Search vs. Display: Which AdWords 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, AdWords 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 AdWords 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.

Wondering how your PPC account measures up? Find out with our free grader!

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.

google search vs google display

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. AdWords 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).

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.


Find out how you're REALLY doing in AdWords!

Watch the video below on our Free AdWords Grader:

Visit the AdWords Grader.


Rohan Bhardwaj
May 21, 2014

I once ran an Advert, but I allowed it to run on search traffic and also on GDN. The result was okay as it didn't made me happy nor sad. All i can say, I wish I had read this article before.You cleverly defined the effectiveness of the both the display types. For me, since I needed to sell the product, the the search network will have proved to be more effective.One needs to analyze the results and always target the audience well so as to cover the one with related interest. Epic article, I found this on kingged.

Bitu Williams
Apr 22, 2015

Great informative article. Thanks. It is what I have been thinking for some time. I will be splitting my campaigns into two distinct groups. Hopefully save money to.

May 23, 2014

I found when I tried to split my campaings, that my existing campaign had such a good quality score - that
when I made a new ad in a new campaing and specialised in GDN - they penalised me so heavily on cpc - thati had to revert back to one campaign with everything in it.  It seems when you start a new campaign - you start with
a quality score of zero - or maybe less than that - and my quality socre was between 7-8 and the cpc in the new gdn
campaign - on the same words was 3x the price.  So i had to keep 1 campaign that included search and display.  Unless
I'm prepared to pay 3x the price per click (exact same keywords) - which obviously I'm not.
Now it seems they've done something to the display settings and taken away the topics and negative topics, so my
ads started showing again on the job website listings in GDN, which I had previoiusly excluded  - so I had to stop the
GDN altogether, as I don't want to end up on wrong websites.

Jun 23, 2014

Hi Erin,Finally I am dipping into the murky Adwords waters.I must admit that this article out of all of them that I have read about which ad format to choose has come out tops.Thank you.:-)J

Natasha Popovich
Jun 23, 2014

To be completely honest with you I never actually saw any more benefit in display select vs display. I think both are pretty weak in terms of targeting except for in cases that you mentioned with the sexy product. 

Sep 05, 2014

Great articles. I have been managing my google ads on my own with out any previous experience or knowledge. I have been learning alot as I go, and this article has helped me lots. I have changed my settings, I now only use search networks. This will bring in the customers that are actualy looking to buy from me and not the ones that just saw my add and thought they would take a look.Be sure to go through all of your setting and make adjustments as necessary. Another one that has saved me money is stopping my ads showing up on mobile devices.

Sarkari Naukri HQ
Oct 20, 2014

I have stated using Adwords from couple of days and was running both search with display. Now switched to search only. I hope, this is good desicion.

Feb 08, 2015

i have started using Google Adwords a few days back. Good and useful information for the beginners.

Jelle Wierdsma
Oct 01, 2015


Possible to have a free audit of our Adwords account with the Adwords grader?


Nov 19, 2015

Duh. SNDS can be useless and detrimental to many businesses and professionals - lawyers, accountants, instructors. SNDS will be wasting the budget on clicks from people who are not potential customers, clicking on your ad mindlessly when it suddenly pops up on some webpage that they were reading. People looking for particular services will be using Search.

Jan 20, 2016

Nice article, if you want better conversions you only want to use the search network. I found although SNDS clicks are way cheaper, there is a reason, they have no value.

As you say if you use search only you are targeting people with intent, the display network is likely ok if your aim is awareness and conversion is not the primary goal. The cpc will be higher with search only but you greatly increase your chances of a lead because they are actively searching for the search query.

SNDS is one of those lessons someone new at adwords will learn the hard (and expensive way).

Neil Hocking
Feb 16, 2016

Thank you for the info.
This probably explains why my clients clicks went up but conversions went down when we went from the Search with Display Select to Display only.

On another note, I think jewellers are playing a dangerous game with remarking. I was writing an article on weddings and used a jewellers for some research. Everywhere I went I ended up being bombarded with engagement ring adverts.

Not a problem for me but imagine I had been planning a secret proposal? What do you think my girlfriend would think the next time she was browsing the internet and kept coming across engagement ring ads?

May 08, 2016

Very well written. Easy to understand. Thanks for sharing such informative points.

Jul 20, 2016

To Neil Hocking : TRUE - from my tablet - the laptop has Adblock :)

Every time I search online for some products to buy, I get the Display ads on other websites that I'm browsing, which is a bit annoying, because if I'm looking for baby diapers, the diaper adds simply block my reading of financial/politics articles :) I don't think I'll be able to shop online secretly for presents for my husband or children :)

Aug 17, 2016

Good article. Since retargeting (or remarketing as Google calls it) requires a certain amount of website visits to kick in, we are considering running a traditional search network campaign as well as a GDN display network campaign with retargeting under the same account. We haven't gotten to the part yet whereby we would add tracking code to the GDN as we already have retargeting code applied for the search network campaign, which we presume will serve text ads to site visitors when they search for "other than our keywords"?
That seems redundant though. Is it advisable in your opinion to run a standard search campaign and only do retargeting for the concurrent GDN campaign? That seems like a better strategy to me. Our target service is one of those things seldom searched for, but if you knew the technology was possible you'd probably jump on it. So we calculate that a combination of concurrent search (to get them to the site) followed by visual retargeting is the right approach.
Thanks for any advice.

Erin Sagin
Aug 19, 2016

Hil Wil--I'm not sure that I follow the first question--can you elaborate?

As for the second, I think your plan is fine, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to go broader with retargeting. Remember, everyone you retarget to has already been to your site--be it through organic, direct, social, ppc,etc, so all of these people now know of your product. Adding the visual, persistent remarketing component will help to overcome any objections that they had to converting and push them to take action.

Does that help?

Spencer W
Sep 02, 2016

I have been fooling around, on my own, with AdWords since 2009. I have always only used the "Google Search Network" - cost more but brings me paying customers who know what they want. Avoided the "search partners" now known as GDN. On my AdWords Campaign Management page an "expert help" message (by the bell in the upper right corner) popped up a few weeks ago. I paid it no mind until I got a personal call yesterday from that "expert". The representative was very knowledgable in navigating back and forth and gave me some realy good pointers. He also "wowed" me and helped me set up Image Ads and remarketing available through the SNDS. Prior to all this I would normally get 4 to 9 clicks per day which resulted in 2 to 4 customer contacts on a $20/day budget. The Google rep advised me to bump my per day budget to $30/day going with SNDS. Tonight I go and check clicks - 31 clicks!! average $ 0.91 per/click, however no phone calls/contacts! Budget slurped up. Nope! Going back to the basics. SNDS may work for the dazzlers - I'm not one of em. Great Article! Will be back.

Jos Schuurmans
Dec 23, 2016

Thank you for your insights, Erin!

I was wondering how social media advertising compares to both SEM and Display? What are the factors determining which percentage of budget would be wisely spent on social, SEM and Display respectively?


Apr 03, 2017

Nice post very impressive thanks for share.

Oct 26, 2017

Hi, I've just stepped into the deep waters of AdWords and SEO/SEM, and chancing upon your article at the right time has done me a world of good. Understanding whether to use GDN or Search ads has become so simple after I read your piece. Great going and thank you!

Nov 27, 2017

i use display ads a lot, the reason being that some products have limited popularity in terms of keywords. for example where one products dominates other and the markets know that product, for instance IT courses, we are a school offering a variety of IT courses such Networking courses, IT hardware, IT software development. if i use IT courses i will have to deal with inter-competition in my account. i opt display than anything else in that situation

Leave a comment