I’m going to go out on a limb here. You want people to become your customers, right?

Of course you do. You’ve got bills to pay, mouths to feed, former paramours to impress. Well, partner, you’ve come to the right place. Though I won’t be so bold as to claim that display advertising is essential, I will be so bold as to claim that it’s a really good investment.


And an underused investment at that! More on this at the end…

Why? Because it helps you do two things that are crucial to winning new customers: (1) building a valuable, recognizable brand and (2) keeping that brand at the top of your prospects’ minds.

Sound good? Awesome. Let’s get into it, then. By the end of this guide, you’ll know more about:

  • The value of display advertising
  • Google display ad types, sizes, costs, and targeting parameters
  • Best practices for Google display ads

What is a Google display ad?

Although the term “display ad” may be unfamiliar, you’re almost certainly familiar with display ads themselves. They’re the visual-based ads you see while reading an article on your favorite blog, watching a video on YouTube, or using a mobile app.


Appropriately, Google display ads are served on the Google Display Network—a network of over two million websites and apps that reaches somewhere in the ballpark of 90% of internet users. Such an immense potential for reach is the definition of a double-edged sword. True—you have the power to introduce your brand to tons of relevant consumers. But you’re also liable to introduce your brand to tons of irrelevant consumers.

In other words: Display ads can cost you a bunch of money if you’re not careful. We’ll talk about the steps you can take to avoid waste later in this post.

The case for display ads

Before we dive into the details of display advertising, let’s take a bird’s-eye view. The other major Google Ads network is the Search Network, which enables advertisers to buy promotional real estate in the Google search results. Generally, search advertising is a valuable channel for marketers because it allows them to capitalize on the commercial intent that often motivates people to use Google.


The same can’t be said for display advertising. People are served display ads while they’re consuming content—not while they’re actively looking for solutions, as is the case on the search network. Put differently, the commercial intent that makes search advertising so valuable doesn’t exist on the display network.

So, why bother with display ads? Different marketers answer this question differently, but we’re pretty confident there are a couple reasons nearly everyone can agree on.

The first involves branding. Because you and your competitors are going after the same prospects, you have to find ways to differentiate yourself—to separate your business from the pack. Thanks to the power of visual imagery, display advertising is an opportunity to establish (and distinguish) your brand in your prospects’ minds.

The second is more practical. Typically, a prospect won’t become your customer immediately after seeing your product or service advertised on the search network for the first time. Even if they click on your ad, they’ll most likely leave your website without taking any form of action and move onto a completely different task. The challenge, then, becomes getting them back on your website. With display ads, you can keep your business at the top of your prospects’ minds.

Alrighty, then! With the high-level stuff out of the way, we can get into the details.

Google display ad types

Broadly speaking, there are two types of Google display ads: uploaded and responsive. Whereas uploaded ads place the onus of creation and optimization (more on this below) entirely on you, responsive ads pass the reins to Google Ads.


If you have the design resources to create your own display ads from scratch, then by all means—take the uploaded route. JPG, PNG, and GIF files are all supported. Keep in mind, however, that every web page is different. Even if you qualify for a particular placement, your ad won’t be shown if it doesn’t meet the size specifications for the page. This is what we mean when we say uploaded display ads place the onus of optimization on you—you have to create differently sized versions of each ad.

Because that’s not the most fun activity, Google introduced responsive display ads a couple years ago. In fact, as of the summer of 2018, the responsive ad type is the default for display advertisers. The process couldn’t be much easier. Simply upload your business’ name and logo along with some visual assets (images and videos) and some basic ad copy. From there, Google Ads will test different combinations of visuals and copy to determine which versions of your ad perform well. Best of all, responsive display ads automatically adjust in size to meet the requirements of specific web pages.

If you’re looking for a couple more options, we’ll discuss three of our favorite ad creation tools (all free!) at the end of the guide.

Google display ad sizes

If you’re planning on running only responsive display ads, you can go ahead and skip to the next section. Alternatively, if you’d like to maintain control over your ads and you plan on taking the uploaded route, these are 12 common sizes you’ll likely need to accommodate:

  • Mobile: 300×250, 320×50, 320×100, 250×250, 200×200
  • Desktop: 300×250, 336×280, 728×90, 300×600, 160×600, 970×90, 468×60

Google display ad costs

Like the Google search network, the Google display network runs on a live auction system. When you’re eligible for a given ad unit—according to your targeting parameters—you’re entered into an instantaneous auction with the other advertisers who are eligible for that same unit. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume you and your competitors are bidding on a cost per click (CPC) basis and competing for real estate on a standard blog page.


The auction is Google’s way of determining where each advertiser lands on the page and how much each advertiser pays for a click. Your ad position and CPC depend on your Ad Rank—a metric that, in turn, depends on your maximum CPC bid and Quality Score. The former, of course, is the maximum amount of money you’re willing to pay for a click on your ad. The latter is basically a measure of how relevant your ad is to the people you’re targeting.

