Google Display Network v. Programmatic Display

What’s the difference between Google Display Network (GDN) and Programmatic Display?

Takeaways without reading:

  • Programmatic is a way of purchasing ad inventory. As such, GDN is Programmatic. 
  • Say it again for the people in the back – GDN is Programmatic.
  • Display is just one type of Programmatic ad.  Google sort of shot itself in the foot by calling it GDN and we think they’ll change it in the future since there’s a lot more you can do with it.
  • GDN has some pretty great targeting options powered by google, as well as some decent placement opportunities that will grow over time as more sites use the google adsense server.
    • There are a lot of other inventory pixels you can use other than Google’s.


Okay. We get it. Half of programmatic (and indeed digital marketing in general) is in Latin, or at the very least so acronym-laden that even with a strong understanding of marketing principles simple concepts can be buried.

That’s how we feel about the question: What’s the difference between Google Display Network (GDN from this point forward for the sake of my fingers) and programmatic display. It’s a simple concept, buried in a misleading question, and stemming from a core misunderstanding of programmatic.

So lets start there.

Programmatic, in a nutshell, is not a placement or an ad type or even a targeting capability. It is simply a way to bid on available space that content creators can make available on their digital mediums. With millions of hits a second across millions of websites, no one has the time (or speed) to bid on each placement individually – instead a micro auction occurs whenever a content opportunity is available and the highest bidder will claim that space for that instance*.

With this in mind, the Google Display Network is a Programmatic solution. Let me say this again for the people in the back.  GDN is Programmatic. This means that the question “is Google display network better than programmatic display” or “what’s the difference between GDN and Programmatic display” is inherently flawed – they are one and the same. This also means you’ll be paying a lot more attention to CPM (cost per milli) than you will to CPC (cost per click) — usually. Obviously you should mitigate the issue by implementing proper omnichannel tracking on your site / product in the first place but we won’t get into that here. Call us. Seriously. 

What is different is all of the things that you can do within a programmatic solution- namely the inventory types that you have available (think: websites), the content types that you can display within those placements (static ads, dynamic ads, video ads, etc) and the targeting availability and options that are required.

Google, being Google, has access to some of the most valuable audience targeting segments in the world: In-market for.  In-market for targeting allows for us to target our ads at individuals who Google as identified as already actively looking for solutions that we may provide. 

These In-Market Segments change from time to time so rather than a list, here’s a link to where Google outlines them directly:

The Problem With Only Going After In-Market

While In-Market is fantastic for newly developing brands with smaller budgets or to keep the wheels churning for larger brands, it does contain one fatal flaw – not occuring early enough within a customer’s path to purchase journey.  By the time an individual is “In-market for” and searching for specific products or solutions, it may already be too late to influence them with a new brand they are unaware of. This is why a mixed strategy between In-Market and Affinity audiences is highly recommended for any marketing campaign – both harvesting those interested in the product today, and building interest and brand recognition for the product tomorrow.


At the end of the day, Google Display Network is a potentially powerful programmatic solution that can and should be used to augment a brand.

As part of a wider testing strategy.

It’s the concept of putting all of your eggs into one basket. With the wider number of programmatic targeting opportunities from a myriad of other DSPs beyond Google as well as the wider sea of inventory types and availability beyond GDN, GDN should be tested against other programmatic solutions to establish media mix throughout a campaign. If it performs better – fantastic. Try to beat it with another programmatic solution.  If it doesn’t – place it aside then tweak your settings, audit your campaigns and evaluate when you can add it back into your larger testing strategy.

*This is an over simplification. For a full run down of how programmatic works – including across multiple inventory types, look for our other blog post found or just set up a time to talk, we kind of live for this stuff.

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