Using the Search vs. Display Network on Google Ads 

 Last Updated May 14, 2023

By Zaid Ammari

Google Ads is quite an effective tool – if you know how to use it correctly. While you might have some luck just poking around, the platform may seem a bit overwhelming if you’re not an advertising professional. That’s not to say that setting up an effective campaign is impossible – it isn’t! But it can be tricky.

When you start creating an advertising campaign, one of the first things you have to decide is whether to use the Search or Display Network ads. Let’s take a closer look at exactly what that means. 

Search and Display: What’s the Difference? 

Creating an ad campaign and running it on both the Search and Display Networks can render the entire thing useless. Google encourages using both, which makes sense on the surface. The broader your ad’s reach, the more likely it is to be effective, right?

Well, not exactly. 

Getting your ad out there is important. But what’s more important is getting your ad out there to the right people. 

Here’s an example: say you're looking to buy ad time on television. Which is likely to have a larger audience, a popular primetime show, or a kids’ program that airs at 6:00 AM?

It’s probably a safe bet that more people are watching primetime programming. And because it has a larger audience, it’s easy to assume that it offers the best exposure to your product. But think about this: what if your product is a children’s toy? Would you still want to run your ads during primetime? No, because it's more expensive and doesn't zero in on your target audience. The kids’ show is much more likely to attract your target audience – for a far more affordable rate. Even though there may not be as many people watching, those who do are more likely to be interested in what you’re selling. 

Back to Google. Obviously, they’re going to encourage you to use both Search and Display. But they’re making money off your advertising budget, so they’re not exactly an impartial advisor. Unfortunately, no one has an unlimited advertising budget, which means you'll have to figure out the best way to spend every penny. 

Before you do, though, you have to understand the difference between the Search and Display networks.

The Search Network

The Search Network is probably what comes to mind when you think about a Google ad. They appear in the search results when a user actively searches for something, which makes sense. If someone is looking for a local plumber, they expect ads for local plumbers. It’s a brilliant setup, really, making Google into a sort of digital phonebook or catalog where you can instantly receive contact information about local products and services. 

The Display Network

Display Network ads show up on third-party websites that are trying to profit by running Google ads. If you see ads on a website, it means that the website chose to provide ad space for Google to run ads for businesses using the Display Network. In addition to showing up in banners or as text on websites, Display Network ads also appear in Gmail inboxes, various apps, and run before and during YouTube videos.

Note that this doesn’t mean the ads are in the same niche as the website. For example, you may see that ad for children’s toys on a mommy blog, or it might pop up when you’re reading the news. (More on that later.) Display Network ads are very useful, particularly when it comes to brand awareness.

If Search Network ads aim to provide a fast answer, Display Network ads are in it for the long game. 

The Takeaway

Unlike Search Network ads, Display Network ads are not designed for people specifically searching for a product. Quite the opposite, in fact. These ads are sometimes called “interruption marketing” because they show up when someone is visiting one of the 3 million or so websites that have agreed to be part of the Display Network. 

Use Each Network Effectively

Both the Search and Display networks can be effective – but not if you approach them in the same way. Here are some key things to keep in mind when putting together your ad campaigns.

You need different ads. 

Search Network ads are straightforward. If you want to find a local exterminator, you search for local exterminators, and you see ads for local exterminators.

In this case, the Search Network gives you exactly what you’re looking for. If you’re a local exterminator, don’t try to be fancy or complicated in a Search ad. Be straightforward about who you are, the services you provide, and how people can get in touch when they need you. 

Let’s go back to that children’s toy example. Think about a mom searching online for a toy for her child. She’s not exactly sure what she’s looking for, but she has a vague idea of what she’s interested in. She isn’t necessarily looking to buy something right now, but maybe a holiday or birthday is coming up soon, and she's hoping for some inspiration.

In this case, you need an ad that’s going to draw attention, an ad that shows mom why your toy is the best one for her child. In a way, this is much more like old-school advertising or ads that you might see on TV. You’re trying to stand out and be memorable, not directly filling a need.

You can see how using the same campaign for both networks isn’t going to be as effective as creating two different campaigns that consider the way each network functions. The Search Network and the Display Network are used for very different things. If you don’t approach them that way, you end up with an ad that falls flat on both.

Rethink how you target your audience. 

The Search Network relies on searches, so keywords are important. Someone looking for a local electrician is going to search for “local electrician,” so your ad should say you’re a local plumber. 

Display ads are different. They use a few different targeting methods. 

Contextual targeting is the simplest option. It uses Google to match ads that show in the display network ads to the things the user previously searched for. So, if you’re that mom who’s trying to find the perfect toy for her kid, don’t be surprised if toy ads show up when you’re reading the news – or trying to find a new briefcase for yourself. 

Demographic targeting is another way to target display ads. With this option, you choose age ranges, genders, geographical locations, and so on. You can even choose if the person you’re reaching is a parent or not.

Finally, you can use behavioral targeting. This is when you choose to target people who have looked online for something related to your product. The more a person uses Google, the more it learns about them. Google would have already figured out that the woman looking for toys has children. That means they placed her into a category of women with children of a certain age who might be interested in the toy you’re selling.

Which Network Is Better? 

There’s no real way to answer whether the Search or Display Network is better because there are so many variables. What is your business? What service or product are you selling? Are you looking for quick interest, or trying to grow brand recognition? Do you want to be the obvious solution to a clearly defined problem, or are you hoping to build a long-term relationship? 

You need to consider your budget too. The Search Network is a better option if you don’t have a lot of money to spend right away. It doesn’t cost as much in the long run, and any clicks are more likely to lead to a conversion. 

The best approach: uses both networks with separate campaigns. 

When done right, this can work for any business, big or small, and no matter the industry. A good example is someone who offers emergency services like, say, a plumber. If someone is having a crisis in the middle of the night and Googles “24-hour plumbers” or “emergency plumbers," you want to make sure that your plumbing company is one of the available search results. The customer has an immediate problem and is looking for a fast solution. Showing up at the top of the search skyrockets the chance that you’ll get the call. 

But emergency services aren’t the only thing you do with your plumbing company. You want people to consider your plumbing business for other jobs, too, like water heater installation or contracting work with new construction. For these things, creating a separate Display Network ad campaign pays off in ways a Search ad does not. 

The Right Fit

All of this is to say that both networks are each quite effective at getting results. You just have to know how to use them to your advantage. Once you understand the purpose of each network and spend some time digging into the different targeting methods, it becomes very clear what you need to do to match your ad copy to the right network – and the audience within that network.

Zaid Ammari Headshot

About the author 

Zaid is a leading expert on data driven digital marketing; focusing on analytics and actionable insights from data. Founder of PPC Masterminds - he helps businesses build & run profitable data driven digital campaigns.

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