Improving online display advertising

Online ads aren’t working for anyone:

  • Advertisers hate them because they’re ineffective: Click-through rates are less than one percent.
  • Publishers hate them because they aren’t generating enough revenue to make up for the shortfall in print advertising.
  • And most important, users hate them because they’re annoying, distracting and useless.

Clearly, everyone will benefit if these problems are solved. Let’s see how we got here so we can avoid repeating these mistakes.

Mommy, where do leaderboards come from?

Can you remember what the ads looked like on the first newspaper Web sites? I’m sure you can’t, because the first newspaper Web sites had no advertising. Back in the early ’90s, when the first newspapers began posting online, there was a cultural prohibition against advertising on the Internet. Many believed the Internet should be non-commercial.

That notion slipped away by the mid-’90s and newspapers began adding advertising to their pages. But these pages had not been designed with ads in mind, so the ads were shoe-horned onto the pages, first at the bottom, then at the tops and down the sides.

Banners and buttons begat leaderboards and skyscrapers. But these, too, were squeezed onto the tops and edges of Web pages. And that’s why online ads appear in an awkward array of shallow and skinny sizes and shapes.

Multimedia gone wrong

Advertisers are limited by awkward sizes and shapes, so they’ve escalated their war on users with a never-ending series of annoying and intrusive techniques. As is the case in most wars of aggression, it’s the aggressor that loses.

The battle for users’ eyeballs began with animated GIFs. Then advertisers fortified their flintlocks with Flash. These animated ads look great by themselves, but two or more together create a shouting match: “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”

Users responded like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch: “Oh the noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!”

So advertisers served up pop-ups. Web browsers responded with pop-up blockers. Now Web sites offer video and advertisers have responded with pre-roll – this decade’s version of the much-hated pop-up. And don’t forget the interstitials – those ads that get between the user and the page the user wants to see. This latest contrivance is bound to spawn 2009’s hottest Christmas gift: “Tivo for Web,” so users can skip past the interstitials.

The battle for the user’s attention has produced an unintended consequence: Newspaper Web sites have trained users to ignore online ads.

It’s gonna take a lot to undo this damage. We should heed Matt Mansfield’s call to improve the enduser experience of editorial and advertising. Here’s a starting point:

1. Make the advertising message the primary visual on each page and limit each page to a single ad. Adopting this strategy kills two birds with one stone: First, it provides advertisers with the best possible environment for their message. Second, it provides a better experience for the user by eliminating all the noise. But to do so, sites must migrate away from the ineffective IAB standard ad sizes and shapes to create sites that serve up ads like this or this.

But serving up fewer ads per page doesn’t mean serving up fewer ads per visit if sites are redesigned to increase page views. But first we need to change the current paradigm:

2. Create a next-generation homepage. Too many users visit the homepage – then exit – before viewing interior pages because the homepage meets their information needs. And webmasters put too many ads on homepages in hopes of reaching these endusers.

This is a self-defeating strategy that pits advertisers against each other and creates a chaotic environment for endusers.

To increase page views, homepages should be redesigned to be less comprehensive. Homepages should provide a “taste” of a site’s content, rather than a satisfying meal, like this or this.

This strategy will force users to visit interior pages to meet their information needs. These interior pages will provide a more effective environment for advertising, like this or this.

But we need to stop thinking of a Web page as a single page. It’s really more like a magazine spread of two pages. Here’s why:

The first web pages were limited by the size of the prevalent monitors of the day: 800 pixels wide by 600 pixels deep. Today, 1024×768 is the minimum, with most desktop and laptops no smaller than 1152×720. Even my 3-year old Powerbook displays 1680×1050.

But we can’t use that full width for text, because it becomes difficult to read when it is set too wide. Even 500px — half the width of the smallest display — is almost too wide for text.

So a Web browser can really display two pages side-by-side, like a magazine. And like the best magazines, one side can be for editorial and the other side can be for advertising.


Consider this spread from The New Yorker, above. Note how the ad is the primary visual element, yet it doesn’t interfere with the reading experience. Now consider this prototype, below, to see the same dynamic at play.


Print ads must be static, but online ads can be dynamic. What if that Thunderbird ad “came to life” onMouseOver, like the photographs in Harry Potter’s newspaper, The Daily Prophet?

Maybe we can draw some inspiration from a newspaper after all, albeit a fictional one.