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Tuesday, August 21

Jakob Nielsen comes clean: unethical ads pay

In the current Alertbox Jakob Nielsen sez:

I've been reluctant to discuss one of the findings from our eyetracking research because the conclusion is that unethical design pays off.

In 1997, I chose to suppress a similar finding: users tend to click on banner ads that look like dialog boxes, complete with fake OK and Cancel buttons. Of course, instead of being an actual system message -- such as "Your Internet Connection Is Not Optimized" -- the banner is just a picture of a dialog box, and clicking its close box doesn't dismiss it, but rather takes users to the advertiser's site. Deceptive, unethical, and #3 among the most-hated advertising techniques. Still, fake dialog boxes got many more clicks than regular banners, which users had already started to ignore in 1997.


We know that there are 3 design elements that are most effective at attracting eyeballs:
  • Plain text
  • Faces
  • Cleavage and other "private" body parts

Users don't fixate within design elements that resemble ads, even if they aren't ads ... Even when we did record a fixation within a banner, users typically didn't engage with the advertisement. Often, users didn't even see the advertiser's logo or name, even when they glanced at one or two design elements elsewhere inside an ad.


Several readers have asked whether banner blindness extends to search engine ads. It doesn't: text ads on a SERP get a decent number of fixations. The other exception is classified ads. Finally, it's possible that commercials that are embedded within a video stream get viewed; we haven't researched this yet. So there are either 2 or 3 exceptions to the general rule that users avoid looking at ads on websites.

  • The more an ad looks like a native site component, the more users will look at it.
  • Not only should the ad look like the site's other design elements, it should appear to be part of the specific page section in which it's displayed.

When you advertise through an advertising network, your ads will get fewer fixations than if you contract directly with the publisher for a specific placement and design your creative to fit that spot. As a result, you should bid less for network ads than for customized ads that you place yourself.

The honesty and rigour displayed in this post shows why Jakob is still someone worth reading, whatever web designers say.


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