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The Stats Explain Why We Don’t Read Banner Ads (And What We Can Do)

December 2, 2017

Why don’t display ads work?

First, we read a very small amount of the text on most pages. Apparently we only, on average, read at best 28% of the words on the page and most likely around 20% of the words.

Users avoid anything that looks like a banner. This may seem obvious, but the interesting thing to consider is that all web pages on a given site (and even across the web on different sites) are likely to have the same pattern for what looks like an ad vs what looks like content. Your eyes quickly learn that anything that is on the sides, or anything with a border around it, or anything that looks photographic is an ad.

Newspapers and magazines generally do not have any such easily to discern pattern. Pages are generally laid out manually by a designer on an issue by issue basis. Smaller ads are blended in with the content, breaking columns and such so that advertising will have unavoidable and unpredictable proximity to content. Moreover, many ads take up the full page which requires at least some minimal scanning before turning the page. And because the ads are often so big, you almost can’t avoid at least seeing a bit of it before turning the page.

The bottom line is that users see too much stuff on the web and so they focus on very little. On top of that they have learned effective patterns for avoiding ads. And while we try to avoid ads in print, the physical size of the advertising, the unpredictable patterns, and the high degree of mixing advertising and content make pattern based ad avoidance much harder in print.

In my view, the model for how we organize information on the web is fundamentally broken as it relates to siphoning off attention for advertisers. We need to inject more randomness into our designs.

Magazines and newspapers are *not at all useable*. I am often frustrated that it is very difficult to find a table of contents in a magazine, or that some pages are missing page numbers that would help me find an article. This is all on purpose!

Print publications are very effective advertising platforms in large part specifically because they place “attention speedbumps” in your way. If print publications were as streamlined as websites, with ads neatly presented off to the side, ads wouldn’t work there either.

And so we have a decade of smart folks teaching us exactly the right stuff to make our sites easy, but exactly the wrong strategies for making money. Amusingly, at least a part of the message is that a little disorganization is absolutely critical.

  • December 4, 2017 at 1:02 am
    David N.

    Carl, the main idea is right, but I doubt that merely placing adverts in the middle of paragraphs will fool my ad-blocking software (which I use not merely to be contrary but for speed and security too).

    Economies based entirely on subsidy never survive and even while they do survive aren’t worth the candle. They are, after all just “theft economies” where the theft has been thoroughly institutionalized. People who want to write for a living need to wean themselves of subsidies based on advertising and learn to write stuff other people actually might want to buy,

  • December 6, 2017 at 4:55 pm
    Nick Black

    You’re leaving out one important factor. Online ad targeting is getting more and more sophisticated. As ads become increasingly more relevant to the users who see them, the users are more willing to give the ads their attention, even if they know they’re being advertised to.

    This is really the essence of Google’s business model. Text ad position next to Google search results is based primarily on the ad’s performance in the context of that search. In other words, if you have an ad that keeps getting clicks in a certain context, then those clicks will become cheaper and cheaper, even to the point where you’re paying less per click for the top position than a competitor who is willing to pay more, but has a crummy ad. In this way, Google rewards advertisers for ads that users want to click on, which in turn keeps users aware that ads next to Google searches are actually worth looking at.

    And Google search advertising is just one piece of the puzzle. The whole industry is moving this way.