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The Effects of the Presence of Advertising on Human Experience

Does the presence of advertising transform a website or webpage?

     
10:39 pm on Jul 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Exhibit 1: A webpage of information with no advertising.

Exhibit 2: A webpage of information with advertising.

Is there any difference in your experience?

Can you articulate exactly what that is?

What, if anything changes?

Maybe nothing. But clearly something happens when I'm overwhelmed by ads: Click. Gone. This suggests that there may be something going on at a lower threshold than that threshold that causes me/you to click away?

Just curious if anyone is tuned in to any subtle or not so subtle changes associated with the presence of ads.

I know we are encouraged to follow the heat-map but, in so doing, are we loosing something whilst gaining clicks? Maybe just a little bit of credibility . . or something else? (Maybe we're just contributing to the accumulated body of ADHD?)

Do ads alter your experience?

How?

On your website, how have you altered your ads or ad placements to respond to your personal experience of how ads effect you? How?

11:01 pm on July 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Overwhelming questions Webwork in depth needed to answer them and quantity of question marks, we could write books on this!

Here's the perspective of a full time site monetizing webmaster:

Advertising eats away at credibility

From a civilian's perspective (if I remember correctly):

Advertising eats away at credibility

No matter how tasteful, sparse, well labeled .. The ads are, you are categorized as a for profit venture in the mind of the visitor, the damage will be done and there is nothing you can do about it but invest back some of that money as services that wouldn't otherwise be available if you were subsidizing your site from your own pocket, this can include a better hosting for faster response time, a professional web design, staff to update content more regularly or grow it, buy professional expensive scripts .. This is only win/win solution between you and your visitors.

11:16 pm on July 23, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I believe this goes both ways.

Yes, ads are generally seen as obtrusive. But I believe a site with no ads whatsoever looks amateurish.

I've gone so far as create "fake ads" (banner graphics with advertising look-and-feel) for things like my other sites, etc., to put on sites that were not big enough to put adsense on.

12:24 am on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Over time, two people have told me that they prefer sites with ads - they believe the presence of advertising on a website signifies professionalism. I never heard that before; I suspect it's got to be a minority view - but I heard it from two totally different and separate people (who don't know or know of each other) about six months apart. And neither of them were webmasters or even owned websites.
12:37 am on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Are you suggesting that seasoned webmasters are representative of human experience around websites in general? I don't think those posting here can provide a perspective that isn't tainted or jaundiced by the experience of being a webmaster. A more realistic view, IMO, would come from from the ordinary internet user on the street.

Let's pose two scenarios:

1. My site is mostly pure narrative content with a box surrounded by text that contains links to other useful sites and resources (not advertising, mind you).

2. My site is as above, except the box contains the same types of links with the "Ads by Google" addition.

In number one, I'm a really good netizen providing a useful service to my visitors.

In number two suddenly everything changes. My site is an example of cheap commercialism, probably bordering on being an MFA in the eyes of many who post on these boards.

I've had conversations with regular users where I've mentioned the Google ads. Often I've gotten a "huh, those are ads? Gee I didn't realize that".

Many of us here are much too influenced by our experience to be able to furnish a truly objective view IMO.

[edited by: Go60Guy at 12:40 am (utc) on July 24, 2007]

12:52 am on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I think it depends, to a great extent, on the ads.

- If Joe User is visiting widget-cameras.com and sees a display ad for Canon or Nikon, the advertising makes the site look more professional and legit.

- If Joe User is visiting widget-cameras.com and sees a display ad for debt consolidation or ringtones, the advertising may or may not hurt the user's perception about the site, but it certainly won't help it.

With AdSense text ads, the situation may be less clear because all ads look pretty much the same and many users may not even notice the ads. When users do notice the ads, it probably helps if the ads are relevant.

Also, if ads are too overwhelming, the user may not want to stick around the site. I've been looking at a lot of camera reviews lately, and I invariably bail out on pages that have a few paragraphs of text interspersed between AdSense ad units, price-comparison ads, display ads, etc. Why? Because I see so much crap on the Web that I've learned to know crap when I see it, and I know that I can always back up to a Google SERP and look for a less crappy alternative.

1:45 am on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Lets face it. Prestigious newspaper and magazines have ads. TV and radio have
ads. People (civilians)are use to and expect a certain amount of ads in all
commercial media, including websites. People know that ads pay the freight on
almost any media exposure. I think the only tipping point might be the amount
and taste of ads. Too many and too tacky turns them off! KF
2:26 am on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I think the only tipping point might be the amount and taste of ads. Too many and too tacky turns them off!

