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Trading Up Media Blog

Google Display Network VS. Programmatic Advertising

As a digital marketing agency, we get a lot of questions about programmatic advertising and how it compares to Google Display Network (GDN). At first glance they may seem similar, but at the tactical level they are quite different.

We’ve put together this FAQ post to answer all your burning questions as you explore your digital AdTech options. 

What is programmatic advertising?
If you want a deep dive into what is programmatic advertising, you can check out our post here. But for simplicity’s sake, programmatic advertising is the automated process of purchasing digital media.

With programmatic ad buying, you use software, such as a demand-side-platform (DSP), to purchase digital advertising, as opposed to the traditional process that involves RFPs, human negotiations, and manual insertion orders. Basically, programmatic is the process of using machines to buy digital ad space. Programmatic media buying utilizes data insights and algorithms to serve ads to the right user at the right time, and at the right price. 

What is Google Display Network (GDN)?
By Google’s definition: GDN is a group of more than 2 million websites, videos, and apps where your ads can appear.

While you may not be 100% sure what the Google Display Network (GDN) is, you probably come across it every single day. It’s a system that allows brands to reach their audience while they’re surfing the web — checking their email, watching YouTube, browsing websites, or using mobile apps.

In this Google owned platform, marketers bid on their preferred ad spaces, all of which auto-optimize over time for better results. We say “preferred” because while the network has access to over 2 million websites, you don’t always want your ad to appear on all of them. You can select different website tiers or blacklist certain sites to be conscientious of where your ads are showing.

Where do programmatic ads appear?
While GDN has access to all of the websites on Google's network, programmatic takes it a step further.  Depending on the DSP you use, you get access to multiple ad networks. Your ads can access inventory virtually anywhere there is ad space, including on Google's network. Some DSPs are even offering additional channels for your advertising needs including: 

    • Audio- podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, Internet Radio
    • Billboards- ClearChannel has been working on a nationwide network of Programmatic billboards to be bought in real time
    • Direct Mail- Some companies allow advertisers to retarget customers via post mail based on their online activities
    • TV- Some networks are automating and providing access to their ad inventory via DSPs.


What is a demand-side-platform (DSP)?
A demand-side-platforms, or DSP, is a third-party software platform that allows advertisers to bid on or buy ad inventory (mobile, search, video ads, and sometimes more) from multiple sources at the same time.

DSPs allow advertisers to buy directly from publishers across multiple ad exchanges via multiple ad exchanges — including Google’s GDN network, which is listed as AdX with relevant DSPs.

These platforms allow for the management of advertising across many real-time bidding networks, as opposed to just one, like with GDN. Together with supply-side-platforms (SSPs), DSPs enable programmatic advertising.

Programmatic ad buying is not a free or open platform. To access programmatic ad buying, you must have the infrastructure of a DSP, some of which can cost you upwards of $1 Million before any media spend is added. You will also want to have a knowledgeable programmatic media buyer who understands your DSP of choice to run your campaigns. You can always use an experienced programmatic ad buying agency, like us at Trading Up Media, that already has the programmatic infrastructure and programmatic experts to execute your campaigns.

What is a supply-side-platform (SSP)
A supply-side-platform or sell-side platform is a technology platform that enables web publishers, app owners and digital out-of-home media owners to manage their advertising inventory, to fill their display, video and mobile real estate with ads, and receive revenue.

A supply-side-platform helps publishers (and some app developers) monetize their advertising inventory. SSPs enable publishers to make their advertising inventory available to ad exchanges and allow publishers to maximize revenue yield on their impressions across all demand sources. This includes setting minimum pricing levels, rules for allowed advertisers and accepted categories, ad types, and more.

What is an Ad Exchange?
An ad exchange is a virtual marketplace where supply and demand come together to trade advertising inventories via real-time auctions. Ad exchanges allow SSPs and DSPs to connect with each other to buy and sell inventory to the highest bidder based on available information. It is a neutral, autonomous platform that enables the entire buying and selling process via real-time auctions, also called real-time-bidding (RTB).

Here’s a simplified illustration of the process. In reality, it is much more complex because: the same app developer can be both a publisher and an advertiser, a single publisher can be connected to multiple SSPs, an advertiser can be connected to multiple DSPs or a single DSP or SSP can be connected to multiple ad exchanges.
Ad Exchange

Is Google Display Network programmatic?
The simple answer is no.

Similar to programmatic advertising, GDN uses an auction-based bidding platform to display ads to a target audience across website and mobile applications. Because of these overlapping uses, it’s a common misconception that GDN and programmatic are interchangeable. While they both work toward the shared goal of getting your message in front of a targeted audience, GDN is just one ad exchange as compared to programmatic advertising which is comprised of 20+ ad exchanges (often including GDN).

