Google Display Network: The Black Hole of PPC?

Many advertisers have tried their hand at the Google Display Network (formerly known as the the content network) and concluded that just like a black hole sucks up all matter and light, the Display Network sucked up their money and left them with nothing. While I can sympathize because I too have seen many a budget go into the Display Network and never come back, harnessing this tool can be a very effective strategy to improve your pay-per-click (PPC) results. The key is how you approach it.


When you’re advertising on search results, you know at least some of the user intent based on the search query. If someone typed “organic lettuce in Dallas” you have a good idea of what they want. However, in the Display Network, you’re trying to get clicks from users who are occupied with something else. They might be reading an article about how to build a treehouse. They might be playing an online game. Your ads need to pull them away from what they’re currently doing to get a click.

Google Display Network: The Black Hole of PPC?

For example, let’s say you sell widgets. Your widgets are unique because they are yellow and 100 percent stainless steel. For search, your ad might read something like this:

“Premium Yellow Widgets. 100% Stainless Steel + Free Shipping!”

That would be great if someone searched “yellow widgets.” But what if you customer is a college basketball fanatic?

Right now he’s wrapped up in March Madness and isn’t searching for widgets, even though he wants one. How do you get this guy’s interest? What about an ad that reads:

“March Madness Special. Get your widget in time for the Tournament! Free shipping.”

This will relate to your potential customer and draw his attention.

Location, Location, Location!

Just like in real estate, the location of your ads is vital to success. There are two ways to target your ads in the Google Display Network:

  • Keywords – Similar to search, but you need to think more about the content your ad will appear next to. For our sports guy, you’ll want to choose keywords like “college basketball,” “March Madness” or “bracketology.” These words don’t describe your product at all, but content talking about these keywords is where you want your ads to show up.
  • Placements – These come in two flavors: automatic and managed. Automatic refers to the sites that Google feels are relevant. Managed placements are specific URLs you choose, like a specific forum or blog (running AdSense, of course) that you know potential customers read.

In a Nutshell

Black holes seem scary, but physicists theorize that if you properly harness the power of a black hole, you can travel into the future. The Display Network is similarly scary, but potentially powerful. To succeed you need a different approach than regular search. You need to distract the user so they’ll pay attention to your ad, and you need to put your ad on pages that attract potential customers. Do this and you may find a very attractive future ahead of you.


Robert Brady Robert Brady is Senior Manager: Software, SMB, Strategy at Clix Marketing, a Google AdWord Certified Partner. Robert helps small business owners and large companies just getting started with Pay-Per-Click (PPC) get better results from their PPC advertising.

21 Reactions
  1. One way in which the Content Network does reasonably well is reporting: like other Google tools, they at least let you know how your money is disappearing. And they’ve found a way to make it work in the PPC model.

    Search scientists predict that the display market (which Google Content is a part of, despite not being image-driven) will overtake search in ten years. It’s time to jump on the bandwagon!

    The folks at Trada are launching a content product – they changed the way businesses do PPC by crowdsourcing it, and content/display are next.

  2. Great points Robert. I think it’s common for people to lump their search and display campaigns together. Some might even think to break the two out into separate campaigns, but the key — as you hit it — is that the message needs to be different in order to interrupt the persons attention in the display network. That’s the same reason ugly and obnoxious banners tend to perform better in the display network than clean, static banners that blend well with the site design. They’re not supposed to be a decoration — they should be getting clicks!

  3. It’s a good plan, but is there a crossover? If the majority of basketball fans don’t want widgets, you’re just throwing your money away.

  4. @Andy – One of the benefits of the Display Network is that you can still bid on a CPC basis. Therefore, your ad should elicit clicks only from basketball fans that are interested in widgets (and weed out the uninterested).

    PS Pun intended with crossover?

  5. Display Network is the first network I advertised on and it didn’t take me long to make my campaigns profitable. But as you mentioned, you just need a different mindset. Just like you need a different mindset when advertising on a social network.

