Contextual Keyword Advertising

18th August 2004

User Vision reviews the controversial contextual keyword advertising tool “IntelliTxt” and identifies possible usability issues arising in the growth of this method of advertising.

Not entirely reassured that this wasn’t just another form on online advertising that would negatively affect the user and the brand of the host site, I took a look at IntelliTxt in action on the forbes.com website.

Online ads, in all forms, are notorious for damaging the user experience of a site, from banners, pop ups (the old favourite), pop unders (newer and more irritating) and rich media (floating and noisy) ads.

Some good practice has started to emerge in the form of text only ads that are clearly marked as sponsorship. However IntelliTxt’s in text sponsored links muddies the water further. Mr Spanfeller of Forbes.com has stated that he will listen to user’s response to his trial of these ads before committing to them long term. I hope he does.

Most seriously, this form of online advertising complicates the user’s expectation of in-text links. As anyone who has watched people use their site will understand, online conventions are your friends as they mean users can skip a learning curve and get on with using the site. Conventionally, in-text links are keywords relating to the content linking to a new page that will give information on this topic.Screenshot of contextual keyword advert

The impact of IntelliTxt means that some of the links in the content are unrelated to the article and thus distracting and misleading. For example, on the article on ‘Bomb-Detection Businesses Booming’, the following sentence links to Dell “following the seizure of a laptop computer”. Laptops (and Dell) are not relevant to this article and the emphasis on this word is misleading.

To make matters worse, when a user hovers over this link a strange floating box pops up obscuring some of the page (this is also true of the top navigation menu). If clicked this link unexpectedly opens in a new window. As I have frequently witnessed in usability tests, this confuses some users who don’t understand what has happened and why their back button has suddenly stopped working.

The implications of these issues could mean that users are more reluctant to hover over or click in-text links. If they have clicked them by accident they could become irritated and abandon the site altogether.

Curious about the accessibility implications of IntelliTxt, I tried browsing with some of the pages on the Forbes.com site with a few screen readers, which read the content of the browser out allowing blind or visually impaired users to access the content. The code used for these links means that they could only be activated by a mouse click. This meant that when I did manage navigate to the link by tabbing through the page; nothing happened when I clicked it.

In a recent usability study User Vision did for an online publisher, we monitored the users’ response to the ads on the site. On this site there were banner ads along the top and down the right hand side clearly marked ‘Advertisement’. The users accepted, grudgingly, that the ads had to be on the site as a source of revenue for the company. However the thing they liked about these ads was that they didn’t encroach upon their focus, the articles.

I would encourage Mr Spanfeller to watch some users browsing his site. He will see that poor implementation of ads can damage the host company’s brand, not to mention the impact on users’ experience of the Forbes site. Online advertising has its place, but that place is not slap bang in the middle of one of his nice articles.

Chris Rourke

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This article was written by Chris Rourke. Chris is the Managing Director of User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.

Independent expert analysis and advice on our adherence to accessibility standards, with recommendations for improvement provided in a clear and constructive manner are the key benefits of working with User Vision.  Without this advice we would be considerably hampered in our attempts to make our websites as accessible as possible.

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