Google Search vs. Display – Pros and Cons

This week, PPC expert Matt Kelly shares his guidance about when to use Google AdWords and when to focus on the content / display network.


Search vs. Display: What Are They?

In Google Adwords, there are two primary “venues” on which you can display ads, the first being Google Search, the second being the Google Display Network (GDN).

Google Search and their search partners, such as, allow the display of text  ads along with organic results (unpaid) that are triggered by keywords. You type in a keyword or phrase, Google displays the most relevant ads.  When you click on the ad, the advertiser is charged based on an auction price and you are re-directed to the advertiser’s website.

GDN on the other hand are “contextually” targeted ads based on content, interests, or topics. Publishers of content use Google Adsense as the vehicle for displaying ads. In addition, Google uses your demographic data and interests to display ads you might be interested in.

You can view your Ad Preferences at:

So if, for example, you are reading an article about Tiger Woods skipping the US Open and see an ad for the new Nike 20XI golf ball, the ad is there.  Nike recognizes that, if you are reading an article on, you probably have an interest in Golf. So you might buy golf balls.

On the other hand, if you are reading an article on, you might see the same Nike 20XI Golf ball ad.  Most likely, this ad was displayed because your Ad Preferences indicate “Golf” as an interest.

How to Find a Good Site Where You Can Advertise

There are a variety of ways to find relevant/high quality sites to target.  Generally speaking, I look for them in this order:

  1. Search Google using the most valuable keywords I am trying to target.  I prefer using Google Search initially to find sites to advertise on, since those that show up on the first page are presumably more relevant. From the organic search results, I look at the websites on page one to see if they are running ads from either Google or Double Click. I also check the depth and content of the site for quality. If you see display ads on the site, check the link of the ad by either hovering over it, or look for the “Ads by Google” logo. (Hint: If you are a publisher, invest in SEO so we can find your site. [Double Hint from editorial team: Return On Now can help you])
  2. Next step is to use the Google Adplanner.  Adplanner allows me to more specifically target websites running Adsense based on audience parameters such as geography, language, demographics, online activity, and interests.  Adplanner also provides filtering based on Google Ranking method, inventory, category, ad specific, and domain suffix.
  3. I’ll use the “Placement Tool” in Adwords, even though the results are typically comparable to those found in Adplanner.
  4. I look at the sites referring traffic in Google Analytics to find sites that are sending some traffic, but would be good prospect for sending more.

From the research above, I will add sites as “Managed Placements,” in addition to a list of standard sites I always target such as,, and

Managed placements are my highest value group of websites, as opposed to automatic placements, which are those that Google is determining as relevant and then displaying my ads accordingly.

Think of the difference between Automatic and Managed placements as if they were baseball teams.  Managed placements are the players on the team that have made it to a Major League Team. I hand picked them, and if they don’t play well, I kick them off them team. In the past, they have performed well and are of above average quality.

Automatic placements are those that are still in the farm system working extremely hard to perform well enough to make it to the Major League. Automatic placements, like a Baseball Scout,  are also always on the lookout for new sites to target or new players to add to the team.

Search Pros

  1. Simple to set up and manage

Search Cons

  1. It’s the first thing everyone thinks of when launching a paid search campaign, so the competition for a keyword may be high resulting in poor ROI / Return-on-Investment.
  2. In order to have an effective search campaign, a large amount of emphasis needs to be on targeting high Quality Score keywords
  3. It is available as “Cost-Per-Click” Pricing Only (also referred to as PPC / Pay-per-click pricing)
  4. Text ads are the only format allowed

Display Pros

  1. Lower Cost per click and conversion. On average the CPC is 30% less for display than search.
  2. Remarketing – This is the practice of displaying an ads on GDN  to someone that visited a particular page on your web site
  3. Measuring “view-through-conversion”, which is a metric of the number of conversions that happened within 30 days of someone seeing the ad
  4. Casts a much wider net (better reach) across content that is related to your keywords
  5. Pricing flexibility: Cost per Click or Cost per thousand (CPM pricing)
  6. Better targeting to content-rich and relevant sites
  7. More visually appealing ad options rather than just text
  8. Behavioral, demographic, and geographic targeting capabilities

Display Cons

  1. Getting your boss or client to understand why such a low Click Through Rate (CTR) is a good thing can be challenging
  2. Initial set up is more complicated that search
  3. Initial cost to set up is higher than search as you may incur a cost for advertisement design
  4. Less control can mean lower quality traffic if you are using automatic placement. Automatic placements require increased maintenance to exclude sites that are of poor quality (i.e. one page websites running Adsense on what is essentially nothing more than a doorway page)

So how do you sell this to your metrics-driven Boss or Client?

First, focus on what the key metrics are as follows:

  • Impressions:  Depending on a number of factors, including your overall budget and how much of it is allocated to display, you can see 10-20 times as many impressions as you can in search
  • Cost per click: As a general rule of thumb, your cost per click on display should be 30% less than Search
  • Cost per conversion:  The metric I personally manage to for display conversions is 20% less than search

Search Engine Marketing: PPC vs. GDN Metrics

If you are a newbie to display advertising, here is where to start:

  • Have five non-animated banner ads designed. The sizes I recommend are 300×250, 160×600, 200×200, 468×60, and 728×90. You should be able to get a decent graphics designer to design these ads for less than $400. The GDN ad specs are located at:
  • Create a separate campaign for “Managed Placements.” This will allow you to control the budget separately from search campaigns.
  • Limit that campaign to one of your ad groups so that you are testing a small group of keywords and phrases.
  • Allocate a small amount of your search budget to managed placements. I’d start with 10%.
  • Only use a handful of managed placements, i.e. less than ten. Make sure is on that list.
  • Cap your CPC at 30% less than your search CPC.

The biggest advantage of display versus search is it’s reach and the ability to give a product context through the use of images. As they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. So maybe a text ad is worth only one hundred words?

Think beyond just Search.

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As Founder and President of Return On Now, Tommy Landry provides the vision behind our SEO and SEM methodologies. With over 25 years of business experience and a deep understanding of modern internet marketing techniques, he spends his time providing hands-on consulting, insightful content, and engaging public speaking appearances to Online Marketers of all skill levels.
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