Let the Buyer Beware with Search Retargeting

One of the hottest areas of paid search marketing is retargeting searchers with display advertising — applying user’s search data to deliver better targeted display advertising. There is great promise in extending the hyper-relevance and targeting of the search event beyond the SERP (define), and into the browsing experience where relevant ads can follow a searcher for minutes, hours, days, or even weeks after the initial search.

But buyer beware: if you’re integrating display media into your search campaign, you’ll need to interact heavily with the ad networks and exchanges that deliver display ads. Before you take that step, it’s important that you or your agency be aware of the potential pitfalls of today’s display networks and exchanges.

Let’s look at two recent announcements highlighting those pitfalls rather dramatically. The bottom line of both announcements: many ad networks are charging advertisers for far more than the networks actually deliver.

The Radar Research/Mpire Study

The recent report by ad network and technology company Mpire, along with Marissa Gluck of Radar Research, provides some hard data on ways ad networks are overcharging and under-delivering. Here are two telling quotes from the study release:

  • URL padding: The practice of proposing a broad range of URLs for an ad but actually delivering the majority of the buy via only a few of the sites [is widespread. Test] campaigns revealed more than 98 percent of traffic was delivered via fewer than 2 percent of the URLs.
  • [The study finds that ad] networks [regularly] fall short on delivering “above the fold” ad placements, resulting in decreased campaign performance and increased costs.

Neither statement puts ad networks as a whole in a good light. Questions have been raised about the study’s methodology. While Radar is a well-respected research firm, there have also been some questions as to how objective Mpire can be in a study like this (one of the study’s findings points to the effectiveness of AdXpose, an Mpire product). And finally, the study did not explore retargeted/behavioral buys.

But even with all of those caveats, there are enough areas of interest in the Mpire study that it’s worth the read, even if only to learn the right questions to ask a media vendor (existing or prospective).

Ben Edelman’s ‘Online Advertiser Bill of Rights’

Ben Edelman, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, has the reputation of being a consumer advocate, in particular regarding disclosure of spyware-based advertising. More recently, he’s become interested in the advertising ecosystem as it relates to advertiser rights.

I had the honor of sharing the stage with Edelman on a panel during Advertising Week in New York City this past week. One of the primary topics of the panel was a draft document Edelman had written called “Toward a Bill or Rights for Online Advertisers. In it, he points out it’s unusual for an industry to have a situation where an advertiser may not have the right to do something with the campaign data that is a byproduct of the advertiser having spent media dollars.

Some areas of “rights” that Edelman advocates extend into both text link advertising (PPC paid placement search) as well as display advertising. Without completely re-printing his document here, let’s look at some areas that might be of particular interest to paid search advertisers looking to invest in display. I’ll cover his five rights and then add my take on them.

Right: An advertiser’s right to know where its ads are shown.

My take: Many advertisers have learned the hard way the extent of a syndication network of a particular paid ad network. In search, we have some ability to control syndication network and some ability to see HTTP referrers; but often the HTTP referrers are incorrect, faked, or missing. Even if one is doing a blind display advertising buy, I don’t see a compelling reason for the HTTP referrer data to be stripped or inaccurate after the fact. And if the ad network is concerned about circumvention, then they don’t add enough value in the ecosystem.

Right: An advertiser’s right to meaningful, itemized billing.

My take: While Edelman imagines a world of highly standardized itemized billing, the more likely scenario is that different advertisers have a different desire to see levels of detail in a media bill.

Right: An advertiser’s right to use its data as it sees fit.

My take: No argument here. If you bought the click or impression, you should have access to the data to do with as you please.

Right: An advertiser’s right to enjoy the fruits of its advertising campaigns.

My take: Some ad networks bury in their terms that they can use the profile data generated as a result of a user interacting with an ad. Some ad networks brag about it. As long as the advertiser understands how the network makes use of data, that may be acceptable. However, I’d expect to pay less for an ad that allows profile data to be sold to my competition.

Right: An advertiser’s right to resolve disputes fairly and transparently.

My take: One would think this wouldn’t be needed on the list. After all, it’s the advertisers who write the checks to the networks. However, the concentration of media power (particularly in search) allows some networks to respond more slowly to critiques and enables them to have less-than-optimal customer service.

It’s doubtful we’ll see advertisers banding together to demand this bill of rights discussed. Most are too ignorant, lazy, or busy to complain; and agencies generally don’t want to make a stink unless it’s on behalf of an advertiser/client. But if these issues impact your campaigns, be sure to go in with eyes open and that you’re getting what you pay for.

Know what your rights are. As they say in Latin, caveat emptor or buyer, beware.

Related reading

Screenshot shows a Google search for outdoor grills, the shopping ads shows images with “in store” showing the product is available nearby.