What Exactly Is Meant by “Retargeting”?

Retargeting is not a new concept to the digital industry — in fact, it has been around for some time — but its uses and forms have definitely evolved. Over the course of this evolution, “retargeting” has become somewhat of a loose term – we now see it used alongside “search” and “social” in addition to its original form, “site retargeting.”

In my opinion, there is a real need for clarification of, and education about, retargeting. For example, is search retargeting really re-targeting? Despite its name, search retargeting is more of a mid- to upper-funnel strategy that engages new users, as opposed to re-targeting current customers. Can you truly retarget someone new? It seems like a bit of a contradiction.

We have also seen a similar trend with social retargeting. Just because a user shows interest through social media or intent through search, does this automatically qualify as a form of retargeting? What if they have never been targeted to begin with? As we continue to apply data to our display campaigns, we should be careful with how we bucket various forms of targeting and make sure we understand what their strategies are and the audience they are designed to engage.

Site Retargeting

Site retargeting is probably the truest form of retargeting because you are re-marketing or re-engaging current customers. In this scenario, the consumer has been on your site and has perhaps even made a purchase of your product. You then use that data, along with your existing relationship and knowledge, to try to bring the consumer back into purchasing more. This is the very bottom-of-the-funnel, as they are already your customers or have already visited your site.

Search Retargeting

As mentioned above, search retargeting is a mid- to upper-funnel strategy that seeks to engage new consumers from an audience group that has shown some interest in a brand’s product (or a related product), yet may not have had any previous interaction with the brand. In this sense, it’s not really remarketing or retargeting because there is no existing relationship to the consumer — at least not in many cases. Search retargeting doesn’t rely on an existing relationship for its data.

By looking at data on consumers’ search habits, search retargeting allows an audience of interested consumers to be built and marketed to, whether they are current customers or not. As I explained in a previous article, an audience built by search retargeting is larger than an audience based purely on SEO keywords or an audience built on site retargeting data.

Social Retargeting

Social retargeting is even more upper-funnel than search retargeting because it uses purely interest-based data points from consumers to identify and create audience groups, whether or not they have searched for, bought, or researched the brand’s product or a related product.

Until recently, Facebook was a prime example of social retargeting, as it would use social data (such as a status update or brand comment) to reach consumers with ads. Today, Facebook has expanded its targeting capabilities to include search- and site-level data.

Behavioral Targeting

Behavioral targeting has one thing in common with social and search retargeting: it focuses on building audiences. However, the main difference is the data it uses to identify those audiences. Behavioral targeting is less about fact (i.e., a consumer actually searches for a product and/or references a brand through social channels), and more about inference. As a result, marketers may be less likely to reach “qualified” consumers through behavioral targeting as compared to search retargeting.

Final Thoughts

SEL_5.21.13The common thread with the above types of ad targeting is data, not whether or not they are technically considered “retargeting.”

Marketers should think carefully about the data used to create the audience they will be marketing to. Remember, there is a difference between reaching current customers (or audiences already exposed to and interested in your brand) and engaging new audiences through advertising based on search, social and behavioral data.

Understanding this difference matters most when it comes to evaluating campaign performance. Each targeting strategy should not be held to the same metrics because they are being used for different parts of the funnel – from site retargeting at the low end of the funnel to behavioral being at the very top.

The best balance for both a branding and a performance campaign is smack in the middle: a strategy in which search data meets display advertising — otherwise known today as search retargeting.


Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Display | Search & Display | Search Ads | Search Ads: Behavioral Targeting


About The Author: is VP of Technology Operations at Magnetic, and is responsible for spearheading the company’s infrastructure, QA and technology operations.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | LinkedIn


Get all the top search stories emailed daily!  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. Comments may also be removed if they are posted from anonymous accounts. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • Aakash Gupta

    Disagree with your concept of Site Targeting – It is completely unfair to consider all the visitors as the costumers and to include them in the bottom of the funnel.

    Since the final conversion rate is always way too lower than the total site traffic. Site retargeting hence increases the number of people in the lower portion of funnel.


Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Search Engine Land on Twitter @sengineland Like Search Engine Land on Facebook Follow Search Engine Land on Google+ Get the Search Engine Land Feed Connect with Search Engine Land on LinkedIn Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Search News Recap!

SearchCap is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!



Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors

Get Your Copy
Read The Full SEO Guide