That’s right: people don’t click on banner ads. And what’s more, the average user has learned to ignore them and anything that looks like them. “Banner blindness,” has become a serious issue for designers, and is terrifying to the droves of “Freemium” publishers and services out there. It also reminds us how important applied usability is to design. This article discusses why the problem has arisen and what to do about it.
In real life, people usually call me a web designer. Web designers usually get hired by people who are not web designers. Some of these people often have well entrenched notions of what they think is best about web design despite the fact that they are hiring a professional to do it for them.
Working for these types of people for eleven years has slowly eroded my idealistic notions of building things that really work and get results. I am sad to say that at a certain point, I stopped bothering trying to justify my expertise and just did what I was told in order to get paid. But with my faith recently renewed by a usability presentation at a technology conference, I’m going back to the principles that I championed a decade ago to help fight a pandemic psychological disorder known to scientists as BANNER BLINDNESS! If you want to master the antidote to this disease, read on!
As an aspiring professional designer in 1999-2001, I wanted to prove my worth by “pulling all the stops.” I wanted to make websites that really wowed people using music, animation, splash pages and more. !~WOW~! Neilsen helped me to understand that such priorities were anathema to usability and effectiveness in information design.
Neilsen’s work made me realize that many of the conventions people have about what will work the best often ruin their chances of success. I’ve outlined common traps for new websites in the past, but one thing that recently came to my attention is the growing trend of banner blindness.
Banner blindess is a nearly universal behavior pattern resulting from too many designers making the most catchy things on the margins of the page the paid ads. Research shows that even new users quickly identify this tactic, and learn to ignore them.
Two important points on Banner Blindness:
- More May Get You Less: If you are trying to drive revenue to your site through advertising, or promote your message effectively through advertisements, the harder you push to distinguish your ads from the regular content using color, images, and animation, the less effective they will probably be.
- Banner Blindness is also sabotaging your real content If you are using image graphics in areas users have learned to ignore, they might be missing them. If mission critical functions like navigation are being done using rectangular images like pictures and icons, this important information may be overlooked, especially in cases of severe banner blindness or SUI (surfing under the influence). Uhh.. that might be more common than you think.
Getting back to fundamentals: Why Google’s adherence to usability continues to get results
When I first saw hypertext in action, it was breathtaking in its simplicity and potential. It is hard to imagine now, but information no longer had to be organized in one big chunk. You could make everything discrete yet contextually connected. It seems that most designers and their patrons have forgotten what made hypertext so great in the first place: you can explore it. Good interactive wants to be explored.
When I was still cutting my teeth in 1999-2000, I remember seeing Google and thinking, “what a crappy, amateur looking site — it will never amount to anything.” Why? Because the design appeared too simple to be effective. All the professional big name corporate sites were creating these densely packed, busy pages full of animated gifs, hundreds of boxes and links, and everything but the kitchen sink. More is more!
Well, we all know what happened. The simplicity of Google’s design and their strict adherence to the early principles of hypertext as an interactive nested medium was a breath of fresh air. People simply got exhausted and confused by the clutter of most sites. Google was clean, sparse, yet packed full of tons of informational depth. A similar phenomenon is Craigslist. While Craigslist recently got a thorough design critique in WIRED last year, people still love the innocent simplicity of it.
But It’s All Important!
My work with a local design company and online business network / directory called City Netlinks has been a good practical lesson in how clutter evolves. Despite being a busy design company, the maintenance of the home page was done collectively by staff when people had the spare time, and based on a need for sporadic additions and modifications. Over weeks, months and years, our company had a lot of information that we wanted to share with the world.
The fear was that if a new piece of information was not placed on the home page it would be missed. But at the same time, the old stuff was also considered important, so over time more and more was crammed onto the home page. Eventually it was just a complete disaster: banner ads inserted into every possible crevice, hundreds of text ads cluttered a page that became yards tall, and “critical” support icons stacked to accommodate the needs of the technical staff.
Netlinks fell victim to what I like to call, “the volume war problem.”
Mixing A Loud Rock Band Is Harder Than You Think
As a recording musician, I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to get a good balance of sound with a loud rock band. The drummer is automatically loud to get the right “sound” out of an naturally loud acoustic instrument, so the guitarist turns up, then the bass turns up, then you can’t hear the vocals, etc. Ask any sound engineer, and they will tell you that this on stage tit-for-tat volume war problem is pervasive, and makes it difficult to get a good mix.
Achieving a balance with design elements on your page is a similar conundrum. Once you place more than around five items on a page that are loud and competing for your attention, you start to get noise and clutter: you can’t see anything. Sadly, most sites have as many as 20 things competing for your attention, and loud flashy graphics makes it worse. What people don’t realize is that clutter is simply discomforting.
What if walked into an office and the receptionist asked you 20 questions in 30 seconds. The average casual surfer only gives you 30 seconds of their time, so wouldn’t it make more sense to lure them in with a few easy choices?
TIP: A good home page should only engage a handful of questions, and build detail as they click. Such as:
- Are you looking to build an website? (design sales)
- Do you already have a website and want to increase your customer exposure? (marketing sales)
- Do you want to see if your web site name is available (domain search)
- Do you need technical help on your current site? (support page)
Solution: Appetizers!! Start With Simplicity & Get The User Clicking
There is something magical about putting only 3-4 simple link items on an opening page. People will click one of them because the options seem so simple and so harmless that they feel they have nothing to lose!
Just stop and think about how much Google offers, yet they still keep one of the most minimalist page designs in history as their home. Win a user’s confidence by getting them past that first click and then slowly lead them down the trail you want. Research shows that users understand the interactive game and will play as long as the challenges are extremely simple.
Solution: Beating Banner Blindness:
Awareness of Banner Blindness is growing, especially among the corporate portals depending on ads to monetize. A recent visit to MSNBC.com shows that besides the obvious banner at the top of the page (that is sure to be completely ignored), they have done a fantastic job of placing sponsor content in smart places. Below are a few keys to making sure that your sponsor content gets noticed:
- Use Text Ads That Blend In – Google showed everyone how effective text ads are when they started monetizing their site. The reason that text ads work so well is they look like the other content. Practice has trained users that the black text and the blue links are good. Google also works hard to emphasize non-commercial information in their traditional search results so that commercial content you may actually WANT to see is only in the sponsored area – eliminating advantages of appearing in organic makes the sponsored area a more coveted playing field. They blend in perfectly with the page and don’t scream for attention, and they are relevant thanks to Google’s mysterious “page quality” technology. Search advertising is today possibly the greatest form of advertising for existing marketing demand. We can also effectively create market interest by advertising good educational content in a variety of non-commercial results.
- Place Advertising In Your Main Content – while still annoying to users, this is a tried and true approach. Placing an ad smack in the middle of your content a few paragraphs in almost guarantees it will get a glance. Research proves this.
- WINNER: Product Placement – Yeah, I know it’s uncool, and sometimes impossible when you have to rotate or move things later, but the best way to ensure attention to anything is to integrate it into the copy. Ernie Gray is one of the best guys out there for this kind of thing. See, I just did it!
- Trickery Always Backfires – Never make the mistake of using any means necessary to get attention. Trickery may get you in the door, but it will do more harm than good. Always take the high road!