Are Searchers Looking at Pay Per Click Ads? Latest Research Says Yes!

Since the late 1990’s, research has shown that Internet users are “functionally blind” to ads on a web page. In 2005, Burke, Hornof, Nilsen, and Gorman concluded,

Eye tracking data reveal people rarely look directly at banners. A post hoc memory test confirms low banner recall and, surprisingly, that animated banners are more difficult to remember than static look-alikes. Results have implications for cognitive modeling and Web design.

Top and Right are Deadly Locations for Banners

This “banner blindness” is particularly high when banner advertisements are located on the top or right of a web page. Unfortunately for us marketers, those are the locations most offered for ad space.

I’ve fought many a battle with trade publications about where and how to format ad space. I’ve won some and lost some. In those cases where I’ve convinced the magazine to place the ads in a different location – one that isn’t already associated with advertising – the ads have produced well. When stuck in the typical banner space, the ads do poorly.

It’s interesting to see publications like Industrial Laser Solutions now offering banner space that expands as you open the web page, converting the ad from a typical banner size to one that encompasses most of the page space above the fold.

What About Text-Based Pay Per Click Ads?

In a 2011 study on banner blindness and text advertising, Owens, Chaparro, and Palmer concluded that users are now exhibiting banner blindness to text ads, just like display and banner ads.

Hmmm…based on the results of our clients’ PPC programs, I’m not convinced.

As previously covered in this blog, I am particularly interested in the research of Professor Soussan Djamasbi in the User Experience & Decision Making Research Lab at WPI. Her newest paper is, “Do Ads Matter? An Exploration of Web Search Behavior, Visual Hierarchy, and Search Engine Results Pages.” Djamasbi joined with fellow WPI researchers Assistant Professor Adrienne Hall Phillips and Ruijiao (Rachel) Yang (a former student of mine ☺ ). Using eye tracking experiments, they investigated how users view list formatted search engine ads. For those of us in the biz, these are also known as pay per click ads, like Google AdWords.

According to the authors,

Although location and type of search is a factor, users ignore ads unless perceived to be useful in completing their search task. We speculate users continue to exhibit this type of behavior because of the over-saturation of advertisements that tend to clutter the tops and sides of the web page. Would the presence of ads affect the attention to the returned search results? Do users spend more time looking at ads than at entries?

The WPI research asked study participants to search Google for specific keyword phrases. Eye tracking studies were then used to generate heat maps of viewing behavior. Results are shown in Figure 1.

NOTE: I am concerned that the phrases used generated only top of page ads (ads located above the search results). Google also displays ads down the right hand side of the SERP. Those were not included in this study.

Users Do Look at PPC Ads

The good news is this research showed that users do, in fact, look at text-based search engine ads. In this study, 77% of users look at the ads.

The analysis of the heat maps indicated that users looked at the advertisements and the top entries of the SERPs. The fixation patterns for these users appear to favor the top portion of the entries, including the advertisements if present. Users seem to neglect the lower portion of the page, including the numbers listed for the additional pages of results.

We expected all the users to ignore the advertisements generated by Google that were presented in the SERP. However, to our surprise, 77% of the users, who were presented ads, looked at the ads, contradicting the theory of banner blindness.

We discovered that users looked at more entries (entries 1 – 9) when there were no ads, but only six entries (entry 1 – 6) when ads were present. This is consistent with competition for attention theory, suggesting that when ads were present, fewer entries were viewed.

When at least one advertisement was presented, 9% of the subjects clicked on an entry (as opposed to scrolling) as their first action. Nearly 54% of the subjects clicked on an entry as their first action when there were no ads presented. The amount of time it takes for the user to get to their first action (clicking or scrolling) has a significant relationship with the number of ads on the page. As the number of ads decreases, so does the first action duration.

As an interesting side note, even when searching for free products or services, users still look at the PPC ads.

We expected that users who were looking for [the keyword phrase] ‘free screen recording’ would not look at advertisements, because these ads were for paid software products. However, our results showed that the users did look at the ads, although they knew they were required to look for free offerings. We believe that this is good news for marketers, since the ads get attention even at times when users are not necessarily looking for their products. However, our results showed that regardless of the number of ads present, users still only looked at one ad. This highlights the importance of ranking of ads on SERPs.

