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VWO BLOG

on Conversion Rate Optimization

Let me present to you one of the most painful facts from the online advertising industry:

Web users almost never look at anything that looks like an advertisement!

In fact, they are more likely to survive a plane crash than click on a banner ad.

As the Internet has evolved over time, web users have become increasingly indifferent to online ads.

And the reason behind such behavior of users? “Banner Blindness.”

This post introduces you to Banner Blindness and its roots (along with ways to defeat it). You’ll find the following sections inside:

What is Banner Blindness?

It is a phenomenon where website visitors consciously or subconsciously ignore banner ads or any other banner-like elements on a website.

Benway and Lane coined the term “Banner Blindness” in 1998 after they conducted a study on website usability. They found that any information provided through external ad banners and internal navigational banners on a webpage was being overlooked by users. Moreover, users ignored the banners irrespective of the banners’ placement on the webpage. The study concluded that the traditional practice of making large, colorful and flashy banners had little effect in capturing web users’ attention.

It’s also noteworthy that the issue of banner blindness has escalated greatly with time.

While the first ever banner ad on the Internet had a click-through rate of 44% (wow!), current banner ads have a dismal click-through rate of 0.1%.

Interestingly, Banner Blindness is not just limited to the online world. We can find instances of its real-life occurrences, too. For example, during the 2006 elections in Florida, 13% of voters couldn’t cast their votes for their preferred candidate because of a poorly-designed ballot!

Banner Blindness Statistics

Here are some statistics that illustrate the gravity of Banner Blindness as an issue:

Why Does Banner Blindness Exist?

When web users scan or read through a web page, they only look at information which is relevant to them. They tune out everything else that doesn’t provide them with what they need.

This tendency of users has been developed over time, as the frequency of (irrelevant) ads has grown manifold.

Today, websites are bombarding their visitors with a ridiculous amount of ads. In U.S. alone, over 5.3 trillion display ads were served to users in 2012. This means that a typical web user finds more than 1700 online advertisements every month!

With so many ads constantly encroaching their web space, users have learned to focus just on the information pertinent to them.

Users have mastered the art of finding value amid clutter. Tweet: Why Banner Blindness Shouldn't Scare You. Read more at https://vwo.com/blog/banner-blindness

A research by Lapa, too, suggested that web users learn the structure of a web page very quickly,
allowing them to locate useful content faster and avoid ad banners.

Banner Blindness and the Signal Detection Theory

Brandt Dainow, from ThinkMetrics, expertly links Banner Blindness to Signal Detection Theory.

The Signal Detection theory talks about how humans can distinguish important signals from noise in a jumbled environment. For example, even in a noisy party, you are able to tune out all other voices and sounds so that you can listen to the person speaking directly to you.

In the same manner, people visiting a web page are able to tune out unnecessary content (ads and other elements) so that they can go through just the information they need.

How Users Browse Through a Web Page

With the help of multiple eye-tracking studies and click map reports, we have learned a lot about the way users read a web page.

Users don’t fully read a web page. They simply scan through it. Tweet: Why Banner Blindness Shouldn't Scare You. Read more at https://vwo.com/blog/banner-blindness

The F-shaped Reading Pattern:

The eye-tracking study by Nielsen revealed that users mostly navigate on web pages in an F-shaped pattern.

Users first read the starting of content — on top of a web page — in a horizontal manner. Next, they move down and read in a second — shorter — horizontal movement. And finally, they scan through the rest of the web page’s left-side vertically downwards.

The right-side of a web page is (largely) ignored by users. And the right-side is where most of the display ads are placed!

Here’s a screenshot from Nielsen’s study that highlights the ads on web pages using a green box. The image clearly shows how users’ didn’t fixate on the ads.

Banner blindness eye-tracking map

The point has been further supported by a research conducted on text advertisements at Wichita State University. The finding of the research says, “Users tend to miss information in text ads on the right-side of the page more often than in text ads at the top of the page.”

Add-on: Since some websites are serving their content along with a lot of superfluous ads and elements, their whole user experience is suffering. Web browsers are treating it as an opportunity to win over users, by offering ways to improve the users’ browsing experience. Most browsers, as we all know, allow users to activate ad-block extensions for a long time. Now, they’ve gone a step further by providing them a “reader-view mode” option. Once selected, the option transforms a web-page into a plain-text version, letting users to just view the information they require from the page.

This is how Mozilla’s Firefox does it.

Reader view mode in browser

Banner Blindness in the Mobile Era

The mobile channel is a huge contributor to a lot of websites’ traffic. It has even become the top source of traffic for some websites.

