Banner blindness: the inability of users to see ads right in front of their face.
This problem sometimes gets passed off as a problem with layout.
If you just put the ad where users expect to find navigational links or content, some people argue, you’re going to see a boost in click through rate.
I’m not going to claim that this approach has never worked or that it can’t work in some situations.
In fact, I’ll go ahead and say that when it comes to layout, the science suggests the best place to put an ad is at the top of a page.
However, the science also tells us that beyond this, layout is not the solution to the problem, and that if you want to consistently avoid banner blindness, there are better ways to do it.
Let’s take a look at the evidence.
Banner Blindness: Not Just For Banners Anymore
In 2011, the Journal of Usability Studies published a study called “Text Advertising Blindness: The New Banner Blindness?”
As the name implies, the study investigated users who viewed a site that featured text ads.
While text ads often fare better than banner ads on the modern web, they are beginning to suffer from their own form of banner blindness.
The study also investigated whether the location of the ads influenced the users ability to see them with eye-tracking, gaze time, the order in which the viewed page elements, etc.
They also tested whether searching for something exact or something more broad had an influence on whether or not they saw the ads.
The end result, users looked at the content the most, ads at the top a little less, and ads on the right-hand side the least:
This was true for users who successfully found what they were looking for, as well as those who weren’t.
As I mentioned earlier, this does suggest that the top of the page is the best place for an ad.
But here’s the thing.
Banner blindness also doesn’t happen by accident. It’s intentional. The users who spent more time looking at the top ads than the side ads also thought that the top ads weren’t ads at all.
In short, they only spent more time looking at those ads because they thought they weren’t ads in the first place. If the ads were actually getting their message across, that wouldn’t be the case.
A similar study, published in the same journal, called The Pervasiveness of Text Advertising Blindness, demonstrates that changing layout isn’t going to help you in the long run.
In this study, the attempted violating expected web standards by switching the left and right sidebars. The right sidebar is typically used for ads, while the left sidebar is usually used for navigation.
Ultimately, the found that switching the sidebars did not eliminate ad blindness after the first few attempts. Users adapted quickly, but at the cost of expending more mental effort and failing more often at completing their tasks.
In short, it hurt the user experience but it didn’t make them pay any more attention to the ads. In fact, it ultimately increased ad blindness by causing users to overcompensate.
Banner Blindness Is A User Decision
All of this comes down to a simple fact that none of wish were true: users “suffer” from banner blindness by choice. They don’t see ads because they don’t want to.
An interesting example of this can be found in a study published by the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction.
This study investigated both layout and user behavior. Specifically, some users were told to perform a specific task, while others were expected to roam freely.
As the above studies have probably already made clear, ads at the top of the page suffered from less banner blindness than ads in the right sidebar.
But the more interesting result is the fact that users who were asked to perform a task had stronger banner blindness. In other words, because their mind was focused on a specific task, they were less likely to look in places where they expected to find ads. In fact, this effect was stronger than the effect of ad placement.
A similar study published in CHI 2013 Extended Abstracts On Human Factors in Computing Systems found similar results.
The more broad a task they assigned to the user, the more likely they were to remember the content of advertisements on the page. Users who were merely exploring the site were the most likely of all to remember ad content.
Conclusion: Focus Is The Enemy Of Ad Effectiveness
While this conclusion is almost comical, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s true.
When the user is in an exploratory mindset, they are more likely to notice and remember the content of ads.
This conclusion has important implications for publishers, advertisers, and even content marketers:
- Advertisers should favor placement on sites that encourage exploratory behavior as opposed to sites built for task-oriented behavior.
- Publishers should place more emphasis on transforming task-oriented users into exploratory users if they wish to improve click through rates.
- Content marketers should encourage exploratory behavior if they wish to increase the visibility of ad-like site elements such as email signup forms, product offers, and other calls-to-action.
Users don’t see ads for a very simple reason: they don’t want to. The more focused they are on a specific goal, the more an ad is seen as an unwanted distraction.
The solution to this problem isn’t to find better ways to interrupt users with layout, it’s to change their mindset.
Carter Bowles is a strategist who leverages his technical knowledge of statistics (which he holds a bachelor’s degree in) and his years of experience with SEO and content marketing to organize comprehensive marketing strategies. He works at Northcutt.com.