The Most Hated Advertising Techniques

by Jakob Nielsen on December 6, 2004

Summary: Studies of how people react to online advertisements have identified several design techniques that impact the user experience very negatively.

Advertising is an integral part of the Web user experience: people repeatedly encounter ads as they surf the Web, whether they're visiting the biggest portals, established newspapers, or tiny personal sites. Most online advertising studies have focused on how successful ads are at driving traffic to the advertiser, using simple metrics such as clickthrough rates.

Unfortunately, most studies sorely neglect the user experience of online ads. As a result, sites that accept ads know little about how the ads affect their users and the degree to which problematic advertising tricks can undermine a site's credibility. Likewise, advertisers don't know if their reputations are degraded among the vast majority of users who don't click their ads, but might well be annoyed by them.

Now, however, we have data to start addressing these questions. At my recent User Experience 2004 conference, John Boyd from Yahoo! and Christian Rohrer from eBay presented a large body of research on how users perceive online advertising. Here, I offer a few highlights from their presentation (my comments on their findings are solely my responsibility).

What's Bad

When users were asked how various aspects of online ads affected their Web experience, they rated the following attributes most negatively.

Design Element Users Answering
"Very Negatively"
or "Negatively"
Pops-up in front of your window 95%
Loads slowly 94%
Tries to trick you into clicking on it 94%
Does not have a "Close" button 93%
Covers what you are trying to see 93%
Doesn't say what it is for 92%
Moves content around 92%
Occupies most of the page 90%
Blinks on and off 87%
Floats across the screen 79%
Automatically plays sound 79%


These numbers are based on 605 respondents in 2004; similar numbers were found in 2002 and 2003.

People often have strong negative visceral reactions to ads that commit the sins listed in the table. One user, referring to an ad that automatically started playing audio, wrote: "IF ANYTHING COULD BE WORSE THAN POP-UPS, THIS IS IT. I HATE THIS AD. HATE HATE HATE."

Another user entered the following comment on a major website's feedback form: "You people should be ashamed of yourself! I did not ask to have 3 pop ups come across my screen when I visit you. I do not visit singles sites, and I don't want to add 4 inches to my penis. As a matter of fact, I don't use any of the services that pop up on my screen. I think it is disgusting that you money hungry bastards have infringed on my computer for your own selfish gain. From this moment on, I am boycotting you, and I am advising EVERYONE I know to do the same thing. Down with you and your pop up ads."

Although it vividly illustrates user frustration with pop-ups, this second comment is unfair because the site didn't host or advocate the offending ads. The ads were delivered by "spyware" that the user had unwittingly installed. In addition to showing the strong feelings engendered by intrusive or irrelevant ads, the comment also illustrates the extent to which pop-ups have become associated with unsavory content.

Users have started to defend themselves against pop-ups. The percentage of users who report using pop-up or ad-blocking software increased from 26% in April 2003 to 69% in September 2004, which is an astonishing growth rate.

Users not only dislike pop-ups, they transfer their dislike to the advertisers behind the ad and to the website that exposed them to it. In a survey of 18,808 users, more than 50% reported that a pop-up ad affected their opinion of the advertiser very negatively and nearly 40% reported that it affected their opinion of the website very negatively.

People are getting ever-more annoyed by pop-ups: During a fourteen-month period from December 2001 to February 2003, user ratings of pop-up advertisers grew more negative by almost one full rating point on a 1–7 scale.

What's Good

Not many ads are actively loved by users, but some advertising techniques do have a positive impact on the user experience. Users were particularly pleased with ads that clearly:

  • indicate what will happen if people click on them,
  • relate to what people are doing online,
  • identify themselves as advertisements,
  • present information about what they are advertising, and
  • provide additional information without having to leave the page.

These design elements are tightly connected to traditional Web usability guidelines: make the users' options clear, speak plainly, and provide the information users want.

Lessons for Websites

Sites that accept advertising should think twice before accepting ads that 80 to 90% of users strongly dislike. The resulting drop in customer satisfaction will damage your long-term prospects.

Advertisers themselves might be tempted to continue with these nasty design techniques as long as they can find sites that will run them. After all, they typically yield higher clickthrough rates. But clickthrough is not the only goal. Users who are deceived into clicking on a misleading ad might drive up your CTR, but they're unlikely to convert into paying customers. And your brand suffers a distinct negative impact when you antagonize customers and use techniques that are associated with the worst scum on the net.

Corporate websites can also learn from these studies, even if they don't run ads. Many elements that users dislike in ad design are also common in mainstream Web design, with equally bad affects. A few things to avoid:

  • Pop-ups
  • Slow load times
  • "Teasing" links, misleading categories, and other elements that trick users into clicking
  • Content that doesn't clearly state the site's purpose or what a particular page covers
  • Content that moves around the page
  • Sound that plays automatically

All of these techniques have caused problems in traditional usability studies of non-advertising sites, and I've warned against them many times before. The fact that they're associated with the most hated ads is one more reason that respectable sites should avoid them at all costs.

See Also

Making Web Advertisements Work

Our new eyetracking study of how users view search engine results pages and search ads.

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