Mac Musings

Bigger Ads, Better Ads?

- 2001.02.27 - Tip Jar

Just a few weeks ago, we were getting on Cnet's case for their humongous Flash-enabled ads. These monstrosities have apparently infected ZDNet as well, or so we've heard from our readers.

These ads are huge: 374 pixels wide and 326 pixels tall. They are too tall to fit the old b&w compact Mac screens, which are just 342 pixels tall. They'd just fit in the 384 pixel height of a Color Classic - if you had no menu bars showing. (This is Low End Mac; things like that matter to us.)

We did the math: these ads occupy a total of 121,924, 40% of the screen area available on a standard 640 x 480 display and just over 25% of the total screen area of an iBook or iMac set at 800 x 600 pixels. To say the least, that's pretty intrusive.

The Old Standards

The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) established standard ad sizes five years ago. These sizes are:

  • 468 x 60, a full banner ad like the one at the top of this page
  • 234 x 60, a half-banner, which I've never seen anyone use
  • 120 x 240 vertical banner, another one I don't recall seeing
  • 120 x 90 and 120 x 60 buttons
  • 125 x 125 square button
  • 88 x 31 micro button
  • 392 x 72 pixel banner that has now been abandoned

I'm sure they picked 468 pixels for the "full banner" because it fit well within the browser window of then-common 640 x 480 displays. Those 468 x 60 banners have been the norm almost as long as there have been ads on the Web.

Over the past six years, response rates have dropped from about 1 click in 50 exposures to 1 click for every 200 exposures (see Yahoo). There are all sorts of reasons for this, including the use of multiple ads on one page and surfers learning to ignore ads.

Of course, at the same time CTR (click through rate) has dropped, so have ad rates. It used to be possible to get $30 or more CPM (cost per thousand ads displayed); the folks who handle ads for Low End Mac assure me this is no longer the case. If the response rate has been reduced by 75%, so has the cost of ads.

The New Standards

Advertisers want response, and there is no medium which can as effectively deliver ads and measure response as the Web. One way to improve response is to improve ads: use animation, use photos, update ads regularly. Another way, or so the IAB hopes, is new ad formats.

Yesterday, IAB proposed the following additions to the sizes note above. Note that today's 468 x 60 banners occupy 28,080 pixels on your screen. This article is my attempt to come to terms with the new formats.

  • 120 x 600 skyscraper, 72,000 pixels
  • 160 x 600 wide skyscraper, 96,000 pixels
  • 180 x 150 rectangle, 27,000 pixels
  • 300 x 250 medium rectangle, 75,000 pixels
  • 336 x 280 large rectangle, 94,080 pixels
  • 240 x 400 vertical rectangle, 96,000 pixels
  • 250 x 250 square popup, 62,500 pixels

I hate popup ads. I wish they'd never been invented. I usually close the window before the ad even appears. I find them the most intrusive and annoying form of online advertising. Studies find that while popups do generate a higher CTR, visitors find them twice as annoying as other types of ads.sample ad

If I stop going to sites that display popups, I have to think many of you will do the same. Thus, I don't want popups on my sites.

The 180 x 150 is the smallest of the new proposals and has roughly as many pixels as the current banner ad. The ad to the right shows how such an ad might appear.

Whether that's objectionably large or not depends on a lot of factors, screen size being one of them. I think most people surfing the Web on an 800 x 600 or larger display and using most of that space for their browser would not find this skyscraper adobjectionable.

Ads like this would have the further advantage that they could appear within the page itself, as this one does, instead of being relegated to the top or bottom of the page, as most banner ads are. I suspect that placing ads within the flow of the page would increase CTR significantly, leading to a premium rate for these ads.

Going Up

I guess I've been designing around the low end long enough that I can't fathom why any ad would need to be 600 pixels high. The large blue & white ad to the left shows just how tall a skyscraper ad would be - and also how it has to appear to the side of whatever text you're reading.

I like the idea of a tall, thin vertical ad, but I think IAB may have gone overboard with the height on this one. The skyscraper is practically monstrous with nearly three times the screen real estate of the traditional banner ad or the rectangular 180 x 150 ad above.

And if that's not intrusive enough, the wide skyscraper is one-third wider than this. I could maybe see something 400 pixels tall catching on, but I think 600 pixels is too intrusive.

The Vertical Rectangle

If 400 pixels is a reasonable maximum height for an add, especially on older computers vertical rectanglewith 640 x 480 and 800 x 600 displays, perhaps the vertical rectangle will be a hit at 240 x 400 pixels (right). It's twice as wide as the skyscraper and one-third wider than the rectangular ad above.

