Aug 21

Jimmy Guterman

Jimmy Guterman

The Ethics of Web Advertising (and a 10-Year-Old Secret Revealed)

Jakob Nielsen, who's been writing about usability roughly since our prehuman ancestors crawled out of the primordial muck, has a characteristically rigorous post about banner blindness in which he examines, among other things, the ethics of display advertising. It starts with a bang:

"I've been reluctant to discuss one of the findings from our eyetracking research because the conclusion is that unethical design pays off. In 1997, I chose to suppress a similar finding: users tend to click on banner ads that look like dialog boxes, complete with fake OK and Cancel buttons. Of course, instead of being an actual system message -- such as 'Your Internet Connection Is Not Optimized' -- the banner is just a picture of a dialog box, and clicking its close box doesn't dismiss it, but rather takes users to the advertiser's site. Deceptive, unethical, and #3 among the most-hated advertising techniques. Still, fake dialog boxes got many more clicks than regular banners, which users had already started to ignore in 1997. After much soul-searching, I've now decided to take a different approach and publish our new findings, despite their ethical implications..."

One of the reasons I've been a close reader of Nielsen's work for more than a decade is that he's been willing to go where the data takes him, even if the data forces him to change his mind. Indeed, here the man who preaches the benefits of simplicity is here admitting that treating the visitors to your site as poorly as possible can pay off. The results don't make him happy, but those are the results. Anyone even remotely interested in how web banner ads work, for good and evil, should read the post.

And I must admit I'm fascinated by Nielsen's decision to "suppress" this finding a decade ago, back in the dancing-baloney age of MARQUEE and BLINK tags. Put yourself in Nielsen's place, not only a researcher but also a consultant. Imagine it's 1997 and you know that fake dialog boxes are evil but effective. What would you recommend to your clients?

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Comments: 14

  SearchEngines WEB [08.21.07 05:45 AM]

One rule of thumb is to ask yourself as a techie:

'What tactics have you fallen for once' - and
'What have you fallen for twice or more' - and
'What have you fallen for by accident'

No research is needed --- if sophisticated techies have been deceived, certainly the masses have.

But the bottom line is - did of these tactics result in a sale or an intentional download, after being forgiven for their deceptive tactics?

  pmpfe [08.21.07 06:17 AM]

  • 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.

None of this sounds surprising or scary to me.

Not surprising: The only way readers are able to ignore advertising is it's visual separation (in layout or style from content), and this has always been evident.

Not scary: sites who serve advertisement disguised as content (either as boldly as the dialog box scheme, or more subtly) are devaluating their content, so results should be the same in the long run.

  Meir Warcel [08.21.07 06:33 AM]

It is an interesting discussion, but I believe that in the long run any unethical practice will hurt the advertiser and website.

  leo [08.21.07 08:34 AM]

I could've told you this even earlier than Nielsen -- in '93 even '83 -- that if you present something deceptively, you're going to get more traffic.

The entire Spam Industry is built on the supposition.

  Jay Neely [08.21.07 08:45 AM]

There's a difference between paying off in advertisement clicks and paying off in advertisement effectiveness. Smart companies don't want consumers to negatively associate their brand with the feeling they get from having been tricked. As Nielsen points out, it's the #3 most-hated advertising technique.

  Josh Spaulding [08.21.07 09:07 AM]

I don't think that unethical crap comes as a surprise. If you notice, Yahoo even accepts advertisers who deliver unethical adverts.

I wonder if he tested other, flash generated, adverts as well? I would guess anything that's really eye-catching and relevant to the reader would get a good CTR.

  Dana [08.21.07 01:29 PM]

Not surprising, but I don't think you will get regular readers using these tactics. You will be stuck with only google searches.

I've clicked on a few of those dumb things, been aggravated that Mr. Evil just earned a tenth of a penny and closed out the screen to stay as far a way as possible.

I can't imagine people bookmark those sites and ever go back.

