Website Ads – Dos and Don’ts

Posted by Eric Bastholm on October 10, 2009
Oct 102009

Today, having advertising on a website is a fairly standard thing. It is a natural overflow of the flood of advertising that we are all exposed to every day through other, more traditional, media like television and newspapers. Sometimes I think that it would be better to not have it or at least have a lot less of it, but it is there, it’s not going away, so we live with it. But, there is advertising and then there is bad and annoying advertising. I am not talking about the content, I’m talking about the display and delivery features and how that impacts the visitor experience when they visit your site. Which advertising do you have on your site?

A visitor is usually on your site because somehow they found a link to it and thought it might satisfy their immediate interests. Visitors want to buy something, learn something, or search for something. In all those cases, they will resent that experience being interrupted or impeded in any way. Some advertising is very obtrusive and some is quite passive. Ads fall into three main categories with respect to their behaviour (not content).

1. Passive, Static. This type of ad takes up space on the page and that’s it. It may be text, graphics or both, but no animations.

2. Passive, Dynamic. This type is the same as other passive ads except the ad will employ animation like flash or have an embedded video.

3. Active, Dynamic. This type of ad is termed active because the visitor is forced to engage the ad in some way, either by clicking on it to close it or by sitting there until the ad goes away on its own. Generally, these ads are complex and so the ad authors go the whole hog and make them flashy and dynamic too.

I can’t speak for everyone, but, of these three types I can only tolerate the first. The other two dynamic ads cause distraction and are not acceptable to me.

Animated ads cause a distraction

The human vision system has evolved over millions of years (or was created, if you prefer) to find fruit in trees and detect movement. In a rock-paper-scissors style of contest, motion detection will win over target selection every time. All the humans that did not see the poisonous snake, or the saber tooth lion are dead, which just leaves us. An ad that has animation, video, blinking or any other movement that is not initiated by the visitor is annoying because they have no choice but to be distracted by it and it will cause them to think about bailing out on you. Reading a page where there is a flashy moving ad is like trying to build a house of cards while someone keeps bumping your arm. You can do it, but it makes you want to move somewhere else.

I know that the distraction is the whole idea why the ad works – it makes you look at it. But an ad’s ultimate purpose is not to make you look at it, the purpose is to get you to buy something. Are you going to buy something when you are annoyed?

Forcing ad viewing annoys the visitor

As with anything, things can be worse. Displaying an ad that forces engagement before you can view the site content is possibly the worst thing you can put on your website. For me, it simply makes me never go back to that site again. Don’t be so cocky as to believe that the information or products, or whatever it is that you have in your content, does not have equivalents on another more friendly site. It does. The web is big. Very big. The worst ads don’t even have a close or skip link and you have to look at them until they finish because they obscure the other content. Some even have annoying music as well!

Dos and Don’ts

  • Don’t animate ads.
  • If you must have an animated ad don’t loop. Play it once and then make it static.
  • Don’t play music or use any sounds.
  • Don’t force ad engagement on the viewer.
  • Don’t use big ads. Ads that take up a large amount of space can cause the user to have to scroll content too much or it makes the content harder to read.
  • Do use ads that are relevant to the content.
  • Do label ads as such, with a small bit of text saying Advertisement.
  • Do consider activation on hover. Animate your ad only when the user goes there.

Users will block ads (or just leave)

There are plug-ins for browsers that help users block ads from content and if they can they will. I use Adblock Plus in Firefox, but I am fair in what I use it for. I only block ads that are obtrusive to the browsing experience. If an ad is, in effect, behaving the same as one in a magazine I will leave it there. Anything, that looks like the stage from a circus act is clobbered. And that is if the actual content of the site intrigues me. If the site is nothing special then I just don’t go there anymore. If not for the annoying ads they use I might have stayed.

Advertisers might be disappointed with what I have said here, but I am just telling it like it is. Visitors with a lot of choice require a bit more respect to their senses on your site else they will just go elsewhere. I haven’t done the studies to determine what general user behaviour is, but I know a lot of people have a gripe against ads; have a look at the download stats for Adblock Plus.

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