Display vs search ads

Display ads vs search ads: key differences and when to use them

Whether you are a seasoned professional or new to the PPC world, deciding what form of advertising would best serve your needs is an eternal dilemma. Ensuring that your ad campaigns effectively target your ideal audience is paramount to success and failure to choose the right ad format means that you could be spending significant amounts of advertising that gives you no returns.  

Fully understanding the differences between display vs search ads can go a long way to making sure that you can maximise your return on investment. Moreover, it is not only a matter of deciding between these two ad formats but finding a balance between the two if it suits your advertising needs and goals. 

What are search ads?  

Search ads are a simple and effective form of PPC advertising. Search ads are the ones that appear at the top of the search page and depend upon your search query. For example, if you were to type in emergency plumber London, you would see some sponsored content popping up at the top.  

Search ads work using an auction-based model where advertisers can bid on keywords and set a budget for the campaign. Where and how often your ads appear depends on the bid you place as well as the quality score that the advertising platform gives it. 

When to use search ads?

While they are limited on the creativity side, search ads are highly effective at ensuring quick conversions as they work based on the exact query that someone is looking for. As such, they are a great way to supplement your SEO strategy to ensure that people who are looking for your product or service go directly to your website. They are especially useful for people who are offering a local service. They allow you to target specific audiences, be it by location or keyword etc, and so, search ads are the most valuable for those who have a particular audience in mind. 

What are display ads? 

Display ads are the more visually interactive and creative sister of search ads where you can mix text, images, videos and more to engage your audience. Display ads appear when your audience is browsing for related topics or interests across websites, social media and other apps. They work on a cost-per-click basis but you can tailor the ad to ensure that it reaches your audience.   

There are several formats of display ads: static image ads, animated ads, video ads and interactive ads which have clickable elements. Each format has its benefits and choosing which will work best largely depends upon the type of display ad that you want to use.

Display vs search ads
Banner Ads 

These are placed on websites or apps and use a combination of text and visual elements, either static or animated.

Pop-Up Ads 

As the name suggests, these are small windows that appear over a website. These can include static images, text as well as interactive media. According to OptiMonk, these have a good conversion rate with an average of around 11%.

Rich Media Display Ads 

These are interactive ads which incorporate various elements such as animation, audio, video and expandable elements.

Video Ads

These are often inserted before, during or after video content. Video ads are undergoing exciting development with the opportunity to advertise on Netflix through the Microsoft Advertising platform.

There are also various targeting types: traditional, responsive, retargeting, native display (ones that blend into the display) and social display which are used on social media to appear in the format of the platform. 

When to use display ads?

From the sheer amount of formatting and targeting options that are available, it is not surprising that display ads do have a slightly broader reach than search ads. However, there are downsides. Search ads have a higher conversion rate since they appear when someone is currently looking for your product or service. Yet, if you are looking to build up your brand recognition then display ads offer plenty of opportunities to you and allow you to reach out to new customers who would have an interest in your service. 

Display Ads vs Search Ads: What to Consider

 Earlier the relationship between these advertising types was described as sisterly. A common mistake though is to see display and search ads as twins. While they are both forms of digital advertising and rely on similar mechanisms, i.e. keywords, to work effectively, they are two distinct types of advertising which meet different objectives. It is better not to see these two ads as two opposite warring sides and instead look at how you might be able to incorporate both ads into your campaign strategy. Or, at least, to understand the value of both for a later date.  

Nonetheless, there are various aspects to consider when you are exploring how to spend your budget: 


Search ads, as previously mentioned, are at their most effective when you have a key audience and ideally, a specified location too. Display ads meanwhile have a larger reach, allowing you to reach audiences who share interests or meet certain demographic markers, depending on what you select when you are building up your campaign.


If you are confident in your specific audience and have a business that operates in a manner that benefits from the search ad format, then you are likely to see a good return by utilising them. One of the most significant benefits of using search ads is that they have a high conversion rate, but you are reliant on your customers to be actively looking for what you provide.  

Display ads serve a different purpose. Immediate conversion is not the only metric that matters though. Building up your brand identity and recognition is equally important and might lead to increased search ad conversion and organic traffic in the future. 


When it comes to search ads, you have a lot of flexibility and options when it comes to getting a good ROI. Given the lower click-through rate on display ads, they are often a cost-effective option to help get your brand’s name out there. Budgeting is important but ensuring that you see a return on the money you put into your campaign is vital. Managing your ad budgets may seem like a daunting task but it comes down to arming yourself with the correct information and setting out clear goals that you want to achieve.

Display vs search ads

What platforms should I use? 

Google’s name dominates the digital advertising market, but it is important to remember that it is not the only option. Often it is good to diversify your ad campaigns across various platforms and consider other important metrics other than simply reach.  

Google’s reach continues to draw in advertisers for a particularly good reason. However, Microsoft has some distinct advantages too. There are many unique customers on Microsoft and the ecosystem offers you varied options which are backed by a powerful AI. Moreover, your ads have less competition compared to Google and so customers have often reported greater levels of success when advertising there. 

Display Ads vs Search Ads: The Final Showdown 

 The best advice Diginius can give is to reflect on your business needs and your marketing priorities. 

Armed with this information, you can then make informed decisions about where to place your budget and what type of ads you need to meet your goals and reach your audience. Advertising offers you many options and you have great flexibility when designing and managing your ad campaigns: to get the most out of your ad spend you must therefore make informed decisions based on consumer habits and other information on your customer base that you have available to you.  

Display and search ads work well together to boost quick sales as well as build up brand awareness – which is more important is up to you!  

Curious about diversifying your advertising campaigns? As a Microsoft ads partner, we can help you! If you are a marketing agency, head to our website to find out more about our Diginius Agency Partner Program. Meanwhile, if you are a business managing your paid advertising in-house and you would like our support, discover how our Diginius Insight Platform boosts your ROI.

Chester Yang is the Microsoft Program Manager at Diginius with a background in economics and quantitative research.  

At Diginius, Chester focuses on nurturing partnerships with PPC agencies and integrating marketing and sales solutions.