Retargeting: a blessing or a curse?

A few days ago Google released a piece of research celebrating the success of AdWords Remarketing, the retargeting functionality of the Google AdWords advertising program. They included some success numbers from different advertisers, showing increases in conversions, cuts in costs-per-conversion and higher click-through-rates at lower costs per click. Other impressive numbers Google released include the reach of 84% of the people on remarketing lists accounting for advertising impressions to over 500 million Internet users worldwide. It’s fair to say retargeting is a blessing according to Google.

However where Google is happy about Remarketing some users are not. A search in Google Realtime for “google ads following me” shows a lot of users complaining about being chased around the web by Adwords ads. It’s a sound a hear a lot around the web.

So what is retargeting? A blessing for advertisers and users? Or a curse? In this article I would like to give some of my views on this form of advertising. And I would also like to know your experiences, responses and ideas for improving this form of advertising.

Remarketing for advertisers

As Google communicates on their Ad Innovation page about Remarketing, as an advertisers you’re able to show ads to users who’ve previously visited your website. Therefore as an advertiser you have the possibility to target users you might have lost during their orientation for a product or service. It a very effective way of retaining your visitors after they’ve left and therefore increases the chance for conversions.

The danger of retargeting is overdoing it: showing too much of the same ad to the same user. Luckily there are a few ways to make sure that doesn’t happen. First of all as an advertiser you have to make sure you use frequency caps. Frequency caps offer you the possibility of limiting the display of your ads to the same user. Here you can specify a maximum number of views per users, per day/week/month, per ad group/campaign.

An effective way to reduce the ‘stalking factor’ of your retargeting ads is to use multiple ads within the same ad group. This way the user doesn’t see the same ad over and over. By rotating ads users probably will be able to ‘resist’ more views of your ads.

Another way to get more accepted by users could be by being more relevant. By targeting users who’ve visited specific key pages on your website but haven’t converted, you can show them a specific ad related to the key page’s topic. By showing them a more relevant ad you probably need less views to make users revisit your site and the path to conversion will also be shorter.

Although the Google Remarketing offers you a few possibilities to reduce the intrusiveness of retagrgeting, it’s fairly impossible to know when you are overdoing it. Some users might consider a few ads of your company in a row annoying, some might accept a lot more. How would you know when you’re bugging them out? You‘d need some kind of user feedback or other feedback data.

User feedback

When users don’t appreciate the retargeting banners by Google they are offered only one solution: opt-out of all ads based on interests and demographics. That means one persistent Remarketing advertiser could screw it up for all advertisers using interest and demographic based advertising. That doesn’t sound like a proper solution to me.

Personally, I’d go for a feedback system like Criteo does. When you click on the information button from one of their retargeting banners, you enter a personal information page. Here they show a list of items you’ve watched on the advertiser’s site that might appear in their retargeting banners. Next they tell you something about the privacy issues considering this form of advertising. After informing you they offer you two opt-out possibilities: temporarily disable banners from the specific advertiser (temporarily means until you revisit their website) or opt-out of all personalized banners from Criteo.

Offering the first possibility makes the system much better. Not all the advertisers are punished by the misuse of one advertiser. And even better: it opens up a few spots for other advertisers. It’s even plausible to say these ads probably have a higher click-through because the user was tired of the previous banner. The data can furthermore be used to give feedback to advertisers (and the advertising platform) about when users choose to block specific banners. Data that can (and should) be used to refine advertising campaigns.

What could Google do?

Besides this feedback system there’s a few more things I think Google should do to improve the user-friendliness of the system. First of all, I would choose for a mandatory maximum frequency cap for all advertisers. There probably will be a amount of views of the same ad that no user will accept. Make sure no ad can be displayed more often than this number.

Secondly it should be possible for advertisers to limit their views per hour, day, week ánd month. Now you can only choose a frequency cap for either a day, a week or a month. When I think the biggest annoyance originates from either a large amount of views in a short time or the persistence of a specific ad for a very long time. So, for example let me limit the views to 3 per hour and 20 per week. And preferably with some intervals between the views.

Lastly they could use CTR expectations to decide the number of views an ad should receive. My guess is the CTR for an ad after visiting a website might look something like this:

It would be logical to show an ad more to user when the expected CTR is highest. So this data could be taken in account for deciding how often to show an ad based on the time since the last visit to the site.

Basically, there’s a lot of improvement possible for retargeting advertising by Google. I’ve tried to give some of my views in this article, but I’m also very interested in opinions from other (search) marketers.

About Jeroen van Eck

Jeroen van Eck is a consultant search engine marketing at the online marketing company E-Focus in the Netherlands.

16 thoughts on “Retargeting: a blessing or a curse?

  1. Google won’t likely put a default frequency cap in place because it limits their ability to generate revenue *cough*, I mean, serve ads. However, as an advertiser you don’t want to wear out your prospects with the same ads over and over again all over the web. Your recommendations are right on target; have lots of creative and set your frequency caps at a reasonable level.

    1. @Robert If you think about it, putting default frequency caps on ads doesn’t mean there will be no ads shown in that position. If they can put an ad in that position with a higher chance for a click it could eventually even generate more revenue. So it could be better for users, advertisers and Google.

