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Display vs search advertising: What are the key differences?

Display vs search advertising: What are the key differences?

Google Ads allow you to place ads online to meet your customers when they're browsing online. But do you know the difference between display and search ads? Read our guide to find out more.

If you want to find more customers online, there are a number of digital marketing techniques you can use. Google Ads allows you to pay to show your brand in a range of places and to reach a wide number of customers when they’re browsing or searching online. 

Search advertising and display advertising are two extremely effective ways to drive traffic to your website, build brand awareness and drive leads and sales for your business. 

However, knowing which strategy to use can be difficult. If you use the wrong channel, you could risk wasting your budget on advertising that is not going to drive results for your business. 

What are search ads and how do they work? 

Search ads, Paid Search, is one of the most popular forms of PPC (pay per click) advertising. 

Paid search ads allow you to pay to make sure your brand appears at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs) when users search for specific keywords or phrases related to your products or services. 

Search ads are text-based ads which are made up of a headline, a display URL and description text. All of which should encourage searchers to click through to your website. You can also make sure of ad extensions to provide even more information about your business. 

You choose a list of keywords to bid on and, based on the amount you bid and the Quality Score of your ads, your ads will appear when searchers are actively searching. 

What are the advantages of paid search ads? 

Search ads provide a number of benefits for your business:

More qualified leads 

Search ads help to drive traffic to your website and drive conversions for your business. The people who are searching are actively looking for your products or services so they are more likely to click through. With display ads, customers are not actively searching, which makes them more of a brand awareness tool. 

Provides measurable data 

When you run search ads, you’ll be able to use the data within Google Ads to understand which of your keywords and ads are performing and which are not. This allows you to continuously monitor the performance of your campaigns and tweak them until you find something that works and to make sure you’re getting the most from your budget. 

Cost effective 

As a result of being able to measure your campaigns and by appearing only for the keywords relevant to your products and services, the people who click through to your site from search ads are more qualified, which results in much higher conversion rates. 

When should you use search ads? 

As search ads are slightly different to display ads, there are a few scenarios in which search ads would be better suited. 

Complement organic traffic 

If you have an SEO (search engine optimisation) strategy, you’ll already know that it can take time to see the full results. Paid search can work as a shorter term solution to drive traffic to your website while your SEO strategy becomes effective. Or, you can use paid search ads to work alongside your SEO strategy and take up more space in the SERPs. 

Organic traffic tends to focus more on comparative solutions and consist of people looking for more information before they decide to make a purchase. On the other hand, paid search provides solutions much more quickly and means searchers are more likely to convert. 

Drive high quality leads 

With search ads, you can use a range of keyword match types to trigger your ad when someone is searching in the search engines. You can also use negative keywords to make sure your ad doesn’t show when someone is searching for something that’s not relevant to your business. 

If you want to get more from your marketing budget and are looking to drive sales, search advertising is a better option than display. 

Promote emergency products 

If you provide urgent or emergency services such as a plumber, locksmith or electrician, search ads are perfect for your business. These are services that someone is unlikely to want after reading a blog post, browsing online or using social media. When someone has a leak at home, they’re likely to be looking for a service that can help them straight away, they’re not looking for more information, just the closest and quickest service. 

Targeting a local audience 

If you offer a local service and you want to target local customers, search ads are a great option. They allow you to only show your ads to searchers in a particular location and prevent budget wastage on people who are too far away and will never visit your business. 

Starting with a small budget 

If you’re just starting out with paid search or you have a lower budget, search ads are a great option. They allow you to pay per click or per 1,000 impressions. You can also bid on highly relevant keywords which provides you with much more control over who you reach with your ads and drive higher quality leads, better conversion rates and better ROI. 

What are display ads and how do they work? 

Display ads are still run within the Google Ads platform but they are very different to paid search ads. Search ads are only seen by the people who are actively searching for your products or services but display ads are paid placements that appear in a variety of places based on a number of targeting parameters. 