The mobile application market, too, has reached a considerable number of users.

As a result, mobile has emerged as one of the hottest properties for displaying banners ads.

But wait.

Mobile ads, too, suffer from Banner Blindness! Tweet: Why Banner Blindness Shouldn't Scare You. Read more at https://vwo.com/blog/banner-blindness

Here’s how.

First of all, there are not many choices for banner ads on mobile. The most popular banner dimension of 320×50 pixels covers 82% of all mobile banner ads. This banner is mostly placed on the top/bottom of the mobile screen. Since it does not intrude the main content that users read, its presence is easily overlooked by the users.

Secondly, mobile users spend a substantial amount of time browsing websites and applications ‘on-the-go.’ During this time, users are even more focused towards reading the main content (and ignoring the ads).

Concern Over Banner Blindness Studies

Many of the studies conducted to prove the existence of Banner Blindness, do it on the basis of indirect evidence that participants don’t remember ads. A research in Applied Cognitive Psychology named “Is Banner Blindness Genuine? Eye Tracking Internet Text Advertising” raised doubts over this methodology.

The research argued that “one should be careful before concluding that banners have not been looked at on the basis of users’ memory performance.”

Although the research’s eye-tracking results confirmed that 64% of the text ads included in the research were overlooked by participants, 82% of the participants still fixated on at least one of the text ads.

However, even after fixating on an ad, the participants couldn’t recall if the ad content was incongruous with the web page’s main content.

This highlights the importance of having ads that ‘go’ with the web page on which it’s placed.

6 Ways to Beat Banner Blindness

We’ve seen how Banner Blindness negatively affects the performance of our online ads. But still, there are tricks and techniques that can minimize Banner Blindness and make our ads stand out in front of users.

Let’s take a look at them.

#1 Ad Placement

Place your ads above the fold on a web page to gain more attention from users.

The above-the-fold content works better than below-the-fold content in terms of visibility ratio, time spent, and time to notice.

A study by Infolinks found that 156% more users read the above-the-fold content as compared to the below-the-fold content.

However, the study also found that leaderboard ads — placed at the very top of a web page — aren’t always the best performers. An ad placed on the bottom of the screen (but placed just above the fold) was seen 225% more quickly by users.

Related Post: Is Above the Fold Really Dead?

#2 Native Ads

First things first. What is Native Advertising?

Native Advertising is the practice of designing and presenting ads to users in the same form and function of a web page.

The ads have the same look and feel as the web page’s ‘native’ — or original — feel.

Native ads provide greater context to users, and generally have higher visibility.

There are various types of native ads, out of which search ads, in-feed ads, and sponsored content on websites are the most popular.

Especially, the native in-feed ads on different social media platforms, are currently offering a much higher click-through rate as compared to other ad-units.

Here are examples from Facebook and Twitter.

FB native ad
A native ad on Facebook

twitter native ad
A native ad on Twitter

#3 Behavioral Ads

The Banner Blindness studies mentioned above provide us with some additional information on users’ perception of ads.

80% of users felt that the last ad they saw was irrelevant to them.

Less than 3% of users believed that the ads they saw gave more context to the brand/product the ads promoted.

Ads can get greater visibility if they relate well with users’ interests. Tweet: Why Banner Blindness Shouldn't Scare You. Read more at https://vwo.com/blog/banner-blindness

Behavioral ads offer ad content to users based on their interests and preferences. These ads can be served to users on social media as well as the conventional web.

Under behavioral targeting, there is another advertising practice named “Retargeting” that offers a higher click-through rate.

In retargeting, users are served with ads based on their history of actions on the Internet.

For instance, when users browse products on amazon.com and leave without converting, a retargeted ad displaying the same products can follow them on other websites, prompting them to return to amazon.com.

Related Post: Retargeting Tools and Tips to Skyrocket Your Conversion Rate

#4 Ad Design

When your ads are not native, it is important to give your ads a highlighted presence on a web page. You can do that by tweaking your ads’ design.

Contrast

Ads that have sufficient contrast with the rest of the web page have a higher chance of getting noticed by users.

First, you should know the color schemes of the websites that host your ads. Then, you should decide your ad colors that match your brand AND provide contrast to the host sites’ colors.

When host sites are light-colored, use dark colors for your ads. Similarly, use light colors for your ads when the host sites use dark.

CTA

Include a prominent Call-to-Action (CTA) button in your ad copy (if the goal of your ad is a conversion).

An attention-grabbing CTA will make users fixate on the button and then, on the rest of the ad.

