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Choosing between search and display ads for Google Ads

Choosing between search and display ads for Google Ads

So you’re thinking of running some Google Ads and just discovered there are two different kinds: search ads and display.

Great. Just what you needed another thing to learn before you can begin driving all that new business through a Google Ads campaign.

We feel your pain. So we’ll keep this short. Ish. And include some handy video tutorials from Google itself for you to bookmark and watch when it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of making ads.

For now though let’s quickly look at the difference between these two platforms. Then we’ll explain when you should use either kind, and offer some optimisation tips.

Google Search Network ads explained

These are the ads that appear on a Search Engine Results Page (Serp) when you pull up Google and, er, google something. Here’s a quick breakdown of the lifecycle of this kind of ad:

  1. An advertiser creates a Google Ads account and creates a simple text and link ad.
  2. They choose keywords they want that ad to appear next to, set a bid on those keywords, plus a maximum daily spend.
  3. When someone makes a Google search matching one of those keywords, a near-instantaneous ‘auction’ is triggered.
  4. The auction compares the bids made by different advertisers, assigning ad positions based on who has bid the most, and which ads are highest quality.
  5. The ads are displayed on the Serp, but the advertisers are only billed if their ad is clicked on (this is called Cost Per Click or CPC).

There’s a lot more that could be said about this advertising system – it is, after all, the backbone of Google’s $28 billion annual advertising revenue – but you could probably watch a Google tutorial on Youtube to begin learning those details.

A couple of key points though before we move on:

  • If you win an auction you don’t actually pay the full bid – you only pay what it takes to beat the next highest bidder.
  • Costs can range from $0.05c for each click up to more than $50 for the most sought-after keywords. 2018’s most expensive keywords were ‘insurance’, ‘loans’, and ‘mortgage’, according to Wordstream. While Adstage says the average CPC on the Search Network in Q1 2018 was $2.76.
  • With CPC advertising, generating ROI is affected by how well you convert users once they arrive on your site. If you pay a dollar per click, and convert one in a hundred visitors to your page, then it costs you $100 for every sale. If each sale only earns you $100, then you’ve just broken even – but of course if you can convert more than one out of every hundred visitors then you’re in positive ROI. Welcome to the beguiling world of conversion rate optimisation….
  • You can create ad groups of related ads that target the same keywords – this allows you to refine and improve your ads over time as you see which versions do best. Or you can use different ads in the ad group to send separate demographics off to tailored landing pages.

Google Display Network ads explained

Put simply, advertising on the GDN is how you get an ad on to someone else’s website (rather than on a Google Serp). These are the ad spots you see as you browse the web – banner ads, video ads, little texts ads, etc – though the GDN also governs the ads that appear in Gmail inboxes and certain apps. It’s the largest network of this type in the world, offering access to over 90 per cent of global internet users according to Google’s own stats.

The major difference (apart from the typically much more visual nature of many of these ads) is how they are targeted. Obviously as people browse they’re not giving useful insight into their needs by typing queries into a search engine – so these ads are instead targeted to the topic or keywords on the target sites, to specific websites, or to specific audiences (including audiences you can create yourself, by remarketing to people who visited your site but didn’t convert at the time.)

If you’re keen to get into the nitty-gritty of display ads on Google, here’s a useful video to start with.

Plus a few key points from us:

  • Display ads generally have much lower click-through – and if your goals are things like brand awareness, you might not care about click-through at all. So you typically pay for how many times your ad is shown, rather than how many clicks it gets. This is known as Cost Per Mille billing. Mille means thousand, so it’s simply the cost of every thousand ad impressions.
  • According to Adstage, the average CPM on the display network in Q1 2018 was $2.80
  • You have a range of billing options to choose from on the Display Network, including things like vCPM, aka viewable CPM. This is where you are only billed for an impression if at least half of your ad is visible for 1 second or more, or in the case of video ads, plays continuously for 2 seconds or more.

Should you use the Search or Display network for your Google Ads campaign?

Here’s an important rule to understand: Ads on the Display Network typically target users higher up the funnel, while ads on the Search Network target those who are closer to the bottom.

When search ads work

Why are search ads best for bottom-funnel campaigns?

Because people searching via Google, as opposed to just browsing the net, are much more likely to have a purchase intent. Sure there are plenty of non-purchase searches – queries like “what is the average flight speed of an unladen swallow?” – but when you search for “shoe repair near me” it’s because you’ve snapped a heel and need it fixed today.

That means a search ad targeting those keywords is likely to get clicked on – whereas an ad for emergency shoe repair on the Display Network is much less likely to be effective. No one snaps a heel, then starts browsing the internet waiting for the right ad to come up.

When display ads work

If, on the other hand, you are marketing a new restaurant and want its name to spring to mind the next time people are thinking of where to go on date night, then a visually stunning ad on the Display Network would be a smart approach. Similarly you could use your display ad to target all the most popular restaurant review sites and apps, or even run a remarketing campaign for people who visited your menu page but never clicked through to book. Perhaps your mains were all too costly and you could entice them with a discount?

You can see the different uses for the two networks really clearly by looking at the click-through rates on each. The average Display Network CTR is a miniscule 0.35 per cent, according to Adstage research on Q1 2018, whereas the Search Network average CTR was 4.23 per cent in the same period. That’s 12 times higher.

Outtakes and further tips

So now you’ve got your head around the basic differences of search and display ads, here’s a grab-bag of tips and tricks to take away:

  • When deciding between search and display campaigns, you must first understand which part of the funnel you are targeting.
  • When using the Search Network, think hard about the user intent you want to target, and match your ads to that intent.
  • You can hone in on user intent by listing negative keywords – these exclude your ad from auctions that aren’t relevant to your business. E.g. “Men’s shoe repair” if you only repair women’s shoes.
  • Negative keywords can improve your ad’s performance, which can in turn make your campaigns cheaper over time. Remember how we mentioned that Google auctions check the quality of your ads as well as how much you’ve bid in determining who gets their ad displayed? Basically, Google lets you win auctions at lower bid prices if your ads are viewed as high quality – i.e. if they perform well. So it pays to constantly refine them.
  • Use the Display Network to build awareness, or target the top of the funnel with your best and most compelling content.
  • If you want clicks from the Display Network your ads should require a low commitment from viewers, in order to match the low purchase intent they’ll have. So “Watch the 10 most viral cat videos” might gain clicks and move people into your funnel, but “Buy these cute cat collars” will likely tank.

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Greg Roughan
Greg Roughan About the author

Castleford’s Editor, Greg has a passion for popular science writing and is an occasional contributor to Radio New Zealand, where he writes on sustainability. He works on high subject matter expertise accounts at Castleford, is an occasional contributor to the blog, and writes for the artificial intelligence conversational marketing client Stackchat.

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