Why Display Is NOT Better Than Search

Cory Treffiletti knew what he was doing when he asked me to join a panel at OMMA Global NY titled, "Why Display is Better Than Search." Like Emeril Lagasse presiding over a batch of seafood gumbo, Cory was just adding some spice. Stirring the pot. Kicking it up a notch. BAM!

This was the session abstract:

"Search is the high school prom king and queen that gets all the attention, but display is the workhorse without which the internet economy would collapse. Search is still 60% of where your online ad dollars are spent, but it's not where 60% of your time gets spent! Display runs everywhere, it reaches more people, it achieves basic brand metrics better than search, and it is more effective at creating customer behavior than search. If you attend this session you'll gain a deeper appreciation (and understanding) of how marketers should be using display to drive growth. Hear advice, tips and suggestions from other marketers and partners who've seen success using online display in their marketing mix."



Now can you see why I was licking my chops?

Fortunately, unlike Gord's panel, our session was not buried inside a room inside a room at the Marriott. And the provocative session title drove quite a crowd.

From the moment our moderator, Gayle Meyers, introduced us, I made it clear I would be playing the role of contrarian. And, like my kids at the park, I came out swinging.

Search is unique in that it reaches people when they're in the right mindset, I argued. When people search, they're in between activity on the Web (moving from one site to the next) and actively looking for something. This makes them more open to commercial influence. Display just sits on the perimeter begging to be ignored while consumers engage with the content they're interested in.

The first rebuttal was a familiar analogy. "Search is just the supermarket shelf." (Note: I'm paraphrasing here.) "People see your brand in search results when they've already made up their mind about what they want to buy. You need display to make people aware of your brand and get them into the store to buy your product."

"Fair enough," I replied. (Again, paraphrasing -- and I'll continue to do so for the rest of this column, so please don't misinterpret my quotation marks as a reflection of the official court record.) "There is value to display and other forms of media that drive awareness and consideration. But if I'm a small business and I only have $1,000 to spend, I'd rather make sure my product is on the shelf when someone walks into the store ready to buy it than stand outside the store screaming about how great my brand is only to have them walk over to the shelf and grab one of my competitor's products when they can't find mine."

From there, we quickly got into a game of semantics. When debating if display is better than search, how are we defining "better"?

It was posited that display is better than search at driving brand metrics. To which I nitpicked on the goal of branding. "Why do we want to drive brand awareness or recall or consideration?" I asked rhetorically. "To sell our product. Search is what sells products. That's why it has the highest ROI."

This got us onto the attribution topic. Just because search is the ad that gets the last click doesn't mean it should get all the credit for the sale. This was something we could all agree on.

And, while I was in a concessionary mood, I offered up that display does have a role in filling up the funnel for search to convert. Once again I stressed that, if a marketer has limited budget, search should be maximized before any other channel (don't want to get people to the shelf and not find you!) but, once you've maxed out search, display can be a good investment.

That being said, I wanted to be sure we didn't overstate the importance of display. If search gets too much credit for the last click, display gets too much credit for the post-view. Just because a display ad was served doesn't mean it was viewed. With exceptions like homepage takeovers or pre-roll video, display ads are delivered adjacent to content (rather than interrupting it) and often below the fold. To assume that these ads get viewed and have an impact on conversions is quite the leap of faith.

For the remainder of the session, we bantered a bit on the merits of real-time bidding, native ad formats like Facebook Sponsored Stories, and even the branding impact of search (yes, there is one!), before concluding that Mike Cassidy of Undertone got it right at the outset of the panel when he declared, "There are no absolutes. Search, display, and every other ad channel has its role in the media mix and deserves consideration."

Amen, Mike. I'll take that to mean display is not better than search -- and rest my case.

5 comments about "Why Display Is NOT Better Than Search".
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  1. Alex Edlund from, October 5, 2011 at 11:35 a.m.

    I'm going to be boring and say, 'it all depends on your situation'.

    If your company is prominently placed in most marketing channels, display advertising may not ad a ton of incremental value. The notion that users have made up their mind when they are searching for something is 'baloney'. A conversion path analysis will quickly discount that theory.

    Still, I think Display helps brand recognition and is good as such. Also worth distinguishing display text ads vs display banners as their performance differs wildly. Although you may think, "who still clicks on those text ads"?, quite a few actually still do.

    It's all in the numbers right, and search doesn't lie. There is no more cost-effective marketing channel than paid search. View-through conversions should be heavily scrutinized and discounted. It also seems that the value of display does not justify the cost, which continue to be a real issue.

    Then there's retargeting, which is defined as a form of display. That's where a lot of the growth will happen because, guess what, it's relevant to the user..

    Thanks Aaron.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 5, 2011 at 12:01 p.m.

    Search is finding a business or a product you already know about especially if it is replacing the yellow pages (which pretty much stink compared to the print version in some ways) or know where to find a product to buy it.

    Then there is search.

  3. David Wilson from AMN Healthcare, October 5, 2011 at 12:33 p.m.

    I agree with your points Aaron, particularly the part about maximizing search before allocating dollars to display. From a direct response standpoint (click through to lead conversion), my experience is that even the most prominent display ads on the most targeted web pages pale in comparison to the results that can be achieved through search. Alex also makes some great points in his comments.

  4. Ben Russo from Adchemy, October 5, 2011 at 2:47 p.m.

    Bravo, Aaron.

    I wish that this piece was featured in a broader section of MediaPost's publications, because I think the majority readership of Search Insider already agrees! It's people in different channels that need to understand that search is not merely the “checkout counter” of the online world. That analogy is a disservice to the entire online advertising community, and downplays the importance of both the search and display channels.

    But display continues to innovate with new formats, interactive elements, and targeting capabilities to serve more relevant ads to consumers, which is fueling its growth. The search advertising market has become stagnant despite its proven ability to drive sales and traffic, mostly due to the limitations associated with managing huge, complex campaigns.

    We have to find ways to continue to innovate and grow the paid search market so that there is no question which channel is the most valuable.

  5. Aaron Goldman from Mediaocean, October 6, 2011 at 12:33 a.m.

    Thx for the comments folks!

    To be sure, I'm not saying display has no value. It does. And it's getting better all the time what with new creative formats, targeting options, and procurement techniques (many of which are based on SEM, mind you).

    In fact, during the panel I referenced the eMarketer report that display will overtake search spend by 2015.

    All that said, though, I have yet to hear a compelling argument as to why display is "better" than search. Until I do, I'm sticking to my guns and going out blazing!

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