Blog Post

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.”

64 Responses to “What If You Ran an Ad, and Nobody Saw It?”

  1. @dougschumacher Just to be clear, the test wasn’t about ads. These were tests of many (thousands) of different real websites, many of which had ads. In the course of tracking eye movement, the tests counted how often visitors looked at ads. Virtually none even glanced at them. So the ads were, I believe, a good cross-section of the world.

    If there’s evidence that nobody looks at ads, and there’s evidence that some ads get clicks, and the two data sources are reliable, that suggests to me that clickfraud is much more prevalent and better hidden than we suspect.

  2. dougschumacher

    1. The vast majority of ads, banner or otherwise, are dreck. Nothing distinct, with little persuasive value. (Even most ad people won’t argue with that.) So to make a sweeping claim about all ‘picture’ ads is a gross generalization.

    2. I’d guess, based on experience, that this test used the dreck variety of ads for their sample study. If they don’t address the creative impact as a key component, then they probably don’t get the difference.

    3. There are numerous tests that indicate that banner ads work quite well. Why are major advertisers who’ve built powerful brands continuing to run them (see adverlicious’ examples above). These companies see extensive cost and ROI data come in week after week.And they continue to run the ads.

    4. I think Mr. Nielsen’s long history of insights on design is great … if you’re designing pure information with little emotional value. Think dictionaries, government resource sites, and data presentation. But for the emotional stuff, I’ll take the style sensibility of a site like GigaOm over Nielsen’s ANY day.

  3. If Nielsen’s right, many of you have missed all the online ads run by your favorite brands over the years. Not to worry, we’ve been archiving them @ just in case such a crisis happened :-)

    To help you catch up, a few of my faves:

    Apple –

    Rolling Rock –

    Jack Link’s –

    Method –

    Lots more goodies @

  4. What? I didn’t even notice the ads on the side of this page…

    I actually disagree. People are good at tuning IRRELEVANT ads. In this case, I don’t care about the ads on this page even if I was to gaze at it until I burn dead pixels into my screen with the intensity of my stare. Other times, however, I have noticed and clicked & followed ads that were visually inviting and targeted toward the niche demographics / interests I have of my young demographic. I think it really depends on context. test/search based ads don’t work as well on heavily graphical oriented sites ie. comics, sports, video games, but visual ads WILL work well in this environment.

  5. @tvlampsn: I disagree, for two reasons.

    First, TV, magazines and print are one-way media, not interactive. We expect them to tell us things, not to answer our questions. So the psychological pattern of broadcast media is well suited to ads. When given a chance to skip them (Tivo) we do.

    Second, my point wasn’t that the pictures are useless — it’s that they’re not being looked at. They may well help a company’s brand recognition by infusing themselves into our peripheral vision. But they’re not getting clickthroughs if we’re not looking at them, and in a pay-per-click world, that translates to “don’t work.”

    I completely agree that there may be indirect impact of banners, but I would argue that the pay-per-view or sponsorship billing models work much better than PPC for those.

    Did I read that right: Would love to hear more about their stats. Are they willing to share data? Do they have concrete information about clickthrough rates on their picture-only versus relevant-search ads? Otherwise, an anonymous comment makes it sound like you’re just trying to promote an ailing revenue stream.

    @Ryan: Again, this is about what you’re paying for — impressions, versus actions. You can’t measure clickthroughs on a billboard. Or at the very least, if you try to it leads to reckless driving. ;-)

  6. Seriously,

    I’ve seen the same ads on the right side of this page and for whatever reason, I always look at them because, well, they are pretty pleasing to the eye. Mind you, I have NEVER clicked on one of them but I don’t think that’s the point. Having spent half my career on the technical side of interactive marketing I would have thought that brand awareness wouldn’t have been thrown under the bus like this. While some ads are made to be relevant others are more about building brand awareness and so they serve there purpose.

  7. tvlampsn


    This is flat out wrong. If this were the case TV, magazines and print wouldn’t marketing wouldn’t exist. People may be reading content, but peripheral vision exists and eyes pick up on the images. The beautiful thing about perception is that there is direct, and indirect and being behind a big company doesn’t allow someone to make an off-color remark and expect it be considered gospel.

    It definitely gets a conversation going, but it’s flat out wrong.

  8. ‘On regular pages, he observed that “photos get no attention, but descriptions of product offerings do. Pictures that are content get attention; pictures that are “fluff,” visitors treat as an obstacle course to bypass, particularly when it’s bland photographs of “smiling lady with a headset” or “guy who looks happy with a service.”’

    Most people underestimate the brains ability to learn, and it’s capability to evaluate. If it is expecting text for consumption, it will look for text. For the first few times if you put some blinking flashing something in front of it, it will evaluate what that is about. After it has learned that’s just crap and has nothing to do with what it was expecting it will just ignore it.

    The same can be said about text on TV, if we expect a little movie (ad) and you put some text in front of the people they will turn it out.

    Remember WebTV or what it was called.

  9. Did I read that right?


    I know many advertisers and affiliates who for years have been making a TON of PROFIT on banner ads.

    I’m not talking about small time either. I’m talking about insertion orders in the millions of dollars.

    And no, it’s not brand advertising. These guys track profit per thousand impressions to make sure their campaigns are profitable.

    Yes, it’s true that the CTR on these ads are way lower than on search ads but the price of the advertising is so low that while people are paying several dollars per more per click search advertising, these guys are paying pennies per click and laughing all the way to the bank.

