Responsible Browsing

Will clicking on all the ads help your favorite Web site?

Read more Slate pieces on lifehacking here.

On the Internet, the trolls get all the attention, but there are some good Samaritans around, too. My colleague Daniel Engber forwarded me two e-mails sent to the “Explainer” inbox that suggest a desire to practice “responsible browsing”:

I have a question about a couple of browsing conventions I practice.1) If a site delivers an advertisement before content, I always wait for it to go away rather than closing the window.2) If an article has multiple pages, I never choose “view as a single page.” I do these things because I think they help the sites I visit with ad revenue.Is that true, or am I just annoying myself for no good reason?


I daily read Slate and other free online magazines. As a means to show my support, I diligently click on every ad on each page. Thing is, I’ve started to doubt whether this effort is worthwhile, since I don’t know the details of the sponsorship agreement. Should I just do it once for each ad instead of repeatedly doing it in each page?

Let’s take the questions in order: If you want to help your favorite online magazine, you should definitely wait for the ad to go away before closing the window.

The reasoning behind this requires a longish explanation. For pretty much the entire lifetime of the Internet, the dominant metric for measuring the effectiveness of an ad has been the click-through rate.

Advertiser: “Did the ad work?”
Advertising agency: “Um, that’s a tricky question.”
Advertiser: “Well, how many people clicked on it?”

Marketing and advertising professionals have questioned the value of clicks, arguing that it’s a crude measurement that doesn’t really capture an ad’s impact. Most of us never click on ads. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen has documented the phenomenon of banner blindness. When we scan a Web page, our eyes tend to skip over the advertisements. The three design elements most likely to attract our attention are plain text, faces, and “cleavage and other ‘private’ body parts.” It also helps if the ad looks like a dialog box or a “native site component.”

Who does click on ads? A 2008 study titled “Natural Born Clickers” described that cohort this way: “Heavy clickers skew towards Internet users between the ages of 25-44 and households with an income under $40,000 and are also relatively more likely to visit auctions, gambling, and career services sites.” If you want an ad to get a lot of clicks, tailor it for the young, male, dirty futon crowd. Throw in a sweepstakes while you’re at it.

Click-through rates are still important for text ads like Google’s, the idea being that they potentially represent the last click before you buy something—like clicking on an ad for a particular car insurance after doing a search for “car insurance.” For the kinds of ads that are about promoting brand awareness, such as the ubiquitous Apple ads or Geico ads, agencies de-emphasize click-throughs in search of a better measurement—or, really, a better story to tell their clients. They talk about an ad’s “engagment.” In the case of the interstitial ads, the computer that serves the ad records if you clicked to close the ad early. By letting an ad stay on the page longer, you are helping the site by improving the elusive engagement metric.

Is choosing “view as a single page” unhelpful to your favorite site? It’s not a secret why articles are broken into multiple pages: It generates more page views, which means more ads are served and a site’s overall traffic numbers are more robust. But “viewing as a single page” isn’t the end of the world. It’s also important how long a visitor stays at the site, another element of engagement. Basically, a Web site offering up free ad-supported content wants to tell an advertiser that they have a committed and growing core audience—that readers/viewers like to hang around there, and they are not just a bunch of drive-by clickers. It also doesn’t hurt if a site’s audience has poor impulse control with their Platinum cards.

What about clicking on every ad on every page? First, let me salute this reader’s diligence. Here is where I contradict myself: Keep those clicks coming! Despite all the nice talk of “engagement,” the tyranny of the click has not been overthrown. Clicks often get compared to crack—in advertising publications. No matter how eloquently an agency spins the branding objectives of a campaign, the number of clicks is a graspable statistic that’s impossible to ignore.

The best general to-click-or-not-to-click advice I found was from Internet marketer Seth Godin: “Ads are the new on-line tip jar.” His method is simple: “If you like what you’re reading, click an ad to say thanks.” Godin was instantly taken to task by other Internet marketing-types for promoting irresponsible behavior: People will click on ads they don’t care about and then advertisers who were flooded with false customers won’t advertise anymore on the site in question! Maybe.

Several people had the very good suggestion of adding an actual tip jar to a site. (Perhaps the New York Times should give that a try.) Other dissenters held that linking to or tweeting or Facebooking a piece of content was ultimately more valuable. But I’m going to stand with Godin. If you want to support a site, the easiest way is to click an ad every now and then. Reward the site and the advertiser with a moment of your attention. You learn the name of Lexus’ new hybrid, and the content stays free.