May 1, 2024 | 8 min read

Search retargeting: capturing interested audiences

Have you ever had an interested client sift through your site and fill their cart with products, only to navigate away moments later, never to be seen again? Well, with effective search retargeting, you can win them back, reel in fresh visitors, and likewise corral any other users who browse your online pages but fail to convert.

Search retargeting serves your ad campaign to potential customers as they continue to browse the web—through multiple sites and social networks—after searching for keywords relevant to your business. 

With search retargeting, ads promote your goods and services to individuals who’ve proven their interest in what you offer. 

How search retargeting works

So, how does search retargeting work? One way to understand it is that search retargeting uses the same capture point as search engine marketing (SEM) but the pixel-based functionality of site retargeting. 

The role of keywords in search retargeting

Familiar with search engine marketing (SEM)? It’s the practice of bidding on keywords to reserve your company’s spot near the top of a search engine results page (SERP). 

With search retargeting, you’ll similarly bid on keywords, selecting combinations of words and phrases that your target audience is likely to key in when looking for a business like yours.

Incorporating d remarketing strategies into your campaign can significantly enhance the effectiveness of search retargeting. By understanding the differences between retargeting vs. remarketing, you can develop a more comprehensive approach to recapture the attention of potential customers and increase conversion rates.

Both SEM and search retargeting allow you to capture potential customers’ limited attention right when they’re expressing interest at the point of search, whether you’re trying to sell “landscaping services,” “home staging,” or “silly socks.”

Search retargeting vs. site retargeting

Another type of digital marketing—site retargeting, or pixel-based retargeting—embeds a cookie on a visitor’s browser once they visit a website with the coding (pixels) to capture their actions and movements on the site in cookies. 

Once the visitor leaves the site, they start seeing banner ads throughout their web journey with personalized messages based on the actions they took on the site.

Search retargeting similarly uses cookie embedding to follow visitors but, unlike site retargeting, it’s prompted by a user’s keyword entry into a search engine—not a visit to your website. 

Google is actually in the process of phasing out third-party cookies—meaning they’ll only gather users' data on Google platforms, rather than across the web. This means less information to work with on remarketing campaigns and, potentially, less accurate targeting. 

To mitigate this lost data and make it easier for business owners to connect with viable users, Google is expanding its targeting tools, such as Customer Match. This solution allows businesses to utilize their own customer information alongside Google’s to publish targeted ads to SERPs and external sites.

Targeting through search intent

The trigger is keyword searching. If you’ve won a bid on a combination of keywords, then the SERP drops a cookie on the user’s browser. 

Regardless of what paid or organic search result they click on, the cookie triggers your search retargeting ad campaign for that user—they’ll start seeing your banner ads sprinkled throughout their web journey.

Platforms used for search retargeting

If you’re just getting started, Google AdWords has a straightforward interface—look for their RLSA (remarketing lists for search ads) option. You can also set up campaigns with other search engines or via third parties such as: 

  • Chango
  • AdRoll
  • Perfect Audience
  • Triggit
  • ReTargeter

Benefits of search retargeting

Search retargeting is a game changer—it allows you to locate and communicate with potential customers before they even know you exist. You can: 

  • Establish and build brand awareness
  • Increase web traffic
  • Micro-target new audiences
  • Improve ROI 
  • Convert more customers to leads or sales

Measuring and optimizing search retargeting

Digital marketing is all about the ROI. To that end, you should be able to quickly and thoroughly measure how your retargeting campaign is performing and whether it’s paying off. 

Key metrics to watch

In addition to return on investment (ROI), track these key performance indicators (KPIs): 

  • Return on ad spend (ROAS)
  • Cost per acquisition (CPA)
  • Click-through rate (CTR)
  • Cost per click (CPC)
  • Click-through conversion (CTC)
  • Cost per thousand impressions (CPM)
  • Brand search frequency before and after search retargeting campaigns

Continuous optimization strategies

Tweak targeted ads and use A/B testing to refine your strategy until you get the best results. For instance, you can set up a sequential campaign that entices potential customers with increasing discount levels or different messages that extend for a period of weeks after their initial keyword search. 

For instance, a travel agency could segment its audience into two groups. They could target Group A with discounts on a singular vacation package, increasing the savings by small increments—such as 2%–on a weekly basis until they reach their sales goals. 

Simultaneously, they could target Group B with different destinations every week—at first showing them Belize, then Bermuda, Bahrain, Belgium, and so on. 

After noting campaign performance across the two groups, the agency will gain key insights into their customers and advertising approach. Specifically, they’ll learn whether it’s price that influences their potential customers to pull the trigger or if they're actually drawn in by the specifics of destination offers.

Privacy concerns about search retargeting

Worried about customer anger over infringing on their privacy? Consider these consumer survey results: 

  • 18% would sacrifice privacy to get a better deal
  • 37% say they like retargeted ads that reflect their genuine interests
  • 64% are at least somewhat willing to exchange information for personalized experiences

Consumers’ willingness to relinquish their information aside, tech companies are also taking steps to ensure users feel more secure on their platforms. As previously mentioned, Google is bringing an end to its use of third-party cookies and ramping up its first-party data collection. 

The main stated goal is elevating customer privacy and trust. As Google itself notes, 89% of internet users would place more faith in brands if they invested in similar privacy-safe technologies. 

Some marketing professionals are likewise advocating a similar approach and calling on businesses to perform their own first-party data collection. Having users consent to data collection, they say, is not only more respectful than purchasing it from third-party brokers but also more effective for driving conversions.

Many customers don’t take kindly to the surreptitious collection of their data, yet they demand personalized shopping and browsing experiences. Meet them in the middle by asking for their data upfront and then using it to craft effective retargeting campaigns that appeal to their sensibilities and product choices. 

Also, keep in mind that consumers who feel strongly about privacy or strongly dislike digital advertising do have the opportunity to refuse cookies and use ad-blocking browsers and settings. 

The best digital advertising option for businesses

Search retargeting is part of a total digital marketing plan. It goes hand in hand with SEO (search engine optimization), SEM, site retargeting, and social media advertising. 

Nextdoor connects you with your community and introduces you to customers who are committed to investing in local small businesses. 

Start today with a free Business Page, engage with the community through Business Posts promote your services, and share special offers with Nextdoor Ads. You can also use the Nextdoor Ads Manager to set up and monitor retargeting campaigns for a low-cost, easy-to-start way to boost your sales and secure a strong customer base where you live. 

To get an idea of what’s possible, take a look at how local real estate agent Joe Kennedy used Nextdoor Business Posts to build familiarity and trust with his neighbors or how entrepreneur Rita Shelley used Nextdoor Ads Manager to promote specific, targeted messaging to neighbors in various zipcodes. 



  1. Pew Research Center. Privacy and Information Sharing.
  2. Vibe. What is retargeting and how does it work?
  3. Entrust. Data from Entrust Reveals Contradictions in Consumer Sentiment Toward Data Privacy and Security.
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