If It Looks Like An Ad, They’re Not Looking At It

    August 21, 2007
    WebProNews Staff

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen dropped a few bombshells in his latest Alert Box usability report. Banner blindness isn’t exactly a new topic – everybody knows by now it exists – but the results of this study suggest that ad network placements aren’t worth a warm pitcher of spit.

If It Looks Like An Ad, They're Not Looking At It
If It Looks Like An Ad, They’re Not Looking At It

"[Y]ou should bid less for network ads than for customized ads that you place yourself," Nielsen concludes, as nobody’s looking at the advertising network ads anyway.

This was among other conclusions, as well as an admission of secret knowledge – the "if this falls into the wrong hands" type Nielsen’s kept under wraps since 1997 for ethical reasons.

His exposition generate from an eye-tracking study that shows fairly conclusively that Internet users have learned to completely ignore ads on webpage and even real content that looks like an ad.

Nielsen provides video from the study as well, both in 19-seconds of real time and one minute of slow motion – pick the slow-mo one, as the normal speed one is impossible to follow.

In that video, the subject ignored ads altogether, automatically judging them as an impediment to completing the task.

"If users are looking for a quick fact," he writes, "they want to get done and aren’t diverted by banners; and if users are engrossed in a story, they’re not going to look away from the content."

Therefore, advertisers have three options when designing their advertisements, three techniques nearly guaranteed to earn a look in the ad’s direction. (Actually, there are four, but the fourth one is for those lacking some scruples. We’ll get to that later.)

The three most effective ad design elements are:

·    Plain text
·    Faces
·    Cleavage and other "private" body parts

Apply to affected area, as appropriate.


The study mirrors other studies done on the subject, even ones dating back to 1997, which showed, Nielsen begrudgingly admits, that banner ads that mimic computer dialog boxes – with fake exit buttons that take you to the advertiser’s website – were clicked often by users.

Make no mistake though, this creates a negative association with your brand name, as this deceptive method is in the top 3 of the most-hated advertising tricks.

Nielsen didn’t want to tell us, but figured the word would get out eventually. However, he does manage to turn that knowledge into practical advice that stops short of crossing ethical boundaries.

The key takeaway from that is a reversal of the notion that if users don’t fixate on content that looks like advertising, they will give a gander at advertising that looks like content.

Of course, this is fraught for potential for abuse, and violates traditional publisher "church and state" separation of ads and content. And reputable outfits don’t allow ad insertions that match their templates.

"But, to maximize fixations, that’s exactly what you should do in a Web ad." Judging whether a particular ad crosses the ethical line may one day decided by a tribunal like the one that decides on human experiments, but until then, it may remain a gray area.

Given the blindness to things that look like ads, though, Nielsen recommends away from building ad networks.