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Google Display Ads: The Expert Guide for Increasing Your Reach

Table of Contents

The very first display ad appeared in 1994. It looked like this:

The world's first display ad
Source: thefirstbannerad.com

And it got a 44% clickthrough rate. 

Modern display ads are nowhere near as effective as this inaugural one from Wired magazine, but they’ve stuck around for a few reasons:

  • They’re easy to create.
  • They amplify brand awareness.
  • They have relatively cheap cost-per-clicks (CPCs)—usually below $1.

You probably won’t ever hear companies describing display ads as their biggest or only driver of growth. But done well, these ads act as a growth accelerant for other channels, like search ads. 

Below, we’ll explain all things display advertising—from campaign targeting options to how to create appealing ads.

Here’s what we’ll dive into:

What are Google display ads?

You’ve no doubt seen display ads while browsing the internet. These are the banners, videos, and image ads that appear across websites and mobile apps in the Google Display Network (GDN). That network even includes Google-owned properties like YouTube and Gmail.

Screenshot of display ads on Thrillist
Unless you use an ad blocker, you’ll probably see display ads interspersed throughout web content. 

With around 2 million websites, apps, and videos, GDN is the world’s largest display advertising network. To tap into it, brands buy and set up display ads using Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords).

Since they’re both part of Google Ads, display ads and search ads are often compared. Here’s a quick breakdown of their major differences:

Display ads Search ads
  • Static images, animations, and interactive content
  • Appear on websites, videos, and apps in the GDN
  • Bid strategies include CPA, ROAS, CPC, and CPM
  • Purely text-based ad format
  • Appears in the search network (search engine results)
  • Generally uses CPC; CPM isn’t available

Something worth clarifying here: these two ad formats aren’t mutually exclusive—so you can run a Google Ads display and search campaign simultaneously. 

In fact, while some marketers prefer concentrating their ad spend in one format, Google actually recommends using both search and display campaigns to maximize your brand’s reach. (We’ll get to that in a little bit.)

What display ads are best for

More often than not, people ignore Google display ads or view them as annoying clickbait. In fact, their average conversion rate across all industries is very low—less than 1%. The same goes for their clickthrough rate, with an average of 0.35%.

A table of Google Display Networks' Average CTR by industry
Source: Hubspot

So no matter how captivating your design or copy is, the best display ads probably won’t convert people at the same rate as other types of ads

But conversion rate doesn’t fully capture the impact of display ads. Some people who see your ad might decide to Google your product and visit your site later. They may even make a purchase without ever clicking your ad—what’s known as a view-through conversion.

Because of this, Google display ads are worth investing in for two key reasons:

  1. They amplify brand awareness. They’re very cheap compared to Google search ads, making it easy to get your ads in front of more people. 
  2. They’re great for remarketing to visitors with passive purchase intent. These are the people who fit your target audience but don’t have an immediate need or desire to buy your product. Display ads visually remind them about your business and nurture them into potential customers.

In short, good display ads leave a lasting impression on users, planting the seed for action later on. 

Should your company use Google display ads?

Remember, people are browsing content on a website or app when a display ad appears, rather than looking for something very specific (as with search). They don’t necessarily want to buy something right away.

Given this, Google display ads work best for companies that:

  • Have a long sales cycle. Banner ads help keep your product top of mind. 
  • Sell unique or conventional products. Since they have a visual format, display ads showcase your product in a way that text ads can’t.
  • Have in-house design resources (or a budget to outsource). This gives you an advantage in creating and experimenting with ads compared to businesses that simply can’t afford to. 
  • Are in a highly competitive niche or industry. For industries with an expensive average CPC, display ads can significantly lower your cost per lead (CPL) and cost per acquisition (CPA). These include industries like insurance, online education, and law, which have average CPCs above $11.

Think of display ads as a complement to other parts of your digital marketing strategy—but not the central focus. They can be cost-effective at improving other channels’ performance, especially search ads. 

Starting out, we recommend pairing your display campaign with search ads in an 80/20 or 90/10 split of your total ad budget. Then tweak this over time to lower your CPA. 

