What you already know: online display ads don’t work

Yesterday, I wrote how ads are a valid revenue model for online businesses, and not necessarily anti-consumer. Today, I write how display ads don’t even really work.

Intuitively, you know that to be true. How often have you actually looked, processed and clicked on an ad, much less act on it? Take those probabilities and divide them in half, because according to Google, only 44% of all display impressions were even seen by actual human beings.

The definition of seen is quite generous: at least half the ad’s pixels have to be viewable and for at least one second to be counted. So Google is counting even the ads that appear on the side that you completely ignore as you read the web page’s main body of content.

Under this definition of seen, ads that appear just “above the fold” (i.e. are viewable as soon as you arrive) and ads that are vertically long are seen more often.


Of course they are — it’s almost by definition. The one second requirement starts immediately for ads just above the fold, and ads just above the fold outperform those on top of the page because more scrolling (and therefore more time) is required to move past it. That doesn’t mean they’re more effective; they just appear on your screen longer.

A similar reasoning applies with long, vertical ads. They are on screen for longer compared to wide, horizontal ads that you can more easily scroll past.

That only 44% of ad impressions are considered “seen” under this generous definition suggests that the percentage of ads that are actually processed and understood by users is tiny.

Online display ads are broken. Only companies large enough not to care about last mile effectiveness — in the name of branding and creating “awareness” — will find value in online display ads. This can create a negative cycle, because if only large brands will spend the money as small brands turn elsewhere, most ad systems will have a limited pool to fill inventory.

What use is targeting when you don’t have a diverse range of ads to address a diverse range of preferences?

That’s why you see so many online ads you don’t care about, even as websites collect more information about you. They don’t have anything more targeted to show!

It’s a difficult problem that only Google Search has solved; and maybe Facebook’s native ads.

That display ads are still around — growing, even — is more a testament to the fact that advertisers don’t know any better. Especially coming from a world in TV, radio and print where there were no real performance metrics at all.

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