Search vs. Display: Which Google Ads Network Should You Use?

Erin Sagin
Last Updated: November 24, 2022 | Paid Search Marketing
HomeBlogSearch vs. Display: Which Google Ads Network Should You Use?

Here at WordStream, our team of consultants analyzes thousands of PPC accounts. While our customers’ pain points tend to vary, many of their issues can be tracked back to one major misstep—their campaigns are set to run on both the Search and Display Networks simultaneously.

99% of the time, this practice will wreak havoc on a PPC account. The main problem is, these networks target users in two completely different scenarios. Not to mention, since metrics across each network are combined, it is challenging to assess how each is performing, and it eliminates the option to segment one’s budget by network.

Quite frankly, applying the same strategy to both networks is like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole…it just doesn’t work. If you have any campaigns opted into both networks, save yourself from future pain and agony and start separating them. In today’s post, we’ll do a deep dive outlining the components of each of these networks and examine what types of advertisers should be utilizing them.

round peg square hole

A Quick Note on Search Network with Display Select (SNDS)

Before we delve into the intricacies of each network, I want to address one caveat to this rule, which is Google’s recent innovation, Search Network with Display Select (SNDS). If you’re an avid reader of this blog, you may remember a post from a few weeks ago, complete with a Google video broadcast (featuring our in-house celebrity, Rich Griffin!), touting the benefits of this new, hybrid campaign model. SNDS allows advertisers to opt their search campaigns into the GDN in a limited fashion. Essentially, Google Ads claims that it will use “improved signals and methods of predicting where your ads are likely to perform best” to ensure that display ads are only shown in locations that are highly relevant to the advertisers’ “ideal” user.

As Rich mentions in his Google hangout video, this setting is reminiscent of Enhanced Campaigns, whereby Google Ads pushes advertisers to expand their reach and appeal to a broader range of customers. For less-than-savvy PPCers, or advertisers who have limited time to dedicate to account management, this low-effort option may feel like a godsend. That said, it comes at a price. In shifting to this model, you are sacrificing significant control over GDN performance and putting a great deal of faith in Google. For advertisers who have the time to do so, we highly recommend sticking with the traditional best practice of managing the Search and Display Networks through separate campaigns.

When to Use the Google Search Network

Running ads on the Search Network is the most common, well-known form of PPC advertising. With this network selection, your ads will be eligible to appear on Google SERPs. If you want to expand your reach, you can extend your targeting to include “search partners,” a group comprised of smaller search engines, such as AOL.

This advertising format is incredibly effective because it targets an active searcher, who is on a mission to find something. As you can see in the example above, the searcher is looking for a plumber in Virginia. Upon submitting the query, both paid ads (highlighted in the red boxes) and organic listings appear. Sure, the plumbers could rely on their organic (read: free) listings, but chance are, they will be more successful if they run ads on the Search Network. Not only are paid ads more robust, but they allow the plumbers to include extensions with additional links, phone numbers and addresses. Since the Search Network connects advertisers to people actively looking for their products, search campaigns typically drive more conversions than display campaigns.

You should be running a Search Network campaign if:

  • You’re working with a limited budget: In general, when clients are restricted to a small budget, we recommend starting with the Search Network. This format is more likely to drive direct conversions, making it easier to measure and justify your PPC efforts. Once you’ve mastered Search, it may be advisable to expand to the Display Network, which can boost visibility, leading to an uptick in search volume for your business.
  • You sell an “emergency” product: If your product or service offering is something that users look for on a when-needed basis (plumbers, locksmiths, electricians, etc.), you should be advertising on the Search Network. For these industries, it is imperative that your ad appears when the searcher is in need of your services.

When to Use the Google Display Network (GDN)

In addition to traditional search advertising, Google also gives advertisers the opportunity to place their ads on a variety of sites across the internet. This collection of websites, which ranges from blogs to news sites and even YouTube, is referred to as the Google Display Network (GDN). According to Google, the GDN includes over 2 million sites that reach over 90% of global internet users. Given the expansiveness of this network, it is incredibly appealing to advertisers who are looking to expand their online presence.