That's the difference between a weekly newspaper and a weekly shopper, or a magazine and a direct-mail flyer. There's no reason why the same user perceptions shouldn't rule on the Web.

3:21 am on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Damn, guys (gals?), all very interesting, seasoned and circumspect analysis. So good, in fact, that it may help me to better understand my own "what's bugging me" question.

Maybe the real question is: Is there an approach to advertising - a method, an approach, a presentation of advertising - that is best calculated to not impair credibility, apparent authority or user experience?

I'm not sure ads improve user experience. Maybe they can by offering another channel to "useful, related other content". Maybe. Maybe to be determined, at least in part, by the quality and relevance of the ads themselves and the quality and relevance of the advertising sites too.

I understand that Time or Forbes magazine has to make money other than by my subscription. However, there are occassions where I will visit a magazine's website and I'm turned off by the volume of promotional activity on the home page. It's the "Weekly Shopper" experience, online, delivered by major media.

So, I think we'd all agree that there's a threshold issue. There's such a thing as "too much". Therefore, is it possible, that there is a sliding scale off too much?

Maybe I expect a lot a junk and noise on a comic or joke or entertainment page online, but the more serious the subject matter the lower my tolerance or threshold? I can pretty much vouch for this in my own experience. The more sober the material the less "present" do I want to find the advertising, but even on pages of the most serious subject I can accept an ad so long as it's relevant, "respectful" (not animated, screeching monkeys), and not inserted right in the middle of the page.

For example, on a health/medical site I can accept about 50% of the ads that I might find on a mainstream business media site.

On a travel and tourism site I might accept 1 or 2 more ads than on a page in an online business journal.

So, medical site = 1 or 2 discrete ads, business journal 3 or 4 non-screaming ads, travel and tourism website maybe 4-5-6 ads, nicely blended and on topic offering different services and spread around the page.

Am I making sense? Do you see any of this sort of discernment in the way you view pages and websites? More ads on pages related to certain subject matter pages is no offense. Same number of ads on a page dedicated to a different topic . . and the ad load is bothersome?

Anyone care to offer a matrix of acceptable advertising? (I wonder if there's actually any studies on space dedicated to ads and reader acceptance - in the context of varying subject matter and subject matter websites?)

[edited by: Webwork at 3:29 am (utc) on July 24, 2007]

5:29 am on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I am not sure you can muster a consensus on whats constitutes an acceptable
amount of advertising in any given media venue. To some people three adds are too many, to others twenty three ads are OK. Lets not forget that ads are the
windows into the market place. Rather than cruise the local mall once a week
you can set in the coziness of your own home and shop in comfort for all your
wants and needs. My mother reads the newspaper not for the editorials, the sports or the entertainment page. She reads it for the ads. Its her odd way of staying current in the world. Advertising plays a major part in the economy of
the world. Without ads products wouldn't get sold, jobs created or commerce to flourish. Like them or not, they are important and they are here to stay! KF

[edited by: King_Fisher at 5:31 am (utc) on July 24, 2007]

9:19 am on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Does the presence of advertising transform a website or webpage?

I think it depends on several factors.

First, and I think, most importantly - is there any content on the site? Take away the ads on some sites, and all that is left is - nothing. Or some scraped, useless sentences. However, if there is something that is still valuable, then some people might go ahead and access your content. If your content is unique and first class, then they will more likely (than not) access the content.

Second question, and almost as important as the first question, is: How subtle are the ads presented in combination with the content? Now, if it is clearly visible where your responsibility ends and where the ad starts (and thus the responsibility of Google and ultimately the advertiser begins) then people might like your site. You give to them the power to decide for themselves. They want to see commercial stuff? That's where the ads enter the stage. They want to browse your content? They're welcome to do so. Blending does only help temporarily with your goals. People WILL be confused about your site and its usability. Sometimes they might even feel that they have been tricked into clicking. And confused/irritated people rarely come back, unless they are soo confused/irritated that they forgot your site right away. Not the perfect target group IMO.

Finally, the ratio between useful content and identifiable ads on the page is important. If the content is downplayed by the ads, you will have a hard time to get happy visitors or returning visitors. But I would not say that "the less (ads) the merrier" because that would imply that no ads are most welcome. I don't think this is true. In my experience, people accept one ad per page of useful content, maybe even two - and STILL perceive the site as valuable. On the other hand, one of the sites in my filter list, has unique content, but it is all below the fold (i.e. I have to scroll down a full screen before being able to access this content). And it's an eCommerce site. They want to sell me something. Above the folds are just ads, er, "sponsored links". This is not a good user experience. (And yes, that's why they are in my filter.)

