This article originally appeared on the Prime Design Solutions website.

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Although anyone who’s online is exposed to web advertising constantly, many of us are pretty unfamiliar with the type of digital ads that are available, including how they’re placed and how they work. Here’s an overview of the major types of web advertising.

First, let’s point out the obvious: for digital advertising to work at all, your website has to be top-notch, because your ads will take viewers directly to it. If your website is not mobile-friendly, user-friendly, and well-designed, you should focus your marketing efforts and budget on that first.

But if your website is representing you well, a digital advertising campaign may be worth considering. Let’s take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of digital advertising generally. Advantages include:

  • You can direct people to your website directly, perhaps even a specialized landing page for a specific campaign. Contrast that with ads in any other medium, where you’re trying to get the viewer to remember your company name, a phone number and/or URL so that they can take action later.
  • Results are easy to track. Most types of digital ads will give you exact metrics on how many people clicked or saw your ad, and your website analytics will provide you information about what these visitors do once they get to your site.
  • Digital advertising is very targeted. Many forms of digital advertising allow you to structure your audience very specifically – depending on the type of ad, you can choose by demographics, geographic location, and much more. Some types even allow you to target people searching online for a product or service you offer, or people who’ve already visited your website.
  • Digital advertising is often very affordable. Digital ads are priced per click, when someone actually clicks on your ad, or per impression, how many times your ad is shown. Per-click is obviously more expensive, but still very affordable.
  • Digital campaigns can be quickly implemented. Once your ad design is complete, ads can be placed immediately.
  • Digital ads can include movement. Animation and even video is possible in many forms of digital advertising.

Disadvantages of digital ads include:

  • Many people use ad blockers that remove most or all ads from the sites they visit. Ad blockers work by targeting the technologies used to create online ads, or blocking known ad servers. Estimates of how many people use ad blockers vary considerably, but there’s no doubt that a significant percentage of people use them — which means your ads won’t be seen by them at all.
  • People have become so used to seeing advertising everywhere that there’s a high so-what factor – in other words, we’ve learned to ignore it. Eye-tracking studies demonstrate that people often ignore the sections of websites that include display ads, a phenomenon sometimes called “banner blindness.” For this reason, buying digital ads priced per click is generally a better deal than buying by impression.

Pay-per-click advertising

You know those entries that come up at the very top of search engine results pages, marked “ad”? Those are pay-per-click ads. This type of advertising is sold through Google’s Adwords, and it is essentially exactly what it sounds like – you only pay for the ad when someone clicks on it.

The advantages: Pay-per-click ads are extremely targeted, in that your ad is only shown to people who search on a keyword or phrase that’s relevant to your business — in other words, your ad goes out only to people who want what you’re selling! It’s also affordable, and easy to structure to limit your ad by geography.

The disadvantages: Although this can be a great tool to reach people who are looking for what you offer, pay-per-click is seldom enough to carry a campaign on its own. It’s less appropriate for general awareness campaigns.

Display ads on Google or on specific websites

You can buy digital ads on Google that appear on more than two million websites collectively known as the Google Display Network. Such ads can be formatted as text, images, or even videos. They can be targeted by:

  • Placement: You choose which (large) websites you want your ad to appear on, based on demographics or some other factor.
  • Contextual and topic targeting: This means your ad will appear on sites that are about a topic related to your product or service, or feature relevant keywords. (Similarly, you can exclude sites based on topic and keyword).
  • Interest: This targets the person browsing the web rather than the subject matter of the website the ad appears on. In other words, Google serves ads to users most likely to be interested in them based on their past browsing behavior, regardless of what site they’re currently viewing.
  • Geography: This limits your ad’s reach to the geographic areas you serve.
  • Devices: In some campaigns, Google allows you to choose what kinds of browsing devices your ad displays on – for example, only desktops, or only mobile phones, or even a specific wireless network.

Many times, campaigns are structured using two or more targeting methods.

In addition, you can sometimes buy digital ads from specific websites that host their own advertising. These can include but are not limited to:

  • Local news media: These ads can be bought on their own or as a part of a media campaign that includes ads on the news media in question – so, for example, a print buy in your local newspaper might include banner ads on the website.
  • Specialty industry websites: Some websites sell their own advertising, rather than running ads sold by Google.

Remarketing ads

Have you noticed that whenever you shop for an item online (say, a replacement carafe for your coffeemaker), ads for that item start following you all over the web? It can feel a little Big Brother-ish, but this works in a totally impersonal manner – when you shop on a website, a small bit of code called a “cookie” attaches itself to your browser. When you are browsing elsewhere on the web, this “cookie” cues Google about your browsing history, and cues which ad to show you. (This same technology helps websites “remember” you.)

Remarketing campaigns can be set for a specific browsing time period, targeting anyone who visited your website within the past two weeks or months, for example.

The advantages: Remarketing, as the name implies, helps sell to people who have already indicated an interest in your product or service by browsing your site.

The disadvantages: Remarketing campaigns can’t tell when you already made your purchase or decision. So, for example, those ads for coffee carafes may continue to stalk you long after you bought the replacement. Also, many Internet users block “cookies,” which prevents this kind of advertising from working.

Mobile ads/geotargeting

The explosion of mobile phone use has revolutionized digital promotion of all kinds. In the world of advertising, mobile means that is now possible to target ads to users based on where they are at that point in time. The geotargeted area can be as big as a city, or as small as a sports stadium, and you can set specific times for the ads to run. These banner ads are placed on all kinds of apps, including weather apps and games, for example.

Advantages: This form of advertising targets people during a specific time at a specific place.

Disadvantages: Mobile ads are generally priced by impression, rather than by click. Also, geotargeted banner ads do not include apps that have their own, native advertising — which includes many of the most popular mobile apps, including social media, news apps, and Google maps.

Social media advertising

It’s now possible to buy digital ads on virtually all social media platforms — from promoted tweets to sponsored stories. Here are the high points:

Advantages: Social networks gather an enormous amount of user information, and you can use this information to more effectively target your audience – by specific or general interests that are self-reported, age, income level, geography, and even gender.

Custom targeting is also possible on some platforms – for example, Facebook remarketing is a good option for some businesses (it works similarly to Google remarketing — your developer places a pixel generated by Facebook into your website’s coding. The pixel then tracks the browsers of people who visit the site. When those people later visit Facebook, your ads will appear in their Facebook feed).

Also, a major advantage of social media advertising is that it’s a great place to reach people on mobile, and many of the same features of geotargeting are available here.

Disadvantages: For social media ads to be effective, the platform must be a good promotional tool for your business in the first place – so, for example, most business-to-business companies are not particularly well-suited to advertising on Facebook, simply because people on Facebook are not in a business frame of mind.


Digital advertising is the most targeted advertising form available when used correctly, and can be a useful tool in implementing your marketing strategy.