Some Respite for Consumers as Ad Clutter Clears on Web

You Can Blame (or Thank) the Tanking Economy for Reducing the Messaging Mess

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NEW YORK ( -- Some days it seems the march toward an advertising-consumed world is inevitable -- ads cover restroom stalls and subway turnstiles, account for more than a quarter of every TV hour and may soon be found in dentist chairs and on mayonnaise jars. But there's one surprising place in which clutter has gone down: the internet.
Jim Spanfeller, CEO of
Jim Spanfeller, CEO of

Yes, the land of aggravating pop-ups and automatically expanding rich media is cleaning up its act. In aggregate, web surfers are exposed to 12% fewer display-ad impressions per page view than they were a year ago, according to ComScore AdMetrix data. Whether it's a purposeful improvement or by default, one thing is clear: For consumers and advertisers, it's a good thing.

Dynamic Logic has been looking at clutter for a while and has found it reduces the likelihood of a message getting through. Last year, a study conducted with Dynamic Logic, Starcom and DoubleClick found that a 15% increase in ads on a page results in about a 10% decline in click-through rate. The study took into account how much video or rich media was on a page since it can also be perceived as clutter. Additionally, Starcom figured in quality, as bad ads can create a perception of higher clutter.

"We found clutter variables didn't impact awareness messages as much but did affect lower-funnel metrics such as message association and purchase intent," said Ken Mallon, senior VP-custom solutions, Dynamic Logic. "As you increase clutter, the message is less likely to be conveyed."

There's anecdotal suggestion that publishers are getting wiser about increasing the value of their online ads by reducing the number of them. But it's also probably partly because consumers are increasing the amount of time they spend online faster than advertisers can shift their budgets to the web. Then there's also the simple fact that more people spend time on social-media sites, whose ad-selling difficulties are well-documented.

Oh yeah, and the economy going down the drain: fewer companies buying fewer ads generally equals less clutter.

"What we've done is look at the appropriateness of the size of the ads, how many ads," said Wenda Harris Millard, co-CEO and president-media of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. "It's an ongoing project. Any good web publisher is always looking at that." (Incidentally, according to Dynamic Logic, the industry may not be getting credit for the reduction. There is a perceived increase in online ad clutter; online consumers say it has been getting worse in the past three years.)

While many people in the industry echoed Ms. Millard's sentiment, a look at the ComScore data by category suggests the economy might be the most to blame (or thank). Some of the biggest increases in ad impressions per page view came on coupon and incentive sites, while gambling sites saw the biggest decrease. Still, seemingly noneconomic-related trends also emerged. Portals declined 24%, and radio sites were down 28%. Gay and lesbian sites more than doubled their ad impressions per-page view and career sites have increased their ratio by a third.

One other explanation, said Jim Spanfeller, CEO of, is that the ad networks have sucked up a lot of money and those ads aren't necessarily included in the equation. "We've seen dollars move from premium sites to secondary and tertiary sites," he said. "And ComScore's not measuring the Long Tail."

Nielsen, which has also introduced a clutter metric that it's selling to clients to use in planning and buying, notes that smaller niche sites do tend to have higher clutter: they have fewer visitors, so they generally load up on ads to make more money. Nielsen assigns sites a clutter metric by taking into account the number and size of ad impressions served on a site, the amount of time people spend there and the site's average number of page views. (ComScore doesn't call its data an "ad clutter" metric or market it specifically to clients; it is simply one of the ways its AdMetrix data can be sliced.)

Jon Gibs, VP-media and analytics at Nielsen Online, has been talking to advertisers and agencies about how they could use the clutter metric in their buying and planning. He said the economy could present an even better argument for reducing clutter: as ad growth slows and there's less money to go around, "it allows publishers to tell a different sales story and justify different [costs per thousand]," he said.

The argument against it is, of course, that a publisher wouldn't want to go into sellout mode. But, added Mr. Gibs, "given the current economy, that seems less likely."
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