Pinterest Opens Full-Fledged Search Targeting to Compete With Google

But will brands move money?

The company is going all-in on search ads. Getty Images
Headshot of Lauren Johnson

For the past 15 months or so, Pinterest has pitched itself to marketers as a search-based platform more akin to Google than Facebook or other social networks.

Today the site is aiming to live up to that claim by launching a new search targeting tool, about a year after hiring Google sales vet Jon Kaplan as global head of partnerships. While advertisers have been able to use search terms to broadly target their campaigns—like zeroing in on the phrase “healthy eating”—brands have not been able to drill down into individual search queries like they do with Google search ads.

“What we’re saying here is that we’re specifically targeting search inventory—the real estate of search requires a different level of sophistication and targeting,” Kaplan said. “We’ve never talked to search-engine marketers before—either the people at the companies that are handling search or the agencies that handle search. What we found is that we’re actually talking to a totally different set of requirements.”

Phrase matching is one way that brands currently buy Google search ads, which Pinterest is now providing brands. Kaplan said there are different keywords on Pinterest that brands need to plan for, since people are not necessarily taking an action immediately like they are on Google. In terms of creative, shots that show how a product works typically perform better than pictures of a product set against a white background.

Barilla has been testing Pinterest’s targeting and has found some nuances between Google and Pinterest search ads.

“Search queries are really broad on Pinterest versus traditional search, where you can get very narrow with the brands or long-tail keywords,” said Jessica Schank, Barilla’s consumer engagement manager for the Americas. “On Pinterest we focus on recipes only, whereas on Google we have other topics in our search repertoire—products, frequently-asked questions [and] tips in addition to recipes.”

During a test that took place during the fourth quarter of 2016, the cost-per-click of Barilla’s Pinterest ads were 50 percent lower from the brand’s traditional search data and clicks from ads led to 50 percent more clicks to Barilla’s website, Schank said.

Pinterest is launching two types of search targeting that can be applied to promoted posts: Keyword and shopping campaigns. With keyword campaigns, brands buy media against specific keywords that they want to align with. Shopping campaigns on the other hand are more specific and use the terms that someone searches for to serve up a relevant ad.

“We take in a feed on the advertiser and surface the right product to the right query to the right experience within the search ecosystem,” Pinterest’s Kaplan explained.

"Marketers might find Pinterest attractive as an intent vehicle a little higher up the funnel."
Jason Hartley, 360iu2019s vp and U.S. search practice lead

According to Pinterest, more than two billion searches flow through the site each month from 150 million users and 97 percent of last year’s top searches were not branded. Unlike Google, where consumers often look for instant answers and content, Pinterest users start searching for content up to three months before they buy a product and save it to look at later.

“While people have a notion about what they want to do, they are undecided about exactly what brand or product they’re going to go with,” Kaplan said. “Whereas I think on other search engines, you come in with a really clear understanding of what you want and you’re looking to transact on either the easiest or more efficient way.”

360i’s vp and U.S. search practice lead Jason Hartley added that Pinterest has some extra data that Google doesn’t offer. “Pinterest has more available information on the consumer’s identity, so you have identity plus intent, whereas Google traditionally only had intent in the form of the keyword,” he said. “Google has a ton of data, but they are careful with making that available to advertisers. So, marketers might find Pinterest attractive as an intent vehicle a little higher up the funnel—conceptually, there is a lot to be said for that.”

In addition to Barilla, Target, eBay, Walgreens and Garnier have tested search ads, and Pinterest is expanding the ad targeting to include other big brands.

“While still early days, we’re excited about the potential of this new functionality as a complimentary addition to our overall internet marketing channel mix,”noted Llibert Argerich, eBay’s global director of social and content. “We’re looking forward to continuing to partner with Pinterest to further develop their search features, and to scale across more categories on our end.”

Pinterest has also inked a partnership with ad-tech player Kenshoo that will give Havas Media, Starcom Mediavest Group and Resolution Media access to run campaigns for clients. Kenshoo handles $6 billion in ad spend for brands, with search making up the largest percentage.

After opening up to more big brands, Pinterest plans to work search ads into its self-serve ads manager platform by the end of the year so that small and medium-sized advertisers can buy ads on their own. The company is also working on equipping search ads with the same measurement tools that advertisers use to determine if an online ad resulted in an in-store sale.

“People have been slowly starting to judge us on ROAS (return on ad spend) and we’re starting to see the early signs on providing positive ROAS ads—that’s given us confidence to roll this out to the next set of advertisers,” Kaplan said. “We’ll open this up to dozens more.”

While the goal is to steal massive budgets that brands typically allocate towards Google, it’s not clear if brands will allocate more money in Pinterest specifically from Google.

Schank from Barilla said her team invests in Pinterest as part of an investment budget—not from the budget allocated for traditional search. “We felt like the results that we saw were a good indicator that Pinterest search for recipes complements the search marketing that we have,” she said. “We do plan for a budget that’s innovation testing so it didn’t necessarily chip into Google or traditional search budget and we think that way moving forward as well.”

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.