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?