Targeting Search Partners

In a recent post I wrote about segmenting search queries and the everyday things we can do with this. This time I’d like to go into an unorthodox strategy that benefits from this: Targeting specific search partners with AdWords.

Let’s be clear: Going after Google search partners directly is not possible with AdWords. What is possible is to identify and target certain search partners if they come with very distinct search queries. This strategy is not exactly new, but it is something that many people have probably never heard about. That’s why it’s perfect for this blog.

What to expect

Targeting search partners can give you a great competitive advantage, but only in a narrow field. It gives you the opportunity to evalute search partners a little better and lets you bid separately on some of them. It also allows you to write better ads, which can greatly increase your CTR and therefore your Quality Score. Still, a great CTR on a search partner site is often below 1%, so the achievable traffic volume is limited.

The bottom line: This is an advanced strategy that can be useful at times, but it requires some effort which doesn’t always pay off.

The Basic Idea

The basic concept behind this strategy comes from Aaron Putnam who introduced it on the Amazing PPC Tactics panel at SMX Advanced Seattle in June 2010. His original idea was to identify search partner queries by looking for non-human characteristics in search query reports. He would then identify the sites behind those queries and bid on the queries as keywords. These are the slides he presented at SMX:

There is also a blog post about this on the Keyword Search Pros Blog.

With the new reporting on search partner queries this strategy gets easier. This is why I’d like to revisit this amazing PPC tactic.

Types of Search Partner Queries

In order to target search partners directly, we need search queries that can be attributed to an individual search partner site. To find those queries, we first have to understand how queries from search partner sites work.

Search partner ads are displayed on search engines like the Google-powered AOL search,, and many others. They can also appear on internal searches on sites like eBay, or Amazon. For example, if you search for a product on eBay you often see results from eBay, but also some “sponsored results” from Google.

However, search partner ads aren’t always shown in response to an actual search query typed in by a user. For example, pages within the directory sometimes include ads. As do some category pages on eBay, Amazon,,, and many more. Even product detail pages can include search partner ads.

All of those ads are triggered by queries, just like the ads on Google. With real searches it’s simple because there’s an actual search query. Pages, however, need a substitute. This substitute can be as simple as the name of the page, but sometimes it’s more complex.

This leaves us with two types of search partner queries: real ones and substitute ones. However, that is not quite the distinction we are interested in. We need to find queries that we can bid on, which will only lead to search partner sites. So we need to find queries that are distinguishable as pure search partner queries.

It is clear that this won’t work with real search queries. Real search queries are typed in by users on Google and on many different search partner sites. For example, the query dog food could come from a search on Google, AOL, or Amazon. If we target the Keyword [dog food], we will still get all of these.

Substitute queries on the other hand can be so artificial that they can be distinguished from real search queries. For example, if a site substitutes a breadcrumb trail for a search query, a query might be pet supplies dog supplies (resulting from a directory page Pet Supplies > Dog Supplies). So if we were to bid on the keyword [pet supplies dog supplies], we can be relatively certain that the ad will only end up in the right place.

This doesn’t go for all substitue queries, of course. For example, a directory page about dog food might still just use the substitute query dog food, which doesn’t give us the chance to target the page individually.

The following graph sums it up:

Types of AdWords Search Partner Queries

Now let’s go see where we can find some good substitute search partner queries to target.

Preparing Search Partner Query Data

When Aaron Putnam first introduced the concept of targeting search partners, he had to go through search query reports and look for strange queries that were most likely substitutes. With the new option to view search partner queries separately, this process got much easier. The first step is to download a search query report and segment by “Network (with search partners)”.

Download a segmented search query report

If we sort the report by search query, we will find many queries which were used both on Google and on search partner sites. In order to target individual search partners, we have to find distinct queries that were only used on search partners.

An easy way to do this is to use Excel. We can use two tables to separate Google queries from search partner queries and then use the COUNTIF function next to each search partner query:

=COUNTIF(the cell with the search partner query;all Google queries )

This will tell us how often a search partner query can be found among the Google queries as well. Be advised that this could take a while if you do this with too many queries. Copy and paste the resulting values to prevent Excel from recalculating the results. Then use a filter to look at unique queries only (the zeros).

