Google Ad Networks: Where To Start

When it comes to advertising online, it’s likely no surprise that Google provides by far the greatest reach for businesses looking to increase sales and grow their brand via online PPC advertising. However, the myriad networks on offer and sheer number of targeting options available leave many businesses at a loss when it comes to choosing exactly where to put their investment.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the three main pillars of Google PPC targeting and discuss the unique strengths and weaknesses of each.


Google Search Network 

The Google Search Network covers Google Search, other Google entities such as Google Maps and Google Sites, as well as partner networks like AOL. Google Search serves over 100 billion global web searches per month, providing a great deal of reach for Search advertisers.

Here’s the fundamental beauty of advertising on Google Search Network: Your ads are only showing to users who are trying to find you!

The reason for this comes down to the Search Network’s contextual keyword targeting method. Here’s how it works:

  • As anyone who’s ever used the internet knows, users search for content on Google Search by entering search queries into Google and the search engine displays the results
  • Advertisers place competing bids on these search queries (called keywords). When a user enters a query on which an advertiser has bid, an ad linked to that keyword appears in the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) either above or to the side of the organic search results.
  • Advertisers are only charged if the user clicks on their ad, which leads the user to the advertiser’s website.

More often than not, multiple advertisers will bid on the same keyword, and the advertisers must compete for prominent placement in the search results. Placement is based on an advertiser’s keyword bid as well as a keyword-level attribute called Quality Score, which is a quality ranking algorithm put in place to ensure a high level of quality for, and relevance to, the user.  This is to ensure that the top spot doesn’t always just go to the highest bid, regardless of quality or relevance.

So, when I say that your ads only show for users are trying to find you, I mean that they’re quite literally only showing for keywords that you’ve decided are directly relevant to your product or service. This is immensely powerful for advertisers because the user intent has already been established. The trick then, is to write compelling ads that stand out amongst the competition and to find the right keyword bids to maximize reach and response within your advertising budget.

The Search Network is popular for advertisers who are primarily concerned with direct response advertising. This means advertisers who are looking for the people most likely to convert, as opposed to, say, simply reaching as many people as possible. Search is great for this because user intent is so effectively demonstrated by the user’s search query itself. For example, the search query “best divorce attorney in Phoenix” leaves little to the imagination in terms of what the user is looking for at that moment.

The main drawback to the Search Network is reach. Remember, your ads are only going to appear to folks entering keywords on which you’ve bid. As you build out your keyword list, it’s important to keep in mind that the less relevant your keywords are to your product or service, the less positive response you’ll receive from your paid search traffic. Fortunately, there is often plenty of traffic of the Search Network and the much more common challenge is how much of the search market you’re able to reach for your budget, as opposed to what to do with remaining budget after Search Network traffic has been exhausted. After all, Google search queries trigger over 5.5 billion ad impressions per day!


Google Display Network

The Display network (formerly called the Content Network) is made up of over a million websites, apps, and videos across the web. With over 1 billion monthly users, and no less than 6 billion monthly ad impressions served, the GDN provides much greater reach potential than search by virtue of both the targeting options available and the sheer number of partner sites opted into the network (over 1 million eligible placements).

Another significant advantage to the GDN is it’s compatibility with multiple ad formats. You can serve text, image, interactive, and video ads, whereas the search network only supports text ads. Image and video ads are often much more engaging than traditional text ads, and can be much more effective in communicating your brand’s message. What’s more, the targeting options are virtually endless. Here’s a quick rundown of the targeting options available on the GDN:

  • Interest targeting – targets users who’ve demonstrated an interest in a specific product or service
  • Contextual targeting – matches keyword lists with site content to find relevant placements
  • Topics targeting – targets placements about specific topics
  • Audience / Remarketing – targets users who’ve already visited your site
  • Age – targets users in specific age ranges (only for users who are signed into their Google profile)
  • Gender – allows for targeting of only one gender (only for users who are signed into their Google profile)

You can also mix and match these targeting types, as well as choosing whether to target only a specific audience or targeting type, or target multiple audiences or targeting types in combination, with separate bids for each.

Sounds great, right? Here’s the downside:

While the targeting options and multiple ad formats make the GDN look a lot more exciting then search, there’s a fundamental difference when it comes to user intent. While it’s true that the GDN allows you to tightly target your ads to relevant users, they’re still likely to be in a much more passive frame of mind when they see your ads. This is in contrast to Search, where the only users who see your ads are those who are actively searching for what you offer.

For example, say someone’s looking to buy a vintage Gibson guitar. When you bid on that keyword in a GDN targeted campaign, the system will try to associate that keyword with what it thinks are relevant sites. This could mean guitar blogs, articles about guitarists who play Gibson guitars, etc. Users reading this article may be in the market for a new guitar, but it’s also quite possible they’re just reading their favorite guitar blog, or an article about a musician they like. In other words, there’s no guarantee of purchase intent.

Now, when a user enters “Gibson guitars for sale”  into Google Search, it’s safe to assume they’re ready to buy, or at least getting close. This is the unique power of the Search Network: it allows you to place your ad in front of the user right at the moment that matters. The fact that they’re actively searching for what you offer (as opposed to happening upon your ads on relevant placements) often makes Search the superior network for driving direct sales. That said, the GDN can be a strong sales driver as well if properly managed, and it’s particularly great for branding and marketing new products that are likely to have little search volume.


AdWords for Video

AdWords for Video is YouTube’s video advertising platform, now managed from within AdWords. AFV brings all of the targeting capabilities of the GDN, and serves video ads in a number of different formats across YouTube and the Display Network. Because of video’s uniquely powerful ability to tell a story, the network is quickly gaining momentum as a branding platform. And with over 1 billion unique users per month on YouTube alone, you want have any problems with reach.

Best of all, it’s still super cheap. Average cost-per-views for AdWords for Video is still under $.10, whereas a click on your GDN image ad is likely to be much more expensive.


Which One’s Right for You?

So, which network is best for your business? It depends on your goals.

Some common scenarios:

  • If you’re trying to drive sales, have a limited budget, and need your advertising investment to deliver a specific return, or at least be directly profitable, start with the Search Network only.
  • If you’re trying to drive sales but you feel you’ve exhausted the Search market and still have additional budget to spend, expand to GDN / AFV targeting.
  • If you’re trying to drive sales plus expand awareness and grow your brand, go with all three.
  • If you have a product or service that’s not well known, and users aren’t likely to search for it directly, or it’s value is hard to explain in a text ad, stick with GDN and AFV targeting. (Video can be particularly useful here!)


Of course, things aren’t always this tidy out in the wild. Search doesn’t always deliver greater direct value than the GDN or AdWords for Video for all advertisers, and new AdWords product and feature enhancements are beginning to significantly blur the lines between these networks and how they’re used. That said, hopefully this post will give you an idea of where to start, and how each network may have application for your unique business goals.

Just remember to always identify the goal of your advertising campaign first, including a specific definition of what success looks like. After (and only after) you’ve done that, these networks will provide the all the reach, flexibility, and accountability you need to achieve success with online advertising.