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Even as web-based marketing and advertising technologies evolve at breakneck speed, ecommerce sites have proven themselves particularly nimble. It's no surprise, then, that behavioral retargeting is so widely embraced by the ecommerce community. Retargeting based on user behavioral criteria encompasses a range of formats. One of the most promising, especially for ecommerce, is search retargeting. Indeed, if you want more customers to your ecommerce site, consider adding search retargeting to your marketing mix. Search retargeting is an efficient and effective way to increase traffic and online sales. But you have to know what you’re doing because it’s all too easy to waste money if you don’t. Fortunately, we’ve got everything you need to understand the basics of search retargeting right here. Read this article, and you’ll be ready to start your own retargeting campaign.
What is search retargeting?
If you’ve ever spent time researching a particular product only to later see an ad for that exact product, you’ve seen retargeting at work. The process starts with a user search for a keyword or key phrase related to your brand or the products you sell. If your store sells makeup, that keyword could be “bright red cream matte lipstick.” Note, this is a long-tail keyword. It is much more specific than head keywords like “lipstick” or “makeup.” As we’ll see, long-tail keywords signal greater commercial intent than head keywords. As the user begins reviewing results, a cookie gets placed in the user’s browser. This is all done anonymously by a third-party data company. No personally identifiable information is collected. Basically, this process is creating a real-time audience segmentation. This enables your retargeting provider to serve up ads that are more persuasive for that particular segment. Your retargeting provider will then bid on available ad space in real time. If they’re the highest bidder, they’ll grab the space for your ad. Then, when settings match the segment parameter, the ad is displayed.
Search retargeting vs. site retargeting
The above diagram does a good job highlighting the difference between search and site retargeting, as well as some other types of retargeting. But let’s break this down a bit. Search retargeting is based on user behavior, just like site retargeting. Both are forms of behavioral retargeting. The key difference is the type of behavior that triggers the retargeted ad display. In search retargeting, you are targeting users who have searched for related keywords. It’s the brand keywords used in the search that signals the user’s intent to purchase. In site retargeting, you target users who’ve visited your site without completing a conversion. Users who browsed a product but didn’t add it to their shopping cart, for example. Or users who added it to the cart but didn’t complete the checkout process. In essence, you can distinguish the two by their ideal usage:
  • Search retargeting is great for reaching prospective customers—people who haven’t yet bought from you but have high intent to purchase.
  • Site retargeting is effective at reaching existing visitors and customers—people who have already visited your site or have bought from you in the past.
Benefits of search retargeting for ecommerce sites
Search retargeting is tied to a specific set of data that states the user’s intention. James Moore, writing for Search Engine Land, says that “a keyword or keyword phrase is a glimpse into a specific moment in time.” In other words, the keywords reveal what the search user is thinking and what they intend to do next. Think about your own use of search engines when you’re making a purchase decision:
  • If you’re like most online consumers, you start with a general search for information. This search begins with the first iteration being fairly broad, perhaps even consisting of a head keyword. Example: “women’s running shoes,” “top Android smartphones,” “iPad.” These kinds of keywords show informational intent (you’re looking for information).
  • As you review your results and begin educating yourself about your options, your searches shift to commercial intent. So, “women’s running shoes” will evolve to include specific brands, size, and color. Perhaps you'll pair it with “promo code” or “free shipping.”
The shift from informational into commercial intent is significant. The keywords provide an unparalleled opportunity to capitalize on user intent. Here’s another example:
Consider the case study of Watchfinder and Periscopix. The luxury pre-owned watch retailer adopted a site retargeting strategy. But its experience still demonstrates the effectiveness of behavioral retargeting generally. Using Google AdWords, Periscopix helped Watchfinder achieve an ROI of 1,300 percent. Other results included:
Image from think with Google
In the process, the retailer created 20 segmented audience lists. Lists were defined by several factors, including:
  • Position on the sales funnel
  • Geographical location
  • Behavior on the brand’s site
  • Internet search provider
Several other studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of retargeting, as well. For instance, retargeted ad campaigns are found to trigger a dramatic increase in conversion rates—sometimes up to 400 percent over non-targeted paid ad campaigns. Additionally, the average click-through rate (CTR) is up to 10 times greater than CTR for non-targeted ads. And, users exposed to retargeted ads are 70 percent more likely to convert. This is important because, on average, only 2 percent of visitors convert on their first visit to a site. Retargeting helps you reach the other 98 percent. Search retargeting, in particular, helps persuade prospects who haven’t made it to your site yet. Other benefits include:
1. Engagement with users who’ve demonstrated some interest in your brand Bouncing off your site doesn’t have to be the end of the road for you and your users any more. You can move users who’ve shown some interest in your products right into your sales funnel and encourage them to convert. And since the overwhelming majority of users don’t convert on an initial visit, retargeting gives you more points of contact to meet your conversion goals and move more prospective customers down the funnel.
Image from emarkable
2. Visibility in front of users as they surf the web Users who are the most likely purchasers tend to search thoroughly for options and information before making a purchase. Retargeting keeps your brand in front of their eyes as they search, on the basis of that search. A Gleanster study showed that 50 percent of leads are qualified but not yet ready to make a purchase. Other studies suggest that between 35 and 50 percent of all sales go to the brand or “vendor that responds first.”
3. Increased brand awareness A study from comScore found that retargeting leads to a 1,046 percent increase in searches for specific brands and a 726 percent in site visits after a month of exposure to retargeted ads. So retargeting helps increase brand awareness, letting your brand stay “top of mind.”
