If It Looks Like An Ad They Ignore It

Get the WebProNews Newsletter:

[ Search]

If you were specifically looking for the population of the United States, you’d notice the big red numbers in the upper right corner of the US Census Bureau homepage right? Not so fast. A recent eye-tracking study suggests you’ve been trained to ignore things like that.

If It Looks Like An Ad They Ignore It
If It Looks Like An Ad They Ignore It

Editor’s Note: Studies are great and all, but sometimes real-world examples are more powerful. Have you recently redesigned your site and seen drastic results? Let us know how you did that in the comments section.

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen, who’s been studying how people interact with webpages since there were webpages to interact with, follows up on previous explorations to show once again that people not only ignore content that looks like advertising, but need things plainly spelled out for them.

The task was simple enough: find the country’s current population. Nielsen even gave them the website to use. But 86 percent of users failed to find the answer even though it was displayed in large red letters in plain sight.

"Users tend to ignore heavily formatted areas because they look like advertisements. Thus, about 1/3 of users never even saw the Population Clock. However, most people did fixate on this area because it’s not as overly formatted as most promotional features. So, most users saw the Population Clock; they just didn’t use it, even though it contained the exact information they were looking for."

Okay, so a third doesn’t exactly make up 86 percent. Why did the others fail when, in my grandmother’s language, if it was a snake it woulda bit them? There are many reasons, but a large chunk of it, says Nielsen, lies in the language.

Most users scanned the big red number U.S. 302, 781, 150, as of today, but only made it to 302 before skipping off to the search box labeled "Population Finder" or some other area. (Or in one case, a man after my own heart, frustrated with poor site search, said "forget it, I’m going to Google.")

The big red number was labeled "Population Clocks," which isn’t exactly an intuitive label. It sounds more related to time than it does to number of people. It’s a classic case of leveraging core competencies rather than using your strengths. As users didn’t automatically grasp what a population clock was, they skipped it.

The suggestion here then is that a simpler label of "Current US Population" would have worked much better, giving the user what the user expects, which is the end goal.

Andy Beal, editor and Internet marketing consultant for MarketingPilgrim.com has another take on it, which might make sense to you. Users may have taught themselves not just the look and feel of advertising, but also the location of advertising.

"The study demonstrates that it’s not just paid ads users are filtering from web sites, but areas that might contain ads. Web users are conditioned to focus on the main area of a web site, when looking for meaningful information.

"They’ve been taught that the areas to the left or right are typically reserved for navigation or advertisements. As Neilsen suggests, it’s important to make sure important information is located in the area of the web page users expect to find it." 

If It Looks Like An Ad They Ignore It
Top Rated White Papers and Resources
  • http://www.maplegroveenterprises.com Tracy

    When I was editing a review journal, I noticed a similar tendency: We would catch the mistakes in the text, but not in the titles, which were larger and seemingly easier to read.

  • http://www.physiology-physics.blogspot.com/ Amiya Sarkar

    Perhaps blending ads or interposing them wisely in between posts might help. Thanks for the information.

  • Rich Ord

    Ad blindness is exactly why Google Adwords succeeds. To the average person their ads appear to be part of the search results, and because of this get clicked on more than image ads.

    Another tactic for publishers looking for ad clicks is to clean pages of links as much as possible in order to make your ads one of the only things to click on the page. We have tested this in some of our email newsletters (not WebProNews) and have seen ad clicks increase.

    Rich Ord CEO, iEntry, Inc. Publisher of WebProNews

  • http://www.surreypcsupport.co.uk Allan Devereux


    The findings your article suggests are reflected in the UK. We are just a small PC support business and recently launched a website that was intended to get away from so many in our sector. Which seem to have decided to sell computer services in the same way you might sell sexy bras. As you suggest, they are not seeing much of a return.

    We deliberately produced a format that looked like a fairly dull information site, similar to the online version of middle market newspapers. The home page predominantly boxes of 10 point text.

    This proved a step too far and nobody read the content, or offered much business. A simplification of the home page, plus short lead ins on the others summed up the next attempt. The content is really the same but these small changes have made quite a difference. The site is still fairly muted but does allow visitors to grasp essential points quickly. This is only a tiny site and quite new but the quadrupling of business booked from the site is not coincidence, or due to a little ageing.

