Search Network vs Display Network

A neon light in the shape of the word

When running a campaign on Google Ads, you have some control over where your ads appear. The key choice is between the Search Network and Display Network. If you’re new to PPC, you might be unfamiliar with these terms and need a few pointers in order to gain a better understanding of the differences between them.

This article will break down what both the Search Network and Display Network are. We’ll also cover the kinds of places you could expect your ads to appear by choosing each of them, and explain what purposes they are best suited for.

What is the Google Search Network?

Google Ads has a vast amount of online advertising space available for marketers to use across countless websites. To keep things simple, it splits things up into two categories: the Search Network and the Display Network.

As you may expect, the heart of the Search Network is Google’s core product: its search engine. When you pay for this kind of ad, it will appear in a prominent position somewhere on the SERP—usually at the top of the page, but sometimes in other locations. You’ll have encountered this thousands of times, but in case you need a refresher, it’ll look something like the image below.

Google search results page for the keyword "fridge freezers" showing a number of text and shopping ads

As well as Google itself, the Search Network encompasses hundreds of thousands of Search Partners. Some of these are other Google products such as YouTube; others are websites with their own, Google-powered custom search engines, such as the Guardian.

The most important thing to remember about the Search Network is that its ads are always linked to search. (It’s in the name, after all!) So, for example, a Search Network ad will only be triggered on YouTube when you search for something—e.g., ads for mobiles when you enter the keyword “iPhone”.

By default, if your campaign is targeted towards the Search Network, it will mean that your ads appear on Google and its search partners. However, you have the ability to switch this feature off and have ads appear exclusively on Google itself.

What kinds of ads can you run on the Search Network?

The most common kinds of ads you’ll come across on the Search Network are text-based ads. These are the ones you’ll generally see at the top or bottom of a results page on Google Search.

Common ad formats include Expanded Text Ads and Responsive Search Ads. When you see them, they will look similar, but there are subtle differences between them.

An Expanded Text Ad features three headlines, each up to 30 characters long, plus two descriptions of up to 90 characters each. Google will display them to the user in the same order that the person who created the campaign entered them.

Responsive Search Ads aim to better focus on users’ queries and include rotating elements. When creating the campaign, you can enter up to 15 different headlines (30 characters each) and up to 4 descriptions (90 characters each). Google will then choose 2–3 headlines and 1–2 descriptions to display, tailored to user intent.

Similar to this are Dynamic Search Ads. With this format active, Google will generate headlines and landing page URLs based on the content of your website. You can create up to 2 descriptions for this format yourself.

These are just some of the options available, with users also able to use call-only or shopping ads. On Search Partner sites, image and video ads are also available.

When would you advertise on the Search Network?

Search Network advertising could be a good option for you if…

  • You offer products or services that users urgently need. For example, if someone is locked out of their home, they will need a locksmith to come out ASAP. Having a search ad is an effective way to reach them quickly.
  • Your budget is limited. Search ads mean that you can focus your spending on users who are already interested in what you offer.
  • Customers are already aware of your brand. This gives the option to bid on your own branded search terms, fending off competitors and snapping up extra SERP real estate.
  • You want leads who are more likely to convert soon. That’s because these users have already shown intent that matches your business, either by searching for your brand, a competitor, or the products or services you offer.

What is the Google Display Network?

In contrast to the Search Network, which revolves around user queries, the Display Network is much broader in scope. It includes millions of websites, and while a few of them are owned by Google itself (such as YouTube, Gmail and Blogger), most are not related to the company.

While Search Network ads will only ever appear as part of search engine results, Display Network ads can pop up in an innumerable selection of places. You’re probably familiar with those that appear in the sidebars or footers of websites, like these…

Google display ads captured at the footer of an eBay page

…but you might not realise that they can appear in many other formats. This can encompass anything from the ads that pop up in your Gmail inbox through to those appearing on Android or iOS apps.

What kinds of ads can you run on the Display Network?

Just as you can appear across a broad array of locations via the Display Network, you can take advantage of a varied range of ad formats when running your campaigns here.

One of the most common ad types, Responsive Display Ads, specifically addresses the variety of locations in which you can appear. A single ad created in this format will adjust automatically to match the space in which it is displayed. In one instance, your ad may show as a couple of lines of text; in another, it could be a full-size banner. They even adapt to the formatting of the website or app they appear on, helping them to feel natural.

If you’d prefer to create your content outside of Google Ads, you may prefer to use Uploaded Display Ads. These appear in a similar way to Responsive Display Ads, and can even respond to the size of the ad space they’re in. However, in order to achieve this, you’ll need to upload any imagery you wish to use in a lengthy list of different sizes.

Another option is to use Engagement Ads. Often forgotten, this format will typically appear as an image. After a user hovers over it for 2 seconds (or taps on it if using a mobile device), it will either expand or start playing a video. This is a popular choice if you wish to include deep links to specific parts of your app.

When would you advertise on the Display Network?

Display Network advertising could be a good option for you if…

  • Customers aren’t already familiar with your brand, and you need to build familiarity. The Display Network gives you the ability to appear in a near-infinite number of spots across all kinds of websites, and requires no prior user intent. This makes it an ideal choice if you want users to gain awareness of your brand.
  • You’re looking to target previous visitors. If a customer has browsed items on your website, begun a checkout process they haven’t finished, or even purchased from you in the past, you’ll likely want to try to ensure you get their business. The Display Network is an ideal place to remarket to drop-offs and get them interested again.
  • You have enticing visual content. If your strength is in great photography, animation or video, the Display Network is the place to show it all off.

Why are some sites on both the Search Network and Display Network?

Screenshot of The Guardian website featuring both Search Network and Display Network ads

We’ve covered the differences between the Search Network and Display Network. However, one of the aspects that you may still find puzzling is the fact that some sites can fall into both categories. So, why would a site feature in both networks?

The simple answer is that many sites feature opportunities for both kinds of ads to appear. Let’s look at the screenshot above from the homepage of The Guardian. The ad at the top of the page is a Display Network ad, relating to the user’s previous activity across the web. Meanwhile, the ads that appear in the search box directly relate to the query the user has entered.

Search Network vs Display Network: Breakdown

You should now be familiar with the Search and Display Networks available on Google Ads, and know how to use each of them to your advantage. Here’s a handy list of tips in case you need a refresher.

Search Network ads…

  • Only appear alongside search engines, including Google and any partners
  • Are usually text-based, with options to change the copy to match user intent
  • Best suit businesses looking for quick conversions and for targeting users at the bottom of the funnel

Display Network ads…

  • Can appear across millions of sites, as well as on a variety of mobile apps
  • Respond to the space in which they appear, and can feature images, text and video
  • Best suit businesses looking to build awareness or retain customer interest, and for targeting the top and middle of the funnel

Now you’re ready to get started with your first Google Ads campaign! Don’t forget to check back for more helpful tips here at the Supersede Media blog.