Jakob Nielsen has released another eyetracking study that throws unethical advertising techniques into the spotlight. Only this time, it is from a publisher's perspective, and while interesting it's nothing particularly new.

The study investigates the effectiveness of 'making ads look like content', and concludes that more users will take notice of such an ad.

Nielsen was initially unsure about making his findings public, presumably out of fear that greater amounts of publishers would bastardise the user experience to keep their advertisers happy.

He writes:

"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."

This isn't a new observation, but it is an important one, especially if you have a website and a Google Adsense account.

Indeed, we've previously discussed the fact that many Google users don’t know the difference between an organic listing and a paid ad on Google itself. I wonder why that is? Maybe it's something to do with the fact that they pretty much look the same. Colours, font, font sizes. All the same.

So it could be a disguised attack on Mother Google, but Jakob's not usually too reserved when it comes to naming and shaming big bad websites.

Google, meanwhile, recognised this years ago. Many Adsense-reliant bloggers have also taken note of this technique. Ads wearing 'content camouflage', that is.

In particular, a lot of folks sat up and started listening when they heard that Jason Calacanis was pulling in $1,000,000 a year from Adsense. In an interview he revealed a few key tips and tricks, specifically, with regards to what made the biggest difference:

1. Taking off the borders around the advertisement...

2. Making the links the same color as the links on the blog.

He had another, not unrelated observation: "We sold out of leaderboards on our big blogs, so we figured we could slip the thin horizontal banner without it feeling like too much advertising. People tend to like - or not care about - Google Adsense ads. Which is great compared to graphical banners which people sometimes hate." Consumer apathy about attempts to sell to them? I doubt it. I reckon this is because they don't know that these little text-based non-bordered 'boxes' are, in fact, adverts.

Google goes one step further. It has released guidelines on how to optimize Adsense, and sure enough, there is a lot of attention paid to making things blend in. Google "recommends using colors for your ad text and links that already exist on your site". Why? Because it generates clicks, that's why. Doh!

So is this swinish practice, or is it smart practice? And where does the line start and stop... if you mark the start of the ad space as 'Sponsored Links', as Google does, then Is That Enough?

Chris Lake

Published 20 August, 2007 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (5)

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at EconsultancyStaff

I guess these findings aren't exactly surprising as you say. The question then, for a media owner, is whether doing this form of 'disguised' advertising damages your prospects in the long term?

Clearly, in the short term, you can drive higher click through rates and therefore make more money from Google. But how much are you annoying your users? Will they come back? Are you "burning" your attention equity to your longer term detriment?

You would imagine that the answer must be yes. However, there are plenty of sites out there (a lot of affiliate sites certainly) who don't get, nor rely on, *repeat* usage. They probably don't really care about repeat customers. Their model is to use free content to drive as much traffic as possible via search engines and then monetise that traffic by selling it on via clicks. Do they really need to care about repeat traffic? If not, then perhaps it makes sense just to get as many paying clicks as they can?

I think the above may be true, and may well be a viable business approach. I'm not sure it's very "ethical" though.

One site that does this is Seniority.co.uk e.g. look at http://www.seniority.co.uk/contributions/health/ - you can see how well 'disguised' the ads are. They look like navigation to me. This seems to me to be particularly unethical given the site is supposed to be for the over 50s who probably don't know about Google ads and just get confused as they get routed off round the web.

I'd be interested in what Dave Chaffey has to say about this topic. If you have a look at http://www.davechaffey.com/news as an example the Google ads in the top strip and the top right seem very much like navigation to me. Then there are more ads throughout the content and at the bottom which follow 'best practice' in having no border, the design reflects the site etc. I have no doubt that these deliver a MUCH better clickthrough rate (and therefore payout) but how 'ethical' are they? Perhaps Dave's audience should know better?

Ashley Friedlein

almost 11 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at EconsultancyStaff

p.s. what I also find annoying (or even "deceitful" / "malicious"?) about the Google Ad links is that when you hover over them to try and find out where the destination URL is (e.g. is this going to take me somewhere I don't want to go), it doesn't show anything.

