April 23, 2001

An alternative to banner ads

Summary: banner ads are not a particularly useful way of getting people to "click", but inserting a plain vanilla link just might be.

Whether you like them or not, banner ads have some obvious usability problems:

On lots of websites, banner ads appear long before any content, and slow down the page loading process. Not only may a user not click on the ad, but they might also bail out (that is, press "back" or "stop") and forget loading the page altogether if it seems to be taking too long. And so, we need a method of advertising: the plain vanilla link.

Banner ads: why not?

A mainstay on the world wide web for several years running is the banner ad. Users encounter them everywhere in their web use, on commercial websites, on portals, and on search engines. The problem is that banners require a great deal of extra cognitive processing, make pages bigger (in appearance and in terms of bandwidth used), and they tend to be ignored. Reliable statistics about banner effectiveness are hard to come by, but the general consesus puts click-through rates somewhere between 0.5% and 5%, meaning that a very small percentage of people who view a banner ad actually click on it. And there are no statistics that I am aware of that indicate how many of those who click on the banner actually go on to learn more about, purchase, or subscribe to whatever is being shown in the banner ad.

Regardless of the specific click-through rates and banner effectiveness, it has been proven that internet advertising alone is a tough way to support a business; more often than not, businesses that rely on banner ads simply fail. Even if an established company wants to enter the web advertising fray, they should find the most effective way. Direct email has also largely been a failure, because it's just like junk snail mail, and almost nobody wants to receive that in their mailbox.

Embedded link advertisements: why?

Web users click on links all the time. Blue and underlined or not, they are just about the most commonly used navigational element, and fit nicely into hypertext pages.

I have never seen a plain vanilla link advertisement, stuck nicely into a body paragraph. Or in a header. Or anywhere for that matter. It's probably hard to convince company executives that sticking a link into a page is good advertising. The company wouldn't get to stick their logo in, nor would they be able to make it stand out too much visually. However, links are good for a few reasons:

Consider the following two examples of text from what I'll call "sponsored pages" (the Nike link opens a popup window, sorry!):

...shoes available at this site. Nike Shox are great for track & field, basketball, or walking. We can ship our shoes to you overnight for only $7.50!...

...shoes available at this site. Reebok Pump Fury shoes are designed to comfortably adjust to any foot size, and are on sale here. We can ship our shoes to you overnight for only $7.50!...

One sentence in the paragraph is really an advertisement, carefully constructed to avoid too much marketing language, and more likely to attract a click than a banner. Plus, the sentence adds an almost insignificant number of bytes to the page size, so the page would load more quickly than if a banner ad were on the page.

With embedded link advertisements, users are given a targeted ad, or even a general one, in some context. The user is reading or scanning text in the page, about a certain subject, and will likely be presented with another choice within that context. The user doesn't have to break from whatever he was thinking about, reading, or looking for, to see the ad. It is part of the content of the page.

It's just an idea

Embedded link advertisements are certainly better than banner ads in a few respects, particularly since they are easier to integrate into any page layout and because they don't force users to wait for long downloads. There are many ways to get targeted embedded link advertisements into web pages, and I'd like to see them as replacements for traditional banner ads.

In web advertising, the trick is to increase value, not distraction. Banner ads, popup windows, and superimposed ads are simply annoying and have been proven unsuccessful. It's time to try something new, ads with a little concern for the users who will be clicking them.

Adam Baker is a user experience designer who's worked at Google, Apple, BlackBerry, and Marketcircle, and mentored startups in Vancouver.