Types of display ads

Display ads come in a variety of sizes. You can find more details from Google here, but the most common dimensions are:

  • 1200 x 1200 (square)
  • 1200 x 628 (landscape)
  • 300 x 250 (medium rectangle)
  • 336 x 280 (large rectangle)
  • 728 x 90 (leaderboard banner)
  • 160 x 600 (wide skyscraper)
  • 320 x 50 (mobile leaderboard)

Beyond sizing, there are also a few different types of display ads: 

  • Responsive: You upload a few images and pieces of text (headlines and descriptions). Then Google mixes and matches them to find the best performing combinations—this way, you don’t have to create multiple ad creatives in different sizes. Since these ads automatically adjust to fit any available ad space on the GDN, they have the greatest reach.
Examples of responsive display ads
With responsive ads, Google automatically generates combinations using the text and image assets you provide.
  • Static: These are fixed images that you upload to Google. There’s no ad text other than the copy in your images, and they don’t change sizes, shapes, or content—so these ads are only shown in placements that are their exact size. But they can use HTML5 (meaning rich media features like video, audio, and being able to expand or float). 
Examples of static display ads
With static ads, you have complete control over the way your ads look—your ad copy's font, font color, background color, and so on.
  • Dynamic: You connect your ad group to a “data feed” that gives Google a list of your products, plus their meta details like title, description, price, image, and URL. Google then creates display ads using this information. This ad type is especially useful for ecommerce remarketing since you can show users the products they looked at earlier.
Screenshot of dynamic ads
Dynamic ads also support short text snippets like "New" and "Price Drop."

Which type should you use?

In most cases, we (and Google) recommend prioritizing responsive ads. They’re easiest to set up. 

Specifically, create at least one responsive display ad for each of your ad groups. And take advantage of Google’s optimization by inputting the maximum number of headlines and descriptions to see what combinations are most effective. 

If you have the resources to create static ads, they’re worth testing—especially if you want more control over your display ads. Just know that:

  • They show in fewer places. (Responsive ads get wider coverage with only two image sizes.)
  • You have to manually create these different image sizes yourself. 

Dynamic ads are best for B2C companies and ecommerce shops that offer a wide variety of products, especially when it comes to remarketing. That said, B2B companies that offer many services can also benefit from them.

Need help figuring out google display ads? We've run ads for 100+ startups, we can help.

Targeting methods

Display ads offer three main targeting options, which can be “layered” together to reach different groups:

  1. Demographics
  2. Audiences
  3. Content


With demographic targeting, you set your ads to appear only to certain demographics—ideally those of your target audience. Options include:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Parental status
  • Household income (Not all countries have this option.)

So if you run an ecommerce shop selling apparel for Gen Z women, it’d make sense to use demographic targeting to only reach women of a certain age bracket. 

It’s also worth checking Google Analytics to find out your visitors’ demographics—and then setting your targeting based on this info.


When you use audience targeting, your display ads reach people based on who they are or what they’re interested in or actively researching.

There’s a lot of nuance here. The different audiences include:

  • Affinity: Choose from a list of interests (or “affinities”) people have shown for a product or activity based on their past searches and browsing history. Examples of affinity audiences include High-End Computer Aficionados, Social Media Enthusiasts, and Luxury Travelers. 
  • In-market: Choose from a list of categories and detailed products/services that people are actively researching with an intent to buy. Categories include Financial Services, Employment, and Real Estate, with detailed options like Business Loans, Internships, and Commercial Properties.
  • Life events: Target people going through a major life event, like buying a home, starting a business, changing jobs, and retiring.
  • Custom: (Formerly “custom affinity” and “custom intent” audiences.) Specify keywords and interests people have searched for, websites or real places they’ve visited, or apps they’ve used. From our experience, using competitors’ blog posts that rank highly for your target keywords works well.

Quick example: Airbnb could create a custom audience targeting people who have searched for hotels or used a flight booking app.