So now we have all the search partner queries that were exclusively searched on search partner sites. This is our starting point for finding suitable queries.

Identifying suitable Search Partner Queries

Now there are different ways to go from here. Basically you want to combine and play with the following approaches to find suitable queries to target.

Sorting the queries by number of impressions (descending) is the easiest way to find the most important substitute queries. Another easy way is to use a text filter and only look at queries which include an ampersand.

Note that not every unique search partner query is a substitute. Misspellings or simply long tail searches are also common sources for unique queries. For example, if someone searched for dgo fodo or canned low carb low residue dog food on AOL, those would be among those unique search partner queries as well. To rule out such cases, we can filter out terms with less than, say, ten impressions. This saves us from a lot of clutter.

Another approach is sorting the queries alphabetically to reveal patterns. For example, look at these queries: Those queries indicate a category structure, or a breadcrumb trail. In this case, those four queries are actually sub categories of Pet Supplies > Dog Supplies > Food & Treats on

You can also look at the length of queries by adding a column and using the LEN formula on the query. This is usually less helpful, but there are sometimes patterns to be found in very long queries.

Identifying Search Partners

Finding substitute queries to target already gives us the option to just put them into an extra campaign and bid on them separately. However, if we identify the search partner behind a query, we can do a little bit more.

Finding the page where a substitute query originated from is often as simple as searching for the query on Google. For example, searching for the query musical instrument monitors speakers leads to this result:


If we visit the site and scroll down, we find the ads:


Searching on Google works best when a search partner uses parts of page titles for substitute queries. With breadcrumb trails it’s sometimes harder. Let’s go back to this example:

For the query pet supplies dog supplies food & treats bones the corresponding page on eBay doesn’t mention the word supplies. This means it can’t be found with a search for the whole term on Google. Here it helps to recognize and make sense of the breadcrumb trail. The query

pet supplies dog supplies food & treats bones

is more or less recognizable as the breadcrumb trail

Pet Supplies > Dog Supplies > Food & Treats > Bones

Now a search for the term food & treats bones might be more successful. After all, the category Food & Treats has to link to the category Bones, so those terms should appear together on the same page. Putting quotes around food & treats narrows it down further. If this doesn’t get us there (which is the case in this example), we can make use of the pattern we’ve found before. Besides Bones there were also Biscuits & Treats, and some others. Putting those together produces a good search term to lead us to those pages.

Not all search partners can be found this way. If nothing else works, you can use a term as a keyword in AdWords, use a separate destination URL with a tracking parameter and then analyze the referral data. A few days ago, Katie Saxon posted an article on how to find search partners with Google Analytics.

Finding even more Search Partner Queries

After identifying a search partner from a query, it’s usually easy to fathom out the mechanism behind the substitutes queries. This can lead to even more useful queries.

Take the above example with the term musical instrument monitors speakers, which lead to The substitute query was obviously the category’s title. Since this probably works the same way throughout the site, we can look for other interesting categories to target. When in doubt about the way substitute queries work on a site, the bolded words in existing ads can give some indication. Some sites even pass the query in every ad’s destination URL.

This works well with categories and even better when the query is a breadcrumb trail. If the query refers to a product page and this product is one among hundreds or thousands, I wouldn’t recommend putting too much time into it. In my experience, many product pages can’t be targeted due to low search volume, anyway.

Writing Ads for Search Partners

With a nice selection of search partner pages to target, we can direct our attention to writing ads. We could of course just use the same ads as we use on Google – after all, everyone else who doesn’t target search partners separately does it. However, by looking at each search partner individually we can write better ads.

The first thing to keep in mind is that people on search partner sites behave differently from when they search on Google. On Google, they type in search queries and look for results to click on. On search network pages you will often have people with a searcher’s mindset as well, but they haven’t typed in a search query and they aren’t looking to click on a sponsored result. This puts ads on search network pages somewhere between Google and placements on the display network.

