The phrase “corporate espionage” has an unsavory ring to it; everyone in business knows the cautionary tales of businesses who chose to go to the Dark Side, as when Starwood Hotels and Resorts worldwide accused two top executives at Hilton Worldwide, including two former Starwood executives, of stealing Starwood’s patent for a lifestyle concept intended to launch at W properties. It was called the Zen Den. Hilton eventually unveiled its own brand, which was called the Denizen, in 2009. Starwood’s accusation rocked the hospitality world; it was based on the fact that Hilton had employed 10 former executives and managers from Starwood, with the former head of Starwood Luxury Brands Group alleged to have downloaded truckloads of documents before leaving for Hilton Hotels. Some of the documents were obviously scrubbed to remove Starwood logos before they were passed among Hilton employees. That ended badly for Hilton, as you can imagine, and rightly so. 
But there are means of intelligence gathering that are moral, legal, and absolutely necessary if you want to succeed in today’s hyper-competitive environment. Do you know what your competitor is up to? If you don’t, you’re leaving important intelligence on the table, when all it takes to gather it is some sweat equity and online snooping techniques. 

CHECK THEIR BACKLINKS: One of the best ways to know how your competition stacks up is to examine how many backlinks they have and the quality of those backlinks. Looking at the sites and links to your competitors gives you clues about their relationships and alliances. When you discover backlinks to your competitors, you can look at the anchor text phrases they are targeting, which can give you clues about their engine optimization strategy and the keyword phrases they’re trying to rank for. There are many free and paid sites that will help you dig into this research. 

USE OPEN SOURCE INTEL:  Effective online spying starts with open source intelligence, which is there to be accessed and can give you plenty of insights into what your competitors are doing. Set up a system and create spreadsheets of the competitors that you are tracking.  Use RSS feeds, use alerts and book time into your calendar every month to revisit your competitive research and see what has changed. That will help you get the inside track.

RECRUIT FROM YOUR RIVALS:  Hiring an employee from a rival firm can mean bringing on someone who already knows your industry and your business, can bring valuable new knowledge to you and, of course, can reap valuable insider trade information from your competitors. This does require caution and a certain degree of finesse. You want to be sure you are recruiting real talent as opposed to recruiting a curriculum vitae.  As Sun Tzu says, “Entice away the enemy’s best and wisest men so that he may be left without counselors”. 

REMEMBER, THEY’RE DOING IT TOO: Finally, recognize your competitors are likely playing the same game you are. Don’t forget that you need to treat your best employees very well so they don’t desert for your competitor.