Whenever you search on Google for something youre thinking about buying, youre using a selection of keywords and signalling your intent to make a purchase.
If you search for “brown shoes” and adverts appear in your search results suggesting where to get brown shoes, youve experienced “search retargeting”, a technique that brands are combining with artificial intelligence (AI) to figure out what makes consumers tick.
By mapping and analysing the keywords that consumers use in their search queries, brands can learn more about what people actually want to buy.
“Keywords are a great signal of intent,” says Carl White, co-founder of Nano Interactive, which provides search targeting technology to brands.
“With the developments of AI techniques, you can feel out what people are really searching for. And you can make strong assumptions about what their intent is based on the kind of combination of keywords.”
By understanding consumer intent, brands can create advertising campaigns that target specific keywords.
“Rather than behavioural targeting or location-based targeting, keywords are understandable and the extrapolations you make arent too far-fetched. If you search for an Audi, youre probably interested in an Audi. You search for software engineering jobs, youre probably interested in software engineering jobs,” says White.
“When someone searches for one of those keywords, a signal will go to our data management platform, and in real time youll see an advert relevant to that keyword.”
Much of this is powered by the recent, but huge developments in AI technology. This isnt as futuristic as it sounds – search engines have tried to autocomplete queries and predict what you want for years. In fact, AI has always been a part of search, only now its much more effective.
Jordi Ribas, corporate vice president of AI products at Microsoft, helps run the web search engine Bing.
“In recent years theres been a combination of computation continuing to improve and, in particular, the emergence of these more advanced deep-learning algorithms that have provided significant steps forward in terms of what we can do with AI today in search,” he says.
These AI-algorithms are starting to be applied to ads. Ribas explains that when marketers bid on certain keywords so their adverts appear as part of the related search results, Bing can map the words inside the ad and match it more closely to the intent behind a consumers query.
“In short, these new algorithms are enabling more relevant ads for the query. It benefits the advertiser because theyre going to get more conversions. It also benefits the user because the ads are going to be more relevant.”
Its important to note that “search retargeting” is a different technique to “site retargeting”, which is where someone buys something online and is then plagued by ads for the same or similar product following them around the web. White says the industry has to move beyond that sort of targeting
“Someones shown an intent and you have to show them an ad in the right place at the right time – and if you breach those rules then youll annoy them.”
Analysing intent and keyword searches will also provide invaluable consumer insight, says Dominic Joseph, chief executive and co-founder of Captify, another search retargeting solutions provider.
Advertisers can also track what the competition is doing and see how certain brands might be gaining traction in different regions or times of the day. This can help marketers to adapt their campaign strategy.
“There are many other ways as well, where they want to understand how audiences search for things based on different data inputs. For instance, brands might like to see how people react to an ad watched during the Super Bowl. Or it could be finding out whether people who search for holidays in France also search for a certain type of car hire,” Joseph continues.
Search-based consumer insight can provide very different information from consumer surveys. A panel survey will be very small comparatively, and how panellists are incentivised to take part could impact the findings. Search data, in contrast, can cover larger regions or even whole countries, and is anonymous.
“With a panel you can have a small bunch of users, you can ask them many different questions and dive into many different areas,” explains Joseph. “That can have its advantages, but we get a lot of traction from brands trying to understand on mass whats really going on and have it not be part of that survey structure.”
Importantly, as brands embrace search retargeting and AI to learn about consumer intent, theyll be able to present ads that are more closely linked to what consumers are actually intending to search for, or even purchase.
This system will also benefit publishers, and provide a better experience for consumers, according to White, because if advertisers pay slightly more for better targeted adverts, then publishers can run fewer adverts on their sites. He hopes this will form a virtuous circle.
“That, I think, is where publishers want to go – if they can increase the yield on their advertising, they can show fewer irritating or annoying ads.”
Knowing that marketers may be tracking your searches online might seem unnerving, but if it means encountering fewer aggravating ads online and a smoother internet experience, while supporting quality publishers, maybe this is one area where its okay to have the robots in control.