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I have a confession to make. I’m a sucker for ads. Even though I help businesses create ads and know how they work, I can’t help but impulse buy when I see an ad so perfect for me after I look something up!

It’s irresistible when they seem to know exactly what I’m looking for. Ads act as a friendly reminder that I need to sign up for something or make a purchase.

You can convince other people just like me to take the plunge on your ads. But what type–or types–of online ads should you run? I’m often asked which is better: search ads or display ads? And the answer isn’t all that simple. So today, I’ll help answer all your search vs. display ads questions, including:

  • What is search advertising and display advertising?
  • What is the difference between search ads and display ads?
  • What are the benefits of display ads vs. search ads?
  • How do search ads and display ads work together?

By the end of this post, you’ll know whether search vs. display ads are right for your business plus understand how they can work together to boost results.

Let’s dive right in!

search vs display ads - example of business owner uploading pictures for display ads


What is search advertising?

Search advertising gives you a way to show up on search engines for queries related to your business. Search ads, also known as pay per click (PPC) ads, typically display above organic (AKA unpaid) search results on top search engines like Google and Bing.

Search ads look like organic results, but they include an “Ad” label so you can tell the difference.

To run search ads, you determine a set of keywords, create a budget, and include additional targeting information, like your location, to help search engines identify the best searches to display your PPC ads.

For example, if you own a pest control business, you might choose “infestation” as one of your keywords. Your ad would then show up when someone (who’s within your targeting parameters) searches a phrase that includes the word “infestation.”

One of the beauties of search advertising is that you pay only when someone clicks on your ad (hence, pay per click).

search vs display ads - search ad example

Related: Get search advertising benchmarks for the top 20 industries.


What is display advertising?

Display advertising gives you a way to get your business in front of people as they’re spending time browsing the web. Display ads are visual—they include an image or a video to help you capture a user’s attention while they’re reading the local news, online shopping, or researching businesses like yours. Display ads typically show at the top of a website and the sides but may also show in line with content.

Display ads work by tracking users who fall into specific online behaviors or demographics, allowing you to target your ads to the right audience for your business.

When running display advertising, you pay when someone clicks on your ad (like in search advertising) or once you reach a certain number of impressions (views of your ad). This is because display ads show passively instead of only per the demand of a search, so they usually get more eyeballs on your ad than a search ad would.

local marketing - local display advertising


When to use search ads vs. display ads?

Now that we’re familiar with the differences between the two, let’s identify when it makes sense to use search and display ads when promoting your business.

When to use search ads

Search ads are the foundation of any digital marketing strategy. Here are some scenarios when you’ll want to use search ads.

1. When you want to drive traffic to your website

The primary point of search ads is to generate clicks that lead to a landing page on your website. If you want to drive more traffic to your website from search engines (where most people begin their search for a new business!), search ads are your best bet. Ads are meant to entice searchers to take an action—which makes it a great tool to get people to learn about your business on your website.

local ppc - best ppc ad copy

2. When you want to get leads

Search drives traffic to your site which can generate more leads for your business once visitors arrive. And because search ads are targeted, you’re more likely to convert a searcher into a lead. So once someone comes to your site from a search ad, they can call, fill out a form, or make a purchase in just a click!

3. When you want to boost SEO

If your SEO is struggling or just starting out, you can guarantee impressions on the search results page through paid search ads. This will help ensure you show up for important searches while you work on your local SEO.

When to use display ads

Think of search ads as the layers of your cake–what do you need to hold those layers together and make your cake oh-so-delicious? Frosting. Display ads are like the frosting on top of your marketing strategy. Here are a few times when you might want to run display advertising.

1. When you want to increase awareness for your business

Display ads give you a way to build awareness for your business with people when they might not even be looking for your business or services. Seeing information about your business puts you top of mind so you’re the first one they think of when they need your products or services. Plus, unless you choose to pay by impressions, this turns into completely free digital brand awareness for your business.

2. When you want to reach people across the web

Your business may be showing up in search results for relevant queries, but what about when your potential customers are spending time online shopping, reading a blog, or checking the latest news? Display ads let you target people when they’re not on search engines.

healthcare display advertising - run display ads on news sources

3. When you want to gain more social followers

If you truly want a healthy, balanced small business advertising plan then you’ll need a well-rounded share of display, search, and social ads. Even if you run organic social media marketing, display can boost awareness to bring more followers to your social sites.

Nearly three-quarters of small businesses use social media marketing, 45% use paid search, and a whopping 55% use display. Don’t be left in the dust—try display on its own or in unison with your other advertising efforts, like social too.

