Display Network & Search Network - It’s All The Same, Right?

Short answer: No.
Long answer: Keep reading.

There are several notable differences between the Google Search Network and Google Display Network, and these differences are extremely important to understand when it comes to Google’s pay-per-click marketing. If you’re part of an in-house marketing team, or work for a digital marketing agency, it’s imperative you understand these differences before you get started on your campaign strategy. Similarly, if you own or manage a company that has one of these groups advertising for you through digital marketing, it’s important you understand these differences so you know where and how your marketing dollars are being spent and can better understand any reporting that you might be getting. Below I’ll go over 4 important differences between Google Display Network and Google Search Network, and what these differences might mean to your company.

1) Searching vs Browsing

This is arguably the biggest and most important difference between the two google networks. When I say “searching” or “browsing”, I’m referring to what people came to the site to do. When an individual has a question, needs help with something, or is looking for a particular good or service, 99% of the time (well actually 75%, but you get the idea), they find themselves on google to “search” for what they’re looking for. This leads to advertisers competing, or bidding, to be the one who provides said answer, solution, good or service. This is the epitome of the Google search network.

This differs greatly from browsing. When people spend time online reading the news, checking the weather or playing a game, they are often targeted with several ads from the Google display network. These ads might be subtle reminders of sites you’ve been on or items you’ve viewed, or they might ads that are “similar” to your typical browsing habits. On these platforms advertisers must first introduce or remind the customer of a need before they can even begin to convince the customer to choose them to provide a solution. Regardless of what is shown the customer, they are not on the site to search, they are simply browsing. This is the Google display network.

2) Targeting vs Keywords

With these different networks come different forms of targeting, or in layman's terms, deciding who will see your ads. Without overcomplicating the definitions of these two networks, the search network is fairly simple in terms of targeting. An advertiser bids on a particular query or search term, and based on how much they’re willing to spend (among other things), they’ll show up in a certain spot on the results page. The higher the position, the more clicks they recieve and if they want to increase their audience, they can increase the number of terms they’re bidding on, or the amount they’re willing to spend to get closer to the top of the page. Simple enough.

Google display network has completely different targeting methods and can be as simple or complicated as you make it. Targeting options can be broken down into two main types: types of people or types of content. When you focus your targeting on certain types of people, you’re aiming to get your ads seen by certain audiences. This might include retargeting (people who have been to your site), demographics (gender, age, income level, etc), or interests (people who are likely in the market for a given product). When you focus on content or context, you can target based on placements (choosing which websites you’ll show ads on) or specific keywords and topics (based on the site’s content). You can even combine different techniques to get the exact audience you’re looking for.

3) Audience Size

Another notable difference between Google search network and Google display network is the audience size and potential reach. The display network has a much larger audience, keeping in mind that it has the potential of reaching 90% of people on the internet and over 2 million sites where people are simply “browsing”. Now this audience can be, and often is, targeted to a smaller reach, yet the point remains the same: the potential of audience is notably larger. Here is an example: using Google’s keyword planner, the term “running shoes” gets an estimated 165,000 average monthly searches in the United States on the Google Search Network. When you look at the Display Network planning, that same term is estimated at 10 billion impressions!

4) CTR, CPCs & Conversions Rate

Based on audience size, you might think it’s a no-brainer to go with the larger network, but there are key performance metrics to also keep in mind. That being said, additional major differences between search network and display network include click-through-rate (CTR), cost-per-click (CPC) and conversion rate.

According to data compiled by WordStream, the average CTR across all industries for Google’s search network is 3.17% while display network is significantly lower at 0.46%. On that same note, the average CPC across all industries is $2.69 for search network and only $0.63 for display network. And even more impactful, conversion rate for Google’s search network is 3.75% while search network conversion rate is only 0.77%. These numbers vary across different industries, and you can see the whole breakdown here.

Let’s looks at a couple real life examples. Below there are two situations of spending $1,000 in Google Adwords in two different industries. For e-commerce, you can see that spending $1000 in the search network gets you significantly more conversions compared to the display network. However, in the real estate industry, you can spend the same amount on display network and search network and on average you’ll get more leads through the display network. Although these numbers are all averages, you can still see, there are some big differences in the amount of impressions, clicks, and conversions you can receive depending on the network. These are more reasons as to why it’s important to know where your money is going, and your clicks are coming from.


At the end of the day, it’s important to understand the pros and cons to each network and to understand where your marketing dollars are being spent. What works for one company/industry will not necessarily work for yours, and even within your own company, what works for one marketing campaign will not necessarily work for all marketing campaigns. There is a lot of grey area in paid marketing, specifically in PPC, so don’t be afraid to branch out, try new techniques, and figure out how to get the best ROI for your company!

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