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Illustration by Hank Osuna
Posted: 9/23/98

Competition: How the Web changes the rules

We live by well-worn rules of engagement with the engineering companies that are our competitors, often marked by civility versus the take-no-prisoners attitude among many consumer product vendors. The Internet has irreversibly begun to change that.

Consider, for example, that one of the traditional reasons not to mention competitors has been to avoid bringing them to the attention of a customer. But how often have you first learned of a product when another vendor proclaimed how much better his own product was compared to his competitor's? The more specialized the product — which for engineering is quite often — the more we rely on vendors to alert us to the other players. That's why you rarely see product comparisons across vendors in standard brochure packages, even though such information is often key to the purchasing decision.

Web sites that violate this rule run the same risk if they are designed like brochureware. Most Web sites are expansions of brochures or books in that they are hierarchical or top-down. A home page is a switchboard or table of contents that links ever deeper into a company's Web site. Most Web editing software includes tools for identifying orphans, i.e., Web pages that violate the hierarchical nature of most Web sites and have no page linking to them.

What if those pages include product comparisons, or hold white papers that contrast designs, or show equivalent replacement tables that make it easy to switch out your product? Should they have links to your competitor's home page? If they do, aren't you diverting visitors from your site? And have any links to your competitors been designed and positioned so that they're only found when someone asks for your company's name or your brand name in the various Web directories from Alta Vista through Yahoo?

If you're looking for product information and enter "Intel, Pentium" into Alta Vista, of course you'll see Intel's home page on the returned list. What if you also notice another item, "Pentium vs. AMD's K6," with the description: "A chip performance comparison with compatibility test results"? You may even be under the impression that this is design info from Intel. But all the links go to pages under

Is this legal? It's as legal as anything done on paper. On the Web, you can't lie, advocate criminal acts, launch derogatory personal attacks, misrepresent yourself, use trademarks without properly mentioning the owner — standard stuff for any brochure writer. Could AMD repeatedly mention Intel and Pentium on its site in order to get good positioning on Alta Vista, specifically by utilizing the meta tags and other tags specifically designed for positioning? Although the Internet is too much of a frontier for a completely reliable answer, the power of the pen (and keyboard) has a solid track record, and a legal challenge to a fair and honest comparison is all uphill.

The net result of all this is that you and your competitors can now take the initiative to rechannel from your competitors to yourself without the risk of alerting prospects to your competitors. In this way, the Internet is significantly different from brochures, radio, TV, newspapers or anything short of a salesperson who whips out competitive comparisons only on request. Using this approach, the only way cybernauts will find information about your competitors is if they already know about them and go looking for them.

By Darwinian selection, a marketing option that has an upside and a minimal downside is going to proliferate. Even a casual search of the Web will reveal that this is going on now. So the question then becomes, "What are my specific threats and opportunities, and what am I going to do about them?"

The threat is fairly straightforward, and so is your response to it. Assemble a list of your brand names, of your company name and its variants, and search the Web for them on a regular basis. Use a comprehensive Web search service such as Alta Vista or Lycos, rather than one like Yahoo, which has human reviewers who may reject the competitive pages you seek. Read the advanced search tips (Boolean searches, "not" operator, etc.) peculiar to the search service you prefer so that you can write a complex query that excludes your own pages and other irrelevants. This is usually an iterative process that yields a long search string which you should paste into your word processor or scheduler to reuse each week. No need to do this across more than Alta Vista or Lycos — if your competitors can't get reasonable positioning in those two major directories, you don't have to worry about them. Once you find a product comparison or some other threat, you should prepare your response page and work the positioning techniques to get listed at least as high.

The opportunity and what to do about it is also straightforward. Take the initiative and prepare your comparison pages before your competitors beat you to it. Besides the legal and marketing review, you should have this kind of information on paper. Here are some Internet-specific preparation tips:

  1. Learn the basics of Web promotion to make sure you understand how to get good positioning with your competitive pages. This includes embedding meta tags for keywords and descriptions, using keyword text in header tags and index tags, and working all the angles of the relevancy formulas of the major Web search directories (except spamming). All the tricks and techniques to positioning are beyond the scope of this article, but there are online resources at Search Engine Watch and at PromoteOne, and there are tips provided by the search directories themselves as part of their submittal process.

  2. Resist the urge to use your company's name or your product's name in meta tags or in any other way to encourage relevancy matches from the directory services. Do that for your home page and its subordinate pages, but not for these competitive pages. Otherwise you risk alerting prospects who enter your name to the existence of your competitors.

  3. No need to generate comprehensive information compares you to your competitor. In our fast-paced world, such a page can become a maintenance headache to keep current. An excerpt from a magazine article, a table with some subjective comparison points, or simply a few bullets are all that is necessary. As long as the Web page shows you are a player and links to your Web site, that is where you should provide the complete marketing machine.

  4. Use a template for such a comparison page, and replicate a separate one for each competitive product model or brand name. Even if a magazine article covers several competitors, extract only the information that is relevant to the particular competitor. Otherwise, you may be back to alerting prospects who know of one competitor to competitors. With a template, you make many pages each funneling to your Internet presence.

  5. Do not try the short cut of simply adding your competition's name to the keyword meta tags of your home page. The person launching the Web search will just think your Web site is listed in the results by mistake. There is also some potential for a legal challenge accusing you of misrepresenting yourself, as opposed to a page that makes it clear that this is a comparison. Moreover, adding keywords to your home page is rarely a good idea, since this dilutes your relevancy ranking for any one of the keywords.

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