Debunking the Operation Camouflage Strategy: Is Deceit Really a PPC Best Practice?

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Since when did deceit become a useful pay-per-click tool? A few months ago I discovered Engine Ready’s article titled Operation Camouflage, The Art of War, and PPC. The folks at Engine Ready spelled out how to hide your ads from competitors in an effort to reduce “competitive click fraud” in Google AdWords.

On the surface Operation Camouflage doesn’t seem like a half bad idea. But I would like to argue that this “house of cards” theory can quickly be blown over. I’ll start by asking a few questions: Is competitive click fraud and ad plagiarism really such a big problem that it merits the extra thought and effort? How ignorant is your competition that they can be so easily fooled by Operation Camouflage? Why do you feel it necessary to avoid competition?

Is Operation Camouflage Worth It?

According to the article, the best way to protect against competitive click fraud is to “camouflage” your ads in this manner:

  • “Gather intelligence” on the location of your competitor’s head quarters.
  • Create new campaigns and ad groups with custom geo-targeting to block out said competitors’ head quarters.
  • Manipulate both the message and bid to place a “non-threatening” ad lower on the first page within this custom targeted location.

That’s a lot of work to limit what is very likely an incredibly small number of impressions and clicks! As far as I can see, this is all a waste of time and effort that could be spent on much more productive tasks like ad text testing or optimizing for Quality Score. And should I even mention that you will lose clicks and conversions in each and every location you’ve “camouflaged” against your competitors? On this point Engine Ready saw some sense and had the following to say:

Obviously, you’ll need to evaluate whether the risk of that lost exposure is greater than the potential gain from adopting Operation Camouflage.

How Ignorant is Your Competition?

The primary tool that the article references to gauge your Operation Camouflage efforts is Google’s Ad Preview Tool. Engine Ready suggests that you use the Ad Preview Tool to see how your camouflaged ad appears to your competitor. Now consider this: Every AdWords advertiser, big or small, has access to the Ad Preview Tool. What will stop your competitors from testing other locations than their own only to discover your well written ad is in the top 3 positions? If that’s the case, you’ve just wasted a lot of time for nothing.

To further this point, what makes you so certain that your competition is going to Google.com and searching their competitors’ ads? Since the launch of the Ad Preview Tool, many advertisers (including myself) have begun doing their primary research with the tool. The results of which are two-fold: you don’t accrue errant impressions for your ads (thus increasing your own CTR) or your competitors’ ads.

Now, I’ll concede the fact that when using the Ad Preview Tool you can’t click through ads to review landing pages. From time to time it is necessary to scope out what your competitors are doing well (or doing poorly) on their landing pages so that you can maintain the edge in your niche. In my mind, losing these clicks to your competition is just a part of the game.

Why Avoid Competition?

PPC is at its very core a competitive game; to deny this would be foolish at best. In my eyes, competition is what keeps PPC strategies and methodologies moving forward. To use an analogy, consider the automobile market. What would the auto landscape look like if General Motors (GM) was the only manufacturer? We’d all be driving over-sized cars that guzzle more gas then you can imagine! Competition, heck even outright rivalries, between GM, Ford, Toyota, Honda and countless other manufacturers is what progresses the automotive market. Cars and trucks continue to get better and new technologies are implemented every model year. You can bet that each of these manufacturers takes a look under the hood of their competitor’s new hybrid or innovative sports car to get a hint at what they should do next.

PPC is no different. Competition between advertisers is what drives the online advertising market forward. I would encourage every advertiser to take a peak “under the hood” of their competitors’ campaigns from time to time. Beyond the direct benefit of showing you how well they’re doing in their advertising efforts, this research will give you the advantage to innovate and be different from your competition.

To truly buy-in to Operation Camouflage, I feel that you will have to expend effort better suited for other tasks, assume that your competition is ignorant and generally believe that there is nothing you can learn from researching your competitors (and having them research you, too). Engine Ready’s Operation Camouflage article would have you come away believing that deceit complimented with real PPC skill will “secure victory.” I say stick to your core PPC skills and give your advertising everything you’ve got whether your competition is watching or not (if they are, give them a show!).

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  • http://theppcbook.com jeff

    John,

    I agree wholeheartedly, I think ‘operation camouflage’ sounds like ‘operation: waste of time’. How about beating someone with skill and better ads, landing pages, and offers?

    Good linkbait on their part though…

    Keep up the good work, love the blog…

    Jeff

  • http://searchmarketingblogonline.blogspot.com/ Jon Clark

    I agree with Jeff. Sure ad copy is a large portion of the equation, but the landing page, call to action and overall product is what is going to ultimately land the conversion.

  • http://www.ppchero.com John

    Hello Jeff and Jon,

    Exactly! There are so many other factors in a ppc campaign like landing pages, calls to action, etc that are far more important than hiding from competitors.

    Thanks for the comments!