A Strong Appetite for Behavioral Search Targeting

Respondents to a Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) survey are extremely interested in behavioral targeting.

Demographic and behavioral targeting were sufficiently interesting to marketers that advertisers, on average, would pay 11 percent more for both behavioral and demographic targeting, according to the “2007 SEMPO State of the Market Survey.” The survey also finds that 57 percent of online advertisers polled were willing to spend more on demographic targeting, such as age and gender. While the survey doesn’t overtly specify that the primary targeted behavior was prior search (so-called search retargeting), the questions likely had respondents referring to that practice.

This is great news for search engines willing to provide advertising that allows marketers to behaviorally target consumers through graphical or textual ad units.

Despite talk of some kind of Yahoo/Google strategic alliance, Google isn’t nearly as pro search retargeting as Yahoo and Microsoft are. And if Yahoo were to reduce or eliminate its direct sales of PPC (define) search advertising, it would weaken its ability to sell behaviorally targeted ads on its own search traffic. Ironic, isn’t it?

While advertiser interest in behavioral targeting is very strong, there currently isn’t a ton of inventory available to retarget searchers. This results in the actual spending against behavioral search inventory being quite low. Forty percent of survey respondents said they aren’t currently targeting or retargeting searchers but to do so in the next 12 months. Current retargeting options are driven primarily by third-party ad networks that retarget organic visitors, paid search visitors, and often general site visitors.

I’m excited to see what kinds of behavioral search targeting options show up this year (and next), in part because the engines’ behavioral search options will deliver far more scale than we can currently deliver using cookie targeting within third-party ad networks.

Also fascinating is a little-discussed facet of behavioral search targeting with graphical or textual ads within traditional banner inventory: competitive targeting. This would be where we advertisers are given opportunities to target users who are searching for our competitors (brands, names, or sites) — not within the SERP (define), but within textual or graphical ads served on Web pages or within applications such as messaging apps and widgets. This competitive retargeting of search behavior opens up a whole new area of advertising, providing a way to get messages in front of in-market consumers without the pesky trademark issues that continue to plague the SERPs.

I expect to see significant new behavioral options emerge at search engines other than Google this year. What’s driving this trend? A high level of interest in behavioral inventory, plus the fact that overlaying search behavior on a display ad network or another display ad inventory management system results in a higher yield on that inventory than on remnant prices otherwise available.

It’s likely that whatever cool behavioral targeting options are rolled out will come from Yahoo or Microsoft. Google, on the other hand, has indicated publicly on more than one occasion that it isn’t comfortable with implementing a search retargeting program. Some of these communications post-date the completion of the DoubleClick acquisition.

The topic of behaviorally targeting searchers is particularly relevant given the recent hubbub surrounding the failed Microsoft-Yahoo merger. There’s rich irony in the fact that Microsoft and Yahoo are both big believers of behavioral targeting within an automated Web-based or API (define) driven marketplace. Each entity owns display advertising exchanges and uses profile data to target display advertising. Microsoft even uses profile data to allow marketers to bid-boost against demographic segments.

Current retargeting campaigns that my team and I have run through third-party providers have amazing ROI (define) and work very well, but they suffer from volume shortages. With site-centric retargeting, we only have an opportunity to find (and retarget) those individual searchers we’ve seen before (and cookied) during a site visit.

Within a search environment, the percentage of searchers that we could cookie might (optimistically) be 5 percent of the total search audience, except on brand searches (meaning that our average CTR (define) on search keywords is 5 percent). The search engines, on the other hand, see 100 percent of the search audience and therefore have a cookie base 20-plus times larger. Far greater scale is available once one has the larger cookie base. Another great advantage is that some searchers routinely ignore the paid listings. So unless a marketer has high organic rank, the opportunity to currently capture cookies is limited to paid search.

Given the willingness of Microsoft and Yahoo to embrace behavioral search retargeting, they have a huge opportunity to meet the escalating demand for this approach. That includes structuring their offerings to allow for behavioral targeting against competitive searches, regardless of their SERP trademark policies. The appetite among our clients and the SEMPO survey respondents is particularly strong for in-market consumers who have voluntarily shared with search engines their needs, desires, research interests, and preferences through a combination of voluntary profiles and their searching behavior.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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