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.