Animations on the Web: The Down Side

By: Steve Outing

Imagine watching your favorite television show, with part of your screen constantly allotted to visual-motion commercials competing for your attention. Or reading a magazine where the advertisements were moving animations, trying to pull your eye away from the editorial content. Imagine, too, that these animated ads made the rest of the content unreadable for a minority of TV viewers, because of technical incompatibilities with some TV sets. That's what we have on many World Wide Web publications today.

I've been hearing increasing reports that animated Web banner ads are causing problems for some computer users. Occasionally, animated banners -- particularly those that are mini-Java applets -- will cause a page to "hang" as it is loaded on a user's screen, such that only part of the page is visible to the reader. With multiple animations on a single page, some users report that not all of the banners will load. I've even heard complaints that selected simple GIF animated banners, which are nothing more than a series of very small GIF images that rotate through a cycle, cause problems for a small minority of users.

(In one of the odder reports, one Web user reported to me that a particular animated banner caused the buttons at the top of Netscape Navigator to blink on her Macintosh. Further investigation found that the culprit banner was a small (8K) animated GIF that contained only two images that are cycled to create the animation.)

My point is that animated banners must be used with care, and for sites that include multiple animated banners on a single Web page, there could be problems.

Is animation a good idea?

But beyond the potential technical problems associated with using animations, I think the advertising community -- and publishers who carry these ads -- need to do some thinking about the use of animated banners.

Advertisers operating on the Web seem to like animations. That's understandable, since as I've reported in this column before, evidence shows that clickthrough rates on animated banners are often double or more that of static-image ads. Many ad agencies demand that Web sites accept them, and publishers hungry for revenue are unlikely to turn them down.

But I worry about this trend. Dare I say it (after all, this column contains a number of advertisements, which make it possible for Editor & Publisher to provide Stop The Presses! to the interactive publishing community for free), some advertisers and Web publishers risk irritating their readers with too frequent and inappropriate use of animated banners.

What if a Web site has a page with multiple advertisements, and all of them are animated? "You're approaching a situation where banners become the content," says Martin Radelfinger, vice president of market development for MMD/Publicitas in New York. In such a case, all that blinking and animation is going to adversely affect the reader's experience -- the impact of which could be lost readers for the Web site in the future.

Radelfinger says he's seeing other animated ads that he finds objectionable. A particularly problematic example is a new Java applet ad that includes what looks like a search field with a blinking cursor -- giving the impression to the user that by typing in a keyword, the ad will deliver personalized information. But it's a ruse. Clicking in the "search field" simply takes the user to the advertiser's site.

Such tactics can backfire, just as can the overuse of animations that detract from the online reading experience. I worry that if animations are overused and their use left unchecked by Web publishers, users will figure out how to "turn off" advertising on the Web, just as they click the Mute button when a TV commercial comes on the air.

A few months ago I wrote about Internet Fast Forward, a Web browser add-on application that allows users to block ads on Web sites. After some initial hand-wringing in the Web publishing community about the product upon its launch, Fast Forward seemed to fade into the background. If the Web viewing experience becomes such that advertisements become an annoyance, products like Fast Forward will rise in popularity again to solve what has become a real perceived problem. "This is bringing up the ad filter scare again," says Radelfinger.


Web site publishers as well as advertisers have a responsibility to stop this situation from getting out of hand. The occasional blinking banner is fine; it's when several show up on a page that there's a problem. Radelfinger suggests that publishers charge a premium for banner ads, which tends to discourage them. And certainly, set a limit on the number of animations allowed on a page, to prevent user readability problems. (Don't forget to include editorial content animations in that figure.)

Well designed Web ads don't have to use animation as a crutch to get good clickthrough rates, Radelfinger says. Static ads that include some "call to action" for the consumer tend to do well. This can be a button that implores the viewer to click it. Web ads that have the words "Click here" have been found to get clickthrough rates more than double other static banners. And of course, a well designed and attractive ad will get more attention.

Think about it. Isn't a static ad that does a good job of attracting interested readers through these techniques much better for everyone? Readers aren't irritated by a blinking image that's distracting their eye. And advertisers avoid irritating readers, who are unlikely to filter out all advertising.

I'm not suggesting a total ban on animated ads. They can be very effective for an advertiser willing to pay a premium, for example, to be the only animated banner on a page. And animations are fine if they are done simply, are very small so as to avoid loading problems for low-bandwidth users, and turn themselves off after one, two or three animation cycles.

Radelfinger says that these issues have been mostly ignored on the Web, which is understandable due to the immaturity of the Web as a commercial medium. There is much that can be done to learn how to attract consumers to click on Web ads without annoying them. But the advertising industry needs to do more research which can be applied across the Web.

Now is the time for organizations like the Interactive Advertising Bureau to tackle these issues head-on and make recommendations to advertisers and publishers. We as a fledgling industry have a problem, and it's time for advertisers and publishers to work together to find a solution.

Contact: Martin Radelfinger,

".com and get it"

Newspaper Web sites are getting more serious about marketing and promotion. The Washington Post is unveiling its latest advertising campaign for The Web campaign theme, ".com and get it," leverages the Post's familiar print theme, "If you don't get it, you don't get it."

Says the Post's Erin O'Shea, "The ads feature poster-like visuals of a mouse plugged into a variety of iconic images representing a broad range of topics. This connection demonstrates the ease in which users can get the latest news, most in-depth information and the best interactive opportunities on a range of subjects via Broadcast spots use humor to play on the same approach."

The campaign was developed by Mezzina/Brown Inc., of New York.

Contact: Erin O'Shea,

Paper gets blame for Net's inadequacies

From Network World comes an amusing story that anyone who's ever worked at a newspaper will understand. The magazine reports that since putting the Washington Post on the World Wide Web at, the online staff has received a never-ebbing flow of complaints from Web users -- via the Post's 800 number or e-mail -- asking why the newspaper cannot fix the Web's slowness, Internet service outages and problems with Web browsers. "The instant something goes wrong (on the Internet), the whole world notifies us," Network World quotes Digital Ink VP of technology Mike George.

Having worked at newspapers for much of my career, I know this is nothing new. Newspapers long have been the recipients of phone calls from the befuddled who seem to think that a paper is an omniscient public agency that can handle everything from burned out streetlights to overdue library books. Why should doing business on the Internet be any different for newspapers?


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