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Wolansky's team does, however, keep tabs on its competitors, mainly by signing up to receive their marketing e-mails. "They look at our e-mails and we look at theirs," Wolansky says. "The place where they're going to be differentiating themselves is where they're going to want to let their customers know."
Besides following competitors' e-mail, e-commerce staffers at off-price women's fashion retailer Big M Inc. follow them via Google Alerts and on Facebook, says Aaron Mandelbaum, web marketing manager for the company, which operates three e-commerce sites: Mandee.com, AnnieSez.com and Afaze.com. The social network monitoring helped when a competitor, Charlotte Russe, got a lot of media attention two years ago for introducing a feature called ShopTogether from DecisionStep that lets two consumers in separate locations sync their computers so they can shop a web site together.
"Most of the news I saw on it was from web marketers saying this is cool," Mandelbaum says. "We were waiting to see if anyone said, 'This makes me want to shop there more.'" That kind of consumer buzz never showed on the social networks the retailer tracked, and Mandelbaum did not pursue adding the feature. (Charlotte Russe took ShopTogether off its web site early this year and is working to make it easier to use in hopes of encouraging more customers to engage with it, the retailer says.)
Paid search ads
Retailers can also gain qualitative insights by studying the content of competitors' paid search ads. But finding them is not as easy as finding rivals in natural search results. That's why search marketing agency iCrossing, which provides services to retailers and other companies, uses a tool from AdGooroo that lets a client track a competitor's search ads over a period of time. That's one of several services AdGooroo offers, charging fees that start at $400 per month.
It's a very useful tool, says Katy Hershey, senior director of search media at iCrossing. "I can see a quick snapshot of the ads run by my competitors in a given time period," she says. That includes the wording of their ads, and any promotions, and it helps iCrossing evaluate how well its own ad copy performs. For instance, she says, if performance slipped in mid-March, iCrossing can use the AdGooroo tool to see if competitors were running promotions during that period that gained them traffic.
Retailers can also get a sense of the search engine optimization, or SEO, strategy of a competitor by looking at its site the way a search engine spider does, says Hobart of Blue Fountain Media. Anyone can do that by clicking on the cached version underneath a natural search result, which shows the last version of the page Google indexed, then click on the text-only link in the upper right to eliminate images and formatting.
"That shows what text the search engines see in the order they see it," Hobart says. "What you can tell from that roughly is what the retailer may be trying to optimize for." If, for example, Macys.com's landing page for a particular dress starts with the designer's name, that may be an indication that Macy's sees more consumers searching for that designer than for the product itself.
"The great thing about SEO is for something to work it has to be on the Internet," Hobart says. "And if it's on the Internet you can eventually find it." It's just a question of knowing where, and how, to look.