Display Advertising & User Experience

Most media sites do not charge for their content online (though some are moving toward a paywall model such as the New York Times), so to generate revenue, they heavily on display advertising – those annoying flashy ad boxes you see on almost every site you visit.

Display advertising on websites started out as fairly user friendly: the ads were set on the outside of the content, usually in a sidebar or footer. Even so, when the first banner ad appeared on HotWired in 1994 (thank you, AT&T!), people’s first reaction was not to click, but to ignore. (Joel, 2011). Now, some 20 years later, users are even more adapted to ignoring banner ads.

Here are some fun facts about the effectiveness of Display Advertising:

10 Shocking But True Display Advertising Stats

  1. You are more likely to complete NAVY SEAL training than click a banner ad. (Source: Solve Media)
  2. Only 8% of internet users account for 85% of clicks on display ads (and some of them aren’t even humans!). (Source: comScore)
  3. You are more likely to get a full house while playing poker than click on a banner ad. (Source: Solve Media)
  4. The average person is served over 1,700 banner ads per month. Do you remember any? (Source: comScore)
  5. You are more likely to summit Mount Everest than click a banner ad. (Source: Solve Media)
  6. The average clickthrough rate of display ads is 0.1%. (Source: DoubleClick)
  7. You are more likely to birth twins than click a banner ad. (Source: Solve Media)
  8. About 50% of clicks on mobile ads are accidental. (Source: GoldSpot Media)
  9. You are more likely to get into MIT than click a banner ad. (Source: Solve Media)
  10. You are more likely to survive a plane crash than click on a banner ad. (Source: Solve Media)

These stats were curated from Digiday and Business Insider. (Volpe, 2013).

At a Nielsen User Experience conference in 2004, John Boyd from Yahoo! and Christian Rohrer from eBay presented research on how users perceive online advertising. Their findings showed these reactions to online ads:

Nielsen, 2004

Because we are so good at ignoring banner ads, advertisers have had to step up their game to get noticed. This has resulted in interstitial ads, video pre-roll, video overlay, push-down banners and other interruptive ads. Though these new display ad options might be making the advertisers and the publishers happy (aka more profitable), this is done at the expense of the user. In addition to “banner blindness,” users are developing video ad blindness now too. Interruptive ads such as pop-ups and full-screen overlays might make lasting impressions on users, but the impression tends to be a bad one. (Hou & Shapiro, 2010)

At what point is the experience of free online content not worth the experience of looking at ads? “We don’t expect consumers to sit through 15 advertisements running at the same time on their televisions, so how is this acceptable in these new media channels?” (Joel, 2008) In the above study, the majority of users expressed annoyance and frustration when discussing interruptive ads. To combat this negative user experience, publishers must figure out alternative methods to keep their users engaged and happy without losing their revenue stream.

Not many ads are actively loved by users, but some advertising techniques do have a positive impact on the user experience. Users were particularly pleased with ads that clearly:

  • Indicate what will happen if people click on them
  • Relate to what people are doing online
  • Identify themselves as advertisements
  • Present information about what they are advertising
  • Provide additional information without having to leave the page

These design elements are tightly connected to traditional Web usability guidelines: make the users’ options clear, speak plainly, and provide the information users want. (Nielsen, 2004)

Though standard banner ads don’t seem to be go away any time soon, many publishers are exploring more creative (and user friendly) advertising techniques. One example is 3-D overlay ads that aim provide the kind of real world depth that’s missing from display ads and e-commerce sites (Hertig, 2014).

Hertig, 2014
Hertig, 2014
Hertig, 2014
Hertig, 2014

Other successful alternative methods include search, email and affiliate marketing, and “Native Advertising,” which masks brand-sponsorships as editorial content. None of these methods are perfect, but it’s nice to see that companies are finally starting to take User Experience seriously when it comes to online advertising.


Hertig, Alyssa. (2014, December). “Can 3D Rescue Display Ads?”. Retrieved from http://contently.com/strategist/2014/12/04/can-3d-rescue-display-ads/

Hou, Dan and Alan Shapiro. (2010, July) “Display Advertising: a User–Centered Approach.” Retrieved from http://www.hugeinc.com/ideas/report/display-advertising

Joel, Mitch. (2008, December). “Banner Advertising Is But One Small Component Of Digital Marketing.” Retrieved from http://www.twistimage.com/blog/archives/banner-advertising-is-but-one-small-component-of-digital-marketing/

Joel, Mitch. (2001, July). “The Truth About Display Advertising (And Why Consumers Hate It).” Retrieved from http://www.twistimage.com/blog/archives/the-truth-about-display-advertising-and-why-consumers-hate-it/

Nielsen, Jakob. (2004, December). “The Most Hated Advertising Techniques.” December 6, 2004. Retrieved from http://www.nngroup.com/articles/most-hated-advertising-techniques/

Volpe, Mike. (2013, April). “10 Horrifying Stats about Display Advertising.” Retrieved from http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/horrifying-display-advertising-stats