Discussion paper

DP16193 Online Advertising as Passive Search

Standard search models assume that consumers actively decide on the order, identity, and number of products they search. We document that online, a large fraction of searches happen in a more passive manner, with consumers merely reacting to online advertisements that do not allow them to choose the timing or the identity of products to which they will be exposed. Using a clickstream panel data set capturing full URL addresses of websites consumers visit, we show how to detect whether a click is ad-initiated. We then document that ad-initiated clicks account for more than half of all website arrivals, are more concentrated early on in the consumer search process, and lead to less in-depth searches and fewer transactions, consistent with the passive nature of these searches. To account for these systematic differences between active and passive searches, we propose and estimate a simple model that accommodates both types of searches, and describe the estimation bias arising in models that incorrectly treat all searches as active. Finally, we use our model’s estimates to describe consumer substitution patterns across websites under different advertising scenarios.


Ursu, R, A Simonov and E An (2021), ‘DP16193 Online Advertising as Passive Search‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 16193. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp16193