You can also create audiences using data about who’s interacted with your business, specifically:

  • Remarketing: These lists are created based on Google Analytics data, and include users who have interacted with your site, app, or YouTube channel in some way, like a website visit, add to cart, purchase, etc. 
  • Similar: These are automatically created lists of people that Google recognizes as being “similar” to people on your Remarketing lists. It’s similar to Facebook’s Lookalike audiences, though not as accurate.
  • Customer Match: You reach existing customers by uploading their contact info from your CRM. Alternatively, you can exclude these customers from getting your ads. (Note: Not all accounts can use Customer Match audiences. More info from Google here.)


Targeting by content is a form of contextual targeting where you set your ads to appear in certain places based on their content. For example, hospitals use content targeting to get their ads to appear specifically on WebMD.

WebMD screenshot
WebMD’s audience includes people who might be facing medical issues. An ad from MD Anderson Cancer Center is a lot more practical here because these users may have a bigger needs for its services. 

With content targeting, you’ve got a few options:

  • Placements: You define the specific websites, apps, and video channels where you want your ads to display. This is only worthwhile if you target high-traffic sites or many small ones—they can convert well if your chosen sites are highly relevant to your product.
  • Keywords: Google places your display ads on web pages related to the target keyword(s) you manually enter. Ads can show on pages that contain your keywords, but don’t actually focus on that subject at all. For example, the target keyword “loan refinance” might get your ad to show on an article that only mentions loan refinancing in passing.
  • Topics: Choose from a list of predefined topics that cover many industries and hobbies; your ads will then appear on sites about this topic. So if you choose “Mobile Phones” as a topic, your ads will show on sites that focus on mobile phones—not just a page that mentions mobile phones in passing.

You can also use the same options above to set content exclusions, which prevent your ads from being seen on certain websites or content about a specific keyword/topic. Google even provides specific exclusion options so you can stop your ads from appearing on live streaming video, sensitive social issues, and content for mature audiences. 

7 best practices for creating quality display ads

Ubiquitous as they may be, it’s second nature for many internet users to ignore display ads by default—a phenomenon known as “banner blindness.” 

So for your display ad to actually reach people, it needs to be intriguing enough to capture their attention. Below, we cover seven crucial best practices to follow for your creatives’ design and copy.

1. Make it high-contrast

Most websites feature dark text on a white or light-colored background. So to make your ads stand out, you should design your creatives with bright, contrasting colors. These grab attention because they create a visual pattern interruption.

For example, check out how this bright Nike display ad stands out so clearly in an article.

Screenshot of content with Nike ad
Against the content's white background, Nike's ad is a bright pop of visual contrast.

This also applies to the CTA button within your ad—it should contrast with the rest of your creative’s background color.

2. Keep text to a minimum

This tip is specific to static ads. Because no ad text goes along with static ads, you must insert text into your ad image directly. (With responsive ads, however, you’ll need to make sure your ad copy fits Google Ads’ character limits.)

When it comes to ad copy, less is more. With a lot of text, you’ll have to sacrifice either the size of your words or room for other design elements. Your ad will look crowded, especially smaller banner sizes.

So try to explain your company in less than 10 words. Here’s a good example from ShippingEasy, a shipping software company.

ShippingEasy display ad
ShippingEasy focuses its ad copy on its key value prop.

The ad concisely describes what kind of help ShippingEasy offers: low shipping rates for small businesses. In just eight words, it zeroes in on viewers’ problems (expensive shipping costs) and then offers a solution (affordable rates). 

3. Choose descriptive images

As a visual ad format, display ads need straightforward, intuitive images. Otherwise, users won’t know what a company is trying to sell.

Consider this example from the customer data platform Tealium.

Without reading the ad copy, can you guess what this stock photo might be advertising about Tealium?

The image doesn’t give much info about what Tealium does, or what it’s advertising (an ebook). At first glance, you might even mistake it as a men’s apparel company—it’s only the ad copy that clues you in Tealium’s work with customer data.

