Which is Better, Display or Discovery?

Ask CI

Ali Blount AUTHOR: Ali Blount
Jul 24, 2023
6 Min Read

Google introduced Discovery ads in 2019, and since their debut, one of the most commonly asked questions we receive is: “What’s the difference between Display and Discovery?” And then, naturally, the next question is: “They sound similar to me, so if I can only choose one, should I be running ads on Display or Discovery?”

While Display and Discovery ads have a lot in common, there are some key differences. Clear away the confusion with our simplified breakdown.


One of the most crucial differences between Display and Discovery is where the ads are shown. Display ads run across the Google Display Network, representing millions of websites and apps. Discovery ads run within Google properties: YouTube, Discover feed, and GMail.

In the most basic terms, Discovery ads run within Google placements on the Web, while Display ads run wider across the Web.

  • Think about your goals. Discovery ads offer higher-quality traffic since your ads are served in places like YouTube and Gmail. Because of this refined placement selection, Google states that Discovery ads are ideal for users primed to engage, while Display ads are better suited for creating awareness. We typically use the two formats similarly, especially since almost the exact same audience targeting is available for both placements.
  • (Ad) buyers beware. While we typically see excellent results on Display and Discovery, we question some places Display ads serve. Although you might hope that your ads will end up on a site like The New York Times or The Weather Channel—and they often do!—they just as often wind up on apps like Loot the Castle and Color by Number. Haven’t heard of them? That’s because they were shut down for committing ad fraud.
  • Ultimately, the overall results we typically see on Display aren’t affected by this fraudulent practice (remember that you pay for your ads per click, not per impression!). However, we aren’t thrilled about any of your ads serving this way—even if you still end up with a strong return on investment (ROI). This is one of many reasons it pays to have someone closely monitoring your campaigns—our teams make optimizations to suppress these placements as they pop up.


There are some slight differences in the types of creative allowed with Discovery and Display ads. Consider the assets you’d like to use and your team’s comfort level experimenting with different formats.

  • Videos: Videos can be used in Display campaigns but are currently unavailable as creative assets in Discovery campaigns. So if you’re hoping to use a cool new season trailer or recently-captured stage footage, we’d suggest you go for Display.
  • Responsive Ads: The creative for Discovery ads must be responsive, meaning Google will use the assets you upload and automatically adjust ad size, appearance, and format to fit available spaces. But you still have the option to run static image banners on Display. (We recommend using responsive Display ads instead, but that’s for another post!) If you aren’t comfortable with responsive ads yet and want the creative control that static image ads provide, stick with Display for your next campaign.


Looking at CI’s client campaign results, Discovery often has the edge. But that doesn’t mean you should rule out Display completely. It’s all about identifying your key performance indicators (KPIs) and selecting ad types that best serve your goals.

  • In Action: An opera company we work with runs Display and Discovery simultaneously for all of their programming. So far this season, Discovery outperforms Display across almost all KPIs—with nearly identical spending. The only area where Display comes out on top is impressions.
  • The Results

  • In Action: One ballet company’s campaigns for The Nutcracker saw Discovery drive a much higher ROI than Display, as well as a lower CPA, but the two platforms were deadlocked when it came to cost per key page view (KPV).
  • The Results

  • In Action: A symphony we work with ran Display and Discovery for a Star Wars concert this spring. While Discovery again saw a higher ROI and lower CPA, Display performed better regarding page views. This holds true to Google’s distinction that Display ads often see stronger results for general awareness.
  • The Results

  • In Action: Across the many campaigns we run, there are only a few examples where Display drove a higher ROI than Discovery. That was the case with one ballet company’s production of The Nutcracker—and even though Display came out on top, it was close. Discovery also had a lower CPA than Display and a much higher page view rate.
  • The Results

  • In Action: An exception to the rule, another ballet company on our client roster has seen a decisively stronger performance from Display. Across all campaigns so far in their 2022–2023 season, Display has yielded a greater ROI than Discovery. The CPA is also far lower. However, Discovery does have a higher page view rate than Display.
  • The Results


Where you decide to invest your time and money comes down to your campaign needs. Discovery is likely your best bet if you’re looking for a strong ROI. If you want to ensure your ads are seen across as many websites as possible, then Display is for you.

As for our recommendation? Go with both. You’ll meet the demands of creating awareness while also driving purchases.