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Differences Between Display Network and Search Network

At my previous agency, I fielded a lot of questions about what the display network was and what the search network was and how they differed in pay per click advertising.  Many times the sales associates couldn’t answer the questions, so there was constantly misinformation being spread.  The end result was that clients would end up frustrated because they couldn’t get a decent answer out on what network they should be on and why the performance metrics differed.  I want to dispel a few inaccuracies and put out the right information on how they differ and best practices on using them.

Location.  The search network lists ads on the main search site and their network of search engines (think,  This is the first line of thinking in pay per click advertising – having your ad show up in the sponsored search results on the page.  The display network includes YouTube and the entire network of ads running online advertising (blogs, news pages, all other web sites for the most part) matched to your ad by either keywords or selected sites.  When you look at an ad on, you’re on the search network.  When you look at an ad on, you’re looking at the display network.

Format.  The formats allowed on different networks are also different. Search network ads must be text ads.  Display network ads can be text, video, or image ads.  For example, if you think of YouTube, there are video ads, text ads, InStream text ads at the bottom of the video player, banner ads, and more.  These are all display ads in their various iterations.

Performance.  Click-through rates in the search network tend to be higher than they would on the display network because users are actively engaged in the search process. They are looking for something – information, products, services – and want an answer right then.  In the display network, the location of the user in the sales funnel is more ambiguous.  This is why display network ads have much lower CTRs – the users are not necessarily actively engaged in the search process, so it takes a larger number of impressions to receive the same number of clicks.  A best practice with the display network is to ensure that you have tightly managed ad groups for optimal performance, so your ad runs on the most relevant sites.

Branding.  Branding is typically discouraged on the search network, where impressions really don’t matter.  On the search network, the focus is on clicks and improving the quality score, which is directly affected by the click-through rate; therefore, a huge number of impressions on the search network is typically indicative of poor ad copy or irrelevant keywords.  On the display network, however, you can reach a much larger number of impressions, and branding begins to take effect.

So, which is better? The answer is neither.  They both have their strengths and weaknesses and they both can be an asset to a campaign, depending on your goals.  In many cases, I had clients that thought that being listed on the display network was a punishment, particularly in light of the lower click-through rate.  This is absolutely untrue and the wrong way to approach the display network.  Ensure you are only opting into one network for each campaign (have one dedicated to display and one to search) and are optimizing each independent of the other.  You can’t compare apples to oranges in the same way you can’t expect identical performances from the two different networks.  Nevertheless, they both have their place in the search landscape and are valuable assets to any search engine marketing campaign.

If you’re interested in starting a search engine marketing campaign, contact Smarter Searches or fill out our contact form on the site for help.