Unlike search ads, display ads are not just limited to appearing in one location (SERPs), they appear across the Google Display Network (GDN). The GDN is made up of 2 million websites and reaches over 90% of online users

These ads can be shown across social media platforms such as in news feeds or down the side of the main feed. Banner ads appear above the main content on websites or to the right of the main content. 

The GDN segments websites by category and offers the placements out to advertisers as a package. These ad networks take bids from advertisers and those with the highest bids will earn space on their chosen websites. 

As well as targeting specific sites where you think your customers may be, you can also use remarketing ads to target people who have already visited your site to drive them to convert. 

What are the advantages of display advertising? 

Understanding the advantages of display advertising can help you to determine whether they’re the right strategy for your business. 

Build brand awareness 

Display ads are perfect for driving brand awareness because they are placed in front of your potential customers. The targeting options mean you can get them in the same places your customers are browsing to remind them of your brand and push them towards a purchase. 

Take advantage of retargeting 

If someone has visited your website in the past but hasn’t yet converted, display ads give you the opportunity to draw them back to your site with retargeting. It helps to keep reminding them of your brand and increases the chances of conversion. 


Unlike traditional advertising methods, display ads provide a relatively inexpensive way to connect with your target audience. Using just an image and some text, you can start creating display ads to drive people back to your website. 

Pricing is relatively inexpensive and is charged per impression with one impression meaning a single view by an internet user. 

Range of targeting options 

Display advertising allows you to reach a very specific audience. Advertising types include:

  • Contextual targeting - this allows you to target customers based on their previous search activity. You can use relevant keywords to get in front of the people searching for those keywords and increase the chances of your ads converting. 
  • Placement targeting - this includes choosing where you want your ads to appear. You can also exclude certain websites if you don’t want to appear there. 
  • Demographic targeting - this allows you to cater to narrow or more niche target audiences or age groups. You can show your ads to people who meet certain criteria such as age, gender, location, interests or language. This allows you to get the most from your marketing budget by only showing ads to the people who are most likely to convert. 
  • Behavioural targeting - uses search history and online behaviour to serve ads to people with the most relevant interests. This is one of the most popular targeting methods because it helps you to get your ads in front of the people who are most likely to buy from you.

When should you use display ads? 

As we have already mentioned, display ads are slightly different to search ads and can help you meet different objectives. Here are some of the reasons you might want to use display ads: 

Your product or service relies on visuals 

Display ads can include images or videos so if you’re looking to promote products or services that heavily rely on visuals, display advertising is the best option. For products such as apparel, home decor and holiday packages, display advertising can be extremely effective. 

Create brand awareness to users with passive intent 

The people who are browsing online are not actively looking for a product or service to buy. They will be in the discovery or awareness stage of the marketing funnel and researching options with passive intent. 

As a result, the display network is perfect for creating demand for your products or services, rather than answering demand which is what happens in the search network. 

You have a longer sales cycle

If you have a product or service that isn’t usually purchased immediately and has a longer sales cycle, display advertising can help you to keep your audience engaged and keep your brand top of mind until they’re ready to purchase from you. 

This is often the case with expensive items such as cars, enterprise software, home furnishings or higher education. As customers consider making a purchase, it’s important to keep your brand top of mind throughout the sales journey and display advertising is the perfect way to do this. 

Find and target niche markets 

Display advertising helps you to drive brand awareness because they are found on the sites where potential customers are already spending their time. Google matches keywords and ads to the most relevant web pages over 2 million sites. This allows you to find niche audiences through interest targeted ads or contextual ads. 

What are the differences between display advertising and search advertising? 

The key difference between search ads and display advertising is search ads are pull advertising whilst display ads are push advertising. This means that search ads will only appear to the people who are already searching for your product or service but display ads are the paid placements that appear based on the targeting parameters you use within your campaigns. 

Display ads are perfect for driving brand awareness and helping to keep customers engaged throughout the buying process. On the other hand, search ads are perfect for capturing people who are actively searching for your product or service and are ready to buy. 

If you’d like to find out more about how search ads and display ads can help you to grow your business, sign up to our monthly newsletter

Blog written by

Mark Skinner

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