Ideally, your CTA button should have ample blank space surrounding it, so users can identify it easily. The color of the CTA button, too, should have great contrast within the ad copy.

Just like how your ad should stand out on a web page, your CTA should stand out within your ad.

Below is an example of a clean ad with a prominent CTA.

CTA example

Source

Directional Cues

Direct your users’ to your banners using visual cues.

Like this.

directional cue

Source

Another great example of directional cues is pictures of human faces looking at a specific direction.

It is human nature to follow the gaze of other humans. Be it real humans, or pictures of humans, we always try to find out where they are looking.

By including human faces as directional cues in your ad design, users are more likely to interact with your ad.

Here’s an example.

Directional cue

Related Resource: Dutch Major Uses Directional Cues to Improve CTA’s Clickthrough Rate

#5 Innovative Ad Types

Welcome-page ads

These ads appear before the host website loads for a user.

Some of these ads can be closed by the user, to move on to the host site. Other ads make the users wait for a certain amount of time, before the host website opens up automatically.

Forbes.com uses the latter of the two, making users spend at least three seconds on its ad page.

Welcome page ad

Welcome-page ads just might be our biggest weapon against Banner Blindness. Tweet: Why Banner Blindness Shouldn't Scare You. Read more at https://vwo.com/blog/banner-blindness

Website-skin ads

These ads cover the entire background of a website.

Furthermore, as the ads seem like they belong to the host website, users associate the host website’s brand value and trust factor with the advertiser.

Find below an example from IMDB.com.

Website skin ad

Source

#6 A/B Testing

With so many best practices on ad designing (some being mentioned here), it is impossible for one to make an ad incorporating them all.

Additionally, it is equally difficult to know beforehand which ‘best practice’ is actually going to help an ad, and which one will prove to be a dud.

The best way to go about it is A/B Testing.

You can make multiple versions of an ad, and test them against each other to determine which version works the best for you.

Want to read more on this? Here’s another great resource on how to reduce Banner Blindness.

Online Advertisement: A Branding Practice

Sure, Banner Blindness makes users avoid fixating and clicking on online ads, but there are still other ways by which your ads can provide value to you.

In addition to initiating conversions, your ads also make users recall your brand.

A research from the University of Chicago — “Banner Ads Work — Even If You Don’t Notice Them At All” — suggested that even the mere presence of your ads on a web page can result in a positive effect on users. The research says, “regardless of measured click-through rates, banner ads may still create a favorable attitude towards the ad due to repeated exposure.”

Let’s continue with the noisy party example from earlier.

You tune out all other noises from the party to only listen to the person speaking directly to you. Yet, when other people from the party mention your name (even in their own conversations), you immediately notice and acknowledge it.

Here again, we find a connection with the Signal Detection Theory.

We still identify relevant information from the noise we have tuned out. And in the same manner, web users process even those ads they’ve ignored, at some level in their minds.

Your ads, even when unnoticed, can help effect a latent conversion. Tweet: Why Banner Blindness Shouldn't Scare You. Read more at https://vwo.com/blog/banner-blindness

View-through conversion rate is a great parameter to measure the effect an ad has in making users convert in their follow-up encounters with a brand.

Conclusion

Banner Blindness is the reason why online ads get minimal interaction with web users. However, you can beat it by offering relevant ads to users and placing the ads better.

Also, online ads help in building brand recall along with attracting conversions. Therefore, you shouldn’t be judging the effectiveness of ads through their click-through rate alone.

If I missed anything important let me know in the comments section below.

Author

Nitin is a traveler, a cinephile, and a webaholic. (He just can't get enough of cat videos!) Professionally, Nitin is a marketer at VWO, who loves to write about Conversion Optimization. Find him on Twitter: @NitinDeshdeep

(3) Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Great article!!
    Thanks Nitin for picking up the glove on this topic and letting publishers know that banner blindness is not a conclusion but an opportunity. Nothing a little bit of optimization can’t solve.

    In fact, at AdNgin we provide a publishers with a platform to test their banner ads similarly to how VWO offers a testing platform for content.

    We’ve found that through experimenting with factors like location, size, color palette, font, and more of banner ads online publishers can create CTR lifts by upwards of 70%. We even wrote a case study about it: http://www.adngin.com/blog/adsense-tips/how-lexpress-increased-their-adsense-earnings-by-2/

    • Hey Eyal,

      I’m glad you liked the article. And I completely agree when you say that “banner blindness is not a conclusion but an opportunity.”

      PS: It’s a very insightful case study you’ve got there. 🙂

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