Image from advanced web ranking
Retargeting tools
If you’re ready to get started with search retargeting, you have a number of alternative providers and solutions to choose from. One of the simplest options, especially for beginners, is Google’s Remarketing Lists for Search Ads. RLSA uses Google’s display network of over 1,000,000 sites and apps to serve up standard and dynamic retargeted ads to users. It’s basically a combination of search and site retargeting, so you’ll need to add a tag to your website. But here, too, Google has made it simple for site owners. An advantage to using a Google-based solution is that it offers simple segmentation of your site traffic. This allows you to display specific ads to different groups, such as general visitors, mobile app users, and those who interact with you on YouTube. Google’s solution won’t put your ads on Facebook, but if you’re just starting out, it’s a solid choice to get your feet wet.
Getting started with Google Remarketing Lists for Search Ads
Setting up Google’s RLSA is fairly straightforward, and boils down to basically three steps:
Adding some code to your site;
Create your ads; and
Select your ad campaign’s parameters.
First you’ll need to grab the remarketing tag. Log in to your AdWords account, then navigate to the Campaigns tab and the shared library. Here’s where you’ll create your list to hold the users who land on a specific page of your site.
Next, under “Audiences,” click on the “View” text link.
Finally, name your list and select your targeting parameters.
Again, this is a simplified form of site retargeting. Going through the process will enable you to take advantage of the RLSA options and target users who search for specific keywords. (For more information on setting up RLSA, check out this post from the WordStream blog.)
Other retargeting solutions and providers
Image from GetElastic
Besides Google’s Remarketing, you can choose from among a number of other experienced providers:
  • Retargeter: Specializing in retargeting, Retargeter claims to reach users with your ads across 98 percent of the internet. It can reach prospects and visitors in their Facebook feeds and offers highly specific targeting based on demographic, geographic, and contextual criteria.
  • Adroll: A popular choice, with an impressive list of big-brand clientele, Adroll claims that on average, their clients enjoy a ROI of about $10 for every $1 spent. It can place ads on many CDNs and ad exchanges, like Google, Yahoo!, AppNexus and OpenX.
  • Perfect Audience: This provider offers a multi-channel approach, including CDNs, Facebook, mobile, and social display options. It also integrates with HubSpot by scanning your landing pages and smart lists to create a relevant user-list for your retargeted ads.
  • TapCommerce: If you’re interested in mobile retargeting, TapCommerce is a good choice since it specializes in mobile app retargeting. Boasting a fairly impressive reach, it handles more than 40 billion ad impressions a day over more than 50,000 apps on Android and iOS devices.
Tips for search retargeting success
Don’t go into any kind of retargeting campaign without a sound strategy and a thorough understanding of best practices. Let’s review some of those practices now:
Get the creative right Retargeting ads must overcome some innate user suspicion. Simultaneously, they have to capture the user’s attention in a context in which they’re not really “captive” at all. Your ads should be interesting. Avoid cookie-cutter repetitions of past campaigns, no matter how successful they might have been.

Don’t target too precisely right away
Begin with a broad keyword list, then work to narrow it down. This is much more efficient than taking multiple stabs in the dark at specific keywords from the beginning.
Use a combination of keyword tactics Keywords should be a mix of branded, competitor, and various key terms to cover different points in the buyer’s journey. Then you can narrow down to the highest performers based on how well each key term performs in your search retargeting campaign.
Set frequency caps Frequency caps limit the number of times a specific user will be shown your ads. This in turn helps prevent the prospect from feeling overwhelmed.
The right amount? There’s no hard and fast rule that’s universally applicable, but most retargeting professionals suggest between 17 and 20 ads per user per month. Work with your provider to find out what makes sense for your niche, brand, ad campaigns, and users.
Don’t ignore the burn pixel This pixel is inserted into your post-transaction page to untag users who have made a purchase, so they won’t see those ads after they’ve converted. This helps avoid negatively impacting your user’s goodwill and trust in your brand.
Rotate your ads At some point after seeing the same ad over and over, a user becomes immune. They’ll have no further interest in your brand or your product, and they’ll stop paying attention. To avoid this problem, rotate your creative periodically - every 60 days or so.
Don’t neglect some simple split testing Even a straightforward A/B test—i.e., a split test with just one control and one variation —can give you important data to help refine your campaigns. Some combinations of copy, graphics, and calls to action will be more persuasive than others. Don’t guess. Find out for sure which ones work best.
Fine-tune your targeting You can target ads based on demographics, geographic areas, and/or context. The closer you can target your ads to those most likely to purchase, the more effective your ads will be.
Age, gender, location—all these factors can significantly impact the campaign’s success. If you’re just starting out, don’t aim too narrowly. But once you get the hang of search retargeting, showing appropriate versions of the ad based on those criteria can increase your ROI and the effectiveness of each ad/ad version.
Choose your provider wisely Don’t pick different providers for different parts of your campaign, or different kinds of retargeting if you’re trying more than one. Aim for a single provider wherever possible. Selecting one provider for search retargeting and another for site retargeting, for example, can actually cost you more money by bidding against each other for the same positions on the same sites. Multiple providers can also make frequency caps hard to implement effectively.
Targeting prospects based on demonstrated commercial intent and interest can dramatically increase the success of your ad campaigns. It can even result in increased revenue for your business. If you’re ready to proceed, do your own research to find the right search retargeting provider and approach for your campaign. You may want to start with a comparison of various providers, such as this one from Kissmetrics. Also, keep in mind that you may want to try out other forms of retargeting in the future. If that’s the case, consider selecting a provider that can offer expertise in those areas as well. Have you tested the search retargeting waters? What advice would you give to brands that are preparing to try it for the first time?
Annie Sisk Annie Sisk is a freelance writer and digital marketing strategist. Annie also publishes Pajama Productivity, a blog for freelancers and solo information workers. She resides in Western North Carolina.
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