In terms of sheer pixels, this is the King Kong of ads: 96,000 pixels. There's really no way an ad this large could help but dominate your screen. Any site adopting this format would probably have to redesign itself to accommodate the ads.

I'm sure ads would be a lot more tasteful than my sample, but I can't help but feel that the vertical rectangle, like the skyscraper, simply eats up too much screen real estate.

Why New Ad Formats?

The IAB exists to serve the needs of advertisers, not Web publishers. Most of their new proposals use up 3-4 times the screen space of today's commonly used banner ads. These new ad formats are deliberately designed so you can't stick them at the top of the page. They have to be displayed alongside site content.

That's not a bad thing - you've seen it in newspapers and magazines all your life.

Five or six years ago, the whole concept of ads on the Web was controversial; today we accept ads as the price of free content.

It's been six years since the current ad sizes were established. The 468 x 60 pixel banner ad has become commonplace, but it really is time to reexamine Internet advertising.

Throwing ads on a Web page is easy: the first banner goes at the top. If there's another one, it gets stuck near the bottom. Button ads get stuck on the right or left, depending on the design of the site. Except for the monstrosities at Cnet and ZDNet, ads tend to be separated from editorial content.

That makes things easy for publishers and designers. We don't have to worry about ads interfering with content. It also makes things difficult for advertisers, since visitors are less likely to see ads at the bottom or on the right side of the page beyond the browser window.

Taking Care of Business

As a writer, I don't want ads distracting people from the very important things I have to say. As a designer, I don't have to worry about ads fighting with images within an article. But as a publisher, I have to consider how all of this fits into the bottom line.

Low End Mac is a business. It grew out of a hobby site, but it's been taking in money since 1987. The more pages viewed, the more ads displayed, the more income from sponsors.

But, as noted earlier, CTR is down, which translates to CPM going down. That is, as people click less, sponsors need to display more ads to achieve the same results, so they want lower prices. If my site grows 50% a year and ad rates drop one-third each year, all I do is break even.

To get ahead, you put up more ads, realizing that the more ads people have to pick from, the lower the CTR will be for any single advertiser. But you manage to get a bit ahead of the game that way.

If we were to adopt one or more new ad formats, advertisers would know their ads were being viewed, not stuck at the top, bottom, or side where they are more easily ignored. This would undoubtedly increase the click through rate for the larger ads, which also means we would get to charge more for the ads. It may sound mercenary, but I like that part of it.

It might also mean redesigning the site to accommodate new ad formats. I think the 180 x 150 rectangle could work within our current site design, but building skyscrapers, vertical rectangles, or any of the other new options (besides popups) could mean a complete site overhaul. That would be very tedious.

Of course, all of that brings us full circle to the popup ad. Despite the fact that I don't care for them, they do get the ad right out front where it's hard to ignore (assuming it loads quickly) and with no need to overhaul Low End Mac's design.

Still, I can't help but feel that I'm far from alone in closing popups as fast as they appear. I guess I view them like the subscription cards in Macworld (hello - you're mailing me the magazine, so what makes you think I need a subscription card?) or the handful of ads bagged with each issue of Readers Digest - just one more thing for the trash.

I like the idea of new ad formats and slightly larger ads, but I think IAB has gone overboard with most of the new sizes they've proposed.

Conclusion

Ads are essential to the "free" Web. If current advertising methods are not paying off, we need to find new methods that will pay off - while at the same time not driving visitors away. (Popup ads are an example of a method that drives people away.)

Just as the industry cherry picked that 1996 IAB standards and settled on the 468 x 60 banner ad as the primary form of Web advertising, I suspect one or two winners will emerge from the new standards as well. My leanings are toward the 180 x 150 rectangle and a double-height 180 x 300 vertical ad (between the old 120 x 240 vertical banner and the new 240 x 400 vertical rectangle) that IAB hasn't proposed.

Time will tell what works, but I suspect the most acceptable formats won't dominate a page (like Cnet's ads) or pop up their own window.

Update: It's 2011, and Low End Mac has still kept from using popup ads - but we have incorporated new sizes since publishing this article 10 years ago. Our typical page has a banner ad at the top, a 120 x 600 ad along the left side, and a 300 x 250 ad on the right, along with Low End Mac's reader specials. We also have "contextual" ads within the text of most of our pages - five on a typical page, more on longer articles, and less on short ones.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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