We’ve all come to expect that retailers will flood the search engines during the holiday season with ads containing very strong, compelling offers to purchase. Not only is the holiday season when retailers have the opportunity to end the year in the black, it’s also an incredibly competitive time of year. They need to roll out the big guns if they want to catch their shoppers’ attention.

At The Search Monitor, we decided to turn our attention to the ads retailers were running in their PPC ads during January, and compare it to what we saw during the Black Friday weekend. Our technology crawls the major search engines and monitors the copy used by retailers in their ads in order to help improve marketers’ performance.

What we found was enlightening, to say the least. The most popular offer type used by retailers during the first three weeks of January was free shipping (46% of PPC ads monitored contained that language). While the use of free shipping as a sales tactic is nothing new, what surprised us was that this tactic was actually used more often than during the Black Friday shopping weekend (38%). We expected to see that retailers had eased up on the free shipping offer after the holiday rush, but it seems like the free shipping ‘drug’ can be a hard one to kick once you start. We’ll check in again in February to see if things change and retailers focus more on sales messaging.

Speaking of sales messaging, that was the second most popular retail tactic used during the first three weeks of January (41% of ads PPC monitored contained ‘sale’). Similar to free shipping, the use of sale messaging was higher in January than Black Friday (34%), another surprise. The analysis shows just how important January is for retailers, and if a retailer wants to stay competitive, they better not let up on the sales messaging after the New Year.

After free shipping and sales, the next most popular offer type was free shipping with a specific dollar minimum. Note that The Search Monitor separates this tactic from simply mentioning ‘free shipping’ since our retailer clients want advice on a) whether to include the extra detail and b) what dollar amount to list. This offer type appeared in just 14% of all PPC ads monitored, very similar to how often it appeared during Black Friday (12%). (BTW, feel free to contact us if you’d like to know the free shipping minimum amounts that were most common in your vertical–the range is surprisingly broad, anywhere from $25 to $100.)

We also like to keep tabs on how often a PPC ad mentions ‘free product‘ in its messaging. Retailers often ask us whether this tactic is common and what it does to click rates. In the last three weeks, we only saw this offer type 11% of the time, a bit higher than the 7% Black Friday figure. While this tactic is less common on average (i.e. across all 1,200 verticals we monitor), at a quick glance we saw that it was definitely more popular in certain verticals where free product offers make more sense. So don’t rule it out.

Wrapping up the top five most popular offer types we saw during January, just 7% of ads monitored included both free shipping and the mention of a dollar-off discount. This is the richest of the offers we looked at, so it’s no surprise that it’s the least common, and changed very little from what we saw during Black Friday (6%).

The January analysis showed us and our clients exactly what retailers need to do to stay competitive as we begin the new year. It’s definitely not the time–yet–to kick the holiday habit of rich offers.

Note on Chart: All data is from Lighthouse by The Search Monitor (Jan 1-21, 2014). Figures sum to greater than 100% since a single ad could contain more than one offer type.