Since the search query is just a substitute and hasn’t been typed in by the searcher, you don’t have to accept it at face value. For example, the search query gift cards & coupons gift cards refers to the category Gift Cards & Coupons > Gift Cards on eBay. A user browsing this category is probably just looking for gift cards, not for coupons. So unlike an ad on Google, the ad for this page can (and probably should) ignore the part about coupons.

Just as with ads on Google it is always a good idea to consider what the user is actually looking for and what might convince him or her to click on your ad and by from you. This sometimes puts you at odds with the site you advertise on. For example, if your ad runs at, you might want to emphasize the advantages of your offer compared to Walmart’s.

This is usually no problem, but there are limits to what you can do. For example, you can’t refer to an auction when you advertise on eBay. Your ad won’t be disapproved officially, but it simply won’t show. This shouldn’t keep you from trying out some more aggressive ads, but make sure they are actually being shown.

By the way, you can use A/B tests for ads on search partners, too. The downside is the very low click-through rate among some of those placements. Compared to Google, an A/B test on a search partner sites often takes much longer.

Search Partner Ad Formats

It’s also important to consider that each search partner displays ads a little differently. Basically, each site has its own special ad format. Let’s look at some examples.


These ads are from, from the category Pet Supplies > Dog Supplies > Food & Treats > Buiscuits & Treats. As you can see, headlines work similar to those on Google: Sometimes the first description line is promoted to the headline and sometimes the domain name is included. Note that all ads have their entire headline bolded, without any additional emphasis on keywords. This gives you more freedom for texting your headlines, as you don’t have to include keywords. Completely bolded headlines are not uncommon for search partner ads.

Also note that the description line below gets keywords bolded, but the display URL does not. So if you want to place your keywords for maximum effect, make sure they go into the description line. Since every word from the substitute keyword (“pet supplies dog supplies food & treats biscuits & treats”) gets bolded, you might just get creative and produce something like this:


Another example comes from Amazon:

Amazon ads

This one comes from a product page for a MacBook Air Laptop. Again, headlines are bolded, but nothing else gets promoted to extend a headline. Both description lines make up one long description, so there is no need to end a sentence after the first line. Keywords are bolded within the description and the display URL. For more attention one can simply put the product name into the ad:

A better Amazon ad

The next example is from bizrate:

An ad from bizrate with five sitelinks

This ad from a directory page comes with five sitelinks – 114 characters in total. Other ads on the site have fewer sitelinks, probably because the advertisers have only supplied the usual four links. Considering that this ad is on a directory page, navigational sitelinks might work even better than on Google.

The last example comes from target. Target displays ads both on the bottom below a page’s content, as well as on the left hand side. This ad was shown on the side:


As you can see, there are line breaks in the headline, in the description and even in the display URL. A special pitfall here is the tiny display URL. While most ads get normal-sized display URL’s, this one’s domain name was too long to fit into the left ad rail.

Putting it all together

When we have our queries and ads, we can look at the structure for our search partner campaigns. If you make a new campaign for every search partner or put all of them into one campaign, is up to you. If a search partner displays sitelinks, you might even want to use more than one campaign for this one.

For maximum flexibility, one adgroup per targeted search partner page is advisable. It’s easier to just put everything into one adgroup and then use an ad with dynamic keyword insertion, but this rarely leads to meaningful ad texts. Also be aware that not every search partner handles dynamic keyword insertions the same way as Google. Character limits are sometimes more strictly enforced than on Google, where a resulting 26 character headline is usually no problem.

When it comes to keywords, using the query as an exact match keyword usually puts you on the safe side. Still, if the query is long and complicated, you can try other match types. In some cases there are modifications to the query due to filters or sub categories. eBay, for example, often includes words like “new” or “enabled” in queries. Since the queries are long and cryptic anyway, even broad matched keywords can work well to capture these modifications without attracting any unwanted traffic.