Sure, customer data platform is a tricky concept to visually represent. But it’s not impossible. Here’s how another data company also advertising an ebook approaches it.

Snowflake responsive ad
The image used in this responsive ad is a lot more illustrative of what the ad is about.

While Tealium went with a generic stock photo, the data warehousing company Snowflake used a custom image featuring the cover of its ebook. And since the cover is styled like one of the popular For Dummies book series, it’s obvious to users that it’s advertising a book.

4. Avoid visual clutter

Besides limiting text, you should also try to minimize the total number of visual elements in your ad. This includes text as well as images.

For an example of what you should and shouldn’t do, take a look at the two ads below.

Comparison of CVS and YETI's display aads
One ad is a lot "busier" than the other.

The ad from CVS on the left feels a lot more cluttered than YETI’s on the right. This is because there are multiple focal points—many different elements competing for the viewer’s attention. Consider the “Epic Beauty Event” text toward the upper left, the “Up to 50% off” circle on the right, the array of beauty products in the center, and the copy and CTA button at the bottom. It’s a lot to take in at once. 

Meanwhile, YETI’s ad places the product it’s advertising (tote bags) in the center, and frames it with one simple line of copy, a CTA button, and logo. Users read it simply from top to bottom—their eyes aren’t pulled in every direction like with CVS’s ad.

A strong sense of design may not come easily to everyone, but fortunately, there are many useful resources to look to. For starters, we recommend looking at Canva’s free ad templates for inspiration. Build off of them. They provide a helpful frame of reference for how many elements your ad can have before it starts looking cluttered.

5. Create your ads with a specific goal in mind

We mentioned earlier that display ads are effective for building your brand awareness and retargeting visitors to your site. These should be treated as two separate campaign goals—meaning you should design unique creatives for each.

Here’s how you should approach the two different types.

Retargeting ads

Retargeting ads don’t need to focus on defining what your product is, especially if users have been to your site recently. (But if you’re retargeting people after a month or two, it makes sense to give more context in your ads.)

Instead, remind people about your company and why they should visit again. That could be a short customer testimonial or a limited time promotion. 

Here’s a good example from the software company Intercom.

Intercom display ad
Intercom's banner includes a pleased customer testimonial, including their full name, title, and company. (And if you Google him, you'll see that he's real.)

The ad features a quote from a satisfied customer about why they switched to Intercom from a competitor. It then encourages users to check out a demo.

Prospecting ads

With prospecting ads, people might not know your company or product—so your ads must explicitly describe what you sell and the problem you solve.

That doesn’t mean getting wordy, though. Again, aim for conciseness. Here’s how the car rental company Avail does this.

Avail display ad
At the bottom, the ad also mentions Avail is “protected by Allstate”—a great example of objection handling.

The ad clearly spells out Avail’s key value proposition—“affordable rental car”—and encourages users to start browsing options immediately.

What if your company sells a variety of products and services? Make separate ad creatives for each product. (The YETI totes example from earlier demonstrates this!) It’s a lot more effective at resonating with users’ exact needs and desires. Someone who sees a photo of multiple cosmetics products might think, “I don’t need makeup”—but be motivated to click when they see an ad for only facial moisturizer (“but I do need to step up my skincare routine”).

6. Optimize the landing page your display ad leads to

After clicking on your ad, your landing page is the next step in the user’s journey to becoming a customer. So it should logically connect with your ad.

That means creating separate landing pages for each of your display ad campaigns. In other words, don’t send all your visitors to the same place. Create pages specific to your ad campaign’s goal. 

For example, here are two landing pages from Semrush. 

Semrush ad landing pages
Users reach one of these two pages depending on the display ad they click—a page that’s highly specific to the particular ad.

Users reach one of these two pages depending on the display ad they click—a page that’s highly specific to the particular ad. 

Users reach the page on the left when they click on a banner advertising “SEO challenges.” But when they click on an ad for “keyword research,” they reach the page on the right. Notice how each page uses different content to support its respective ad rather than simply directing users to Semrush’s homepage.

