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How Search Retargeting Is Bridging The Gap Between Search & Display

Recently, Harvard Business School published a working paper, Do Display Ads Influence Search? Attribution and Dynamics in Online Advertising. While I won’t go into all of the details and findings from this paper, I want to focus on a few of the findings and explore some overarching themes:

  • How Search Retargeting Bridges The Gap Between Search & Display
  • How Search Retargeting Can Be Useful To Marketers In Making More Efficient Use Of Their Display Advertising Spend
  • How Search Retargeting Can Help Minimize The Risk Of Adjusting Spend In Each Of Those Two Categories

In the paper cited above, researchers found that “each $1 invested in display and search leads to a return of $1.24 for display and $1.75 for search ads.” As a result, there should be “an increase in search advertising budget share by up to 36%, followed by a commensurate reduction in display.”

SEM vs Display ROI
While the researchers acknowledge the limitations of the study, the conclusion seems reasonable. However, it seems to oversimplify the interaction between display ads and SEM, especially given the single participant (a bank) in the research.

Search Retargeting Can Maximize Campaign Performance

Overall, this may not necessarily be the best approach for all marketers. In fact, this highlights an opportunity for using search retargeting to maximize both display and SEM performance. It’s a well-known fact that display ads drive search and consequently increase search click rates. This study also noted,  “display exposure not only increases conversion through search, but also drives search visitation and search clicks.”

In my mind, the difficulty comes when trying to efficiently manage display spend. How much of the display spend should be moved to search? Since display has an uplift effect on search conversions, marketers should be cautious about shifting too many ad dollars away from display so as to not adversely affect their SEM campaigns, thus driving down acquisition through search conversion. This is where search retargeting has the potential to come in and close the gap.

Search retargeting can bridge the display/search gap and provide an opportunity for a more efficient display ad spend without the necessity and risk of making large adjustments to search and display budgets.

Marketers should begin by taking a portion of their current display advertising spend and allocating it to a search retargeted campaign to see the display lift on search. If they are acquiring new consumers that are performing related searches for which the marketer may not have an SEM campaign, then they are driving those consumers into their funnel.

Shifting Display Dollars To A Search Retargeting Campaign

This option can improve the efficiency of your ad spend in two ways:

  • By showing display ads to consumers that are searching for related products or keywords outside of a SEM campaign, marketers increase awareness and potentially drive consumers to continue their search quest for their product.

For example, a consumer searches for a Ford SUV and through a search retargeted campaign, is now shown display ads for a Toyota SUV. This goes back to my last article where keywords in display are expanded; therefore, the audience is larger than that of SEM, but still relevant to the marketer’s product.

  • Display ads would be shown to consumers who searched for the marketer’s product, which could increase the CTR of the display campaign.

For example, in the above study, bank consumers searching for the phrase “checking accounts” that saw the keyword-based search ads but failed to interact because they didn’t see the display ads (which significantly increase search interaction) would then be shown the display ads. This could result in either direct interaction with the display ads, or in driving search behavior and conversion through SEM over several days.

Bridging The Gap Between Search & Display

Although the Harvard paper doesn’t completely discount that display does influence search and has significant value within a campaign overall, the findings suggest that the solution to better performance and stronger ROI is shifting display dollars to search campaigns.

However, instead of completely shifting those dollars away from display, my recommendation for marketers is to bridge that gap using search retargeting, which allows marketers to target display ads to consumers that are interested in their product or related products, and drive those consumers into the conversion funnel earlier.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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