  2. Joeren, I agree with your points about showing different ad creative, and about ad servers getting smarter about retargeting….

    As an advertiser I have used retargeted ads to grow repeat visits and loyalty to a community site for small businesses. They have worked extremely well for that particular purpose. People see the ad for the site and it keeps the site top of mind with them, reminding them to come back and visit. I use a different service and it’s been cost effective. What people need to realize is that at least with the service I use, the advertiser gets ZERO personally-identifiable information about visitors. So I couldn’t use it to “spy” even if I wanted to (which I do not want to do anyway, because spying won’t make my site any more popular).

    As a Web user, I have to admit: my reaction at first was different. At first it feels a little creepy. But it’s now happened so often with other ads for other products or sites, that I no longer even think about it. I think in time, Web visitors will not even remark on retargeted ads. It’s just like cloud software — 10 years ago most of us would have been horrified with putting our data online in software apps. Now most people don’t even think about that worry….

    1. Of course privacy is something to look after in retargeting. However it’s hard to communicate that to your users, the advertising platform should do that. Retargeting is not intrusive as many people think. A lot of the data it uses (and much more) is already tracked by analytics software. The problem is people can see how it is used. I agree with you it will take some time for people to get used to it. But I don’t think it should be a privacy problem if you explain which data is collected (and how unpersonal it actually is).

  3. Interesting topic Jeroen –

    I’m in the retargeting industry and this topic has come a few times in conversations recently. As we ponder this subject, there are a few points I’ll share.

    First, we all have to recognize that there will always be ads. Unless you want to pay monthly network fees or a “cover charge” to view websites, there have to be ads. Who else is going to write the check to maintain these sites that we like so much? If I want to surf the web with no ads I can zip around College websites, but that’s boring.

    Secondly, we have to understand that we’re not seeing an increase in ads, we’re just seeing ads for something you recognize. There seems to be an initial shock of realizing that somebody out there is paying attention. But I like that. If you are in Seattle you’d rather see ads for Seahawk stuff, right? You certainly wouldn’t be a Raider fan up there….please…say it isn’t so!

    Lastly, I would agree that some advertisers should dial back the number of ads they show. But that’s up to them. If they want to creep out their potential customers by smashing ads in their face, over and over and over….they won’t be their customers and they’ll come to my site. Lovely!

    So really, this will all boil down to economics. When these advertisers pay so much to pound these ads into our skulls and lose customers as a result, the problem will take care of itself. The Gazelle will feed on the Lion at the watering hole.

    When all else fails, clear your cookies. Problem solved.

    My two cents…

    David Bendtsen

    1. I don’t think the necessity of ads is an issue here. Everybody knows ads are the main reason a lot of services are for free. The key is to make those ads relevant and tolerable. You’re right that by making ads more relevant you make them more notable. But that makes that you have to be extra careful with the in-your-face-tactics. At this moment I don’t agree that everybody should be able to do what they want, because it reflects on other advertisers. Google’s suggestion for escaping an advertiser is to opt-out of all personalized ads, your solution is the same: to clear your cookies. That way one intrusive advertiser can screw up personalized targeting for all advertisers. As long as there is no control over individual advertisers, it therefore should be limited.

  4. Hey Jeroen,

    Thanks for the post- I always enjoy a bit of a debate about the value of retargeting (or even over-targeting in some cases when contextual ads go wrong – i.e. please get out of my inbox Gmail Ads). I think it’s a bit of a tough one because as an advertiser it does seem to work fairly well and it all comes back to varying levels of pushiness with sales and what the brand attitude/positioning is like.

    For me, although perhaps a bit more intelligent, I look at retargeting largely as a question of the sales person that “just won’t take no”. It’s charming, it will probably work a lot of the time, but it will undoubtedly annoy and alienate some folks as well. If the alienated are/were unlikely buyers then it doesn’t make a difference. However, if you are annoying more than you are converting I sometimes wonder about the long term implications on buyer behaviour.

    I just think it’s a bit too much of a hassle to say “please stop” the way most display networks are set up. A simple “please don’t show me advertisements from this brand” link at the bottom of each ad would not only benefit the user (as they could stop seeing the adverts) but it would also benefit the network (Google in this case) because they would learn more about the quality of the content/advertiser and require higher bids to serve their ads but perhaps most importantly it would probably really help the advertiser determine what they’re doing wrong and what groups of people they are annoying most. It isn’t *too* different from the system Criterio but would be closer to the advert when it appears rather than require visiting a particular page or site for each individual advertiser… or better yet sending an angry email 🙂

    Just my two cents, but I really appreciate you raising the issue for those of us it does annoy and think you’ve got some great ideas as to how to deal.

    Side-note- nothing is worse than getting retargeted by:
    1.) A brand from a contract you’ve lost (i.e spent time on their site researching/helping)
    2.) A site you only visited to do competitor analysis
    3.) A site you only visited to complain about their service
    4.) A site when you’ve JUST signed a contract with another supplier (i.e. “I don’t want a new car I have one… I don’t want a new ISP… I don’t want a new phone I just bought one).

