Why We Look at Some Web Ads and Not Others

Why We Look at Some Web Ads and Not Others

Do you think you’re more likely to look at an online ad if it contains 1> a
picture, 2> an animation, or 3> just text? The answer: just text. Surprised?
Well, now consider the man who was checking his e-mail when he came across a
dating-service ad featuring a picture of a bikini-clad woman. He looked at
the woman’s face and chest once — and then at the surrounding text five times.

The Internet has cracked open a brave new world for folks whose job it is to
spend ad dollars. The ability to track where a Web-user clicks provides a
sort of precision intelligence advertisers could have only dreamed of in
decades past. But before a click comes a look, and according to new
research, advertisers are often wrong about what attracts our attention.

The findings are presented in a chapter of a new book, Eyetracking Web
Usability, by Jakob Nielen and Kara Pernice of the consultancy Nielsen
Norman Group. Don’t let the bland title fool you — what Nielsen and Pernice
have done is track the eye movements of hundreds of people as they navigate
Web sites, looking up advice on how to deal with heartburn, shopping for
baby presents, picking cell-phone features, learning about Mikhail
Baryshinkov. By bouncing infrared beams off a person’s retinas and recording
head movement with a camera, the researchers were able to deduce what sort
of ads garner attention in real time — a methodology that runs laps around
later asking people to recall what they saw.

The headline result: simpler is better . Participants in the study looked at 52% of ads that contained only
text, 52% of ads that had images and text separately and 51% of sponsored
links on search-engine pages. Ads that got a lot less attention included
those that mixed text on top of images ,
and ones that included animation .

Now, looking at an ad and being vaguely aware of it are two different
things. Plenty passes through our peripheral vision, but because of the way
the eye works, we only thoroughly see things that we stop at and observe
deliberately. By that measure, people in the study saw 36% of the ads on the
pages they visited — not a bad hit rate. The average time a person spent
looking at an ad, though, was brief — one-third of a second.

Interestingly, people who were just browsing the Web only looked at 5% more
ads than those trying to accomplish a specific task. Even when we’re
on a mission, we’re still fairly willing to stop and look at an ad. Though there
was one sort of web site where ads rarely registered: pages built around
search boxes. Think Mapquest or Expedia. Google’s tribute to white space on
its home page might be sleek design