Competitive intelligence is very often taken for granted in the search industry. We rarely spend any time getting to know our competitors. We seem too busy dealing with our own stuff.
Unfortunately, leaving the competition to fend for themselves leaves so much on the plate.
Many people assume search is basically measured with ROI. While this is the end it should never be everything. By studying your competitors you learn so much. You are not going to be breaking all the new insights into marketing for your industry. Watch and pick up tricks and new methods.
So don't miss the opportunities. Sign up for your competitors' emails, read their content and get to know their sites as well as your own.
There are many tools out there you can use of various pricing. I use SpyFu – great for checking bids and daily spends – Arelis and SEO Elite for indepth link information – they can be used to get more links, find anchor text as well as PR, Alexa rankings and other assets.
Google Alerts is a good tool for being notified when something changes for your competitive keywords as well as when you and your competition are mentioned online. AdGooRoo is great for notifications of new competitors for your keywords as well as the ads they are using.
Using these tools and some skill you can develop great new keywords. They are found in PPC campaigns and in the inbound text links used by competitors or even in their page optimization efforts.
You should also check out what analytics programs – if any – your competitors are using. It reflects the level of sophistication they have, and also what they can measure.
Beyond that you need to develop this into a process. It is not a one time thing but a regular process needed to stay ahead. Beyond that read, read, read. Our industry is always changing and you can only stay on top by putting in the effort.