Behaviorally Retargeting Searchers

If you were to ask most Internet marketers where their highest-quality clicks originate, many of them would say SEM (define) and with good reason. The searcher has asked the search engine for specific information and is in a hunt mode for that information. Bid prices are nice and high for Google and Yahoo because search visibility and those search clicks are increasingly recognized as valuable.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could double, triple, or quadruple the clicks you got from your best performing keywords? Well, perhaps you can through the latest spin on PPC (define) search: behaviorally retargeting searchers across the Net. Before we delve into this newer form of ad targeting, I’ll review some of the driving forces that make this a potential killer app.

Where We’ve Been

The problem for search marketers and search publishers is searchers don’t spend much time searching (and clicking) as on their other online activities. Most or all of their time is spent reading and absorbing other content, including email, blogs, magazines, and news. On branded properties, publishers judge much of the textual and graphical content Web surfers consume as premium site content. This inventory is sold directly by a sales force on the assumption that everyone can agree the site’s premium content attracts a specific type of audience. On these recognizable sites, the ad units (particularly premium placement) are often sold based on demographic, psychographic, or general macro-level profile data of site users (e.g., third-party data sources). But the rest of the inventory is sold differently.

That’s where search and context come in.

Recently, an increasing percentage of non-premium inventory has been sold through networks based on contextual targeting, particularly Google’s AdSense and the Yahoo Publisher Network (YPN). Of course, before there was contextual targeting there were site categorizations or “channels” that could be used to buy and sell media opportunities in a network environment.

Text advertising opportunities based on channel or subject matter designations have expanded dramatically as well. Kanoodle, which had a channel-based targeting strategy for text links, has been joined by Blogads, AdBrite, Federated Media, and others. Each has its own spin on categorizations, context, and channels.

Much of the ad inventory you see won’t generate the publisher much money based on channel or contextual targeting. This caused the rise of behavioral targeting (targeting ads based on prior behavior, such as a past visit to a particular site). Most behavioral ad targeting thus far has been graphical advertising driven through the ad networks and the portals.

Where We’re Going

The behavior we search marketers care about most is search behavior. Now we have a new big idea: behaviorally targeting ads based on prior search behavior. Behaviorally retargeting searchers allows marketers to follow a searcher around the Web. When that searcher reaches a page that won’t earn the publisher much money based on channel, context, or non-search behavior, an ad specifically addressing the prior search behavior is served. Wow!

For most keywords, a marketer would be ecstatic to get a 10 percent conversion rate, but that means 90 percent of searchers don’t convert within that initial search session. Because search behavior is such a great indicator of what a searcher wants, behaviorally retargeting against search behavior creates a win-win-win scenario. The publisher makes more money on inventory that was difficult to sell at a high rate; the searcher sees a really relevant ad instead of another irrelevant one. Most important, we marketers have an opportunity to retarget a person who’s in-market for our product or service.

There are two ways you can tap into the power of behavioral search. The first is through the networks and technology providers that work with the networks. The primary players on the network side are Revenue Science, Tacoda,, and AlmondNet. My team has directly integrated with several networks to allow for behavioral retargeting, as well as to test some of the providers listed above. The results look very promising.

With the networks, you can retarget based on searchers who have visited your site already, either through paid search or (if you pixel your site) based on organic search. This kind of retargeting is perfect, because those who see the ads already know who you are. The downside of the network model is you only get to talk to those searchers you already talked to them before. And due to third-party cookie deletion, over time you won’t be able to reach much of your pretargeted audience.

If my predictions hold true, the second way you’ll be able to take advantage of behavioral search is through the search engines themselves on a CPC (define) basis. Yahoo has had a CPM (define) retargeting product called Impulse for years, which may interest some marketers now. Google, Yahoo, and MSN haven’t yet announced any CPC-based behavioral search products, but they’re in a great position to do so. The best thing about the engines getting into behavioral retargeting is they know every search a searcher engages in and don’t have to wait until that searcher visits your site. They can retarget a searcher who may have visited your competition. Also, the cookies search engines use to retarget are far less likely to be deleted, meaning searchers can see relevant ads for a longer period.

I’m excited by the possibilities behaviorally retargeting searchers will provide for marketers, which is why we’ve been testing it. This could be the year of behavioral search advertising if all three major search engines roll out products to join the ad networks in providing this option. You may suddenly be able to spend twice as much on search advertising by reaching your searchers after they complete their review of the SERP (define). E-mail use along could be a tremendous location for behavioral search ads. All three search engines have huge email bases (Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo Mail), as well as large content areas that they own or control. That’s powerful.

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

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