This best practice also applies to your separate display network campaigns. A retargeted user who’s already familiar with your company shouldn’t be taken to the same page as a brand new visitor from your prospecting campaign. 

  • Retargeting: Send users to a simplified landing page that lists your product’s key features, benefits, and pricing. Show relevant case studies or send them back to the same product category page they last visited.
  • Prospecting: Since they’re targeting a cold audience, assume people have no knowledge about your brand and product. Give them the whole pitch and tailor it to the specific audience you’re targeting.

7. Experiment, experiment, experiment

Experimentation is essential for finding the best design and copy for your display ads—that is, the perfect combination that drives the most interactions. Take a look at these three display ads from Adobe.

Adobe display ads
Note the different colors, designs, CTAs, and copy used in Adobe’s banners.

Notice the different colors, designs, CTAs, and copy used in these banners. 

They’re good examples of how you can test your display ads by using different images, ad copy, CTAs, even colors.

Some other ideas worth testing:

  • Include different forms of social proof—an award badge, your product’s average rating, etc.
  • Swap out photographs for custom illustrations, or vice versa. See which visual attracts more clicks. If you don’t have the budget to commission custom illustrations, get free quality assets from Drawkit or Playbook
  • Show your product being used. Example: Instead of showing sunglasses on their own, show a group of people wearing sunglasses.
  • Try making GIFs or videos. The movement in these may be more eye-catching than static ads. You can outsource simple HTML5 animations to freelancers on Fiverr

You may find that different ad graphics, CTAs, or value props get more clicks than others. Use these insights to continually optimize your ads and landing pages.

How to measure your display ad campaign’s performance

To judge the success of their display ads, marketers often look at clicks, conversions, and impressions. 

But these metrics alone can’t quite fully capture your campaign’s true impact. After all, some people will avoid clicking on your ad but then search for your brand in Google. Alternatively, some might see your banner ad, and then click on your company’s search or YouTube ad later after recognizing your brand.

Given these scenarios, display campaigns may influence users more than Google Ads or Analytics can accurately capture. So to get a sense of your display ads’ impact, you’ll need to look at the bigger picture of your marketing strategy. 

Here are a few data points worth analyzing:

  • Organic traffic: Since your display campaign launched, have there been any changes in organic visitors to your site? If you have other ongoing content efforts, it’s hard to completely attribute an organic traffic jump to your display ads. Still, it’s worth analyzing fluctuations in your site’s traffic both during and after running your display campaigns.
  • Your brand’s search volume: Along the same lines, use an SEO tool like Semrush or Ahrefs to see if the number of searches for your brand name has changed since your display campaign’s launch. An increase might mean that more people are aware of your brand and looking it up in Google. 
  • Other ad channels’ performance: As we mentioned earlier, display ads can complement other ad channels and enhance their performance. So take a look at your other channels—were there any changes in their performance when you ran your display ads? 
  • View-through conversions: These are the conversions that occur when an ad impression is recorded, a user doesn’t interact with the ad, but then later converts. You can define the window of time for when such conversions are considered view-through conversions (like within 30 days of a tracked impression). Although this metric sounds like a great solution to attribution, it isn’t perfect since Google doesn’t count conversions from people who’ve also interacted with any of your other ads.

Remember, display ad conversions and CTR are very low—on average, less than 1%. So you shouldn’t expect to see an overnight boost in sales as a result of launching your display campaign. Instead, take a step back and look at your ads’ performance from a wider context. 

Wrapping up

Display ads may not be the highest-converting tool in your marketing arsenal—but they can provide a powerful boost to the rest of your strategy.

We’ve outlined a number of targeting and design guidelines above, but there’s one takeaway we can’t stress enough: iterate on your ads. Experiment with every aspect of them, from their design to their audience targeting to the landing pages they take users to. Display ads can undeniably widen your brand’s reach, and they’ll only add more value the more you optimize them. 

Need help running Display Ads? Ad Labs is the ads agency for startups.
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Content marketer and writer. Also illustrator, dog lover, and pun enthusiast.

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