Facebook's Custom Audience targeting feature is one of the social network's most potent.

The concept is simple: advertisers provide a list of the email addresses of their customers and Facebook uses those email addresses to target ads to them if they're on the service.

Advertisers can also target users of their mobile apps, or through a tracking pixel, individuals who have visited their website.

For some advertisers, Custom Audiences are the secret to their success with Facebook ads, so it's no surprise that the world's largest search engine, Google, may be looking to take a page from Facebook's playbook as it seeks to maintain its online ad dominance.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Google is in discussions with advertisers about new targeting functionality that would function almost identically to Facebook Custom Audiences.

The Journal says that targeting would be applied to search results only, at least to start, and could launch as early as this year.

Google shouldn't have any problems identifying large numbers of users to email addresses. It operates one of the most popular free email services, Gmail, and asks for secondary email addresses when users initially sign up.

It also operates other popular services that users can register for, such as YouTube and Google Maps. 

Intent FTW?

Custom Audiences-like targeting functionality could be a huge boon for Google and its advertisers, but an even more interesting possibility is that Google will also roll out the ability for advertisers to target lookalike audiences based on their custom audiences. According to the Journal, Google is considering this.

Facebook offers a Lookalike Audiences feature that allows advertisers to target users who are similar to their Custom Audiences, and many advertisers use it to great effect. According to a study by Adobe Media Optimizer, the use of Lookalike Audiences has led to a tripling of sales for some advertisers.

While in most cases Google won't have the same kind of deep social data about its users that Facebook does to assemble lookalike audiences, it has something potentially just as interesting: the ability to infer user intent based on their searches. 

If Google can take the demographic information it does have about users, and add an intent layer on top of this that Facebook doesn't have, it could differentiate its new offering from Facebook in a big way.

Patricio Robles

Published 15 April, 2015 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (3)

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

This is a game-changer... and once again proves that email remains the internet's killer app. It's the only thing that connects you across disparate platforms.

Without email, you don't exists as a digital citizen. Sure, Facebook thought it was dead back in 2009, and may even try to kill it again by opening up Messenger.

But the fact remains, email is the foundational connector of the internet and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

over 2 years ago

Jeff Rajeck

Jeff Rajeck, Research Analyst at EconsultancySmall Business

Mm I agree this is a game-changer. They will, however, have to offer display as well or else they will still lose to Facebook.

People simply do not search for many of the things they are likely to buy.

over 2 years ago

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Peter Cunningham, Product & Marketing at Buyapowa

The devil will be in the detail. How narrow will you be able to target? What minimum size email database, what minimum spend etc.

For large B2C brands if will be easy to upload a database of a few hundred thousand customer emails and have ads targeted to those people across the Google network. I could imagine an insurance company targeting existing or ex customers close to renewal time for example.

For B2B this could be very interesting for prospecting or reducing sales funnel times, but perhaps your target population is a few thousand key decision makers at a few hundred companies. Will they allow that narrow a targeting? Almost certainly they are not already customers, but assuming you have a legal right to use their email address (maybe they signed up for your newsletter), will you be able to use this? What if you rent a database from say Axciom and Experian of Product Directors in FMCG companies? It would be very powerful if you could get that narrow an audience to see your ads.

over 2 years ago

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