Website Promotion Guides - Banners

Banner Blindness

by Jakob Nielsen


The most prominent result from the new eyetracking studies is not actually new. We simply confirmed for the umpteenth time that banner blindness is real. Users almost never look at anything that looks like an advertisement, whether or not it's actually an ad.


On hundreds of pages, users didn't fixate on ads. The following heatmaps show three examples that cover a range of user engagement with the content: quick scanning, partial reading, and thorough reading. Scanning is more common than reading, but users will sometimes dig into an article if they really care about it.


Heatmaps from eyetracking studies: The areas where users looked the most are colored red; the yellow areas indicate fewer views, followed by the least-viewed blue areas. Gray areas didn't attract any fixations. Green boxes were drawn on top of the images after the study to highlight the advertisements.

At all levels of user engagement, the finding is the same regarding banners (outlined with green boxes in the above illustration): almost no fixations within advertisements. If users are looking for a quick fact, they want to get done and aren't diverted by banners; and if users are engrossed in a story, they're not going to look away from the content.

The heatmaps also show how users don't fixate within design elements that resemble ads, even if they aren't ads (and thus aren't shown within green boxes above).


Even when we did record a fixation within a banner, users typically didn't engage with the advertisement. Often, users didn't even see the advertiser's logo or name, even when they glanced at one or two design elements elsewhere inside an ad.


The following video clips show a gaze replay of one user's eye movements while looking for advice on how to invest for retirement. (The moving blue dot shows where the user is looking.) The page contains an ad for retirement accounts at Fidelity Investments, a site that offers good advice on the target topic and might therefore help users who click the ad.

  • Regular-speed gaze replay (19-second video, Windows Media format, 0.6 MB)
  • Slow-motion gaze replay (1-minute video, Windows Media format, 2.2 MB)

As the replay shows, the user did fixate once within the ad, but at that moment, the ad is obscured by a pull-down menu. In reality, the user couldn't see the message; the fixation was clearly a mistake that occurred while she was trying to reacquire the menu after briefly looking away from the screen. All of this occurs so quickly that you probably need to review the slow-motion replay to follow the action. (This is typical for eyetracking: the eye moves so fast that our best insights come from watching slow-motion replays.)


(Several readers have asked whether banner blindness extends to search engine ads. It doesn't: text ads on a SERP get a decent number of fixations. The other exception is classified ads. Finally, it's possible that commercials that are embedded within a video stream get viewed; we haven't researched this yet. So there are either 2 or 3 exceptions to the general rule that users avoid looking at ads on websites.)

The Fourth, Unethical, Path to Ad Fixations

In addition to the three main design elements that occasionally attract fixations in online ads, we discovered a fourth approach that breaks one of publishing's main ethical principles by making the ad look like content:
  • The more an ad looks like a native site component, the more users will look at it.
  • Not only should the ad look like the site's other design elements, it should appear to be part of the specific page section in which it's displayed.

This overtly violates publishing's principle of separating "church and state" -- that is, the distinction between editorial content and paid advertisements should always be clear. Reputable newspapers don't allow advertisers to mimic their branded typefaces or other layout elements. But, to maximize fixations, that's exactly what you should do in a Web ad.


A specific ad may or may not be ethical, depending on how closely it masquerades as content. I caution against going too far, because it can backfire and mislead users. Unethical ads will get you more fixations, but ethical business practices will attract more loyal customers in the long run.

Now the truth is out. As far as I'm concerned, speaking the truth is my highest ethical calling, and it's better that the facts be known to everyone than that they remain a secret abused by a few.


Ultimately, the fact that online ads get viewed more when they match surrounding content is a strike against the tendency to build advertising networks. If advertising spots are simply auctioned off, then you can't design an optimized ad for each placement.


When you advertise through an advertising network, your ads will get fewer fixations than if you contract directly with the publisher for a specific placement and design your creative to fit that spot. As a result, you should bid less for network ads than for customized ads that you place yourself.