Ad Banners Suck
Part of How Do They Do That With HTML? by Carl Tashian

Lets be honest: Nobody looks at ad banners, and nobody ever clicks on them. More specifically, of the 119,323 times ad banners were shown to visitors of this site in October 2000, the banners were only clicked 217 times. That means less than 0.2% of you care about my ads!

I don't blame you. My ad banners are generally unrelated to web site design anyway. But even if they were, would you click on them? I've been running some targeted ads over the last few months, ads that are directly related to web design, and they appear to get no more attention than usual.

What's wrong with this picture? I don't see how all these ad banners, ad cubes, ad buttons, and sponsored "search boxes" ("click here to search Amazon.com for ...") can compose a multi-million dollar industry if no one ever clicks on them. We've all been trained to ignore ad banners, or we never see them in the first place. Animated ads allegedly coerce more people into clicking, but the majority of surfers are still bored or wary of even the most provocative banners.

So if ad banners not getting clicked on, then why does the industry persist? Some companies don't care about clicks, they just want their logo or advertisement to be seen. It's hard to prove whether this is effective, but advertisers have been satisfied with it for years, with billboards, TV ads, and so on. The other day in Harvard Square I saw a bunch of women with skimpy MSN butterfly costumes on, rollerblading through the streets in late-October Boston weather. We're bombarded by ads from all directions, and it's come to the point where one ad will only stand out above the rest in exceptional circumstances like this, or in situations where very clear targetting is done. (that's why advertisers love niche web sites--a narrow demographic makes targetting easy, and targetting apparently means effective advertising)

Some sites have gone over the top with advertising, devoting almost 50% of their space to advertising in an attempt to milk their users for as many "impressions" (ad viewings) as possible. In my opinion, they end up driving people away. I think there's a balance to it, and a 468 x 60 pixel banner is possibly the largest ad any web site can afford to annoy its users with. We have very limited real estate on our computer screens, so the ratio of content to advertising on web pages must be maximized.

All this talk about ad banners might lead you to the question: Why is there an ad banner at the top of this page? Because it pays the bills, of course. It's mutually beneficial--the advertisers believe they're getting a great deal, I'm getting paid more than nothing for writing this page, and you, the reader, are hopefully getting some benefit out of my duck-billed platitudes and pretty photographs. I wish there were other ways to make money with my site, at least enough to keep it running reliably, but I can't come up with a more simple and lucrative solution.

Possible alternatives to ad banners...

A few sites have begun asking for "micropayments". The idea is that you use PayPal to send someone a small donation to maintain their web site, say $1.00 or even $0.25. Unfortunately, I've heard micropayments don't work very well, but I haven't tried the strategy myself. "Why bother paying for something that's free?" is the attitude most people take.

Other sites simply give away the information to draw people in, then optionally sell their services for money. This is how I think most company web sites should work. If I ran a web design firm, I might say, "You can read this guide on web design, or you can hire me to design a professional looking web site for you." (if I ever start a web design firm, I'll know where to begin advertising...)

A number of sites (like this one) rely on a form of product placement. For example, I often refer to interesting books on Amazon.com, and I get about 10% in commissions from sales through their associates program. This is my favorite kind of advertising, because it's actually beneficial to the reader. I'm happy with my recommendations, and I might even make a few bucks here and there. The biggest advantage of this kind of advertising is that it's integrated directly into the narrative of a web site; it's not a separate element to be ignored. It might actually be useful to the audience!

But what I'd really like to do is...

If I had the time, I'd write a book about web design, publish it myself, and sell it through this web site. If you like what I have to say here, chances are you'll be willing to shell out 15 bucks to have it on paper. Now if I only had the discipline to write an entire book on the subject of web design...

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