What is Banner Blindness? (How to Beat it with SEO)

Shannon Reedy VP of Account Management
Key Points
  • Banner blindness doesn’t just affect paid ads – it affects the SERPs as well.
  • People generally don’t want to click anything that resembles an ad.
  • As a result, organic listings get 20X more clicks than paid ads.
  • You’ll miss out on a lot of traffic if you focus on only PPC advertising in the SERPs.
  • Investing in SEO turns your website into a lasting asset that will generate traffic and sales for years.

Banner blindness has been a popular digital marketing topic for years. In fact, it affects all aspects of digital advertising, including display ads and even social media. But did you know that ad blindness also impacts the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs)?

We looked at user behavior data to see how people interact with both banner ads and search results, and we were surprised by what we found.

What is banner blindness?

The term “banner blindness” refers to the behavior of avoiding promotional content, whether intentional or subconscious. It was first coined by Benway and Lane in 1998 after they conducted a web usability test.

Ironically, marketers are largely responsible for the phenomenon. As consumers began to ignore ads, marketers bought more of them. When engagement continued to drop, ads became flashy, sticky and down right intrusive. Yet, consumers learned to tune those out as well.

Eventually, users got so good at ignoring banners that the behavior became subconscious has even spilled into the search results.

Banner blindness study reveals ad aversion in SERPs

The Nielsen Norman Group ran a banner blindness eye tracking study and found that web users ignored the ad placements at the top of Google SERPs. This is surprising considering how similar they are to organic listings. Take a look:

banner blindness in SERPs

What’s more, Google ads are completely different from the visual presentation of traditional banner advertisements in editorial content with rich media. So why did people scroll right past them?

Answer: Learned behavior.

The study proved that searchers weren’t looking for visual cues to spot ads. Instead, internet users learned that ads are featured at the top of the page. Then, they simply used selective attention to skip over the section that they believed most likely contained ads.

The key phrase above is “most likely.” Here’s why:

Not only did the study find that searchers actively avoided ads, it also revealed that they actually “poisoned” nearby content. In other words, people didn’t just avoid paid advertisements, they also steered clear of any area that their mental model associated with ad space, even if it contained other content as well.

Conclusion? Most searchers don’t want to engage with anything resembling an ad.

Yikes! There has to be a better way to connect and engage with an audience. And, luckily, there is…

Organic clicks dominate the SERPs

Want to capture the attention of online customers in the face of ad blindness? Search engine optimization is the key.

Potential customers perform billions of searches each and every day (that’s 40,000+ per second!). If you can provide the answers to their problems then you can land new customers for life. (Ahem, while you read that, another 120,000 searches were conducted.)

Organic listings drive 20X more clicks than paid ads in the SERPs.

An Advanced Web Ranking study in 2014 found that organic search results on the first page of Google earned 71% of the clicks. In the same year, Conductor revealed that 64% of all clicks in the SERPs were captured by organic listings. In comparison, the same Conductor study found that paid ads accounted for merely 6% of clicks.

That was in 2014! Since that time, however, Google paid ads have undergone significant renovations to attract engagement:

  • Google removed text ads from the right rail
  • More ads appear above the organic results
  • Extensions and other features expand ad real estate
  • Ads now closely resemble organic listings.
SERP landscape 2007 vs 2019

For example, Google ads used to have a distinctive colored background. Yet today, they have no background color at all. When the colorful backgrounds were removed, Google added a noticeable yellow “Ad” label. That, apparently, was too noticeable, as it then changed the color to green, matching the link color next to it. Again, too noticeable, and so Google removed the green fill from the label, instead using a thin green outline.

You might think those changes would have curtailed banner blindness…

Nope.

Paid ads simply don’t feel the love. Although organic click-through rates have declined slightly, those listings still produce 20X more clicks than online advertising according to a study by Jumpshot and Moz. (It’s also noteworthy that paid ad CTR has remained flat since 2015.)

Here’s the bottom line: Organic listings simply deliver more clicks and more traffic. Period.

If you rely primarily on PPC to generate traffic then you’re missing out on a ton of potential traffic. That’s not to say that PPC doesn’t matter. But the ROI for organic traffic is much higher than for paid.

Need further proof?

Conquering banner blindness with SEO

As an SEO company, we at Terakeet are huge believers in the power of organic search to conquer banner blindness.

For example, we developed an e-commerce SEO strategy that boosted a new brand’s organic search traffic from zero to more than 530,000+ monthly organic website visitors within the first seven months of our partnership. You can only imagine how much it would have cost to buy that traffic through paid search at a 6% click through rate.

We’ve helped countless clients through the years achieve incredible organic growth. As ad blindness continues to plague the SERPs, companies that invest in enterprise SEO will be positioned to win.

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Creating a lasting asset

In addition to the problem of ad blindness, PPC also doesn’t add lasting value to a web page. In other words, as soon as your campaign ends, the traffic dries up.

On the other hand, an investment in SEO can turn your website into a traffic flywheel that generates revenue for years (when done right).

You can think of it like the difference between renting and owning a house. When you rent, you pay every month and all you get in return is the right to stay in the house. When you buy, you build equity, increase the value of the house, and can eventually sell for a profit.

SEO turns your website into an asset that increases in value over time. You earn natural links and mentions that boost your visibility, which then drives traffic and builds brand equity.

This isn’t to say that PPC doesn’t have its place. If you need a quick surge of traffic or you’re running a time-sensitive offer, advertisements can be a great short-term solution.

When you compare SEO vs PPC, however, the ROI on SEO is much higher.

PPC is like lighter fluid. It can give you a burst of traffic as long as you keep dumping expensive fuel on it. SEO is like throwing logs on a fire. The more put into it, the “hotter” your website gets and the longer the results last.

Summary

Did you know that the click through rate on the first banner ad in 1994 was a whopping 44%? Sadly, those days are long gone, and it’s now scraping by at only 0.1% because your customers have become numb to banner-like ads and CTAs.

But that’s not only issue. Ad blocking technology on mobile devices is on the rise and Google is putting pressure on native advertising and aggressive pop up text ads to improve user experience. What that boils down to is less opportunity to win traffic from paid ad units like display ads, video ads and countless others.

What’s worse, ad blindness is now bleeding into paid search as well. 

Meanwhile, organic listings drive 20X more traffic. Further, SEO sustainably strengthens your brand and unlocks your ability to achieve compounded traffic growth without an exponential budget increase.

Expect banner blindness to rise as more and more people become hyper-aware of the ads at the top of the Google SERPs. Capture as much organic real estate as you can, you may just be 20X happier.

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