  Sachin [08.21.07 02:40 PM]

"Pay off" is an incorrect term to use in the broader context. Most of the comments above have mentioned that deceptive advertising gets a gullible audience cheated once but does that mean actual conversion of the user into a buyer of the advertiser's products? Where in the consumer's mind does that put the medium (i.e. the website) on which such advertising is allowed?

In many instances, I have felt same way about Google Adsense style advertising. Where the Adsense logic works so perfectly that the advertising message could be taken as website content and the presentation blends in with the rest of the website, clicking on the ad instead of what I thought was a link to a relevant page with-in the website usually annoys me. For most part it is just an irritant and I can always hit the back button to come back but if this were to be some sort of a deliberate racket, I'd leave with a rather poor opinion of the website.

  Ajeet Khurana [08.22.07 12:24 PM]

The biggest error in Data Mining is that one tends to rationalize one's prejudices. Think of it as a self fulfilling prophecy.

In fact, read some of the comments above and you will see that some feel that research was not required and that they could come to these conclusions from common sense.

The challenge is in accepting data when it defies your common sense. Jakob Nielsen was first a god. Then he was a horse that every one flogged through the mid 2000's. Now we are returning to accept some of his truths.

  John Squires [08.23.07 01:20 AM]

I think something is missing from this article: age differences. The person mentioned in the article was looking us something to do with retirement, so must be a "mature" person! My own experience is that young people, especially teens, look at the adverts on a page a lot, and click on them too.

Don't you remember that as a kid that you preferred the 20 second adverts in the TV program more than you liked the program itself?

I'd like to see Nielson's findings again, broken down by age.

  Lijo George [08.25.07 01:33 PM]

jimmy, you said that right , when somebody tactfully represents something deceptively , surely that get some large attention. But this is hectic

  HoboBen [08.27.07 12:51 AM]

I don't believe conventional advertising on the web will last forever.

I mean, Firefox + AdBlock Plus. Google pays people to refer users to Firefox. They get the AdBlock Plus extension. No more adverts, so no more income to Google or webmasters. Google investing in something that'll reduce their income! :-)

I reckon things will go for affiliate advertising, perhaps.

But even if people click on those deceptive banners, everyone I know just gets angry at being tricked and hits back.


  dave mcclure [08.29.07 08:50 AM]

hmm... interesting most of the conversation here focuses on the ethics of the advertising practice.

i thought the topic of conversation might be more around nielsen's decision to withhold research findings for 10 years.

anyone have an opinion about that?

not sure i agree with his decision. it's possible that greater disclosure of the issue could have increased the frequency of usage, but also could have raised awareness to result in the opposite.

regardless, i'm generally in favor of more information not less... even if it means educating black hats at the expense of the rest of us.

in general, i think limiting information about things like guns & nuclear technology probably backfires in the longrun.

i'm sure i could be convinced otherwise, but that's my .02,

- dave mcclure

  Outtanames999 [08.31.07 09:15 PM]

In my opinion, Nielsen has always been a hack looking to make a career out of behavioral observations that are readily observable without all the ballyhoo. Usability as a profession is dead. Do you really need a scientist to tell you that the sun rises every day? I'm not surprised he supposedly withheld evidence. That is what one would expect from a hack.

And while Nielsen may claim to have "withheld" his findings, so what? He only influences a small segment of mostly effete web snobs and those with more money than brains or common sense. His clients may have lost out on his findings, but everyone else who was not completey brain dead tested these methods the same time Nielsen did and already knew how they performed. Sorry Jimmy, but this revelation is non-news.

As to Nielsen's post, well, all his heat tracking studies prove is that readers do not read ads. Well, duh! Of course they do not _read_ ads. Reading is a linear, logical brain activity that involves decoding. Good ads speak to the primordial, instinctive, emotional side that results in immediate reaction - no decoding necessary. So it's not at all surprising that they don't show up on the eyeball tracker. Nielsen is measuring the wrong thing. He should be measuring the limbic system to see the effect of ads.

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