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen has done some excellent studies on this - some time ago he measured the pixel size used by certain elements of the page (e.g. browser elements, navigation, advertising, content, empty, and so on). I suggest that you do this with your pages as well and check how this turns out.

I prefer unique quality content with one ad per page that is easily identifiable.

11:10 am on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I have a few things that bother me these days.

1) Any popups are an immediate turnoff - especially the ones that break through.

2) Any flashing colors on the page is an immediate back button.

3) Some sites have a full page-ad that you need to click a close ad button to get by... hate these.

4) My local weather channel yanks the navigation strip down just as you are about to click on it in order to display the ad.. drives me nuts. If it happens again I'm going to call them.

Most other ads are tolerable as long as I can start reading the content without scrolling down first.

On my sites I'm trying to stick to a single ad on a page (although I'm testing referrals now) and moving more and more to flowing content around ad. CTR goes down but I sleep better.

2:16 pm on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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...Any popups are an immediate turnoff - especially the ones that break through...Some sites have a full page-ad that you need to click a close ad button to get by... hate these.

I think standards and user expectations change over time. Traditional pop-ups and pop-unders have always been a turnoff for many (and probably most) users, because they clutter up the screen unless they're closed manually. Links within the text that launch text-obscuring pop-up ads are also annoying, because they interrupt what the user is already reading.

On the other hand, interstitial ads that have a "close" link, or ads that float across the page and then disappear, have gone mainstream and are likely to be tolerated far more today than they were when they were introduced. They may get in the user's way, but they're fairly benign because (a) they don't linger more than a few seconds, (b) they require no user action, and (c) they don't interrupt the flow of reading. Such ads are now commonplace on respected media sites like Washingtonpost.com and NYTimes.com, so they're likely to be taken for granted and tolerated by the average reader (at least on a site with instrinsically valuable editorial content that's up front instead of being hard to find).

3:48 pm on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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First, and I think, most importantly - is there any content on the site?

Sometimes advertising is the content.

Craigslist is all advertising.

You could argue that eBay is primarily advertising if you consider each auction listing to be an ad.

It's all relative.

----------------

As for the amount of advertising on a page/site, when comparing newspapers/magazines to a website, remember that space availability considerations are less of a factor on the Internet.

I can make my web pages as long as I want, or easily and at practically zero cost add more pages. A newspaper or magazine doesn't have that flexibility. They have to make a decision with each issue on the maximum amount of content and advertising that will be included.

FarmBoy

4:21 pm on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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As a webmaster, I hate other peoples ads.

Going back in time before I had a website. I thought ooh they must be a big/important website/company as they have ads from big name brands. I had no idea what affiliates were and had never heard of them. I assumed the website owners must be in direct contact. I still said back then I hated ads, but trusted the site more as they had ads from companies I assumed wouldn't play with small fry.

Then I found out how easy it was to become an affiliate and my opinions fell through the floor.

These days "ads by goo" make me sick.

As an aside siteadvisor (mcaffe i think) gave a better trust rating of a site with affiliate ads.

4:32 pm on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Much depends on what the reader is looking for.

If they want a product or service, then ads relative to their search are of course relevant and of value.

If they just want information, then finding out about Henry IIIV won't be enhanced by ads, UNLESS they want to know more about a museum, book, castle etc.

There are NO fixed rules about this, and my belief is that a personal judgement by the person who pays for the website to be online, is the best starting point as to whether he/she should include ads.

Forget all the stuff about a 'better user experience' because its the bottom line that counts, and if profit can be made without prejudicing the website's overall appearance, then go for it, if that's what you want.

4:38 pm on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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My personal litmus test is whether or not the ad(s) get in the way of getting to where I want to be, or the information I want to get. If I have to shut down a pop-up, or click on a transitional page, or watch a 30 second video first - I might go ahead with it if I *really* want what's on the other side - but I probably won't come back again. And eventually, when I get sick enough of it, I won't do that first click either.

Ads that are off the side where I can notice them but they don't get in the way of the content - I have no problem with those whatsoever, and believe they can actually provide value. But then, I've been in the marketing game in some form or another for many many years, so I'm sure my vision is skewed.

5:11 pm on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I'm particularly interested in reading each poster's report of their individual experience: How do you respond? What are your triggers, filters, thresholds, limits, signals?

Some interesting stuff.

