What Is The Google Display Network?

On July 24th, 2018, Google changed the name of the AdWords platform to Google Ads. 

It did this to reflect the true nature of the ad platform, which includes search, display, smart, and shopping campaign types. Each of these campaign types uses varying types of media and behaves differently than the initial search network text ads (sometimes referred to as search ads), which were later upgraded to expanded text ads.

Since they began allowing people to use their advertising platform, Google has been centered around words. Which words would your ideal customers use to search for your business, and which words would you use to tell them you’re the best company to help them? As time went on and Google updated their algorithm to provide search results that better matched the intent of their users, they adjusted how Google AdWords showed ads to those users as well. 

One of the more brilliant moves Google made with AdWords was to create the Google Display Network, or GDN for short. According to Google, the GDN is “a group of more than 2 million websites, videos, and apps where your ads can appear.” The ads shown are not the text ads found on the search network, however. Google’s display network lets you show image ads, animated GIFs, and videos to audiences you target.

The display network has received a lot of criticism over the years. Many ad managers and self-proclaimed Google AdWords consultants discount display ads as being worthless or a waste of money. They see low click-through-rates and few conversions and stop running the ads to shift the ad spend toward something that will produce more results. What they don’t realize, however, is that they’ve been spoiled by the quick results of search and shopping campaigns and they’re expecting the same results from a type of ad that was created for a different purpose.

Display Network vs Search Network

The biggest difference between the Display network and the AdWords Search network is the way in which they are used. The reason ads appear on the search network is because Google recognizes that people use search engines to find information, compare products or companies, and deciding how and where to spend their money. Google allows you to launch search campaigns using the search network by itself, or using the “search network with display select” option, which adds a fully automated way of expanding your ads to the display network. Most professional advertisers tend keep one network per ad campaign, but you should choose what’s best for your marketing strategy.

Search ads are triggered when the advertiser’s (lovingly referred to as “you” from now on) chosen keyword is part of a search query made by a person (referred to henceforth as a user, which is much less personal). I won’t get into the weeds on this too much because search campaigns deserve several of their own blog posts and I could ramble forever about keyword match types, search partners, the effect of landing pages on quality score, and all the other aspects of search marketing. Suffice to say, search advertising exists so that you can show ads to people who are actively searching for something related to your product or service.

Display ads are a completely different animal. You notice one of the biggest differences as you start going through the campaign settings. Keywords are not the only targeting option. You have keywords, topics, and placements, which are specified websites, apps, or YouTube videos. You can target people based on their broad interests, or if they’ve shown the intent to purchase something within the last couple of weeks. You can even show display ads to people who search for keywords related to your product or service, but then go on a website other than yours to research it (as long as they allow advertisers on their site)! If you have decent traffic volume on your website, you can also target people who have similar online behavior to the people who visit your website. GDN is really one of my favorite marketing resources because of it’s diversity and how specific you can get.

 

The primary difference with the Google Display Network, regardless of which targeting option you choose, is how and why you show ads. You show a display ad to potential customers who are not actively searching for your product or service. Generally, this is done as a way to build awareness of your brand. A huge benefit to using display vs search ads is that they are often a much cheaper form of pay per click. Because they’re so affordable, most advertisers can get a lot more visibility and traffic from a display ad campaign than they do from search campaigns. In looking at the typical funnel-based marketing strategy, display ads are at the top of the funnel. They help your brand to be discovered by new potential customers and piques their interest so that they are more likely to recognize your brand when they start actively searching for what you have to offer.

You can also use GDN to make your ads appear all over the internet to people who know your brand and have recently visited your website. This is referred to as retargeting or remarketing. Remarketing ads use the same ad formats used by a general display ad, meaning you can get a lot of use out of the same graphic design work, or get much more strategic with your display campaign and show very specific ads to potential customers based on their recent search behavior, then show different display ads based on their interaction with your site. That kind of ad campaign can increase your conversion rates a fair bit because of how tailored your ads are to each user, but it requires more advanced audiences in Google Analytics and a lot of website traffic.

Which Should I Use, Search Ads or Display Ads?