When choosing a platform for your digital ads, it helps to be aware of the key differences between each option and how they can help or harm your campaigns.

Here’s what you need to know when it comes to Google Display Network vs. programmatic advertising:

How is GDN different from programmatic advertising?
The GDN is Google's own display network, meaning it's a small subset of the total possible spaces in inventory for programmatic ads online—and it's generally more affordable. With GDN, you're talking about running ads through Google's subsection of the internet. They're a powerful online company, but Google does not have access to every single ad space on the internet.

Programmatic advertising on the other hand offers technology that marketers use to run display ads or native ads across the majority of the internet. Programmatic ad buying offers increased distribution and scale for ads at a higher budget.

The broader concept of programmatic advertising has an increased distribution and scale, reaching over 20 + ad exchanges. In contrast, the GDN is just one ad exchange. This means more available inventory and space for your ads to show. It also allows for use of creative formatting options not available with GDN like audio ads, connected TV and native video.

GDN and programmatic also differ in audience targeting abilities. GDN uses Google's data (like search, content, and demographics) to target users. Programmatic is able to use multiple sources of data, including in-depth data from trusted third-party agents and your brand's own first-party data.

What are the advantages of advertising on the Google Display Network?
It’s easy to use and doesn’t have a huge cost barrier. Unlike programmatic that requires costly DSP infrastructure, there are no fees to access the GDN platform. The overall cost, including the minimum bids, is more manageable, making it a great option for marketers with smaller budgets. 

The user interface is also easy to learn, making it a much smaller learning curve to get started with GDN.

What are the disadvantages of advertising on the Google Display Network.
GDN does not have access to many premium private marketplace (PMP) deals that programmatic ad buying software companies make with certain sites. While it does encompass 2 million sites, keep in mind the internet has more than 600 million active websites currently running. Only publishers signed up with Google are available to be reached through the GDN. 

Targeting is also limited to Google's own data that they collect. If you have a niche audience, you will find it difficult to reach your exact audience with GDN. There are many data third party data sources available that Google does not utilize in their platform.

With GDN you must to rely solely on Google's platform, data, and reach to execute your campaigns.  

What are the advantages of advertising programmatically?
DSPs have access to many premium private marketplace (PMP) not available on Google's network. With programmatic, you will be able to reach your audience where ever they are digitally. DSPs allow you to reach your audience across channels and devices (mobile, tablet, TV, desktop).

Most DSPs are also connected to more data aggregators, giving you access to very large data banks to build your audience segments by demographics, behaviors, locations, purchase intent, weather, your own CRM data, and more. Check out some of the ways you can build and target your audience.

What are the disadvantages of programmatic advertising?
The true difficulty of programmatic advertising is the need to become an expert to find success. While there are DSPs that are more accessible and easier to learn, there’s a much wider learning gap when it comes to programmatic advertising in contrast to Google’s user-friendly setup.

The other consideration is the cost of programmatic advertising. Between the costs of the DSP subscription, and hiring a knowledgeable media buyer, you've already spent a considerable amount of money on infrastructure before you add any media spend.  

How do I know which to choose?

GDN may be the first choice for you if:

  • You mainly work within a Google Ads environment for display ads and don’t plan on branching out.
  • You aren’t trying to target a very specific or niche audience that may interact with online properties that aren’t part of the GDN network.
  • You want to advertise with display ads on YouTube.
  • Your display ad budget is less than $5,000 a month

Programmatic should be the first choice for you if:

  • You have a niche audience that requires advanced targeting tactics. With programmatic you have the ability to use first, second and third-party data to reach your audience.
  • You have a wide scope of products and need personalization to cut through the noise. Programmatic provides multiple opportunities for advertisers to provide a specific message to users at the right time based on audience behavior signals. Specific campaigns can speak to the different audience groups.
  • You have a large advertising budget. When there’s a lot of marketing money at stake, it’s important to have a partner that’s only incentivized to act in the advertiser’s best interest.

Making the Right Choice
Programmatic is a truly valuable option, but make sure that it makes sense for you and your business. Especially if your budget is limited, Google’s Display Network is an excellent alternative with a lower cost of entry.

Whichever option you choose, the most important thing is that you have a clear message, great imagery or video content and a strong strategy behind your advertising efforts. If you need help deciding which tactics and platforms are best for you, schedule a call with us. We’ll guide you through the digital landscape and help you make the best choice for your business needs.

Catherine Alton

Catherine Alton / About Author

Dog mom, CEO, Writer. Catherine is an enthusiastic marketer with a passion for content.

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