Has a website or app ever welcomed you with a pop-up ad you can’t click out of — or a banner ad that has nothing to do with the page content or your interests?
Whether they’re the wrong size, context, placement, and so on, “broken ads” can damage your user experience, credibility, and advertising revenue. As a publisher, knowing how to prevent them will protect your long-term monetization efforts.
This article will examine the causes and effects of broken ads, as well as offer best practices to protect your sites/apps and your bottom line.
“Broken ads” here don’t refer to purposefully-obnoxious “bad ad” units — like auto-play, animation, pop-ups, and pop-unders. Most ad networks/exchanges are transparent about the types of ads they show — so a publisher shouldn’t have such ad experiences unless they agree to it.
Instead, a broken ad is a situation where you expect a standard ad to appear (or a standard ad experience to happen) but something goes amiss.
And while you likely know a broken ad when you see one, let’s explore some examples.
Video ads are lucrative, but if the videos are restricted by your domain or the browser, users will get an unpleasant ad experience.
Users of this news app can expect an ad to appear above the top headlines — but not the code for one. This creates a confusing user experience and distracts from the news content.
If your ad platform inserts user-specific content — like the user’s location — dynamically into the ad, make sure the null default isn’t obvious.
Ads that aren’t properly sized for their placements don’t help your users, advertisers, or brand reputation.
It’s unlikely users would want to click on the oversized Xfinity ad below — and equally unlikely that Xfinity enjoys their brand looking unprofessional.
Similarly, ads that are too small are also unsuccessful. It’s unlikely users can read much of the Audible ad below, much less see the CTA to download the app.
Ideally, your targeting tactics pair ads according to site content and context, such as an ad for running shoes on an article about a local marathon.
Unfortunately, contextual targeting can go awry without human oversight, as seen in the example below — which matches the content correctly, but lacks the right context.
Correctly nailing content/context is not always easy, especially if you rely on programmatic ads, but for custom ad platforms you can accomplish this through negative targeting features, whereby, in this example, a cruise ship could block its ads from articles containing words like “crippled” and “sank”.
Forbes may offer good editorial content, but readers are served a tsunami of ads, which can lead to banner blindness and frustrated users.
For instance, those reading the CCPA article below may be too distracted by the number of ads to engage with the actual content.
It’s of course possible — if not likely — that Forbes is well aware of each and every ad code slot, and this poor ad experience is purposeful. But it may be that the person/team charged with implementing these ad placements isn’t communicating with the site’s designers.
Either way, if you’re striving for a clean ad experience and your page looks like this, you’ll want to troubleshoot where the ads are coming from.
It’s likely that 25%–40% of your users have an ad blocker. In some cases this will hide the entire ad slot, and the page will look normal. Other times the ad is removed, but the obnoxious user experience remains.
For instance, this ad on Politico.com was blocked, but the big grey box that appears instead is equally obtrusive for readers.
Unfortunately, broken ads can also be the result of malware — in which malicious code is added to advertising networks — leading to “malvertising” that disrupts what would have been a positive user experience.
These are typically pop-up ads your users can’t click out of, leaving them no choice but to leave your site/app.
Just got this weird pop up (the URL changed to what you see in the pic) while reading a NYT article via way of a tweet. pic.twitter.com/XGdM8tXl1s
Josh Sternberg (@joshsternberg) January 5, 2018
Malvertising has appeared on many major sites, including The New York Times and The Atlantic.
Luckily, broken ads can often be fixed — and a commitment to ad testing upfront can lead to higher CPMs (cost-per-thousand impressions) and CTRs (click-through rates) over time.
Like any of your content, ads require UI testing to be effective.
These can include, but are not limited to:
Whether your permutations happen programmatically (like in a request to an RTB partner) or they happen in a console, you’ll want to ensure they’re correct before you traffic your ad supply to your ad inventory.
If you’re serving purely programmatic ads, you’re relying on the SSP (supply-side platform) to detect any bugs.
Direct-sold ads offer the benefit of human intervention needed to catch many of the broken ads we’ve mentioned, using exploratory testing and other methods that provide solid data.
For instance, a curious, empathetic human ad tester can regulate the number of slots to prevent ad overload (provided it’s unintentional) and add the correct negative targeting features to avoid inappropriate contextual targeting.
Human testers can also help you identify the degree of ad blocking on your site/app, by analyzing your traffic, using Google Tag Manager, or building a custom solution.
There are multiple costs associated with broken ads:
Users know they have the option to block ads — so the less obtrusive and more relevant your ads are, the more likely they’ll be to allow and view them, protecting both your CPMs and CTRs for your advertisers.
Case in point: Remember that Forbes article we shared earlier? Here it is again with an ad blocker.
As a user, I appreciate seeing only the internal promotional video in the top right corner, but I’ve hurt Forbes’ ability to meet the needs and expectations of the advertisers who make these free reads possible.
Because broken ads affect your overall user experience, they may increase your site/app’s attrition rates and cause customer churn.
Whatever the focus of your site/app content, your users have choices — and preventing broken ads and terrible ad experiences can prevent them from checking out your competitors.
Broken ad experiences can also lead to lost revenue — not just from the increased use of ad blockers and low click-through-rates — but also from broken ad tags. If a user matching pixel doesn’t fire, that impression could be less enticing to programmatic advertisers. And if an impression pixel breaks, then you have no proof the ad was shown, and you can’t charge the advertiser for that placement.
Malvertising is costly too; ZDNet reported that publishers lost $120M in 2018 to it.
So, while the investment to test ads may seem high, consider the ‘what ifs’ if your ads break. Damage control costs will typically exceed that of preventative measures.
Broken ads can also lead to bad press, a long-term hit to your brand’s credibility.
For example, trusted news organizations like The New York Times and BBC don’t want to lose their users’ trust by appearing in negative headlines like this one from a 2016 malware attack.
Additionally, if you have an app, these bad ad experiences could lead to lower app store reviews, making it harder to get new users.
Preventing broken ads may seem arduous — but controlling your ad experiences allows you to retain your brand’s credibility and maintain high CPMs.