Are We Blind To Banner Ads?

Many advertisers are putting a great deal of money into the placement of “banner ads”, those ads that run across the top few inches of a web page. They are often animated and flashy, meant to draw the users’ eye right to them, urging them to follow the ad link to their site. But do banner ads really draw the crowds they are expected to?Not according to a Rice University study done in 1998 by Jan Panero Benway and David M. Lane. Benway and Lane’s study was not specified to banner ads, but to any link made to stand out on a page. The idea is that if you have a particular link on your page that is especially important to your visitors to see, for example, the “Buy Now!” link on a sales page, you are naturally inclined to make it bigger and more eye-catching. In 1996 Detweiler and Omanson argued that “In general, the larger an item is, the greater its perceived visual importance and likelihood of attracting attention. Make sure that items of greatest importance are easy to see, and clearly distinguished from other items.” This hypothesis seems to make perfect sense, but Benway and Lane wanted to investigate the behavior of real users.
Testing the Existence of Banner BlindnessWhat they found may surprise you. They created a usability test in which the subjects were required to navigate from a home page to a smaller page located deeper in the site. The test subjects were asked to find information about Internet courses. Right there on the first page was a large ad that screamed “New! Internet Courses! Click Here for Information!” Yet surprisingly, most users scrolled right past this giant ad to a smaller link in the main menu towards the bottom of the page that said simply “Courses”. But once there, they realized they could not find the information they wanted. They had passed up the correct, obvious link.

Further, a 1997 study by Spool, Scanlon, Schroeder, Snyder & DeAngelo showed that test subjects looked over a flashy, animated banner ad and preferred the straightforward link. This habit of users overlooking these large, colorful, animated ads is called “Banner Blindness”.

The Rice Study questions how users would react to two different settings, one in which the links to the information hey were asked to find were designed large and colorful, and one where the important informational links were given no extra jazz. They looked for evidence of so-called Banner Blindness in control conditions. The website designed was hierarchical, with four levels of pages. The links on the pages went from broad to more specific the deeper they went.

Participants would be asked to find simple information, such as an email address, by navigating the site. The control site had basic text menu link navigation, while the test site had the information in red banners that were meant to be short cut directly to the required information. The content of the red banners was meant to be a strong hint that the necessary information could be easily found through them.

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The ResultsThe results of the study that tested 3 men and 3 women between the ages of 20 and 30 showed that the success rate of the banner tasks was only 58%, while the success rate of the control tasks was an amazing 94%! The banners were often simply ignored by users, no matter how flashy. Why was this? Users might have ignored the bright banners because they have become so used to such links as being ads that they assumed their information would not be there. Or they simply looked past them thinking they were looking for information that would be found through the regular linkage of the website’s navigation, which is usually small and blue.

Banner Blindness, Another ViewA second portion of the study tested how much users really recognize and process banner ads. 73 undergraduate students were asked to do a series of unrelated tasks on a series of pages, some with animated banner ads, some with non-animated banner ads. After seeing 24 pages including ads, the participants were shown those same 24 banner ads, mixed in with 24 new ads that they had not been shown. They were asked to identify the ones they thought they saw, on a scale of 1 to 4 (4 being “I definitely saw that”). In the end, only 20% of those 73 students recalled seeing any sort of advertisement during the test.

This study showed that Banner Blindness is a very real usability issue and must be recognized by advertisers considering using banner advertisements. However, an article in the New York Times noted that sites with banner advertising get more traffic and more brand recognition (Tedeschi, 1998).