The outcome of the auction determines how much you actually pay for a click—your actual CPC. Often, this is lower than your maximum CPC bid. When all is said and done, you pay the minimum amount of money required to outrank the advertiser in the position directly below yours—for incremental clicks, that is.

An incremental click is a click you wouldn’t have gotten if you were in a lower ad position. For example, while the ad in the first position may get five clicks, the ad in the second position may only get three clicks. In this case, two of the top ad’s five clicks are considered incremental. The CPC for those two clicks is just high enough to outrank the next advertiser. However, the CPC for the remaining three clicks is equal to what the next advertiser is paying for their clicks.

So, even if you win the best ad position on the page, a lot of the clicks you drive will be priced as if you’re in a lower position. The clicks you drive solely because your ad is more visible are slightly more expensive.

According to WordStream data, the average CPC on the Google display network is $0.63. For comparison, the average CPC on the search network is $2.69—more than four times greater. That’s because search network clicks are generally more valuable, as we discussed earlier.


Google display ad targeting

As promised earlier, the time has come to talk about the steps you can take to avoid wasting your display advertising budget. Broadly, the key to efficiently spending your display budget is layering your targeting parameters to yield the most relevant impressions and clicks possible.

This raises the question: What targeting parameters do you have at your disposal? At the ad group level, there are two categories of targeting parameters: people and context. Whereas the former category enables you to advertise to specific groups of people, the latter enables you to advertise within certain types of content. Let’s look at each in turn.

People targeting for display ads

There are two subcategories beneath the umbrella of people targeting: demographics and audiences. With demographic targeting, you can serve your ads to certain groups of people based on characteristics like age, gender, and parental status. Audience targeting, on the other hand, is based on interests and behaviors. Believe it or not, this branches off into a few more subcategories.

An affinity audience is simply a broad group of people who share a common interest. Sports fans, travelers, and foodies are all examples of affinity audiences you can target with your display ads. If you find that Google Ads’ pre-made options are too general, you can create your own custom affinity audiences.


An in-market audience is a group of people who are actively looking to buy a particular product or service. These audiences are powerful, of course, because they enable you to keep your business at the top of the minds of consumers near the bottom of the funnel.

A remarketing audience, finally, is a group of people who have interacted with your business in some way—often by visiting your website. As we said earlier, a key part of the case for display advertising is the ability to re-engage your prospects.

Contextual targeting for display ads

As with people targeting, contextual targeting comes with two subcategories: keywords and topics. With keyword targeting, you can serve your display ads within pieces of content that relate to a particular keyword. For example, if you’re advertising running gear, you can target keywords like “running sneakers” and “running wristwatch.”

Topic targeting, on the other hand, enables you to serve your display ads within pieces of content that pertain to a particular topic. For example, if you’re advertising an upcoming music festival, you can target topics like “music” and “live entertainment.”


Perhaps more importantly, Google Ads allows you to exclude specific topics as well. Topic exclusions are meant to keep your brand away from irrelevant or inappropriate content. If you were advertising a violent video game, for example, you’d probably want to keep your display ads off websites that publish educational content for young kids.

5 Google display ad best practices

Alrighty then! Now that we’ve covered all the technical details of display advertising, let’s talk about some of the best practices you can implement to maximize your returns.

1. Tap into your top-performing search keywords

Keyword targeting is a great way to introduce your business to relevant audiences. If you’d like to give it a try but you’re unsure of where to start, we recommend using your top-performing search keywords at the outset. The definition of “top-performing” is up to you, of course, but if there’s a handful of keywords that tend to drive low-cost clicks or conversions on the search network, why not give them a shot on the display network?

True—consumer intent on the two networks is completely different. But insofar as clicks and conversions indicate that your search ads are resonating, you can feel confident that the keywords behind them are winners.

2. Use bid adjustments

After running your display campaigns for a while, you’ll have enough data to make informed performance judgements—which keywords are doing well, which custom affinity audiences are doing poorly, and so on. Bid adjustments—which you can set at either the ad group or campaign level—allow you to turn those performance judgements into strategy.

When you set a positive bid adjustment on a given ad group, you tell Google Ads to increase your maximum CPC bid whenever one of the ads in that ad group is eligible to show. Likewise, when you set a negative bid adjustment, you tell Google Ads to decrease your maximum CPC bids for that ad group.

Plain and simple, using bid adjustments is a terrific way to boost your gains from top performers and cut your losses from poor performers.

3. Look at your referral traffic

Google Analytics is full of useful information. For display advertisers, the referral traffic report (which lives under Acquisition > All Traffic) is incredibly valuable. Basically, the referral traffic report tells you which websites are linking to yours the most. Put differently, it tells you which websites cater to people that could benefit from your product or service.


These websites make for the perfect places to serve your display ads. Because you know you’re advertising to relevant audiences, you can feel confident that you’re driving returns on those impressions and clicks.