    I guess Jakob Nielsen knows web users but doesn’t know math.

  10. Jakob showed the audience at WEF08 several videos, including heat charts of eye movement, to demonstrate this process. Some testers skimmed picture ads that contained text — but only briefly — which suggests that it’s the picture-ness, not the relevance, that did it.

    His exact words (from a fairly far-reaching interview, which I wish I had space to publish in its entirety) he said, “Display ads have very low eyeballs. Even text may get more fixations, but when they discover it’s not they tune it out.”

    On regular pages, he observed that “photos get no attention, but descriptions of product offerings do. Pictures that are content get attention; pictures that are “fluff,” visitors treat as an obstacle course to bypass, particularly when it’s bland photographs of “smiling lady with a headset” or “guy who looks happy with a service.”

    He even produced an example of a gigantic rat on (celebrating the year of the rat) that testers didn’t recall seeing. And this thing was half the screen!

    I suspect there’s some amount of brand-building awareness that comes from pictures, particularly in one’s peripheral vision — but that won’t lead to good pay-per-click revenues, since it’s not something a visitor acts on. He also presented good evidence that annoying videos and gimmicks like avatars that follow your mouse with their eyes do nothing but aggravate visitors.

  11. What makes you think people are watching TV commercials or billboards on the highway in any higher quantity? Just because nobody is looking at the Web ads doesn’t mean other forms of advertising are any better.

  12. Why doesn’t Jakob redesign his website? Ours has only been up a few months and is being scrapped following user feedback, Mr Nielson’s has been up for years in the same, non inspiring, but moderately usable format.

    And yes, I ignored all the flashy ads on the right. Even find myself making an effort NOT to look at them.

    Saying that, I already downloaded the Accenture White Paper, looked at NewTeeVee (because of the ads which I couldn’t ignore after so many hours on GigaOm), and now clicked into VoloMedia’s White Paper. The last click was probably because horton’s comment made me scroll back up, but the three prior were because the Ads actually worked. Hmmmm…

  13. …getting distracted looking at the RHS column of gigaom…with all the flashy ads…feeling strange desire to hire accenture…

    This concept extends to design as well. You sometimes create a great visual which is part of the functionality but if the CTA looks too well designed people don’t see it even if it is in direct line of sight in the process flow. Rule of thumb is to almost remove every image unless in a clearly designated gallery. Even over styled buttons cause issues.

  14. It is the “RELEVANCE” of the ad that decides whether the user will pay attention or not, banner or text doesn’t matter. Something should tell in advance to the brain that ‘expect relevant ads here’… thats it… brain will look at every ad.

    When you search something you know that the ads appearing here are relevant to my search. Try this… whatever you want to buy in near future (apparel, gadgets, travel-tickets.. anything), just visit a specialized e-shopping website for that product/service and see if you pay attention to banner ads there or not.. its that simple an experiment.

    Most Importantly, has the Nielson/Norman group tested for “paid search banner ads” (i know any popular search engine isn’t doing it commercially… but can be done for experiment, specially before making such sweeping conclusive statements as “Nobody looks at picture advertising”)

  15. Learning from Kindle – When you are reading something – you do not care about the surrounding . You just focus on text.

    Also: Advertisement industry will be clearly segmented in the future with Brand Building and Search at two opposite ends.

    When you search something – you get 5 options and then you pick up the one that has a brand. two step process.

    Brand building – will have to be done on relaxed mediums like TV , YouTube , Freeway banners , Customer service and experience and or word of mouth.

    On word of mouth – Beacon(facebook) type approaches will continue to fail and the detailed questionnaire regarding authorization on facebook will also fail. The fine line would be to have word of mouth happening as a secondary thread in one’s lifestyle without really offending the user. I can see this happen only in a second life kinda environment.

  16. This doesn’t seem like a very scientific claim.

    If this were true, banner ads would have CTRs of 0, which they don’t. While true that often less than 1% of people click on a banner ad, people certainly do click.

    Is there a link to the full-report?

  17. Well it has only indirect to do with active or passive, otherwise there would not be a difference between search and for example reading this web site.
    The brain doesn’t use incoming signals as absolutes the signals are evaluated, that’s why we fall for optical illusions.
    One learns very fast that good advertising might be a short cut to find relevant information in case of a search. One immediately learns also that the ads are irrelevant to reading an article, no additional information is provided.

    On TV one can hardly avoid starring in direction of the screen while an ad is on, there is no other info. But on the other hand one also learns to click through full page ads on the web with a continue link, if the link is not in the usual place one just searches for the the link and the ad does not register.

    Just a few hints from the R&D department. The Web is not TV and we know even why :-).

  18. This is so true. I’ve trained myself to read the story and ignore the ads. First, I scroll down so the banner at the top goes away. And if the “skyscraper” or “big box” on the right is extra-annoying (read – Flash or endlessly cycling animation) I close down the window until it, too, disappears. That means you,!

    FWIW, I started reading alertbox columns around 1996. Helped me immensely.

    The sad part: one of my big clients is in advertising services specializing in newspapers – the worst of the banner-centric publishers. Nobody in that world wants to hear this. It’s like they’re just sticking their fingers in their ears and saying “I can’t hear you.”

    Somebody once said to me, “If you mention Jacob Nielsen, you have to leave this meeting.”

    Thanks, Alistair.