    We agree with your article, advertising style text is a pointless turn off but simple clarity on your main selling points is vital.

  • http://chatteress.blogspot.com Marguerite Jasmin

    I recently changed my blog’s look. Among the changes, I added a wide banner right under the header. The banner is an advertisement for a “dating site”. People not only regularly clicked on the banner (close to 20%) but about 10% of those who clicked even ended up joining the site. I’ve removed the ad after a month and now I’m experiencing with smaller ones in the same spot to see how the visitors will react. I left the wide banner only in my post pages.

  • Vick

    Will there be a followup about the use of Flash on a website?

  • http://www.massapequaNEWS.com Christine Sohmer

    We’re currently testing our your suggestions including using Sans Serif…wish us luck!

  • http://www.bulbouscell.com Stuart Ward

    I agree that internet experts have trained themselves to ignore ads due to their look and location, but I wonder if the average internet user performs that activity?

  • LPF

    Very interesting. Thank you. For web designers, this is indeed useful info to know.

    So, if Internet users’ behaviour is being dictated by how pages are laid out on the screen…

    …then, logically, the most common types of layouts, and not necessarily the easiest or most simple ones, will be the layouts that actually decide how and where we look.

  • http://marketplaceadvertiser.com Alan Mcmunn

    I believe Andy Beal hit it on the head I have on my site the usual ads left and right columns.
    These haven

  • http://www.vcadirect.nl vca

    What else should you do with ads then auto-ignore the fact that they exist

  • http://www.vanax.nl webdesign vanax

    well i should have taken google as well .. cause when its only looks 1% as an ad its probraly an ad ….

  • http://www.liafin.co.za C de Beer

    I understand that it can be very effective to place ads inside your content and not in the usual place, but I say rather keep the ads where people are used to them.

    Camouflaging ads as content will only make your visitors flip if they find that that lovely looking, interesting link was actually an ad. Ads placed inside the content breaks your concentration when you read through the page and can become really irritating.

    It is actually a simple concept, people reading your content are reading it because they are in information mode not buy mode. People who are in buy mode will scan through the content and look for ads or the “Order” button. You need to deliver content that will serve for both types of visitors.

    Placing a related ad at the end of the content will be much more appropriate. If someone is really interested in what you have to say, then he/she will read through all the content and click on the ad at the end. What is the use of showing an ad to someone who isn’t interested in the rest of your content anyway. People do not buy a product and then do product research thereafter.

    It is a give and take concept. The visitor is looking for information, so you give the visitor useful information, not ads. If you delivered useful content to the visitor, you provided something valuable from your side and the visitor owes you something. You may now deliver some relevant and I repeat, relevant ads. Once the visitor has viewed the ads, you are all even.

    Clicking the ad puts the advertiser again in the position to deliver and the visitor must act in return. The process repeats itself over and over again without offending or irritating anyone, unless the advertiser is using some cheesy sales copy :-D

  • T. J. Hartung

    This article touches on a growing problem, symptoms of which can be found in many places.
    The problem – People don

  • http://www.stjauto.com Jay Davis

    Less than thrilled with the fair resaults on our dealer website, we recently shifted gears away from our specials center. I began attempting to funnel users to our regular vehicle listings and with a little bit of multi media we have sustancially increased the number of leads produced.


  • http://blog.sli-systems.com Shaun Ryan

    Funny that the user who abandoned their poor site search decided to go to Google. Their site search is powere by Google (note one of Google’s strenghts IMHO).

  • http://chatteress.blogspot.com Marguerite Jasmin

    The banners that I display on my blog do match my content. If the banner is big enough I don’t think you can avoid it completely, you might not read what’s written on it but you will at least vaguely see the image and the colors.

  • http://www.foxtech.org news about technology

    Like said "Aim for an IQ of 90, and the important part of your message in 5 words or less". But you can do that only when your target is already a big crowd. You just have to adjust to the IQ of 90.

    Anyway there are places in which you can place ads and people with bigger IQ’s will click. If you place a relevant and competitive add, that will bring something usefull to the user, even if he pays money, he will click on it.

  • http://www.q-5.nl Webdesign

    and how about flash?

  • Join for Access to Our Exclusive Web Tools
  • Sidebar Top
  • Sidebar Middle
  • Sign Up For The Free Newsletter
  • Sidebar Bottom