It has long been a given that search adver­tis­ing con­verts at a higher rate than dis­play adver­tis­ing. Search is essen­tially the only form of adver­tis­ing where a con­sumer actu­ally asks to be shown an ad. Dis­play func­tions much more like tra­di­tional media where you don’t really want to see an ad but you’ll endure one in exchange for your favorite tele­vi­sion shows, tunes or news on the radio or web content.

So if a given con­sumer isn’t even inter­ested in see­ing an ad while view­ing a given web page, why would they be more apt to click on it and pur­chase some­thing? They wouldn’t, we in search mar­ket­ing have always said, and they gen­er­ally don’t. When they’re ready to buy, they’ll tap their request into a search engine and make the purchase.

The Wall St. Jour­nal Reports It So It Must Be True

You can imag­ine my sur­prise when the ven­er­a­ble Wall Street Jour­nal pub­lished a story explain­ing how dis­play ads may be more effec­tive than search ads. Check out “Ral­ly­ing Cry for Dis­play Ads” (or this sim­i­lar piece from Wired if you’re not a WSJ subscriber).

The piece ref­er­ences the recent research from the Atlas Insti­tute, Microsoft’s research arm from the aQuan­tive acqui­si­tion, that states that dis­play is actu­ally more valu­able than search because it leads peo­ple down the con­ver­sion path. With­out dis­play, they argue, there’d be no search; or there’d be much less of it. If only adver­tis­ers and agen­cies attrib­uted con­ver­sions appro­pri­ately they’d be will­ing to pay much more for these valu­able placements.

What are “View-through” Conversions?

The basis of this claim is in “view-through” con­ver­sions, or con­ver­sions that occur after some­body has viewed a ban­ner ad. My issue with this claim is we have no real infor­ma­tion on how many users actu­ally look at ban­ner ads. To what degree are peo­ple tun­ing them out, and how can you assume two sim­i­lar users are pay­ing equal to atten­tion to a given ban­ner placement?

Other than these obvi­ous issues, there is a cer­tain logic to “view-through” con­ver­sions that makes sense. Some peo­ple are dri­ven to search because of a ban­ner ad they saw. Of course, the same logic applies to tele­vi­sion radio, word of mouth, bill­boards, and count­less other adver­tis­ing and PR chan­nels. Here’s a graphic show­ing, roughly, where search vol­ume comes from:

All of these lead to search vol­ume and it seems nobody has any real grasp on how much, and how much credit these chan­nels should receive.

Con­ver­sion Attri­bu­tion: A Wor­thy Undertaking

I com­mend Atlas for tak­ing a stab at this and hope more adver­tis­ers push them­selves to pur­sue stud­ies for their own ad pro­grams. What they’ll likely find, in my view, is a media allo­ca­tion between search and dis­play (and other chan­nels should they take it fur­ther) that makes more sense than their cur­rent allocation.

In Omni­ture Search­Cen­ter you can develop a cus­tomized “Con­ver­sion Fun­nel” and deter­mine which chan­nels your con­ver­sions are com­ing from. I’ve removed any data from the graphic below but in addi­tion to the rudi­men­tary “Impres­sions > Clicks > Orders” you may want to develop your own model for what’s dri­ving those ini­tial impres­sions, and attribute a per­cent­age of your orders to each impression.

As a Search Mar­keter, our future depends on this type of analy­sis. I don’t think search could thrive with­out other forms of media, nor do I think search is wholly depen­dent on those chan­nels. One of the rea­sons it’s so suc­cess­ful is its mea­sur­a­bil­ity. We know exactly how much to pay for a click because using tools like Omni­ture Search­Cen­ter we get instant feed­back on the per­for­mance of a given “place­ment” (i.e. click) and react. By automat­ing this we can spend more time on strat­egy and less time on management.

I’ll talk a lit­tle more about dis­play ads in my next post. Stay tuned!

Alex B
Alex B

While I agree that measuring is the only way to debunk said claim, I think said claim is utter nonsense and, if we want to figure out why that is, we only need to look to who is sponsoring said study and decipher what said entity has to gain for putting down search at the expense of display ads.