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The Difference Between Microsoft Ads Audience Ads & Search Partners - And How And Why You Should Opt

This article will cover:

  1. The difference between, and what exactly are the Microsoft Search Partners and Microsoft Audience Ads

  2. How to see where your ads have been shown, including whether Audience or Search Partners

  3. How to see how both have performed

  4. How to opt out of one or both of the above

But First, a Cautionary Tale about Audience Ads

Before I get into the above, read this, even if you don't read the rest!

Last year, when I was working with a client who is a national governmental public service body in the UK, the client sent a screenshot of an image ad for their company which was using an image I hadn't uploaded, and the client hadn't approved. Needless to say, the client was unimpressed, and I needed to find the origin of the ad, fast! I was flummoxed because there were no images in the account - no image extensions, no shopping campaigns - nada.

That's my client's ad in the centre:

Example of a Microsoft Audience Ad
Example of a Microsoft Audience Ad

To cut a long story slightly shorter, it turned out that this was an Audience Ad, and the imagery in Audience Ads works via image extensions. The image in my client's ad was a stock image which Microsoft had selected and used! Microsoft's documentation says "If image extensions aren't available, we'll use stock images". WTF?!

So, if you care at all about brand identity, use image extensions to stop Microsoft from choosing images for you if you choose to stay opted in.

"You can define the imagery to use in your ads by associating Image Extensions to your campaign or ad group. If you don't have Image Extensions, our system may automatically use Image Annotations to increase the number of placements for your Microsoft Audience Ad. Image Annotations are licensed stock images that are editorially reviewed for quality and relevance and then matched with appropriate ads (to opt out of Image Annotations, contact support)."

So, here's what you need to know:

1. The difference between, and what exactly are the Microsoft Search Partners and Microsoft Audience Ads

There is some confusion (from me included) around the difference between Microsoft Search Partners and Microsoft Audience Ads, so I did some research and checked with Microsoft support, too.

- Microsoft Search Partners is similar to the search partners network in Google Ads. It's a network of websites beyond just, where your ads can show as a result of a search. For example, and Unlike Google Ads, it's not so simple to restrict your ads to showing just on Read on for how to do so.

- Microsoft Audience Ads are quite different. They are a type of ad which will show on the Microsoft Audience Network - and also on sites like MSN, Edge, and Outlook. However, most importantly, how they are targeted is not the same as search network ads. Microsoft says they target users "based on our understanding of their interests".

These ads may be deployed from your search campaigns, and yes, Microsoft might understand that the user is in-market for your product or service, BUT THEY ARE NOT search ads people! This is why you will very likely want to opt-out, as below.

2. How to see where your ads have been shown, including whether Audience or Partners Network

Placements for both Audience Ads and ads shown on the search network will show up in the Website URL (Publisher) report. This report is easily accessed using Reports > Website URL (Publisher).

Example of Microsoft report to show the network / URLs ads have appear on
Example of Microsoft report to show the network / URLs ads have appear on

Edit your columns to include the Ad distribution column and your usual KPIs like conversions, ROAS, etc.. (I usually remove the campaign and ad group columns since if a URL is bad for one campaign, it will probably not work for another. Also, for those of us with SME clients, there would rarely be enough data for Microsoft Ads placements to optimise at the campaign/ad group level).

The Ad distribution column will show whether your ads were shown on the search network or as audience ads. Use the filter to show the different networks.

3. How to see how both have performed

Use the above report to see how individual placements have performed. This lets you decide whether to exclude individual websites from showing your ads.

Additionally, to see overall audience ads and search network performance in campaign view in the interface, go to 'Segment' and select 'Network'. At the bottom of the table, you can see the networks broken out. Along with Audience Ads, look out for Syndicated Search Partners, which is invariably the source of higher CPAs if it is enabled.

Example of audited account's ad distribution
Example of audited account's ad distribution

4. How to opt out of one or both

Opting out of Partners Network: Networks are set at the ad group settings level under 'Ad distribution'. In the interface, there are two choices. The Partners Network is absorbed into the first option:

1. 'The entire Microsoft Advertising Network (recommended)' (Definitely not recommended!)

2. 'Microsoft sites and select traffic'

Network settings are set at ad group level under Settings
Network settings are set at ad group level under Settings

Note that all distribution options include Search and Audience Ads by default.

If using Microsoft ads editor, there is a third option of 'Only syndicated partner traffic'. I don't know why anyone would want to, but it seems available if you do.

There is also an Ads Editor page about ad distribution options on the site, which may not have been updated. I use the one listed below for reference.

My recommendation is to select Microsoft sites and select traffic. I have yet to see an advertiser account where this is not the best option, and looking at the report, there are some highly trashy sites in the network whose only purpose is to earn money from attracting low-intent ad clicks.

Opting out of Audience Ads: For the most robust solution, contact Support and ask them to exclude audience ads from the account permanently. In my experience, their process involved you having to prove the poor performance from the ads (so I'm not sure if they'd do it without any account history). They then pass it on to another team to approve. This takes a few days, and depending upon the support of which individual you get, there will probably be some frustrating chats.

There is a retrospective way to exclude Audience Ads by downloading domains you don't want your ads to show on from the Website URL report and copying and pasting them into the Website exclusion lists, which is found in Tools > Shared Library.

Note that if the account is a subaccount of a manager account, exclusion lists work at the manager level, so once you've created your list, you will need to remember to apply it to the subaccounts.

Remember that with Audience ads, if you don't have image extensions, Microsoft will use stock images.

Helpful links from the Microsoft Ads site:

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