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Search Retargeting: A Quick How-To Guide

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Most online marketers today are familiar with retargeting—the practice of serving display ads to users based on their online behavior. The most common form of retargeting is known as site retargeting: The ads are displayed to users who have visited an advertiser's site, with the ads seemingly following the user around as he or she travels around the Web.

But, contrary to popular belief, site retargeting isn't the only form of retargeting. In fact, a newer retargeting method, known as search retargeting, is on the rise and it's changing the way people think about retargeting.

Search retargeting serves display impressions to users based on the keywords they've typed into Google, Bing, Yahoo, or other search engines. So, for example, if you search for "Nike Air Jordan" in Google, that search data can be used to target you with display ads for Nike shoes once you leave the search engine.

It's a uniquely powerful approach to display advertising, because it's based on the intent that's revealed when someone performs an online search. In other words, it works for the same reason that search engine marketing (SEM) campaigns work. And because search retargeting doesn't rely on visits to an advertiser's site, it can be a great tool for bringing in new customers.

If you're unfamiliar with ad technology, search retargeting can sound complicated. And there is certainly a lot of complicated technology behind it. But for marketers who want to take advantage of this new tool, the process is relatively straightforward.

Let's take a look at six steps that can help you launch a successful search retargeting campaign.

1. Choose your DSP carefully

In search retargeting, or any other form retargeting, your campaign is only as strong as the data behind it. A display side provider (DSP) that runs search retargeting campaigns collects data from partners. These partners, in turn, drop cookies onto the browsers of users who arrive on their sites via search engines. The top search retargeting vendors capture billions of search terms, but some DSPs capture more than others. And the more search data you have, the more customers you're going to be able to target.

2. Determine your keywords

Many search retargeting campaigns begin with keywords already being used in SEM campaigns. But, in some cases, advertisers turn to search retargeting because they're being priced out of keywords on Google. Indeed, search retargeting is on the rise in large part because advertisers are discovering that they can purchase keywords at a fraction of the cost they'd pay on Google. The good news: if you don't have a keyword list, a smart vendor can also help you form one by studying your traffic.

3. Review your creative

Let's face it, if you don't have a strong creative, brilliant retargeting technology is only going to take you so far. You need creative that gets right to the point with a strong call to action. And that creative needs to take the user to a simple and straightforward landing page if you hope to see any conversions.

4. Place your bids

SEM marketers often catch on to search retargeting quickly because the process is the same at the fundamental level. Once you know the keywords you want, you bid on them in real-time auctions. In the display world, the real-time bidding takes place in ad exchanges. The advertisers or vendors determine how much they're willing to pay to serve impressions to specific (anonymous) individuals, and the algorithms do the rest.

Let's take an example. Say you're a designer-purse retailer and you want to target users who have searched for "Gucci purses." Once a user performs that search and travels to the site of a publisher that's participating in your ad exchange, your creative will appear as long as you've placed the winning bid for that impression. And you often would place the winning bid because you knew the impression's hidden value. Knowing how much to bid is really the key to the process; and, again, the more data you have, the better off you'll be.

5. Monitor

Once your campaign is up and running, the real work starts. A good search retargeting vendor will monitor the behaviors of the clickers and converters. If you want clear benchmarks that will help you push consumers through the sales funnel, you need the right metrics in place at every stage of the process.

And remember, you can't afford to ignore view-through attribution, which measures the number of people who arrive at your site after being exposed to one of your ads. In display campaigns, click-throughs don't tell the whole story. In fact, as many studies have shown, clicks alone tell you very little about how a display campaign is performing. After all, just because someone doesn't click on an ad doesn't mean the ad had no effect. If that were true, all offline advertising would be useless.

6. Build on your past successes

Figuring out what works is only the first part of a successful search retargeting campaign. Once you're seeing the conversions roll in, you've got to keep moving. You need a really good DSP that can uncover new keywords for you to target based on patterns revealed by your current campaign. This process, known as look-a-like targeting, requires sophisticated data analysis, but it can be an incredibly valuable tool for finding new customers.

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Ben Plomion is VP of marketing at Chango, a programmatic advertising platform that connects marketers with their target audience in real time across display, social, mobile, and video. Ben is also responsible for expanding the company's data and media partnerships.

LinkedIn: Ben Plomion

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  • by Beth Thu Jan 9, 2014 via web

    Well done. Concise and informative. This article will be very helpful to people wanting to get a basic understanding of retargeting. Thanks for taking the time to write it and post it.

  • by James H. Thu Jan 9, 2014 via web

    Monitoring your progress is definitely the most important part of the retargeting process. Failing to properly take note of your retargeting's effectiveness makes all of that effort go in vain. Good post! Definitely some useful tips on this.


  • by Lynn Dalsing Fri Jan 10, 2014 via web

    Understood that there is only so much space in this article to explain things, but I think it's worth noting that you can't target someone based on their having typed a search term into Google. You can target them based on having searched something and THEN visiting a site that drops a cookie onto the person's computer that indicates that the person has landed on their site after searching a specific term.

    So it works on the same basic principles as site retargeting, but the cookie you are using to determine that you should advertise to the person is coming from a different site.

    So say you search for art schools and land on an article in the New York Times about art schools. If the New York Times is part of a retargeting exchange, they fire off a cookie that says that the person landed on their site after searching for art schools. Now an art school could target that person based on the fact that they had searched for art schools.

    Sorry to be so didactic. I just think the article, while great on the how tos, is a little fuzzy on how it works. From this article, I would get them impression that Google was tracking my keystrokes or something.

  • by Eric Wittlake Mon Jan 20, 2014 via web

    Ben, as Lynn points out, you are picking up data from landing pages. Now that Google has turned off this data for nearly 100% of searches, how has it impacted search retargeting? At least in the markets I work in, the secondary search engines that I presume are now driving a lot of this data never delivery nearly the same quality or conversion rates that Google days.

    Appreciate your perspective on this. Thanks!

  • by Karunakar Thu Jan 30, 2014 via web

    I got crystal clear understanding of the retargeting, very well written.Thank you

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