AKQA on search marketing in a post-browser future

You open a browser, head to your favorite search engine, and fire off a query for the latest piece of trivia you need to know “right now.” The process has been second nature to even the least computer-literate users for over a decade. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t evolved.

Machines have pushed at the boundaries of human understanding, and where great media technologies extend, advertising follows (if it didn’t lead the way). Development after development have brought brands and agencies deeper into targeting, natural language processing and more, all in order to better know and better reach the consumer.

We talked to Scott Symonds, managing director of media, and Mike Seiler, search director at AKQA about how search-related capabilities have changed the game for digital marketers, and what the future has in store.

The road to search retargeting
It all started with the keyword. A simple phrase or question can tell an advertiser everything there is to know about consumer intent, cluing them into what moment or decision journey each prospect is in: conducting research, making a purchase, getting ready for a life event, etc. But sometimes, advertisers need to go even deeper.

“Yahoo was the first to push really heavily into demographic targeting,” said Seiler. “The first to go beyond just the keywords, beyond geo-based, beyond time of day and actually say, ‘I want to increase my bid for this demographic with this income level.’” Since then, the others have caught up. Now the attention is on retargeting.

“It’s probably underutilized in the industry, but if someone comes to your site and begins the conversion process but doesn’t finish, you can find them on search and tailor your messaging or your bid to that activity.” Some tools, like Remarketing on Bing Ads, can lead to up to 30 percent more conversions by pushing consumers along in their journey.

The tactic has another, additive advantage. It allows advertisers to find consumers while they’re still in that moment of interest, but boosts it with another intent signal: the action they’ve taken on your site.

The quality algorithm, or, “Why you can’t buy your way to the top.”
Every advertiser’s north star is “relevance,” a virtue inextricably tied to context. You won’t be surprised to learn that search engines heavily reward relevance (and punish the lack thereof) — monetarily.

“Your bid is what you’re willing to pay times what the search engines deem is your relevance to the query,” said Symonds. So if you’re trying to sell frozen yogurt but you bid on keywords pertaining to “airlines,” a term without an obvious connection, your bid is lowered and the cost to win goes up. The process is useful for keeping irrelevant advertisers out of the context-heavy search experience, but it also has a darker side.

“If you want to get creative with search, that creativity can be expensive if you’re not the most obvious answer,” said Symonds. For instance, buying the keyword ‘cold and flu’ is not going to be cheap if your product has nothing to do with the illness. It’s a challenge advertisers are going to have to solve if they want to get inventive.

“At some point you’re going to have the majority of keywords people are going to use to search,” said Seiler. “So how do we go beyond that? How can I go find people at these different apertures when they might be interested in our product but looking for something different?”

More advanced targeting (from demographics to retargeting) can help get you closer to your goal, allowing you to increase the ad’s relevance and enter critical consumer moments. Those other indicators of relevance will help your bid for keywords that fall outside the box.

Advertisers are learning to think like Cortana
So much of good search advertising is based on really understanding users’ interests and consumer intent, and that all starts by looking at search trends. “Bing is good about giving a lot of transparency to the search activity that they see,” said Seiler. But increasingly, search engines have access to more than just direct search queries.

The big search companies are getting better and better at understanding human conversations, and they’re giving users the ability to have those conversations with their platforms. “So how do we mimic that in paid search?” asked Seiler. “How do we make sure that when those natural queries start happening, we’re still able to understand the intent of the user and serve them the relevant ad as that goes through.”

In the end, it goes back to the person making the search. Understanding who is behind the search, from their past behavior to their demographics is central to understanding where a searcher is in their consumer journey.

“At some point, if I’m in my car, when I ask [Cortana] to show me restaurants, I’ll want it to show restaurants it knows I’m interested in based on my previous driving history,” said Seiler. “Those results have to be personalized to me. The expectation is that I can pick up where I left off on a different device.” How’s that for evolution?

As competition for consumer attention intensifies, advertisers and publishers who use the right signals to best understand who a consumer is and what their intent is will be the ones who succeed.


  • As an online search engine, the primary objective of Bing is to connect users with the most relevant search results from the web—providing easy access to quality content produced by web publishers. To do this, Bing automatically crawls the web to build an index of new and updated pages (or URLs) to display as a set of search results relevant to a user-initiated search or action. We try to provide as comprehensive and as useful a collection of displayed search results as we can. We design—and continually improve—our algorithms to provide the most relevant and useful results.

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