The problem is that the #1 PPC rank also results in extraneous clicks…clicks that you have to pay for. Some are people who click but didn’t mean to, some are students doing research but have no intention of buying, some are people who misread or misinterpreted your ad, etc.

Btw, what about for the search engines themselves? Obviously they love their advertisers and their ad budgets. Are there any negative implications of having ads run on their SERPs?

Our findings also suggest that the presence of ads had an impact on the number of entries that were viewed following the ads. When ads were present, fewer entries were viewed. This suggests that ads had a negative impact on how deep the search results were examined. This in turn, may result in a negative impact on user experience by discouraging users from fully utilizing the search results presented.

This leads me back to my prior post, “Is Google Making Us Stupid, A Marketer’s Perspective.” As we learn to search and browse through vast amounts of online info, our brains are changing (thanks to their neuroplasticity). We are becoming better at broad but shallow reading vs reading in depth.

Congrats if you make it to the end of this post. Lol

ISA’s “Preparing Sales to Sell a New Solution” Webinar

On January 31st, ISA’s Marketing & Sales Summit hosted a (virtual) standing-room only crowd for their webinar, “Preparing Sales to Sell a New Solution.” Matt Leary, Principal at Solutions Insights, and Dr. Peter Martin, VP at Invensys Operations Management, wow’d the crowd with practical advice and been-there-done-that examples.

Thank you to our speakers and also to the attendees. We received rave reviews during and after the session. As requested, we are making the slides and video available as follows:

Sales presentation slides

Sales presentation video


The 8th Annual ISA Marketing & Sales Summit is being held September 11-13, 2013. This year we’ll be at the gorgeous W Hotel in New Orleans. You’ll hear speakers like Matt and Peter on a wide range of marketing and sales topcis. Find out more at

We have a full schedule of webinars planned between now and September. The next ISA Marketing & Sales webinar is:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013, noon – 1pm eastern
“Do You Know Why Your Customers Do What They Do? Qualitative Research is Your Best Friend,” by Joy Ward. Details coming shortly.

Is Google Making Us Stupid? A Marketer’s View

This isn’t just an attention grabbing headline. Something’s going on with the way our brains work and it’s especially prevalent with the younger generation. Is Google making us stupid? it’s a great question first asked several years ago by tech author Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic. Now he’s got a whole series of books on the subject.

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I can relate. And so can many people I’ve talked to about this. These days I find I’m much better at skimming. It takes more of an effort to go deep into a book or article. I don’t think that’s an age issue (I hope!) as much as a retraining of my brain issue. To be fair, it’s not just Google’s fault. There are many forces at work on our brains.

USA Today had a major impact on writing styles since it first appeared in 1982. Readers gravitated to their shorter articles, bullet points, and data-filled graphics (today they’re called “infographics.”) So we marketers started to get to the point faster in our writing and used bullet points…lots of bullet points. Unfortunately, USA Today may be at the end of its days thanks to the Internet.

The Internet’s effect on our brains is best exemplified by Google. Google’s value proposition is helping people find the right information, quickly and easily. As they improve their algorithms to track personal preferences and reduce search spammers, they’ve gotten pretty darn good at it. I can usually find what I need with a few quick searches. I just wish I knew what Google isn’t telling me anymore, now that they know me better. But I digress…

What does this have to do to our brain? Well, the more we use search engines (and the Internet), the more we improve our ability to skim short bits of data quickly…looking for that savory nugget that tells us we’ve found what we need. Then we click on a link, quickly skim the first paragraph or an image or a few bullet points on a web page or PDF doc, or we watch a couple seconds of a video and make a go/no go decision. Eventually we find what we need and start to read.

I spend most of my time marketing in the tech world, dealing with engineers and scientists and manufacturers. Marketing to us techies is different…we want more info, not less. But even that’s starting to change. The days of producing a 20 page white paper on a technology topic are long gone. No one has time to read it. So white papers are now 5 pages, max. Better yet, turn it into an interesting visual story and you’ll get a lot more people reading it. Try an infographic, like this one on Lean Manufacturing uploaded to Pinterest by Bishop Wisecarver.

