What If You Ran an Ad, and Nobody Saw It?

Jacob Jakob Nielsen knows web users. The Nielsen/Norman Group, which he co-founded, has tested thousands of sites. It’s watched more than 3,000 users try to perform tasks online, even following their eyes to see where they look. And he has some frightening news:

Nobody looks at picture advertising.

Nielsen, in a keynote address at the inaugural Web Experience Forum in Boston, Mass., said web design is doomed to failure unless we learn from end users. And one major lesson is that other than paid search, ads don’t work.

“We call this banner blindness — people won’t see ads at all,” said Nielsen. “Ads might as well not exist as far as users are concerned, except for search ads.” The number of web users that so much as glance at banner ads, he added, is too small to even quantify.

The findings are no secret to web usability professionals gathered here, who obsess over how consumers use the web. But they’re often ignored by ad buyers.

“For the longest time, the web has been in collective denial of this phenomenon,” said Nielsen. “People still have this old media thinking: They think of the web being similar to TV because it’s on the screen and visual. The main distinction is whether it’s active or passive, not whether it’s on a screen or not.”

Advertising revenues, which pay for much of the web, are having a rough year, with some analysts cutting their estimates for the entire sector.

Nielsen pointed out that paid search still works — partly because it’s relevant, and partly because users aren’t tuning ads out. “We thought we’d find [paid search] box blindness the way we did banner blindness, but that’s not the case. Users are interested in search ads and actually look at them.”

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