What's your tolerance level for ads in distinct verticals, such as:

  • Travel and Tourism
  • Finance/Banking Information Pages
  • Investing Information Pages
  • Medical Information
  • College/Tech Education Pages
  • Music Related
  • Entertainment Related
  • Product & Review: Tech
  • Product & Review: Non-Tech
  • Resource Page: Directory Type
  • Forum Pages
  • Blog Pages

Do you feel like you have an internal sliding scale of advertising tolerance? What's the settings on your internal exit alarm?

5:20 pm on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I believe a site with no ads whatsoever looks amateurish.

What?

5:34 pm on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Do you feel like you have an internal sliding scale of advertising tolerance? What's the settings on your internal exit alarm?

I have a very low tolerance for ads about debt consolidation, pharmaceuticals, dating, and other topics that are favorites of e-mail spammers. My inbox is flooded with such junk, so why should I tolerate it on Web pages?

I also get impatient (and bail out quickly) if a "review site" or technology site consists mostly of price-comparison links and AdSense ads. But this has less to do with verticals than it does with site content and layout.

5:50 pm on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I think Netmeg said it best:

My personal litmus test is whether or not the ad(s) get in the way of getting to where I want to be, or the information I want to get.

One small group of visitors who matter a great deal is people who have websites of their own and might link to you. They'd often be less willing to do so if you've gone overboard with ads versus content.

If you resist the temptation to stick an ad in every hot spot you might give up some short term profits, but over time a site that exercises some restraint will find it easier to gain links. The benefits of that should not be overlooked.

6:54 pm on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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there are occassions where I will visit a magazine's website and I'm turned off by the volume of promotional activity on the home page.

I would suggest that's because the advertising may be poorly matched to the content. Very likely nobody clicks on the ads and the only purpose they serve is keeping their product top of mind. I worked at a San Francisco based magazine many years ago. Their site received about a million visits a month. But virtually nobody was clicking on the ads for HP Computers. In my opinion, it was a poor match between site content and ad content. Bad effect on the human experience. No donut for you. :(

Is there an approach to advertising - a method, an approach, a presentation of advertising - that is best calculated to not impair credibility, apparent authority or user experience?

My approach has been to conceptualize the advertising blocks as blocks of content. The question to ask is: How do these blocks of content integrate with those blocks of content? An article about five hundred dollar GPS enabled shavers that take pictures underwater can be illustrated with a photo of the product. Of course you need a photo, it brightens up the article, everybody enjoys a picture of what you're discussing. You see it all the time in magazines from The Economist to People. It works, it's a perfect fit.

Now you link it with your affiliate code with a gentle suggestion in small type beneath the image, Available at WonderShavers.com.... 30% Off. The ad compliments the content.

The downside is that maintenance is higher than simply slapping up banners or adsense code. Product sells out so you have to keep an eye on that. Bummer. :( The upside is that my site visitors click the ads and buy stuff they are enthusiastic about, and they likely found the ads useful to their lives within that context. Good effect on the human exeperience. ;)-Y

It's not if your ads fit the content: It's about your content being relevant to the ads.
What it boils down to for me is, does the content complement the ads? Do the ads offer something the content is missing? Is the content appropriate for selling specific items? Or is the content too broad in scope?

An article about the planet Saturn is edifying and worthwhile reading. So is an article about how to select the best telescope to view Saturn.

  • Which article will sell telescopes, and why?
  • In which article will users find telescope ads useful and non-intrusive?
7:49 pm on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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An article about the planet Saturn is edifying and worthwhile reading. So is an article about how to select the best telescope to view Saturn.

* Which article will sell telescopes, and why?
* In which article will users find telescope ads useful and non-intrusive?

It probably isn't a question of which article will sell telescopes, but what audience will buy telescopes. An ad for an expensive telescope in Sky and Telescope is likely to be more successful than the same ad in a general magazine, because the Sky and Telescope audience is willing to spend money on telescopes.

8:01 pm on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Like a lot of folks, I'm mostly "ad blind." Especially those which center on finding old classmates, or punching a monkey to win a prize.

I never click text ads and I seldom click image banners. However, if those banners are related to a particular article I'm reading and they're aesthetically pleasing, I may be interested. I also tend to trust banners from larger, well-known businesses.

But as someone else mentioned earlier, I think we (web guys and gals) have a difficult time understanding the average users view of ads. Not all users know that financial transactions take place as a result of their clicks.

