which can work around your settings, as it allows advertisers to see ads in various countries and regions.  But most advertisers tend to check regular Google results, and only use the Ad Preview Tool when making sure their own geo-targeting is working correctly.

    IP Exclusion

    You can exclude IPs two ways – by excluding a specific IP or my excluding an IP range.  The first option is simple, just find out the IP of the person or company (many companies will share a single IP) and block that IP in each campaign.  The option is somewhat hidden in your AdWords account if you don’t know where to look for it, but here is how to do it when you’ve signed into your AdWords account:

    • Click Tools at the top of your Campaign Summary page.
    • Click IP Exclusion under ‘Optimize Your Ads.’
    • Select a campaign, and click Go.
    • Enter the list of IP addresses to be excluded.
    • Click Exclude IP Addresses.

    The second option gives you the ability to block a larger group of IPs, since you Google only allows you to exclude 20 IP addresses per campaign.  But of course, be careful that you don’t block an IP range that happens to cover half of your country, like this advertiser did 😉  So use the IP range option with caution.

    If you don’t know your competitor’s IP address, go back and check your email in case they have ever emailed you about something (especially handy if you have ever spoken on a conference panel with any of them).  If not, you can use an old trick advertisers used when trying to determine if a competitor was the one engaging in click fraud on ads – have someone send an email to the company asking something, and see what IP is on the response.  But whatever you do, don’t send the email from your own (or your company’s) IP address, because you never know, they might know your IP is actually you :)  

    You could also try sending an email with an embedded image and see what IP address(es) pull the image, but you will need a server not connected to your business to host the image and that also gives you access to the raw longs so you know the IPs that grab the image.  But taking into account the number of email programs that automatically block all images, it isn’t that effective anymore.

    You can also go through your logs and pull out any IPs that appear repeatedly over weeks, that always click your AdWords ad to get to the site.  Even at one click a day, after a month that can really add up… and you can pretty much bet that it is a competitor (or someone that doesn’t like you!) who is doing the clicking.  Regular traffic through AdWords will rarely show up to your site on such a regular basis, always using the ads to gain entrance to the site.

    Some people suggest you block the IP the domain is not (ie. if I was a competitor, you would block the IP that jenniferslegg.com is on).  However, this isn’t always very effective because in the broader scheme of things, just because my site sits on a particular IP doesn’t mean that it is the same IP I use to surf the net.  It does work for some larger corporations depending on how their server and server access is set up.

    Don’t forget that if competitors think you are being sneaky about your ads, there are always ways that they can discover what you are doing, although they might not realize you are doing it deliberately.  If you have blocked by IP address, the IP could change, or perhaps they start working from home.  It could even be something as simple as working from a coffee shop one day that means they will be using an unblocked IP, or working in a hotel room across the country.   And with the 20 IP addresses limit, it would be nearly impossible to find all those IPs they are using.

    Blocking on the server level

    An old school solution was to block competitors on the server level by blocking their IP address.  However, this will do nothing to actually prevent competitors from seeing your ad, and even if they click the ad but don’t actually end up on your landing page because you have blocked them at your server level, you will still get charged for the click.  You could still use it if you are trying to prevent a competitor from swiping a landing page, but don’t forget that your cache copy in Google will still reveal it.

    The bottom line is that if any competitor suspects you (or anyone else targeting the same keywords) are up to something and is determined to see your AdWords ads, they will.  However, the hope is that they won’t know you’re up to something and happily continue running their ads – preferably below yours, because they won’t realize someone is actually bumping them out of the top spot (especially if you are also using Position Preference to secure your top spot) – and be none the wiser that you are in the actually right there in the game with them.

    Click here for more of my PPC articles


    Jennifer Slegg is a longtime member of the SEO community and is an expert on social media, content marketing, Google AdSense and search engines.

    27 Responses to How to prevent competitors from seeing your AdWords ads

    1. February 23, 2009 at 1:20 pm

      Or when you make a change to your home page meta tag and you look at your competition and all of a sudden it looks very similar to yours.

    2. March 5, 2009 at 4:59 am

      A Great Article on how we need to be careful about our competitors and blocking of IP’s …precautionary measures. Wort a Tweet :)

    3. March 10, 2009 at 1:54 am

      This stuff really makes me cross. Far better to spend your time actually improving your company, working on word-of-mouth recommendations, building quality (not spam-based) inbound links and so on.

      That time spent trying to second-guess IP address ranges and geographical locations of just one competitor could be far better spent improving content / products / other marketing efforts.

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    6. Tim
      April 3, 2009 at 5:35 am

      Andy Merrett “That time spent trying to second-guess IP address ranges and geographical locations of just one competitor could be far better spent improving content / products / other marketing efforts.”

      Here here, an absolute waste of time

    7. Dan
      November 29, 2011 at 9:00 am

      Terrific Post ! I have a couple of questions:
      1) Where are these logs you talk about where I can see the repeated clicks from the same IP address? I have not seen anything like that on Adwords
      2) Can you explain how I can see someone IP address by checking their reply to an email I sent them?

      Thank You !!!!!

    8. May 24, 2012 at 2:16 pm

      But first you have to find out where they are, which is not always obvious as sometimes companies use marketing agencies located in a different location than there corporate or franchise offices.

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