  6. Nice post. I actually have had some good sucess with the display network. It can work really well for some niches if you use it right.

  7. This is a great initial start to understanding the Display Network. Yes, it’s definitely mindset (and campaign)!

  8. @Jonathan & Jon – Good to hear about your success. The Display Network is a huge opportunity if you are willing to work at it.

  9. Thanks for posting on this…

    Not everything that Google does is stellar. I guess in this case, one really has to work at it, which isn’t a bad thing.

    That Black Hole is.

    The Franchise King®

  10. The college basketball example was very good. 🙂

    Little known fact…your keywords in an automatic placement campaign only play a small part in where your ads are distributed. Google also looks at your ad copy (if text, the keywords – if graphic, the category assigned to that graphic) as well as your landing page for both relevancy and for what Google thinks is a good match for you. To determine relevancy, Google looks more at things on your page like your title and page description, H1 and H2 tags, keyword links, etc. than they actually look at keyword density on your page. In other words, all that SEO optimization is actually really helpful for PPC and display advertising relevancy.

  11. I’m not too sure of the March Madness example. When commercials appear on t.v. someone may either change the channel or go to another room. When searching for something in particular online a person is more likely to block out of ignore subjects that don’t correlate with what they are looking for.

    This sounds like it would more likely work on someone that is just browsing anything online just to kill time and are exposed to your widget and site.

  12. They click, but they DON’T BUY. Display Network is truly a money pit. We watched our PPC go through the roof, but ROI vaporize when they don’t buy (our sales went into the toilet immediately after signing up for this ridiculous joke of a marketing scheme). Who wants a bunch of tire-kickers?
    This does make common sense, though. If people aren’t in the buying mode and are at a site with a good ad, they may visit the site out of curiosity with ZERO intention of buying. For getting a brand out, it’s still a joke. Think about it. People have the memory of fish when it comes to the Internet – unless the brand was in their face when they were ACTIVELY (and PURPOSELY) looking for a particular product, they will FORGET that brand (it will disappear from their memory forever). Don’t throw your money away on this – I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of posts saying how this will kill your ROI (unless you are Amazon).

    • Hi Daven, Well, display advertising is very good for brand recognition. I remember hundreds (maybe thousands of brands) that I have never ever seen in real life, only online. Many I’ve seen through display ads and eventually visited them. This is an insightful article to read.

      – Anita

      • Hi all – my point on the Brand name is that hundreds or thousands of sites sell the same brand – people will remember 2014 Camaro, but will forget
        when they try to figure out where they heard about it. Then they will just go to Google and search “2014 Camaro” and click the first website link they see. Branding a website, however, is extremely difficult these days – people forget sites (especially when they were doing something else and, out of boredom or being enticed by a good ad, they click on a link). If they weren’t in a “buying” mindset, they won’t buy and you just wasted PPC money. They may even remember the website, but not the full url, then, once again, go to Google, type in what they may think it was and still click on a competitor’s link (usually Amazon). I’ve poured over the logs before – people don’t bookmark things any more and keep using a search engine (and clicking your links multiple times) to find stuff. There are buyers and surfers. Buyers surf, but Surfers rarely buy. PPC works great for buyers (Standard AdWords), it’s throwing money away for surfers (Display Network). Brands are easy to market, websites need to make the sale directly first visit (surfers will surf away as they weren’t in the mindset to buy in the first place). Then you have the FaceBook “Likes” – with the myriad of distractions on FaceBook and the roll-off, people simply don’t go through their “LIKE” lists and go shopping. The side ads work, but “Likes” do not. I’ve seen companies I work for throw thousands on Likes only to be sorely disappointed (people are people – they have too many distractions and a nanosecond memory). IT people generally have better memories, but the vast majority of consumers suffer from distraction overload A.D.D.

      • Thanks, Daven, for the clarification. Much appreciated!

        – Anita

    • Some of the more successful display network campaigns I’ve seen were early funnel (lead generation) but your experience is not unique. Keep working on your search campaigns.