4. Emphasize your value proposition

Because they’re beyond accustomed to display advertising at this point, your prospects can very easily scroll past your ads without even noticing them. To avoid wasting opportunities—as well as money if you’re bidding on a cost per thousand impressions (CPM) basis—it’s crucial that your display ads grab your prospects’ attention.


Obviously, the visual aesthetics of your ads—color scheme, typography, etc.—play a huge part in this. What’s less obvious is the part your value proposition plays. Your value proposition, quite simply, is the benefit someone will enjoy upon becoming your customer. If you’re advertising a pair of men’s boots, for example, your value proposition might be the enhanced confidence one feels when he looks good.

No matter what your value proposition is, make it jump off the page.

5. Focus on headlines when writing RSAs

When creating a responsive display ad, you’ll be prompted to write four pieces of copy:

  • A short headline (25 characters)
  • A long headline (90 characters)
  • A description (90 characters)
  • Your business name (25 characters)

Regarding headlines, there are two key things you need to know: (1) Google Ads will never run both at the same time; (2) Google Ads will sometimes exclude your description. Regardless of which headline is selected for a particular iteration of your RSA, there’s no guarantee it’ll be accompanied by your description.

The takeaway: Make sure your headlines are enough on their own. Both should communicate the unique value of your business or the offer you’re making.

5 awesome Google display ad examples

No cheat sheet is complete without a little inspiration! Let’s wrap up this guide with five examples of awesome Google display ads. We’ll make sure to break down what makes them tick so you can walk away with immediately actionable tips.

1. CheapCaribbean.com uses stellar imagery


Our first example is courtesy of CheapCaribbean.com—a travel agency that helps people book vacations in the Caribbean. I came across this beaut while perusing a travel blog and felt immediately impressed by its effectiveness. First things first—the images are beyond gorgeous. Assuming the goal of this ad is to incentivize me to get back on Google and continue searching for a luxurious Caribbean destination, I’d say it’s a home run.

Additionally, the company makes fantastic use of the ad copy. By highlighting the affordable prices of their offerings, they’re sending a strong message: When we say cheap, we mean it.

2. ClickCease taps into the power of fear


ClickCease—a software company that helps advertisers mitigate click fraud—served me this display ad while I was reading a Search Engine Journal article. What makes it so effective is the use of fear to both grab my attention and communicate the value of the product they’re selling. Fear is an arresting, persuasive emotion. Because no PPC marketer wants to fall victim to click fraud, this is an ad that’s certain to leave an impression.

One small critique: This ad needs a brand name. Although it’s effective, it’s not as trustworthy as it needs to be to meet its full potential.

3. Wikibuy makes an undeniable value proposition


Let’s get competitive! Wikibuy—an online shopping assistant that automatically hunts for the best deals available to you—hit me with this wonderful little display ad while I was perusing the news. The key to its strength? Simplicity. That right there is a dead-simple ad with a dead-simple value proposition: Stuff is cheaper when you buy it from us. The copy is minimal, yet it jumps off the screen. The brand name is there, but it takes a back-seat to the value prop. Those of you in highly competitive markets should take notes!

4. Alteryx nails it with their headline (and their offer)


There’s a LOT that I like about this display ad from Alteryx—a software solution for data science and analytics. First of all, that’s a hell of a headline. Injecting a little aspirational sentiment into your ad copy never hurt anybody. Secondly, the subhead puts forth a great value proposition: We make analyzing data easy. I think that’s something all marketers can get on board with. And finally, the company hit the nail on the head with their offer—an ebook. Rather than trying to take my money right away, they’re simply trying to get me in their funnel.

5. LinkedIn makes it personal


We’ll wrap up our Google display ads cheat sheet with this one from LinkedIn. If there’s one thing that makes this ad great, it’s the personalization. Because I’m a B2B marketer, this ad instantaneously grabbed my attention when I saw it on the homepage of EZgif (an essential tool for all my fellow content marketers). Beyond that, LinkedIn is doing the same thing as ClickCease—creating fear. More specifically, they’re creating a fear of missing out (FOMO). Because no marketer wants to be a late adopter, this is a super clickable ad.

3 easy, free tools for creating Google display ads

As much as we love display advertising, we’ve noticed a glaring problem with it: it’s not as accessible as it is powerful. A lot of small and medium-sized businesses simply don’t have the resources—time, money, designers—to create sleek, effective display ads.

Fortunately, there are a number of free tools on the market that enable you to easily create your own Google display ads. Here are three of our personal favorites:

  1. Smart Ads Creator: Simply enter a website or page URL and we’ll turn your best visual assets into beautiful display ads in a matter of minutes.
  2. Bannersnack: Drag-and-drop all kinds of free fonts, stock photos, and animations to create high-quality visuals that work across platforms.
  3. Canva: Browse thousands of free, flexible banner ad templates and customize them to match your brand aesthetic.