None so blind

Web usability guru, Jakob Nielsen, reports in his weekly Alertbox for 20 August 2007 on banner blindness:

The most prominent result from the new eyetracking studies is not actually new. We simply confirmed for the umpteenth time that banner blindness is real. Users almost never look at anything that looks like an advertisement, whether or not it’s actually an ad. …

Most of our eyetracking findings on Web advertising present no ethical dilemmas. For example, we know that there are 3 design elements that are most effective at attracting eyeballs:

  • Plain text
  • Faces
  • Cleavage and other “private” body parts …

So, this is not new, but Nielsen provides some pretty “heat maps” and an eye tracking video of user fixations which illustrate the point.

He goes on to point out the unethical approach, patting himself on the back for doing so:

  • The more an ad looks like a native site component, the more users will look at it.
  • Not only should the ad look like the site’s other design elements, it should appear to be part of the specific page section in which it’s displayed.

This overtly violates publishing’s principle of separating “church and state” — that is, the distinction between editorial content and paid advertisements should always be clear. …

Now the truth is out. As far as I’m concerned, speaking the truth is my highest ethical calling, and it’s better that the facts be known to everyone than that they remain a secret abused by a few.

Now, it’s true that your average punter may not know this, but it’s hardly a secret. Anyone who has made more than a cursory attempt at optimising their Google AdSense adverts will know that the more you visually integrate them into the content of your site, the more effective they are. Millions do this, including everyone from the evil splogger to the national news media. Google wouldn’t have it any other way.