Back-to-School Trends in Paid Search

From Gregg Hamilton, SVP of Research & Analytics and Business Development at AdGooroo.

With August here, AdGooroo decided to examine Paid Search trends from last summer with an eye toward predicting what may happen in 2013’s Back-To-School retail season. To do so, we studied estimated search activity around 318 actively sponsored keyword terms on U.S. AdWords and the Yahoo! Bing Network in July and August 2012 that signaled Back-To-School-related shopping such as searches containing “school”, “college” or “textbook” or relating to various fall team sports.

Top Back-To-School Keywords

Figure 1 below shows the keywords with the most ad impressions and spend among the 318 Back-To-School terms we studied. Each of these 24 Back-To-School keywords registered more than $10,000 of PPC spend in August and July 2012 across U.S. AdWords and Yahoo! Bing. “Textbooks” was the top keyword for both spend ($829,857) and impressions (18,866,205), with “used textbooks” and “textbooks online” adding an additional $154,718 in spend and 5,063,624 impressions. For comparison, the second ranked keyword, “school supplies”, generated nearly as many impressions as “textbooks” (17,300,378) but at a fraction of the cost ($153,625), reflective of the higher price (and associated profit margins) on college and high school text books compared to general school supplies such as pencils and notebooks.

Of note, “best laptops for college” made the top 10 Back-To-School terms with more than $43,000 in spend and nearly 570,000 impressions. However, we likely understate the overall search activity for Back-to-School computer and tablet hardware by only including terms that also included “school” or “college” modifiers (in an effort to only include searches by students or their parents).

BTS Figure 1

Figure 1

To provide a different perspective on the same activity, the word cloud in Figure 2 visually depicts the relative popularity of the top Back-To-School keywords based on the total number of PPC ad impressions served.

BTS Figure 2

Figure 2

Paid Search Spend

We have seen a steady and sometimes sizable increase in year-over-year paid search spend on Back-To-School keyword terms going back to 2010. (See Figure 3 below.) In fact, advertisers spent $1.9 million across U.S. AdWords and the Yahoo! Bing Network from June to August 2012 on Back-To-School efforts, representing a whopping 73% increase over the same period in 2011. Most of that spend—$1.3 million—occurred in August as summer vacations wound down and the new school year loomed.

Looking at the most current data we have available for this year, spend on text PPC ads in June 2013 was down 37% compared to June 2012, likely because of a large shift in clicks and spend to AdWords’ Product Listing Ads. Nevertheless, we expect spend on text ads triggered by school-related terms in August 2013 to be near or above $1 million based on strong Back-To-School advertising in broadcast media and an anticipated bump in mobile search spend after the implementation of Google enhanced campaigns in July.

Interestingly, Figure 3 also shows that spend on school-related items occurs year-round, with major spikes in July and August during the Back-To-School season, as well as a significant and recurring spike in January, when school starts up again in the New Year.

BTS Figure 3

Figure 3

Back-To-School Spend By Category

The categories with the highest amount of paid search spend on Back-To-School terms during the period are shown in Figure 4 below. Given the high spend and impressions generated by “textbook”-related keywords, it is unsurprising to find the Books & Magazines category at the top of the Back-To-School spenders. As a category, Books & Magazines has by far the largest dependence on this annual shopping spree, with nearly 10 percent of all paid search spend in the category during July and August related to Back-to-School. The Mass Retail category is next, featuring merchants such as Walmart and Amazon, followed by the Apparel & Fashion category, although only a tiny proportion of paid search spend in these categories is devoted specifically to Back-To-School keyword terms. The Education category ranked fourth on the list in 2012 with a little more than $93,000 spent on clickthroughs on Back-To-School ads during the period. Although July and August would seem to be quite late to be searching for an enrollment opportunity, perhaps online universities and tutoring services seek to capitalize on the Back-To-School ‘buzz’.

BTS Figure 4

Figure 4

Top Back-To-School Advertisers

Given the high spend and impressions for keywords related to “textbooks” seen in Figure 1, it comes as no surprise that book and textbook purveyors account for 8 of the top 20 Back-To-School advertisers. (See Figure 5 below.) Both and, in fact, secured more than 2 million impressions during the period, propelling them to the number 3 and 4 spots respectively, while eBay’s book discounter garnered 1.8 million impressions at the number 6 spot. Together with, all three of these textbook merchants generated more Back-To-School search impressions than larger, well-known retail brands such as Target, Barnes & Noble and JC Penney. Smaller, lesser known players, in fact, are found in 10 spots on the list, including specialized companies such as, and Nonetheless, the top two spots belong to Amazon and Walmart, respectively, with other large brand retailers making up the rest of the list, including office supply sellers (Office Depot, Staples, OfficeMax) and the high school athlete-oriented sporting goods retailer

BTS Figure 5

Figure 5

Back-To-School Search Engine Comparison

More than 3,150 domains displayed at least one paid search ad in response to Back-To-School searches on U.S. AdWords in July or August 2012, but only 621 advertisers displayed at least one Back-To-School ad on Yahoo! Bing during the period. However, among the top Back-To-School advertisers in Figure 5 above, the vast majority were utilizing both search engines, with AdWords share of voice ranging from 61% (Staples) to 96.2% (Target). Only, with 99.9% of spend on AdWords, and Lakeshore Learning, with 100% concentration, did not take advantage of the Yahoo! Bing search engine during the period.