See how your online presence–including your display and PPC ads–show up with our free website grader.


How search ads and display ads work together

While they each have their own uses, search and display ads work best when they complement each other. Here’s how:

Display ads can increase the effectiveness of search advertising

How can someone search for your business or confidently click on your ad if they don’t recognize your business in the first place? Display advertising helps drive that awareness.

In fact, it’s been proven that when someone conducts a search after initially seeing the related display ad, the likelihood of them converting was 59%.

search vs display ads - stat callout

There are even specific metrics, such as view-through conversions, that measure conversions display ads inadvertently brought in. This is done by tracking those who saw your display ad and eventually converted through another path.

Search ads + display ads help you target people where they’re searching and spending time

People may spend a few minutes a day searching, but they can spend hours viewing content across the web. If you want to be thorough, catching them in both scenarios is ideal. Use search ads to boost your visibility to people on top search engines like Google and display ads to catch them after they leave the search engine. This will cover your bases to show in both places: search engines and across the web.

Research backs this. One study found that search activity rose 155% following a user being served a display ad. Plus, 27% of consumers conduct a search for a business after seeing their display ad.

You can couple search + display retargeting to convert more users

If you’re looking to retarget users who visited your site without converting, search and display ads work wonders together. Since search ads drive traffic, they can assist in building up your initial retargeting audience. Once your search ads pull in enough traffic for you to retarget to, your display ads can take over to follow those audiences around the web.

Search + display ads can level out your average cost-per-click

If you’ve been dealing with a high cost-per-click (CPC) on search, you can balance that out with display ads. Display ads historically have a much lower CPC than other advertising avenues, including search. So if you want to maximize your budget, put a bit of spend towards display ads. This will lower your overall average CPC as you start to pull inexpensive display clicks on top of the potentially pricier search clicks.

search vs display ads - average cpc chart


4 tips to use search ads and display ads for better results

Now that you know why you should use search ads and display ads together, here are some simple tips to help you get started:

1. Understand search ads vs display ads metrics

It’s important to understand the types of metrics to measure for both search ads and display ads and to set realistic KPIs for each based on the goal of each channel. For example, search ads are meant to drive clicks to your website and get you leads, so looking at PPC metrics like cost per click and cost per lead are helpful to determine success. However, display ads are meant to drive awareness, so you wouldn’t necessarily measure cost per lead, but rather cost per impression.

Additionally, there are different metrics available for the different strategies. For example, with display ads, you can measure view-through conversions (instead of regular conversions like you would with search ads) to see who converts after a display ad view.

Clearly, evaluating performance on the two platforms will be different. However, once you know what metrics to look out for, you’ll be able to gauge performance and optimize accordingly.


2. Keep your brand consistent across search + display

With any cross-platform strategy, brand consistency is key. Be sure to double-check that your display ad and search ad copy align with one another. You’ll want to be sure any promotional dates match up. Plus, it’s best to keep the voice and style the same. To do so, try viewing them next to each other to see if they make sense.

search vs display - example of consistent display branding

search vs display - example of consistent search branding

3. Maximize your budget across search and display

If you were growing flowers and gave one more water than the other, the growth of those two plants would differ. The same will happen to search and display ads if you treat one as the “underdog.” However, when you spend an equal amount of resources on both search and display ads, you’re likely to bring in double the results.

4. Create high-converting landing pages for search and display campaigns

Search and display campaigns drive clicks to your landing page. From there, it’s up to your landing page to seal the deal and turn that user into a lead. Try to create high-converting landing pages by ensuring the desired action potential leads should take is easy for them to access. Since display ads can show across apps, another way to optimize your landing page is to test it for mobile friendliness.

how to get more customers - mobile site test example


Search vs. display ads: The dynamic duo

As you can see, where one ad platform is lacking the other makes up for it. This makes using search ads and display ads in unison a small business dream team. Use both search and display together to maximize your results across the board!

We covered a lot, so to recap:

Use search ads when you want to…

  1. Drive traffic to your site
  2. Get leads
  3. Boost SEO

Use display ads when you want to…

  1. Increase brand awareness
  2. Reach people across the web
  3. Grow your social following

How search ads and display ads work better together:

  • Display ads can increase the effectiveness of search ads.
  • Search and display help you target people at two different times.
  • Your search and display can work wonders for retargeting.
  • Search and display together can result in a lower overall CPC.

4 tips to use search ads and display ads:

  1. Know your search and display metrics
  2. Keep your branding consistent across both
  3. Maximize your budget between search and display
  4. Create high-converting landing pages


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