Amongst many digital marketers, it’s common knowledge that search is one of the most effective advertising mediums known to man. Television? A waste of money. Newspapers? Puhleeze; most of them won’t be around much longer.

But according to a poll conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of AdWeek, adults in the United States find television and newspaper ads to be more ‘helpful‘ than search ads when it comes to making purchasing decisions.

The poll, which surveyed 2,521 adults in the United States, found that 37% of respondents felt television ads were most helpful and 17% of respondents felt newspaper ads were most helpful. Search was third with 14%. Not surprisingly, online banner ads came in dead last; only 1% of respondents found them to be the most helpful.

For digital marketers in love with search, it’s easy to dismiss the findings outright. There’s no way they can be accurate, right? Not so fast. There are a few things to consider here.

The first thing to consider is that the death of television advertising has been overblown. Television advertising is still a favorite tool of many marketers; there’s plenty of data correlating television ads to sales and marketers are very comfortable with television. It’s really no really a surprise that consumers still respond very well to marketing messages in this medium. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t fundamental changes taking place in TV World, but television advertising isn’t dying, it’s evolving.

The second thing to consider is that search ads are such a ubiquitous part of the search experience that many consumers don’t even recognize them for what they are: advertising. Back in 2005, a Harris Interactive survey found that over half of respondents couldn’t tell the difference between organic search results and paid search ads. While I won’t dismiss the possibility that internet users have become more sophisticated over the years, I don’t doubt that a significant number of internet users still can’t tell the difference. If a sizable portion of internet users can’t identify search ads, they obviously can’t speak to the role search ads played in their purchasing decisions.

Even for those who do understand that there’s a difference, search just isn’t the type of medium that I would expect to ‘poll‘ well. When asked to decide which type of ads are most “helpful“, it’s no surprise that more consumers choose ads that are displayed in a highly-visual medium. It’s probably much easier to remember that entertaining commercial you saw last week or that full-page spread in the middle of the newspaper than it is to remember that tiny AdWords ad you clicked on the other day. Even if that AdWords ad led you to make a purchase.

In short, I wouldn’t read too much into this Harris Interactive poll. An effective ad strategy isn’t comprised of either-or decisions. When it comes to influencing purchasing decisions, a one medium approach isn’t going to cut it. Which is, of course, why major brands are doing all of the above, even if budgets are shifting around in various ways.

The wonderful thing about search ads is that they’re accountable. You don’t need a poll to tell you that search ads drive sales. The proof is in the profit, not the poll: the ability to track consumers from click to checkout explains why search dominates online ad spend.

Photo credit: striatic via Flickr.