AdWords Search evolved into Google Ads because of the importance and the viability of the display ad. However, Google Ads didn’t do away with search marketing, they improved it. The audience lists created for the display network were made available to enhance search campaigns and shopping campaigns. They created new ad formats and marketing automation, changing the way ad management is looked at. Many seasoned vets were resistant to this change (which was probably for the best while they ironed out the bugs in their AI), but have found improved ad performance and a more profitable form of digital marketing began to emerge. Smart humans using smart machines became the battle cry of Google Ads ambassadors and what seemed to be a major hurdle for digital marketing agencies now began to allow advertisers to focus on what really matters: people.

Paid search options on social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn have really done a good job of gearing their campaign settings toward user interest rather than simply grouping everyone into demographics segments and showing irrelevant ads to large groups. Facebook advertising, in particular, has improved the way we target audiences and even how we think about our PPC strategies. Google’s Display network has taken online advertising in a similar direction for search engines.

People use social media for entertainment and rarely for research, but search engines are generally used for a variety of reasons, with research being one of the primary reasons. The benefit of display over search advertising in this case is that you can choose to associate your brand with certain ideas or situations. A mechanic who uses image ads to build awareness can put their brand into the subconscious of their potential customers while they research that rattling sound in their engine.

GDN is also a great option when there isn’t a lot of search volume for your target keywords, but you have a certain level of ad spend you’d like to invest. In these cases, you can have a display campaign and a campaign for remarketing ads to supplement your search advertising.

I should really stop rambling and clarify my stance on search vs display. Neither is better than the other, they serve different purposes and are both extremely useful. I almost always advocate for a combination of search and display, rather than using just one or the other.

I love the display network, but Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Yahoo are called search engines for a reason. Search campaigns are often used for more direct marketing purposes, and generally get higher conversion rates. However, the search advertising can often benefit from having a display campaign or two, and image ads alone won’t make a solid online marketing strategy. I’ve seen a well crafted display campaign increase conversion rates on a search campaign just by showing ads to the right people before they start their customer journey.

Looking at how PPC strategies are often structured in theory (but not always in practice), marketers target users at different stages in the marketing funnel. They’ll use different types of ads to target people at the top of the funnel, who are not ready to buy. They’ll then generally use search advertising with more specific keywords to target those in the middle of the funnel, who are researching options. The bottom of the funnel is generally hit by brand campaigns and remarketing ads to get in front of people who are ready to make a buying decision. Remarketing ads are also used to nurture recent buyers who may need something else your business has to offer. 

 

A good PPC account will make the most of all of these points in the funnel, but will also take advantage of GDN’s ability to allow advertisers to get in front of people who are not yet in the proverbial funnel. Because of the pay per click model of Google Ads, having a display ad appear to users while they browse relevant landing pages on other sites is completely free if they don’t click. Many advertisers see a low click through rate and think that this means that the ad performance is suffering, but with image ads you’re usually getting a better value if people don’t click.

I compare it to getting a billboard in an ideal location for free. You get to plant a subconscious seed to build familiarity with your brand in the mind of your target audience and you only pay when someone goes to your website after seeing it. When you pay, you usually pay less than a dollar, often less than $0.50. Familiarity breeds trust, trust is necessary for a purchase, and a purchase is the first step to a loyal customer relationship.

For those Customer Experience junkies out there (I’m a Certified Customer Experience Professional, or CCXP), the GDN is one of the first places to establish your brand voice and deliver you brand promise. It’s a great way to start the customer journey on your terms, with the desired brand associations in mind.

The Truth About Display and Digital Marketing Strategies

So I’ve covered how Display is generally used in PPC strategies, how it affects conversion rates of search ads, how it’s mostly used to build awareness, and some ways it’s generally used in internet marketing as a whole. Now it’s time to spill the beans.

Conversions are not the end-all-be-all of online marketing. Google AdWords is not enough to solve your business problems. No amount of marketing resources will save a failing business and no amount of Google Analytics data will tell you everything you need to know about your potential customers.

