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Is advertising more important than user experience?

The relationship between advertising and editorial has always been interesting to me. Having worked in publishing, in some form, for my whole professional life, I’ve always accepted the need for advertising revenue while wishing we didn’t need to have it.

With magazine publishing, the relationship was simple. We would paginate an issue of a magazine with, say, 40% of the space being devoted to adverts. Occasionally an advertiser would pay for a cover wrap, a shrink-wrapped insert or an advertorial. In all cases, the reader had little trouble distinguishing between the sponsored messages and the free-thinking editorial.

Since publishing went digital, the distinction has become cloudy. In the late 90s, magazine and newspaper publishers initially resisted the internet, refusing to let it encroach on the lucrative print advertising they relied on so much. Over time, magazines became thinner as new ways emerged for companies to reach their audiences. Print is difficult to measure, whereas digital channels allow us to track audience behaviour and measure return on investment.

Yes, advertising is here to stay, but how much is too much? Take a look at the top UK national newspapers and how they have allowed advertisers to dominate the user experience.

I looked at the websites of the major national UK newspapers (excluding The Star – which is not a ‘news’paper – and The Sun, which I refuse to promote).

UK national newspaper websites compared

To carry out this comparison, I selected stories from Google News and clicked through to one of the newspapers to read the story. The user experience is about what I see when I choose to read that story.

The laptop I used has a wide screen setting – it doesn’t show much height on the web page. Each screen grab is the whole browser window – everything I can see without scrolling.

Mail Online layout

Mail Online story landing page
I clicked through to Mail Online to read a story about Salford City football club. This is the first view I got without scrolling.

 

Mail Online editorial layout with highlights
I have highlighted the areas of the Mail Online page to show the real estate devoted to the story I chose to read. The dark areas are all advertising. White is editorial real estate not related to the story.

 

Mail Online scrolled page
When I scroll down the page to read more of the story, the space is dominated by the story. But Mail Online tends to put ads throughout the text, which upset the page load and make scrolling difficult.

Daily Mirror layout

Daily Mirror website layout
On The Mirror, I chose to read a story about Adele. This is what I saw as I landed on the page.

 

Mirror story layout
The top of the story – headline only – shows just at the bottom of my screen.

 

Mirror story page layout
When I scroll down to read the story, the page is dominated by the headline and a photo. I need to scroll further to start reading any of the body.

 

Express newspaper layout

Express newspaper story
On The Express, I chose a celebrity story.

 

Express newspaper story
Having clicked through to read a specific story, I can’t actually see the story on the page that loads.

 

Express newspaper layout
Scrolling down, I can see the story in a clear column on the page.

Telegraph website layout

Telegraph story layout
Clicking on a Telegraph story, this is the view I landed on.

 

Telegraph story layout with highlights
Here’s the same view with the editorial highlighted.

 

Telegraph story
Scroll down and the layout isn’t too obtrusive. There is a good block of text on the screen.

The Guardian layout

Guardian story layout
Landing on The Guardian gives a good experience. My chosen story dominates the screen.

 

Guardian story highlights
The ads don’t dominate the reading area.

 

Scrolling down on The Guardian
Scrolling down on The Guardian story allows me to stay focused on the story.

 

The Independent

The independent story layout
The Independent layout uses lots of white space.

 

There is little advertising above the fold on an Independent story. This layout is clear and inviting.
There is little advertising above the fold on an Independent story. This layout is clear and inviting.

 

Independent adverts
Once you scroll down, the ads start to take over the reading area.

 

Conclusion

From a reader’s point of view, I am more likely to click through to a story on The Guardian or The Independent than on the other newspapers, where I know the page will be dominated by adverts. There will also be pop-ups and the layout will take time to load, meaning the layout keeps re-drawing while I am trying to read.

As a reader, I don’t mind adverts, but when those adverts make it hard to find the reason I landed on the page, I’m less likely to return to the website.

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