Answering the Digital-Age Old Question of When to Use Display or Search Ads

Paid online advertisement is significantly polarized with search in the north and display in the south. These textual adverts that dominate search results were skyrocketed to fame due to their cost-per click model. This has allowed advertisers to understand costs and returns on marketing investments like never before.

Take for example, calculating the return on the $2,000 billboard investment a company would make. It is nearly impossible to tell the return directly associated with that particular billboard. Instead, look at the return on a $2,000 monthly cost-per-click AdWords campaign a company has. Through data tracking, that company can then understand every person that clicks on that ad and goes to the website, as well as every person that clicks through the ad to the website and completes an action or purchase. This provides a nearly complete picture of the return on marketing investment (ROMI).

Continuing with the billboard example once again, that $2,000 price tag would be provided based on the density of traffic along that highway. This model would apply a CPM (cost per thousand impressions) cost to it but would only be able to estimate the costs and not take into consideration interest or intent. Rather display ads utilize the same CPM model but price on an absolute number of impressions without estimating and can take into consideration user interest.

Search vs. Display

These two poles maintain a number of differences, but can also provide synergies when applied together. Let’s first consider the differences involved between display and search advertisement models.

SEM Snippet
Search Ads

Search ads are certainly more limited of the two. The major area that search ads are visible on are Google, Yahoo! and Bing. They generally only come in a few different fonts: blue and black. This includes title, description and hyperlink to the intended site, which are generally confined by the number of characters (25, 70 and 35 respectively). These ads do benefit from being in the search results which when considering why people are performing a search (to gather information, to go somewhere or to do something), these ads place them in premium locations that provide remedies to the searcher’s query.

Another limitation that search ads has is the short intermittent and overall time spent on search. Most searchers make a decision (by clicking) within 5 seconds of making a search query. Most clicks than land above-the-fold and very few people ever click to the second, let alone third page. Lastly, most Internet users spend very little time on search results. This can be seen with less than 2 minutes per day.

Display Adsdisplay example

Display ads have the convenience of added imagery and additional options. Display ads can come in the form of static images (JPG or PNG), moving images (GIFs) and various video files. The various styles of display ads make them more capable of attracting attention. Overall, display ads have very few confinements in the sense of size, however there are more popular container sizes (these are areas set aside for feeding ads in). The 3 most popular ad sizes are leaderboard/banners (728×90), Boxes (300×250) and Skyscrapers (160×600).

One setback that display ads have is being located on websites where people are consuming information. This means that display ads have to interrupt users’ attention which can be seen as invasive to a viewer. The best way to leverage this is to make sure that the ads are going along with the content, but provide something in addition to warrant the person’s attention and action.

Another dissimilarity between search and display is the fact that display ads are not confined to the three big search engines. Instead, there are millions of sites that provide ads. These sites come in the form of direct sellers or network partners. An example of a direct seller would be a website such as Forbes or many other traditional news companies or popular sites that provide ads on it directly. The latter are websites that utilize an ad network’s containers that propagate ads in each time a person views a site or page.

Search and Display

The first, most obvious usage of these two in cohesion is for an advertising campaign with a dual purpose. For instance, if a company intended to increase awareness and promote revenue, display and search advertisement. Through a course of divide and conquer, display ads could be broadened to support awareness while the cost-per-click model of a search campaign would ensure that revenue was being closely monitored against costs. There is the additional benefit of doubling your awareness and marketing effort by using both and ensure search engine placement and website visibility.

Additionally, depending on the nature of a business, a company operating in a number of industries could use display and search to best leverage costs. A lawyer for example looking to advertise as a “Mesothelioma Lawsuits” and “Criminal Defense Law” would benefit from using display and search ads respectively. The reason being is that “Mesothelioma Lawsuits” are generally the most expensive keywords on AdWords, whereas they are much less expensive on display impressions. Search ads on the other hand suit “Criminal Defense Law” much better because it is not as acceptable to advertise blatantly, rather just for the people searching for it.

So, the simple answer is there is no right or wrong choice. Display certainly has its merits, as well as demerits. As does search advertisements. Quite often these are opposites but at times they work together. It is best to understand the goals of your campaign and the competitive nature surrounding your business. From there you can begin to make a wise decision.

If you have more questions on which kind of campaign to run, contact us today. For further information on how to develop successful display and search ads, search through our other articles or try some of the useful Marketing Tips available elsewhere online. provides excellent tutorials to learn digital marketing at your own pace.

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