Today’s publishers face the challenge of balancing revenue with too many ad units. Understanding the technology behind ad clutter can be a good first step.

Content creators have always needed to balance the available space between their own original content and the advertising needed to fund and produce that content. This originally meant editors and publishers had to physically designate spaces for articles and spaces for ads within a newspaper or magazine, all before going to print.

times square ad clutter

Too many advertisements can quickly become overwhelming. The same thing can happen on publisher pages.

While the rise of digital media has changed when and how this process happens, striking the balance between content and advertising space has never been more important for publishers.

Ads, ads everywhere

Digital advertising has come a long way since the early days of 728×90 banners and pop-ups. Today’s ad placements include everything from paid related content widgets, in-text links, and sponsored content posts, not to mention video advertising and traditional display. If an abundance of these ads units start to take over too much of a page, a website visitor can easily become overwhelmed, and decide to find what he or she is looking for elsewhere. Over time this contributes to “ad blindness” and dilutes the voice of the brands that are the revenue source for all of these publishers.

Not only that, the amount of “ad clutter” on a page is now being more closely tracked and monitored by brand safety platforms. All of the data generated from these platforms is now commonly put to use when advertisers and agencies make decisions on where to run their ads. Publishers with too much ad clutter on their webpages risk missing out on higher CPMs—today’s brands are looking for sites with a high signal to noise ratio.

How ad clutter tracking works

How much is too much when it comes to ads on a page? Again, it all comes down to finding the right balance between content and commerce on a page. While a human can look at a page and make a snap judgment about whether or not there’s too much clutter, new technologies are also able to track ratios in a more data-driven way.

The technologies used to identify the amount of clutter on a page usually look for a couple of things:

  • Number of ads. Web crawling technology is often used to identify all the ad units that exist on a page, counting and totaling them for an overall density metric. This technology will also search for ads that are hidden in 1×1 iframes and include that data in the overall summary to identify instances of fraud.
  • Viewability of ads. If there are significantly more ads than could be possibly seen by an actual person, these are the types of pages that get flagged as potential fraud.  High ad frequency is often an indicator of fraud, and especially obvious when coupled with low viewability.
  • Ad proximity. If there are only a few pixels between different ad units on a page, the calculated ad clutter score will be lower.
  • Ad density. Calculating the number of ads on a page as a part of the overall pixels on a page gives a ratio of ads to other space. While there’s no industry standard on the perfect ad-to-content ratio, services like Google AdSense limit publishers to placing no more than three AdSense for content units, three link units, and two search units per page. This can be a good baseline when thinking about how many units to place on a page.

Google AdSense highlights their acceptable ratio of ads to content across a few different layouts.

Turning around the technology

In order to drive revenue, publishers have understandably added more and more earning sources on their pages. Though this may have worked to drive revenue in the past, in today’s marketplace, an abundance of ad units could actually work to drive overall CPMs down as brands pass on pages with too much noise.  Keeping ad clutter to an acceptable level by weeding out low-performing placements can give publishers an opportunity to earn higher CPMs per placement, especially if they focus on high-earning placements like native content and video.

Though ad clutter ratings (and the brand safety platforms that produce these metrics) are primarily used by brands and advertisers today, publishers can put these metrics and technologies to use as well.  Remaining thoughtful about ad placements also leads to better visitor satisfaction in the long-run. Presenting visitors with the information they need in a clean, clear and concise format will keep them coming back again and again.


Photo by Francisco Diez | CC 2.0