Yesterday, I told my Entrepreneurial Selling class at WPI that it’s critical to be proactive — it’s better to be a trusted resource that helps the customer write the RFP than to be an after-thought that receives the RFP once someone else has influenced the specs.

Today’s customers have access to tons of information thanks to the Internet. But thanks to the Internet, they are better at skimming information than reading lengthy soliloquies. This has a direct impact on what we marketers produce for which portion of the buying cycle.
• Short, sweet, to-the-point ads and problem-solving pieces in order to get the customer’s attention in the early awareness-building stages. At this point, customers still may not be sure how they want to solve the problem they have.
• Tech articles, customer success stories, short white papers, and reviews as they move into the consideration phase.
• Access to trusted resources like your sales or business development teams BEFORE they start generating the RFP.
• Community forums and knowledge bases after they purchase to build loyalty.

Here’s a good visual from Lee Odden that shows examples of how marketing comms change over the course of the customer lifecycle:

Getting back to Nicholas Carr and “Is Google Making Us Stupid…” There is no doubt that those of us who use the Internet a fair amount are seeing a change in how our brains work. Our brains are “massively plastic,” constantly in flux and ever changing to our circumstances and behaviors. The more we do something, the more our brain will change in response. This is how people who lose one sense are able to compensate with another sense. It’s also how we develop habits. This neuroplasticity is one of the reasons Carr is concerned about the effects the Internet is having on us.

At what point do we all start showing signs of Attention Deficit Disorder?

Oh man, am I going to have to learn how to produce those mind-numbing TV ads that change scenes every second just to keep the viewer’s attention? This Mass Effect 3 video game trailer is a good example. Wait! Did you even get to the end of this post? 🙂

The Changing Nature of Sales & Selling

I have lots of friends who work in traditional sales roles. The interesting issue is that fewer and fewer have traditional sales titles. The ones that do — inside sales, telemarketing, field sales, sales rep, etc — have to work extra hard to overcome the bad vibes of the stereotype.

Daniel Pink, author of a great new book, To Sell is Human, surveyed people’s attitudes about sales and selling. The top 25 word cloud probably won’t surprise you. It reads like the description of, hmmm, maybe a used car salesman? (Apologies to my friends in vehicle sales 🙂

PUSHY – AGGRESSIVE – YUCK…In general, people find selling distasteful. Why? Because for as long as we can remember, sales has been about information asymmetry. The seller knows more about the product/service and, in many cases, takes advantage of that information to get a higher price out of the buyer. Pink calls it…caveat emptor — BUYER BEWARE!

But look around you. The 21st century is noted for its globally connected economy and abundant, accessible data. As of 2009, Google was processing over 24 Petabytes of data per day. That means the average buyer knows a heck of a lot more about what they are about to buy; in some cases, they know more than the seller. Pink has some great examples in his book.

So the days of dramatic information asymmetry are over. Pink says we’ve entered a new stage: caveat venditor — SELLER BEWARE! What does this mean for sales and selling? Not surprisingly, a number of companies are transitioning away from traditional sales organizations.

My favorite example is Factory Five Racing, a sports kit car company.

I met CEO Dave Smith recently and he talked about sales and marketing. He said the only thing he knows about marketing is a bit about the 4P’s of the marketing mix: product, price, place, promotion. (Good for him as that is the core of any good marketing program.) He also notes that he has never had a sales team. Yet here he is decades later, a successful company. What’s his secret?

Turns out, Factory Five has a huge sales team…they just don’t have sales titles. They have tech support and customer service and, most importantly, their customers are selling for them. Just check out the Factory Five discussion forum and all the customer likes and shares on their Facebook page.

There will always be a need for a selling function (sales and non-sales selling). In fact, Pink’s analysis shows that more people are selling than ever before. But today it’s about understanding your customers and helping them find the right product/service that will help them do their job.

I’m about to teach Entrepreneurial Selling at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. We’re going to talk business models and customer value propositions, the buying cycle and strategic selling. My how sales and selling have changed!

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