August 20, 2004

Editors rely on an imperfect blend of news judgment, style conventions, audience metrics, usability studies, and occasional reader feedback to come up with a smart website design.

But on the business side, publishers have a much more direct way to measure the effectiveness of ad placements on their sites.


Better ad treatments generally command more ad dollars. So publishers — particularly those whose sites rely on display advertising for the bulk of their revenue -– have become highly attuned to the nuances of ad positioning and design.

Eyetrack III quantifies for the first time just how quickly and intently readers view an ad — valuable intelligence in a performance-driven business. But the findings seem likely to reinforce what advertisers and publishers already have learned through hard experience and through data already at their disposal.

Armed with surveys and statistics that help them measure the short- and long-term performance of their Internet ad buys, many advertisers have already learned how to optimize the placement, appearance, and positioning of their creative — whether it is a simple text link at the bottom of a page or a full-motion video interstitial.

Michael Zimbalist, executive director of the Online Publishers Association (OPA), a trade group representing many big-name news websites, says the real value of the study, at least for advertisers, may lie more in the details than the broad strokes: the finding, for example, that small visual breaks, even white space, can serve as unintended barriers to viewing ads.

But at the end of the day, Zimbalist said, “The level of engagement people have with ads depends on how relevant it is and how creative the work is.”

The push to improve the performance of Internet advertising has been on ever since the tech bubble burst.

Remember “banner blindness”? When venture money dried up and businesses began demanding real returns on their Internet ad buys, a chorus of complaints rose over the ubiquitous rectangular ads that most news websites parked at the top and bottom of their pages.

Small in size (468 x 60 pixels), and walled off from the rest of the content, they were easily ignored by readers. In what had suddenly become a buyers’ market, advertisers began pressing for bigger, bolder units.

C|Net, a technology news site dependent upon online revenues for its survival, was one of the first to pioneer the use of so-called poster units, placing them square in the middle of its news pages. Readers could scarcely miss them.

As other sites began to follow suit, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), an industry trade group, devised what it termed the “universal ad package“: a standardized assortment of more commanding ad units. In addition to posters, the package included a vertical banner and a new oversized horizontal banner, renamed a “leader board.”

On most sites, posters are situated in the middle of the content — where Eyetrack found they command the reader’s attention — while banners and leader boards are generally relegated to the margins, where the findings suggest they are more easily ignored.

The market already has taken these differences into account. The New York Times, for example, charges a $20 CPM (cost per thousand ad impressions) for old-style banners, a $30 CPM for vertical banners and leader boards, and $40 for its poster units. That latter highest rate also covers the half-page ad, pioneered by the Times in April 2003 and mimicked by other sites — consistent with Eyetrack’s findings that size and proximity to editorial content yield better performance.

The study findings also line up with other industry trends. Eyetrack found that ads superimposed on the page — mouseovers and pop-ups were the two examples tested in the study — perform better than traditional banners, something advertisers figured out early in the game.

Eyetrack found that simple text ads had the highest viewing of all ads on all of the homepages it tested.Sites like and CBS MarketWatch initially met the demand for these more intrusive ads with one-of-a-kind custom solutions. But as demand grew, entire businesses were spawned — Unicast and Eyeblaster are examples — that could deliver cost-effective out-of-the-box solutions on any site, with no custom engineering.

As the Eyetrack study suggests, these ads command attention but don’t hold the reader for very long. “I thought it was encouraging that ads that were superficially flashy got more attention but less involvement,” said Dave Morgan, CEO of Tacoda Systems, which produces software to help websites manage online ads. “Having something that stands out is not what you want to be doing on the Web. What seemed to be performing well were ads that had a consistency to the style and flow of the page.”

That’s one reason many large news websites have imposed frequency caps and other limitations on intrusive ads that obscure content or momentarily interrupt the reader experience.

At the other end of the ad spectrum, Eyetrack found that simple text ads had the highest viewing of all ads on all of the homepages it tested.

Again, no surprise to the ad community. So-called sponsored link or paid search advertising — text-only ads targeted to match the subject matter on the page — has emerged as a significant ad category, surpassing online classified with $1.3 billion in revenue in 2003, according to JupiterResearch.

In part, this may be because text links more closely resemble — and may even be mistaken for — editorial content. But it’s also because these ads are engineered to match the reader’s interest and intent: A story about Google’s initial public offering, for example, will likely contain links to companies selling analyses of pending IPOs.

Because of that precision targeting, “Many of us have known for a long time that text ads have a higher response rate than graphic ads,” said Steve Yelvington, who is responsible for audience development strategy for Morris Digital Works, the Internet division of Morris Communications. (Disclosure: Steve Yelvington and Morris Digital Works provided technical support for the Eyetrack III research.)

“This is the first study I’ve seen that examines what happens among people who don’t click,” Yelvington said, a finding he hopes will “buttress the argument that legible, simple advertising is a powerful model that we should embrace instead of being lured away by bad ideas like pop-ups, pop-unders, and banners that talk.”

Morgan echoes that sentiment and suggests that advertisers might do well to give greater visibility to simple text ads, which usually are consigned to the lower regions of a page. “What we see as the Web evolves is that a well-written sentence is more important than an animated GIF,” Morgan said.

Perhaps. But, for now, publishers see text ads and banners representing two very different ad models. The latter, discreet, targeted, action-oriented, is the online equivalent of direct mail. And the rates charged are directly pegged to the response rate (measured in click-throughs).

Banner and poster advertising, at its best, is intended to engender broad-based brand awareness, and the rates charged for those ads increasingly reflect not click-through metrics (which tend to be low) but the overall product lift.

With the help of groups like the IAB and the OPA, news sites have sought to demonstrate that online advertising can be a powerful, cost-effective part of the overall media mix and actually improve the effectiveness of TV ad buys -– not just drive direct-response marketing.

The ability to generate that kind of lift only improves as publishers refine their ability to target specific demographic and behavioral segments of their audience, something most large sites are already doing.

Finally, what about Eyetrack’s finding that people avoid looking directly at many ads on most news homepages, adding to what the findings term the “so-called ‘invisibility effect’ of Web advertising”?

Zimbalist is dismissive of this finding, saying an argument can be made that advertising on the Web performs far better than it does on television or in print, where people may throw away entire newspaper sections (and their paid ads) without ever looking at them.

“We know that TV commercials are viewed by only 9 percent of the audience” watching the show in which the commercials appear, he said, citing a Forrester Research study. By contrast, in the Eyetrack study, he said. “People very clearly observed the offer in the Amex/Marriott skyscraper. They [just] didn’t do so with the intensity with which they scanned the news headlines.”

Even here, the market may have already accounted for these findings. Homepage placements — based on sheer volume alone — can generate a lot of cash. But as a rule, the rates charged for those ads are lower than the same ad that appears on a more narrowly focused inside page.

After all, says Bowen Dwelle, chairman of AdMonsters, a trade group for online advertising operations and technology, “I’m not going to The New York Times to see what the latest ad is on the page … There may be some advertising that catches my eye … [But] I’m going for the content, so I look at the content.”

[ Add a comment or read comments on Eyetrack advertising results here ]

Kinsey Wilson is Vice President & Editor in Chief of and a member of The Poynter Institute’s National Advisory Board.

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Kinsey Wilson is executive editor of USA TODAY and, with shared responsibility for strategic planning and day to-to-day editorial management of one of the…
Kinsey Wilson

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