Google Display Ads vs. Search Ads: What’s the Difference?

If you want to run Google Ads (and of course you do— you’re here!), then it’s important to understand what your different options are and how to use them.

Which brings us to today’s topics: Google’s Search Ads vs. Google’s Display Ads.

What exactly are they? What are the differences between them? Can you run them together? And, of course, most of all: Which is better?

In this chapter of our Google Display Ads Ultimate Guide, we’re going to take a look at Google Display Ads vs. Search Ads, including the differences between them and why you should probably use them both.

What Are Google’s Search Ads?

Google’s Search Ads revolve around keywords. When users search for a specific query, they may see ad results based on that keyword.

So if you search for whiskey tasting, you might get ads for a whiskey-tasting tour or a whiskey-tasting kit that can be shipped right to your home like in the ad below:

Google search results for the phrase "whiskey tasting" resulting in an ad for tasting rare whiskeys, especially for a special occasion or gift.

Google’s Search Ads are often a pillar of many brands’ pay-per-click (PPC) advertising strategies because they allow you to capture users who are in the decision or consideration stages of their journey.

They know they need something— whether it’s whiskey tasting, a realtor, a dentist, or a dog bed— and they’re currently researching to make that buying decision. The ability to have your targeted ad showing up above any organic search results (especially when you may have struggled to rank for that keyword organically) is exceptional.

What Are Google’s Display Ads?

Google’s Display Ads are visual ads— featuring either images or videos— that show up on third-party publishers’ websites or apps. These ads show up in the actual content of a web page, for example, or along the top or sides of an app.

Google’s Display Ads run based on targeting that helps you connect to your target audience. So you may target users of a certain demographic, who have certain behaviors or interests, who visit certain types of sites, or those who have already interacted with your business in some way. You can also target users who are browsing specific sites.

The idea is to have relevant ads showing up on pages where your audience will be receptive to them, even if they aren’t actively looking for a product or service like yours.

So in the example below, an ad for “Tennessee Distillery Bus Tours” was triggered on an article about “Learn to Taste Whiskey like a Pro.” That’s about as relevant as it gets, and likely to generate a few sales.

Display banner ad for Tennesee Distillery Bus Tours highlighted at the top of the Food & Wine website.

What Are The Core Differences Between Display and Search Ads?

Google’s Display Ads are fundamentally different from Search Ads.

While both allow you to pay for certain actions when your ad is shown to relevant users (whether you’re paying for a click, video view, download, or something else), that’s close to where the similarities end.

Google Search Ads are predominantly text-based ads that are triggered by keywords, as opposed to being visual ads that show up based on audience targeting on third-party networks. This means that they’re being displayed in searches where users are looking for products, services, and businesses like yours. You can use negative keywords and keyword match types to get really precise to reach your target audience better.

Display Ads, meaningwhile, are best for retargeting and generating interest or demand, essentially popping up when users are active online even when they aren’t considering your brand. This can drive sales from users who weren’t otherwise actively considering purchasing.

It’s also worth pointing out that Search Ads have higher conversion rates than Display Ads (averaging 3.1-6% for the former and .55% for the latter). Search Ads also cost more on average than Display Ads, though this varies significantly depending on the average keyword CPC that you’re targeting.

To make it simple, here are the core differences between Google Display Ads vs. Google Search Ads:

Google Search Ads Google Display Ads
Format Text-based ad Image, graphic, or video ad
Targeting Primarily keyword-based, with optional additional targeting choices Demographic, interest, behavior, or site targeting
Purpose Capture users in the research process Create demand and interest from users who are browsing online
Placement In Google’s search results On the websites or apps of third-party publishers
Average conversion rate 3.1-6% .55%
Average cost per action Varies significantly by industry, but around $1-5 per click <$1 on average

Can I Run Display & Search Ads Together?

If you want to run both Display and Search campaigns, you can!

You can choose to run two campaigns separately and simultaneously. That’s easy to do, and it’s easy to manage.

You can also set up Performance Max campaigns, which allow you to create ads across Google’s entire ad inventory under a single campaign. See our Performance Max Guide for more information about this.

Final Thoughts: Which Is Better, Display or Search?

It’s easy to get caught up in a “which is better” argument whenever you compare two things. It’s particularly common for brands to ask the “which is better” question when comparing two different marketing or advertising options, especially when they cost money.

Here’s our answer: If possible, it’s best to use both Display and Search Ads.

Google Search Ads can capture that extraordinarily high-intent traffic. It’s hard to generate that kind of interest and intent when users just idly browse and happen to see an interesting ad. You get to put yourself right in the decision-maker’s view and put yourself under consideration.

It’s hard to beat the reach and visibility that Display Ads can provide, however. You don’t need to wait for users to come looking for you, and you can also make sure of the Display Ads’ outstanding retargeting system. Users may view your product page, click away to think about it, and see it pop up a few times online with a 10% off code that they just can’t resist. Even if you haven’t captured their email yet, you can still stay relevant.

Combining the advantages of Display and Search Ads— including the trade-offs with conversion rates, reach, and cost— can be a massively winning strategy.

Want to learn more about how to set up ads across the entire Google Ads inventory for success? Learn more about what makes our agency unique here.