Is this just my browser (Firefox)? Is it something that can be enabled / dissabled in the ad settings? Is it a cunning trick by Google to increase click through rates (and therefore drive revenue) by *making* people click just to find out where the link goes?


almost 11 years ago

Dave Chaffey

Dave Chaffey, Digital Marketing Consultant, Trainer, Author and Speaker at SmartInsights.com


I think the Nielsen data has implications beyond publishers using Google AdSense and advertisers advertising on the content network in Google AdWords.

His findings show that all commercial site owners need to think more like AdSense site owners. All site owners can learn that by integrating their promotional banners and calls-to-action better with the site through use of similar style / colour - they can avoid the ‘banner blindness’ that his eyetracking highlights. There is a classic example of this phenomenon on the site in this eyetracking example: http://www.etre.com/usability/eyetracking/showme/.

Ashley, you suggest that the ads on my sites are misleading / unethical – naturally I disagree. Site visitors click when they see a relevant ‘scent trail’ from a text ad – just as if it’s a link within your body copy encouraging visitors to subscribe. I have simply optimised my site to show relevant links for site visitors to continue their journey - as have many of the sites on the AdSense network – Google even sends site owners automated suggestions and has case studies on other sites on these approaches.

The reason I push the envelope on this is more as a testbed of which ad placements and formats works and which don’t. It also helps me advise other site owners on which placements and formats work well. For example, integrated with / above content or left sidebar work particularly well.

I certainly disagree this is unethical and if it is, then you’re implying that the c40% of Google’s revenue that it makes from its content network is unethical. All ads are clearly marked as Google Ads and the reason they get such great clickthroughs (up to 10 times higher than equivalent display / graphic ads) is simply because they are relevant through context.

The links below the horizontal nav are if you like, the least ethical, but these are also labelled as ads and if a site visitor does click then they are presented with a standard set of sponsored links – clearly ads - and no-one is forcing the searcher to click – they select a relevant link and only at this point does the advertiser pay.

If a marketer looking at my recommendations on email tools (e.g. http://www.davechaffey.com/email-tools) and sees a relevant ad from a supplier then the context is right and it's no surprise you get a relatively good clickthrough.

Anyway, all this does mean that Adwords advertisers need to be very careful how they treat the content network, e.g. switching it off, lower max CPCs, different creative, etc as we explain in the E-consultancy Best Practice Guide to Paid Search.

If we’re talking unethical then I think many forms of affiliate marketing, I would point the finger at for example PPC affiliates which have clickthroughs to lists of sites ordered in terms of their EPC – not much value ad for the searcher there.

Dave Chaffey (www.davechaffey.com)

almost 11 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at EconsultancyStaff

Hi Dave

I think 'unethical' is too strong a word... And clearly I encourage testing to find out what works ;)

Perhaps 'confusing' is better, or 'unclear'? I guess the question is - do users ever click on what is an ad without realising it is an ad? I'm sure they must do. Even if it is contextually relevant, is this right?

As far as I understand it in other media the laws are quite strict on ensuring that consumers are made very aware what is advertising and what is editorial content. Although, I must say I see this often gets quite grey in some magazines where an advert is made to look very much like a feature article or as 'content'.

I fear the reality is that very few people actually like ads, or actively *want* to see ads. "Banner blindness" happens because users get to know what ads look like, so they can avoid them. Hence we are now talking about integrating ads into content in a way which feels like disguising them as ads so users don't turn a blind eye to them?


almost 11 years ago

Dave Chaffey

Dave Chaffey, Digital Marketing Consultant, Trainer, Author and Speaker at SmartInsights.com

OK. So a proportion of websites users may click on ad units since they are 'potentially misleading' and appear as content or nav. If so, this is part of a learning process and they will get to watch for the 'Ads by Google' or 'Advertisment' flag.

But the remainder will click proactively, because the ad is relevant and they may then convert.

For advertisers, all that matters is that they can get an ROI or branding impact from the content network. So they need to evaluate it separately to Direct PPC Search and how it integrates with the rest of the digital comms mix. Then they can decide how to treat it.

I know several cases where switching off the content network entirely as part of a test has been detrimental and it has been re-enabled.

Dave Chaffey

almost 11 years ago

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