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Text Advertising Blindness: The New Banner Blindness?

Justin W. Owens, Barbara S. Chaparro, and Evan M. Palmer

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 6, Issue 3, May 2011, pp. 172 - 197

Article Contents


In this study, target information was located either within the content of the web page, in a top text ad region, or in a side text ad region. The success of participants during Content target location trials (82%) and the advertising related target location trials (Top Ad target location, 52.9%; Side Ad target location, 36.8%) indicate that locating target information within advertising areas was more difficult for participants, particularly in the side location. The high failure rates of locating targets within advertising areas suggest that users tend to ignore areas that are related to text advertising. Several metrics, including task success, task difficulty, task duration, fixation count, fixation duration, and AOI rank order support the notion of text advertisement blindness.

Rayner (1998) stated that cognitive workload is correlated with fixation duration and differs by task type. However, there were no differences in fixation duration between the two different search types (semantic and exact). This indicates that exact and semantic searches resulted in similar cognitive workloads. Fixation duration did differ according to AOI. Participant fixations in Side Ad AOIs resulted in longer fixations, signifying increased cognitive workload while searching side ads.

If participants were ignoring advertisements, it would be expected that the Top Ad AOI would be searched after the Content AOI was scanned and few differences in task duration would be noted. Instead, rank order analysis of first fixations in AOIs indicated that there were no differences in rank for Content and Top Ad AOIs. A possible explanation may be that the Top Ad AOI was situated between the content, main navigation, sub-navigation, and Side Ad AOI. Not only does this place the Top Ad AOI in the scan path when the participant moves from navigation regions to the Content AOI, but would be consistent with Rayner's (1998) explanation that individuals initially direct their eye focus to the global center of displays. Additionally, it is consistent with Burke et al.’s (2005) finding that participants make anticipatory eye movements to the top banner region before the display of the stimulus. Perhaps a more plausible explanation for the observed behavior is that participants treated the Top Ad AOI as part of the content resulting in a less thorough search of the region. This seems likely given less than 50% of participants reported recall of advertisements in the Top Ad AOI, while 92% of participants reported advertisements in the Side Ad AOI. If they were seen strictly as advertisements, similar success rates would have been expected between Top and Side Ad AOIs (52.9% vs. 36.8%). Additionally, the order the Top Ad and Content AOIs were visited and the number of fixations on each AOI differed depending on whether the participants considered the Top Ad AOI as advertisements. When the Top Ad AOI was treated as content, this essentially became the beginning of the content of the web page for the user.

It is possible that users experienced a similar phenomenon in Buscher et al. (2010) in terms of ad/content congruency. When the advertisements were semantically congruent with the search results, participants fixated the top ad region more than the organic search results. When the ads were not congruent, participants fixated more towards the search results. Additionally, no differences depending on congruency were noted in the right ad AOI. Buscher et al.’s findings were very similar to results of this study.

Changes in search strategy during advertising related tasks were supported further by whole page fixation counts for successful trials. Semantic searches required participants to read content on the website to get the gist of the information and determine whether they were looking in an appropriate location instead of looking for more specific information contained within phrases that were used in exact searches. As expected, fixation counts between search types increased at the same rate for Content and Top Ad target locations. However, in Side Ad target location trials there was no difference between fixation counts. This supports the notion that there was a change in search strategy. Generally, semantic type targets garnered more fixations due to the increased density of fixations from reading than for exact searches, which were more amenable to page scanning. The differences between semantic and exact searches reflect this relationship in Content and Top Ad target location trials, including the small increase in the semantic search condition in the Top Ad target location trials. It could be that the increases in whole page fixation counts between searches for targets in the Content and Top Ad target locations are related to the Top Ad AOI being scanned after the Content AOI. However, there were no differences in rank order for both AOIs, except when rank fixation order was examined in terms of whether the Top Ad AOI was perceived as advertising. When the Top Ad AOI was thought of as advertisements, participants fixated first and more often on the Content AOI. Whether the Top Ad AOI was classified as being related to the content or as advertisements had no bearing on whether the participants were successful in their task.

The findings of this study support the EHS theory of search (Grier et al., 2007). The initial search of the content area matches the expected location searches. It is probable that because the main content areas were already searched, users began engaging in heuristic searches and subsequent systematic searches of the advertising areas.


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