Banner blindness is what causes a lot of you e2 members reading this writeup not to see the ad banner on the top of the page. It is also what makes me not notice the ad in the top right corner of my Opera ad-version browser - we might know they are there, but most of the time, we just don't see them, blocking them out.

The beginning
The term was introduced in a 1998 article by David M. Lane and Jan Panero Benway of Rice University. The article, called "Banner Blindness: Web Searchers Often Miss "Obvious" Links", describes the researchers' experiments with making test persons search for information placed in banners. They found an elevated level of banner blindness that was not only connected to ad-like appearance:

"banner" blindness can occur with text items that do not look like advertisements. So, although web users may learn to ignore advertisements and other graphics which look like advertisements, the phenomenon of ignoring salient items while searching for specific items is wider than just an advertising effect.

Redefining (or simplifying?)
Usability fanatic and guru Jakob Nielsen evidently does not quite agree and defines banner blindness like so:

banner blindness means that users never fixate their eyes on anything that looks like a banner ad due to shape or position on the page

Nielsen also introduces two related terms:
animation avoidance- that makes users ignore areas with blinking or flashing text or other aggressive animations
pop-up purges - which means that a lot of us are likely to close pop-up windows without looking at their content or even allowing it to load.

The kids aren't alright
A 2002 study by the same Nielsen, conducted with 55 American and Israelian children, indicates that children have not - at least not yet - developed the same level of banner blindness as a lot of adult web users. On the contrary, they consider the banner to be yet another piece of editorial content, happily clicking on the cartoon character that leads them straight to some site selling junk they really weren't looking for. Nielsen advises that parents sit down with their kids and learn them about advertising vs. editorial content.

The workarounds
To a lot of us, banner blindness is a good thing, allowing us to shut out the advertising and get on with the reading, playing or whatever else we might be up to online. But of course ad agencies now know about this, figuring out how to work around it. One thing is the quest for smarter advertising and dropping the whole banner idea. Another thing is the annoying world of spam, pop-up and pop-under windows, that crave our time and attention if only to delete them.

Not so blind after all?
Not all research support the theories of banner blindness, though, particularly not Nielsen's statement that "users never fixate their eyes" etc.

For instance, the studies of German researcher Bachofer on the effects of advertising on the web, showed significantly higher levels of recall and recognition than the studies conducted by Lane&Benway. Using an eye-tracking device, he found that the mean time for watching a banner was 1.1 second. The recognition rate was similar to that of ads in print magazines.

The differences in research results might have to do with differences between "aimless" browsing and goal oriented searching. This theory is argued in an article by Magnus Pagendarm and Heike Schaumburg of Center for Media Research at the Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin, published in the Journal of Digital Information (JoDI). Their study found a difference in the perception of banners placed on websites that we turn to in search of specific information (ie search engines, encyclopedias - e2 - and dictionaries) as compared to websites we browse in a less structured manner, such as online magazines. They concluded that banners were less likely to be noticed in the first case - which, I guess, brings us back to that blinking banner on the top of this page, that I hardly ever notice.

Main sources:

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