Why Display URLs in PPC Ads are Important?

When creating a pay-per-click ad (PPC), it is easy to overlook the importance of the display URL. This post summarises the results of an eye tracking study and reviews the findings of two other tests of display URLs conducted by user centric.

The eye tracking study confirmed that the display URL is an important component of a PPC ad. The display URL captured a significant portion of the time people spent looking at each PPC ad, as shown in the tables and heat map below. For PPC ads served above the organic listings on the left side of search engine results pages, the display URL garnered over three times more gaze time (0.53 seconds) than the text description (0.15 seconds).

Further, the display URL in PPC ads in the top position on the page above the organic results received the same amount of gaze time as the headline, 0.65 seconds.

Average gaze time (in seconds) per visit to a Google search results page:

The general location of a PPC ad on the page had a significant impact on the gaze activity the URL received. Not surprisingly, the display URLs of the top three ads on the left attracted more attention than the URLs of the top three ads on the right. Display URLs presented on the left received almost three times as much attention (0.53 sec per URL) as URLs on the right side of the page (0.19 sec per URL).

The length of time spent looking at a URL also varied by the specific position of the ad. The URL located within the first ad was looked at the longest while the URL within the third ad was looked at the shortest. This was true for ads on both the left and right sides of the page.

Below is a heatmap showing aggregated participant gaze activity during one of the twelve searches in the study (the redder the area, the more attention it received).

Adding descriptive keywords to display URLs may reduce click-throughs.

Understanding that display URLs receive a significant amount of gaze time is not simply a branding issue. The display URL can be altered in attempts to improve results. The most common manner in which this is done is by adding descriptive keywords to the end of the domain name. A Google employee in account management actually encouraged us to test this tactic.

In our experience, adding keywords in front of the domain name fails in the majority of cases, particularly for domains that have significant name recognition and brand equity. However, adding keywords at the end of the domain name increases click-through rates often enough that it is worthwhile to test.

Shown below is an example from a test of display URLs. The three ads are identical except for the display URL. The goal of the test was to determine if adding “eye tracking” to the display URL would increase the click-through rate of a PPC ad. The first ad feature the domain name as the display URL, the second ad includes the keyword term added to the end of the domain name, and the third ad includes the keyword in front of the domain name.

Ad 1:

Eye Tracking Research

Learn about benefits of measuring

gaze activity. View white papers.


Ad 2:

Eye Tracking Research

Learn about benefits of measuring

gaze activity. View white papers.


Ad 3:

Eye Tracking Research

Measure user gaze activity. Get a

full analysis, not just heat maps.


In the test of these PPC ads, the version featuring only the domain name produced the best results. Adding the keyword “eye tracking” at the end of the domain name in the second ad resulted in about a 5% decrease in click-through rate, which was not surprising. The most dramatic result of this test was that adding keywords in front of the domain name decreased clicks by over 25%! Not to mention that our ISP charged a fee for an extra top level domain name.

Another drawback of adding descriptive keywords to a display URL is that this form of “keyword stuffing” may reduce the branding value of a PPC ad by cluttering up the display of the domain name.

Domain name in display URL has a major impact on click-through rate

The value of an identifiable domain name in a display URL was highlighted by a test conducted for iNest Realty. Their parent company, RealEstate.com, is a much more recognisable domain name. The test was conducted to determine the impact of using the stronger brand name in the display URL of PPC ads. The test ads are shown below. The only difference between the two PPC ads is the display URL.

Ad 1:

New Homes & Home Builders

Find new homes and home builders

1% cash back buyer rebate program.


Ad 2:

New Homes & Home Builders

Find new homes and home builders

1% cash back buyer rebate program.


Utilising RealEstate.com in the display URL resulted in a 20% greater click-through rate for the bottom PPC ad. Based solely on that information, it might appear that the bottom ad was the winner. However, the ad’s conversion rate was abysmal. In order to comply with Google guidelines on display URLs, a landing page had to be created for this ad on the RealEstate.com server. The page was co-branded for both iNest and RealEstate.com.

Visitors did not like the experience of clicking on an ad with one display URL and then seeing information about a different brand. Thus, iNest was paying for a 20% increase in clicks, while generating fewer conversions. If the test had not been ended quickly, it would have been an expensive lesson on the importance of providing users with a good experience. However, the test provided a good demonstration of the positive impact a recognisable domain name in the display URL can have upon click-through rates.


The results of our eye tracking study and the other two tests show that display URLs are an important component of PPC ads. Modifying display URLs as a test poses a danger of reducing the branding value of a PPC ad by cluttering up the display of the domain name. However, the potential long-term benefit of acting upon a successful test can easily outweigh the short-term cost of a failed one. Thus, for many PPC advertisers, a closely monitored display URL test is likely a worthwhile effort.

Here is an interesting post about how we saved a client 47% of their Google adwords marketing spend without lowering their number of clicks.


About Jorgen Poulsen

The Catalyst Partnership provides cost effective Social Media Marketing solutions to small and medium-sized businesses. Social Media Marketing is one of today's most successful and cost effective online marketing strategies and is being embraced by millions of companies from Fortune 100 to small companies. Please contact us to discuss how we can help you implement a Social Media Marketing strategy.
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