AdWords Search Network vs. Display Network: What is the Difference?

Filed under: Pay Per Click — Amy Kilgour

My clients often express confusion in understanding the difference between enabling their AdWords ads to run on the Search Network or the Display Network (formerly referred to as the Content Network). This is just one of the many various options you have to make a decision about in regard to your campaign’s settings.

So, what’s the difference?

The search network is likely what comes to mind when you’re thinking of AdWords. It might help to think of search network= search engines.  Within the Search Network, it’s possible to choose between Google search and Search partners. Google lists and as examples of their search partners. These ads are targeted based on the keyword(s) users select as their search query. It is only possible to run text ads on the Search Network.

The Display Network, which, up until recently was referred to as the Content Network, or, as I like to refer to it, the “Wild Wild West” is a gigantic network of websites that have Google AdSense enabled.  When you see ads on your friend’s blog, online newspapers, or when you’re cruising around Youtube watching Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton duets,  these ads appear because some one enabled their ads to run on the Display Network.

Within the Display Network, it is possible to select between, “Relevant pages across the entire network,” or, “Relevant pages only on the placements, audiences and topics I manage.” In order to find the “Relevant pages only on the placements, audiences and topics I manage,” I would suggest first running your Adwords campaign on “Relevant pages across the entire network” for a month or two and to look at the websites that your ads are appearing in order to better gauge their relevancy in regard to your ads. And true to my, “Wild, Wild, West” analogy, it’s important to cap your impressions low and keep a very, very close eye on your budget so that your ads don’t run like wild horses and Google takes all of your money in a stickup.

Although the display network reaches more people, in my experience the quality of the traffic and the clicks and conversions are  much lower. Many advertisers view the display network’s value in branding of their product or service. To put things in perspective, if  I’m reading a friends’ blog, I’m likely not searching for a product or a service and would likely only click on an ad out of curiosity. Rather than being driven by specific keywords, display network ads appear based on themes in the keyword list. Additionally, it’s possible to run text ads as well as image, video or rich media ads on the display network.

That being said, sometimes there are exceptions. I noticed that with my client, Lifewear Products,  the Search Network campaign I set up to target their scented gloves had a very high CTR (Click through Rate).   I set up a separate campaign where I ran several different image ad sizes on the Google Display Network. Although these image ads’ clicks are more expensive and the CTR is much lower than the search network, these ads have brought in conversions.

So, what is the best way to run an AdWords campaign? Well, there isn’t really a clear-cut answer to this. If you are new to AdWords, I would suggest running your ads only on the Google Search Network. It’s important for you, or whomever manages your campaign, to get to know the AdWords system well and what works, or doesn’t work for your brand or company before you venture into the Wild, Wild West. Have fun and Yehaw!

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7 Comments | Leave a comment

  • Thanks for this. I’m just starting out running some client campaigns in Adwords and the Display Network, really does seem like the Wild Wild West to me at the moment. Like you say, possibly more of a branding/awareness opportunity rather than direct response advertising.

    Thanks for the tips!

    Comment by Simon Tann

  • Thank you so much for this explanation! I found it very clear and useful.

    Comment by Hannah

  • very useful and clear explanation. the wild wild west analogy will stick well in my head thank you!

    Comment by Gaby

  • Thank you so much for sharing this information, I was confused which one is to select our campaign, but am now clear.

    Comment by ERP Implementation

  • Thank you so much for this blog post! My company just started with AdWords, and even though I did a good amount of research before starting – I always found Google’s explanation of the difference between Search and Display Network ads a little confusing. We’re a non-profit, so we have to stretch our ad dollars wisely, and because we’re a retail store with one location would much rather have clicks than impressions.

    Thanks again! This was super helpful.

    Comment by Andrea

  • I would just add that while Display/Content network is as you say, Wild Wild West, you do have option to select specific sites on which you want to advertise. For example, if your local news or TV company uses Google AdSense to present ads on their web page, you can simply select just their site, and provided that you have high enough bid, and they are not blocking you for some reason, you can advertise on the site very inexpensively.

    Comment by Mr. Risky Startup

  • I am new to understanding Google adwords and this was very useful to me. thanks a lot.

    Comment by Sonia

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