    Thanks again,

    1. Sam, I agree with you that the long term effects are not clear yet. And I like your comparison with the salesman. There is indeed a major problem with targeting all visitors to your site. That’s why you have to target visitors of key pages of your site and not all visitors. And of course exclude visitors that converted on your site. Still when you’ve bought the product somewhere else you don’t want to see any targeted ads for that product anymore. I think we agree on how the system of excluding advertisers should work in such a situation. The following question of course is, will people want to manage the ads they see or will they choose to ignore them instead? An automated system based on expected CTR would therefore be a nice addition to this option. No clicks = less views. Like to here your view on that as well.

  5. My take on retargeting is that we are going to be shown ads where ever we go. What’s wrong with seeing ads that are relevant to what we want to see? I think there would be more complaints about people seeing ads for gambling and Canadian Viagra all the time, versus ads from Best Buy, which they visited yesterday.

  6. I’m surprised Google haven’t announced a number of new features in their post. There are a number of things I’d like to use as a (re)marketer, including:
    * Better control over who’s on/not on a remarketing list
    * Staggered automated delivery of different ads to one remarketing list
    * More automated pausing or scheduling of a remarketing campaign (might help with a frequency cap)

    An “opt out of this ad” button would be perfect. I’m already a subscriber to SEOMoz but they still follow me around!


    1. Robert, I think your first suggestion is to privacy sensitive. When controlling who’s on a list and who’s not you’re theoretically able to target individuals. That’s something they probably won’t allow.
      I’m also a bit surprised the system hasn’t developed much further. Hopefully they will announce some improvements soon.

  7. Nice article about a topic we discuss often here. Especially like the last paragraph and the comments, which bring a lot of valid points to the table. Haven’t read all the extensive comments here, but my two cents:

    The frequency cap and timemanagement options would be a blessing for advertisers. I would even go as far as saying that Google should start off with a warning or a built-in standard maximum (that the user can change), so that new users of the Remarketing program don’t go overboard without knowing it.

    Ads are a natural part of the internet and bring us much joy (make website free, show us relevant ads, etc), but retargeting programs should protect both the user and the consumer. Both gain nothing if the consumer/web user is annoyed, irritated, confused or stressed out about the constant showing of particular ads.

    I also like the situations that Sam Crocker mentions in which retargeting really is inappropriate. I know it can be a hassle, but retargeting should be tailored to the specific target groups as can be. So if a person enters a complaint, do not bully them with ads.

    So Google, are you paying attention? Give us time management, better frequency caps and other great stuff mentioned in the blog and comments.

  8. One of the blessings of online marketing is the great ways of measuring results. And it’s a good thing online marketers focus on these numbers about CTR, conversions and so on. But in my opinion a lot of online marketing people are getting too obsessed with numbers. Especially when it comes to retargeting.

    It’s really easy to measure the number of conversions from a retargeting/ remarketing campaigns, but it’s pretty hard to measure the damage this “Ahh I’m stalked by ads” effect does to your brand in the long term.

    So my advice to all people responsible for the marketing of a brand is: Use retargeting sparingly. I would highly recommend to use a low frequency cap, use different ads and delete cookies with people that already converted.

    As for Google: The European Union is working of cookie/ privacy regulation. They might come up with some extensive laws which could form a threat to measuring all sorts of online marketing. This could potentially undermine the great advantage online has over offline. I think irritating a lot of people by stalking them based on a cookie is not a very good idea at this point.

  9. Basically, what retargeting delivers are ads being served to your audience. The actual amount of clicks and conversions that come from your campaign are very much dependent on your creatives, conversion funnels, and even the traffic that you’re driving to your site. If the quality of the traffic that you’re driving to your site isn’t good, your campaign won’t perform too well. has lots of best practices on their blog on running a successful campaign that doesn’t inundate audiences with ads. It’s a pretty good resource to check out if you’re interested.

  10. It’s not only general Internet users that get annoyed by the Adwords remarketing ads showing up on many sites they visit, but Adsense publishers get annoyed too, especially when their Adsense earnings start to decrease the more content they ad to their sites, instead of increase. Adsense publishers often put a lot of time and effort into creating content for their sites that will “trigger” related-content ads to display – but now many visitors to their sites are seeing the remarketing ads instead, even if the ads are not related to the content on the Adsense publisher’s site.

    Those visitors to Adsense publisher’s sites may no longer be interested in that site they previously visited that now has an ad following them around. Those visitors may be visiting the Adsense publisher’s site for totally unrelated reasons – how to feed an ill kitten – but the ads they see on the kitten site relate to the car insurance site they recently visited instead. The Adsense publisher doesn’t want his visitors to see car insurance ads on his site when he’s taken the time and trouble to write SEO content that would usually trigger ads about kitten, cats or pets.

    I do hope that all the points raised in the comments of this article about limiting the frequency cap in the settings of an Adwords remarketing ad campaign get taken on board, as changes should help:

    people no longer feel as “creeped” out as before at the frequency that ads follow them around,

    remarketing advertisers not lose customers they may have gained,

    Adsense publishers be happier – that their writing efforts are at least most of the time triggering ads that they want their visitors to see on their sites

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