If you are dealing with breadcrumb trails and you are targeting different levels of the hierarchy separately use negative keywords to make sure that the right ad shows. The concept is probably familiar, but here’s an example anyway. If these are the categories you want to target:

  • Pet Supplies > Dog Supplies > Food & Treats
  • Pet Supplies > Dog Supplies > Food & Treats > Buiscuits & Treats
  • Pet Supplies > Dog Supplies > Food & Treats > Bones

Simply exclude the phrase matches “buiscuits & treats” and “bones” from the adgroup that targets the first category.

You should also use negatives to ensure that none of your other campaigns interfere with your new search partner campaigns. So put all of your search partner queries on negative keyword lists and assign those to your existing campaigns.

Finally, put your ads in. As mentioned before, you can put in several ads for A/B testing, but it can take a long time to get actionable results.

Bidding and Quality Scores

When you bid on search partner queries the ad auction basically works like the one on Google: there are bids and quality scores from you and your competitors.

Since few advertisers target search partner queries directly, their bids come from other keywords that happen to cover the search partner query. This means that your competitor’s bids will usually reflect some average value of a click. If the clicks from the page you are targeting are actually worth more than average, most people will automatically bid too low. This makes it easy to grab a good spot with an appropriate bid. If nobody ever checks on the query, you might enjoy a sweet spot without being disturbed by anyone trying to get past you with higher bids.

The problem in reality is that on many search partner pages you may rather want to bid lower. Then other advertisers who cover the query “by accident” bid too much and prevent your ad from being shown.

What will generally help you on search partner sites is the other part of the auction: Quality Score. With better ads you should be able to get better click-through rates compared to other advertisers, which will then help you in future auctions.

The challenge with Quality Score is that a high quality ad won’t lead to a great Quality Score unless Google recognizes this quality. If your ad doesn’t fit into the pattern of good ads that an algorithm can recognize (e.g. because it doesn’t mention the keyword in the headline), only results will prove its quality to Google.

You can force this by bidding higher, so that higher positions will produce results a lot faster. If there are few spots on the page you’re targeting (e.g. an Amazon product page usually only has three spots) this might be the only way to gain traction. However, in most cases, simply waiting a little longer is a good alternative.

Another quick Word about Quality Score

Search partner campaigns will usually have abysmal click-through rates. This is to be expected, as ads are usually not prominently placed. However, there is often fear that low CTR’s might drag down an overall account quality score. So can search partner campaigns hurt your account? No, of course not.

You never have to worry about search partner performance affecting quality scores on Google. Google is and always has been quite clear about this:

“Clickthrough rate (CTR) on search and Display Network partner sites does not affect Quality Score on Google.”

(Source: AdWords Help)

In fact, a low CTR on a search partner campaign is usually not considered a bad thing. If you get a CTR of 0.5% on a search partner site while everyone else gets around 0.2%, you are doing pretty well.

Low CTR - QS 10/10Now one of the nice things about search partner campaigns is that you can actually see this in your account: Even keywords with very low click-through rates often get a quality score of 10. So don’t worry: It’s all relative.

Best Practices

As I mentioned initially, this strategy can be a lot of work which doesn’t always pay off. This is why a search partners campaign shouldn’t be a top priority from the start. It is rather something you look into when an account has matured and you are looking for new opportunities to grow.

When you’ve reached that point, look for suitable search queries from your existing campaigns and see if the traffic might justify a search partner campaign. To do that, concentrate on the high volume queries first.

We’ve found that there are some search partner sites that often justify a separate campaign. eBay is such a candidate with extremely high traffic and an easily recognizable pattern. Since we already know how the queries there work, the research phase can be omitted and a campaign can be set up quickly.

There are some shortcuts you can take. To save time, with a breadcrumb trail query there is always to option to just focus on the higher category levels and include all the lower ones with a broad or phrase match keyword. If the results are good, you can refine this to make better suited ads for the more specific categories later on.

Another way to leverage this knowledge is to just exclude certain search partner placements from your campaigns. If you find that a certain search partner provides lower than average value traffic, it is a good idea not to mix that traffic with traffic from your other campaigns. If you find that a separate search partner campaign isn’t worth the effort, you can always find the associated queries and exclude them.

So, did you ever target search partners directly? What are your best practices? I’d love to hear how it went!