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Winning the SEM Holiday Season – Beyond the Basics

The SEM industry is buzzing with predictions on what this year’s Black Friday/Cyber Week could look like – and even more importantly, how December will shake out both for pure-play and omnichannel retailers. According to eMarketer, the decline of in-store sales will be more than made up by e-Commerce growth. While Thanksgiving is expected to see the highest YoY increases, Black Friday and Cyber Monday will continue leading as the highest individual revenue days.


While the predictions seem positive, there are some headwinds that many retailers need to consider. Shipping delays are top of mind both for retailers and consumers, which will likely push even last-minute buyers to start their holiday shopping early. Additionally, many companies are still working through supply chain issues that started earlier this year and are expecting to see further strain as the shopping season goes into full swing.

With all those considerations, if we know one thing it’s that channels driven heavily by user demand, like SEM, will need to be nimble and prepared to react fast. While a lot of the usual Cyber Week prep work is already behind us, below are some tips and tactical ideas on how retailers can continue to win throughout the entire holiday season.

Encourage Consumers to Go In-Store If Store Inventory is Stronger Than Online

First and foremost, before they go in store, it’s important that customers know you prioritize the health of shoppers and employees alike. Ensure that prominent on-site messaging reassures consumers of all COVID precautions being taken to protect everyone’s health.

With the right safety measures in place, there may be cases where shipping delays and online inventory issues actually make in-store shopping a more seamless experience. As expected, Pick-Up In-Store options are more important to consumers this year than ever before. If your product detail pages (PDPs) fit requirements for BOPIS (Buy Online, Pick Up In Store) and/or ROPIS (Reserve Online Pick Up In Store), reach out to your Google representative for PDP review and approval to serve this Local Inventory Ad (LIA) annotation.

To understand how the various LIA formats show, see the below auction where the query is local (“long sleeve black dresses near me”). LIAs are used to fill the top 7 slots in the carousel, with placement preference specifically seen on LIAs that have BOPIS and Curbside Pickup functionality, noted by the “Pick up today” and “Curbside Pickup” annotations.

If your store is eligible for both traditional Shopping ads and LIAs, include Shopping and LIA campaigns in the same shared budgets and bid strategies to help show the optimal format on local queries in the best position possible.

Google search

You can also encourage shoppers to shop in store by showing products from your feed on Local campaigns. To tailor the ads to drive people in store, try focusing on products that have historically been more in-store focused, that have more in-store inventory than online, or that have really high shipping prices that could disincentivize online purchases. Customers who are on the fence about going in store can be further incentivized by offering a small gift card, gift with purchase, or order discount.

From a measurement perspective, retailers using Google’s store visit estimates in bidding can increase the revenue-per-store visit calculation after shipping cut-offs in order to more heavily weight in-store focused tactics. This should cause your bidding algorithm to favor ads that drive store visits over ads that promote online purchases. Note that depending on the bidding system and type of bid strategy used, this change could cause a learning period.

Take Advantage of Gift Card Options with Consumer Demand on the Rise

As shipping cutoff dates near and physical inventory dwindles, be sure you are letting customers know about your gift card options. Depending on how much you want to lean in, consider messaging this through ad extensions or changing your main message to reflect your selection. According to Google, this year:

  • 41% of consumers say they will give more gift cards for the holidays
  • 75% of shoppers plan to get Gift Cards in December 2020

Beyond regular text support, don’t forget that you can also list gift cards in Shopping ads by including them in the product feed. The below screenshot shows how Sephora has listed gift cards in different designs and monetary denominations, in order to take up more space in the shopping carousel on relevant queries.

sephora card

Revisit Recent Converter Exclusions

As advertisers, one of our top goals is minimizing wasted ad spend.  If you have recent converters excluded from your remarketing efforts, consider removing those exclusions as customers may convert again quickly during the shopping and gifting season.  If you are hesitant to completely remove them, consider a modest negative bid modifier, so you are controlling CPCs on these clicks, but still eligible to show.

Consider Product Exclusions to Accommodate Seasonal Changes

Just like we might normally exclude recent converters, we might also exclude products from the feed that are below a certain inventory level, particularly if the SEM feed is not being refreshed multiple times a day, to prevent wasted spend on items that are already out of stock. However, we all know that purchasing patterns change this time of year. Given the higher volume during the holiday season, retailers should consider raising any inventory thresholds to allow for higher all-site sell-through velocity each day.

Some advertisers also exclude clearance items from feeds due to low margins, while others use clearance products as a loss leader to get consumers on site. While the business strategy for clearance items should be considered for each retailer separately, there are several factors to keep in mind. 1) Are clearance products a cheap, efficient method of getting consumers to site? These could be assigned their own budget, using a maximize clicks bid strategy and a low CPC cap to keep traffic flowing while minimizing cost. 2) Do ad clicks on clearance products drive sales of other regular-priced products on site? Given that search engines take price competitiveness into a consumer’s expected CTR and thus position on the SERP, having some low-priced products included in the feed could help capture a higher click share than higher priced alternatives. Ensure that your program has purchase detail reporting in place to help run this type of analysis and inform the business decision on clearance.

This year there are other considerations for products with lower price points, too. If retailers are limited in order volume by shipping partners, consider excluding lower priced products from the feed to bolster SEM AOV within the order thresholds put in place. However, if there are products that drop-ship straight from vendors, keep these items in the feed, regardless of price, as they likely won’t affect a retailers’ shipping delay or contribute towards any order volume caps imposed by shipping partners.

Dynamically Pause/Enable Text Keywords Based on Inventory

There are many options for managing what keywords are running and when, but one of the most dynamic solutions available is Search Ad 360’s Inventory Management capabilities. ­Retailers on SA360 can use this feature to dynamically build, pause, or enable text keyword coverage using information from the product feed. If inventory drops below a certain threshold for a product, relevant keywords are paused. It can even add a label to those terms and send an alert recapping those changes. When inventory rebounds, the keywords will get re-enabled as soon as that data is reflected in the product feed.

Monitor Google Trends and Competitive Insights

One of the main factors impacting performance at any given time is competition, and there are more advertisers in the market during Q4 than during any other time of the year.  Make sure your team has plans to share competitive insights (i.e. auction insights and/or Google Trends data) on a regular basis – attaching to weekly reporting is common and efficient. 

Focus particularly on your branded campaigns, as competition there can be especially impactful to the consumer’s journey and experience with your brand.  If you’re seeing less volume compared to last year, put your brand name/brand search into Google Trends to see if you have an issue with brand awareness.  While it may be too late to address the issue for this year’s holiday season, this is important context to include in holiday recaps and trend reporting.

Holiday is always a season for ad copy scheduling, bidding adjustments, and intraday performance monitoring. For sophisticated marketers, thinking more creatively about how to drive success by using some of the tactics we’ve outlined above can help take SEM programs to the next level, bringing you an even happier holiday season.

Want to learn more? Check out our other SEM blog posts here.