When users are on the GDN, they may not necessarily be in “shopping mode.” Instead, they are going about their daily internet activities—catching up on news, reading blog posts, watching video clips, etc. In order to gain traction on the GDN, your ads must attract the users’ attention and entice them enough to click through to your site, leaving the content that they were originally engaged with. Accomplishing this is no easy feat—even with top-notch ad creative, it’s tough to draw users to click on ads while they are perusing the Display Network.

But don’t write the GDN off yet—while clicks may be scarce, ad space on the network is plentiful. It is the ideal space to promote brand awareness and its vast reach is appealing to advertisers who are looking to broaden their fan bases. By increasing your brand’s visibility, you may reap more clicks on organic listings or see an uptick in brand-specific searches. These clicks are also less costly than clicks on the search network

You should be running a Display Network campaign if:

  • You want to familiarize people with your brand: Many advertisers leverage the Display Network to promote brand awareness. Since the GDN is so expansive, it offers many opportunities for advertisers to connect with their audiences. Don’t worry—this doesn’t mean you’ll be “shooting in the dark” with your display ads. Google Ads provides a variety of targeting options, ranging from managed placements (specific sites selected by the advertiser) to website groupings based on audience characteristics and more. By appearing on reputable sites that are popular amongst your target audience, you can quickly familiarize these people with your brand.
  • You have a lengthy sales process: If you sell a product or service that consumers are not likely to purchase immediately, you need to ensure that your brand stays top-of-mind for prospects as they consider making a purchase. To do this, we recommend utilizing remarketing, through the GDN. This strategy allows you to show ads to anyone who has visited your site in the past, encouraging them to return and convert. For example, a friend of mine spent some time on the Tiffany’s website a few months ago, as he was considering proposing to his girlfriend and wanted to price out ring options. After visiting the site, he was added to Tiffany’s remarketing list and was inundated with their engagement ring ads as he perused the internet. The jeweler did such a good job of re-engaging with him that he took the plunge and bought a ring much sooner than originally planned!
  • You have a sexy product: Since the GDN allows advertisers to display image ads, it is ideal for advertisers who sell luxury products whose ads are enticing to the eye. Since display advertising relies largely on distraction, it’s helpful to have an appealing product to promote. Take the ad down below, for example. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t give that a second glance!
search ads vs. display ads
  • You have compelling video collateral: If you’ve already invested significant time and energy on bad-ass video collateral, why not put it to good use? YouTube attracts hoards of traffic (upwards of 1 billion views per day), meaning the advertising potential is huge. Plus, given the popularity of YouTube advertising, Google has made it increasingly easy for advertisers to establish video campaigns (especially for those who can leverage existing creative). This can be an incredibly powerful way to connect with your target audience. People are more likely to engage with video content than text or image ads and, with Google’s TrueView option, you only pay for users who demonstrate a true interest in your video (by watching it for 30 seconds or more).

Already running Google Ads? See how your account is really performing with our Free Google Ads Grader!

Utilizing a Dual-Network Strategy

In reading the descriptions above, you may have noted that your company would benefit from both the Search and the Display Networks. We advise many advertisers to run campaigns for both, when budget permits.

However, to truly reap the benefits of each network, do your due diligence and break them into separate, network-specific campaigns. From a strategic standpoint, this will allow you to craft your messaging based on the scenario in which your audience is viewing your ad. From a more logistical standpoint, this segmentation is critical. Not only does it allow you to set specific budgets and bids per network, but it will keep your data “clean” and help you to make more impactful optimizations.

Let’s take click-through rate, for example. Ads on the Display Network typically garner lower CTRs than their Search Network counterparts (which comes as no surprise, given the context in which they are shown). If the campaigns are not segmented, the CTR data can be severely skewed, making it challenging to analyze performance.

Meet The Author

Erin Sagin

Erin Sagin worked at WordStream for five years with roles in Customer Success and Marketing. She lives in California.

See other posts by Erin Sagin

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