Is search or display more effective online?

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The gloves are off
The gloves are off

Search and display advertising each compete for dollars, eyes and results. Search can lead to a stronger ROI, while display can punch up online conversion. Our experts compare them.

Will Akerlof
President/CEO, Liquid Advertising
More than 21 years experience in traditional and online advertising

For advertisers who need to move a lot of product, display is often a better alternative than search. Display, when done correctly for an advertiser with a strong online con­version strategy, can drive sales in quantities greater than search, with benefits extend­ing past the initial impression. In online DM campaigns, there are three areas that perform consistently well: search, low-cost display on large networks and higher-cost display on targeted premium sites.

For many clients, search budgets are not scalable beyond a modest level. The number of searches for specific terms is often low, and scaling up means adding broad or tan­gentially related terms, which may decrease effectiveness. Conversely, display networks have nearly unlimited inventory.

Display advertising also can create lasting brand impact. This is important because the direct path from click to purchase is typically a smaller part of the ROI equa­tion. As awareness and recall increase, view-through conversions — when measurement of response is later, after being served an ad — become more important. For established brands, most sales come in the days after seeing an advertisement. For a marketer to ignore this larger sales funnel is to discard as much as 90% of their potential sales.

Display campaigns need to be tested and executed extremely well. Display has many more variables than search, which increases potential pitfalls — however, the rewards of success can be much greater.

Ben Robinson
Owner, Chicago Style SEO
Ten years experience in direct marketing and advertising

A solid search ad account will always have much higher click-through and con­version rates than display ads, as well as a higher ROI.

Search ads are displayed only when the end user is actively searching for something. Display ads rely on interruption, which is historically inefficient and on the Internet has proven to be even worse as they tend to alienate potential customers by annoying them. An often overlooked advantage of search marketing is the valuable information it provides. Google Adwords, in particular, provides the largest volume of targeted traf­fic available. Research from this traffic can show how well your Web site is working, if your product or service is viable, what keywords will trigger sales, and can even provide information on which sites will bring the best traffic from display ads.

Display ad campaigns can and do work — in an ideal world any advertiser would have both running and highly optimized. In reality, time and monetary constraints often create the need for a decision.

While there is a wealth of data that unam­biguously points to search ads being the clear winner, there are a couple of factors that could begin leveling the playing field. The first: search ad space is becoming more competitive (and expensive), and this trend will only continue. The second: although the allure of display ads crashed some time ago, the prices are only now coming down to a range that makes them viable.


Akerlof argues that, unlike search, display offers an unlimited inven­tory and can create lasting brand impact. Robinson points out that search ads, with higher click-through rates, can provide valuable information on the viability of a Web site and product. In the end, Robinson says, we could soon see a level playing field.

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