Digital marketing experts tend to fall into the trap of thinking that their solutions are the best solutions, and that their various services will be enough to make a company successful. Paid Search, Search Engine Optimization, graphic design, Social media marketing, content marketing,  website design, and any other online marketing service will be a great help to most businesses. Using any and all of these forms of organic or paid media will almost always drive quality leads when a smart marketer sets it up. 

However, all the facebook marketing and resonant ad copy in the world won’t make a company last 100 years. No amount of conversion rate optimization will be enough to turn around a failing business long term. The truth is, marketing is just fuel on a fire. If the fire is built in a fireplace, you’re probably in good shape. Adding fuel to a fire that was built on dead leaves and newspapers in a log cabin will just burn down your house faster.

Many business owners view online advertising as a way to save their business. They have problems, so they throw more money at them. Most marketing agencies don’t help, promising the world and telling them to take all of their budget out of traditional media because you can’t put a Google Analytics tracking code on a brochure (you could, actually, but it wouldn’t do anything but confuse people). This kind of thinking is also what makes a lot of marketing pros view conversion rates as the penultimate sign of success. In all honesty, no metric tied to ad performance is going to be enough to tell you how to make your business last for multiple decades.

When planning out your marketing strategy, you should think about it in terms of building relationships. You have to think about people. What kind of people would most benefit from being in a relationship with your company? What problems do they have that you can solve? What concerns do they have that you need to address to build their trust? What can you do to make sure that you meet their expectations consistently and honor their trust? What kind of language do they use, and what forms of media do they consume? Are they on social media? Do they read the newspaper or magazines? Do they watch traditional TV or listen to Radio? Are they on streaming networks or watching YouTube videos? Do they attend live events? Do they prefer long-form content or short snippets? Do they use heavy industry-specific jargon, or simple english? Are they super formal, or relaxed and casual? 

There are so many things to think about and so many things to address when you market your business. A key step to creating long term success is to understand how you’re building relationships and the various marketing resources that play a part at each stage. Each form of marketing can play a role in building and nurturing relationships with clients and customers, and it’s important to know your target market well enough to decide which offline or online marketing channels to use.

Display ads in a PPC account are a helpful way of sending specific messages at many different stages in that relationship, and even in starting that relationship. Think about them as a billboard at first, making people aware of your existence. After people become aware of you, they can be used like text messages or notes to a friend that let them know you care. Just as you’d send a text to a friend to say “hope you’re having a good day” or something like that, you can show display ads to people reading a relevant blog post just to share a simple message that shows that you understand and care about them.

People who spend a lot of time on your website, look at a lot of pages, or visit your site over and over again are usually further along in a relationship with you. You can use remarketing ads to show relevant content to these people, just like you would share cool articles or funny videos with a friend. Google Analytics is showing that they looked at 3 pages that all had to do with Facebook marketing? Show them ads that have quick marketing tips for better Facebook ads. They’ve spent 4 minutes reading multiple articles on getting more search volume? Show them ads next time they’re on YouTube that share how to boost their search volume. 

People who have already become clients or customers are often neglected in online advertising, but it can be cheap and valuable to show ads to these people too. Little notes to advertise other relevant products or services, emails to remind people to re-order, renew subscriptions, or offer deals on related products can bring in extra income from existing customers. Never discount the value of showing gratitude, either. It’s worth paying a few cents here and there to show recent converters a display ad that tells them thanks. Personal touches like this remind people that they’re dealing with human beings, which allows them to build stronger emotional connections to your brand.

To put a bow on all this, I’d say you should use both search and display if you’re using Google AdWords. When you build out your PPC account, think about how each ad network will establish and further a relationship with your target audiences. Pay attention to conversion rate optimization, but pay more attention to the long term effects of your decisions. It’s worth taking a hit to your conversion rates in the short term to get more high quality leads in the long term. It’s worth taking a hit to quality score because of ad copy that doesn’t include your target keyword if you get a higher CTR and conversion rate because it resonates more with the end user.

Know your target market, understand their customer journey, and focus on building relationships rather than getting more sales. Word of mouth is still the best form of marketing, and nothing gets the word into more mouths better than developing strong relationships with people and delivering consistent value out of love. 

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