I think the effects of advertising similar to IT professional under age 20 yrs who use the Windows OS and have never experienced the many phases of DOS. Everything is s GUI to them, so they don't know what it's like to be without it. Similarly, folks under age 18 yr don't know the web without ads. To them, it's part of a web page they expect to see. This is, IMO, why Google and other online advertising businesses must create "heat-maps" and other strategies for making ads more visible to a blind generation of surfers.

9:16 pm on July 24, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I think (as has already efffectively been said), it depends on the purpose of the website. Yes, magazines have adverts, but product brochures do not.
If your site is a general topic based site, I don't think ads are a problem and in fact can be useful for the visitor who reads your content and then needs somewhere else to go. If however it's a site about your business and designed to promote your business, then yes will probably be a turn off.
1:02 am on July 25, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I think this discussion highlights the need for more research. Web types spend a lot of time and money on SEO tinkering that would be better spent on well-designed reader research, something print and broadcast media have done well for years.
6:11 am on July 25, 2007 (gmt 0)

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>>>>but product brochure do not<<<<

Product brochures are by their very nature an ad!KF

7:10 am on July 25, 2007 (gmt 0)

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"Not all users know that financial transactions take place as a result of their clicks."

I think "not all" is an understatement at least. A large majority of users do not recognise this, in countries where the Internet population is very high, as the United States, a very great percentage of seniors who did not work on websites or IT and are actually big spenders do not know and if they knew they would not care less, that is, buying from the website they are visiting or buying from a seller they reach through an affiliate link does not make for them any difference, on the contrary, provides a service.

In my experience of my visitors in the tourist field - derived from bounce rates, time spent and other statistics - the majority of those who leave my site through an affiliate link have necessarily spent at least on the page the time necessary to reach the possible affiliate link - which I keep well targeted to the page content - or the adsense block, which usually offers well-matched ads. I also like to keep the user's experience smooth and pleasant with blending and white labels in the affiliation pages.

In my own experience as a surfer, using a fast DSL connection, I hate popups and all kinds of intrusive ads to the point that I just click back since I do not want to waste my time - which is limited - on closing windows or waiting for content to appear. But I am surfing for work, and I understand that the majority of surfers will just be browsing in their free time, so wasting precious seconds might not be of such great importance for them. Which means that the limit of acceptable ads - or better, the percentage of the best (sea heat map) pixels occupied by ads - will be tied IMO to the visitors' demographics, if possible at all.

The adsense advise on placing a leaderboard after some content is great both on my webmaster's experience and on my surfing experience. As a visitor, I start scanning the page as soon as it begins to load, I blind myself unintentionally to all big ads at top and I just abandon if I cannot find content within some seconds. So if I have started my reading before the ads load, if the content is interesting enough, I go on reading also when the ads load and give a look at the ads too.

I may be biased on this, but I apply this also in a large part to my websites formula: the visitor that clicks on my ads and affiliate links has already stayed on the page the time to read at least a couple of paragraphs. This derives however from my being part of the community of my visitors as to interests, age group and the like.

11:33 am on July 25, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Personally, I use AdBlock. And that pretty much solves my problem. It's lovely using an ad-free Internet. :)

But working in an online marketing agency sort of impedes me using adblock at work :)

I've heard many perspectives:
a) sites look amateurish without ads
b) sites with big brand advertisers 'look' more professional
c) ads are disgusting
d) google ads are even more disgusting

I pretty much understand all points of view. It is sort of sad that people rate a website's credibility by it's ads (if any) - a side-effect of the beautiful capitalist world we live in **10 tonnes of sarcasm** (we are so used to it: tv, radio, print, internet - it it has no ads, it must be amateurish!)

Then again, I would say, without proper statistics, that the average internet user doesn't even know or understand the concept of google adsense. let alone being able to distinguish it!

I suppose this debate could go on forever. But personally, as I said before, I am very happy with adblock :)

12:34 pm on July 25, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Whilst you're ingesting this topic you might also want to take a look at the companion thread about subdued (more subtle) contextual advertising. [webmasterworld.com]

If ad-delivery/ad-click latency is a weighted signal in guaging quality of content (smart pricing) might a more subtle approach be a good idea?

Ya, you get more "insta-clicks" by loading/featuring ads "above the fold" (in your visitor's face) but, at the same time, by doing so might you be sending the smart pricing algorithm a signal (by the volume of speedy clicks) that your content sucks? (This is really an issue for the other thread, linked above, if you want to address this comment. I've inserted this here only because I see a possibly useful or helpful connection between the distinct topics of the 2 threads.)

[edited by: Webwork at 12:49 pm (utc) on July 25, 2007]

This 38 message thread spans 2 pages: 38