Seeing is believing when it comes to understanding how consumers surf the Internet.
And they see very little online - including pricey banner ads screaming for attention. That's one of the findings of a study out today by Nielsen Norman Group, an authority on making websites and products easy to use.
Using sophisticated eye-tracking equipment, the Fremont, Calif., firm was able to track what consumers really look at on the Web vs. what they say they look at.
"This is a sneak peek into people's brains," says Kara Pernice Coyne, the firm's research director.
As more business shifts to the Internet, the study findings show companies still have much to learn about how best to present an online image.
"People spend millions of dollars developing these websites," says Randolph Bias, who teaches at the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin.
Companies would benefit if they tested their sites more before launching them, he says.
The Nielsen firm asked more than 230 participants to research specific tasks and companies online. Tasks included learning to tie a type of knot called a "bowline," figuring out how to invest $10,000, planning a Colorado ski trip, shopping for a mortgage and deciding whether to adopt a cairn terrier or pharaoh hound from an animal shelter.
Other findings from the firm's study:
• Individuals read Web pages in an "F" pattern. They're more inclined to read longer sentences at the top of a page and less and less as they scroll down. That makes the first two words of a sentence very important.
"People are extremely good at screening out things and focusing in on a small number of salient page elements," says Jakob Nielsen, a principal at the firm.
• Surfers connect well with images of people looking directly at them. It helps if the person in the photo is attractive, but not too good looking.
Photos of people who are clearly professional models are a turnoff. "The person has to be approachable," Pernice Coyne says.
• Images in the middle of a page can present an obstacle course.
• People respond to pictures that provide useful information, not just decoration.
• Consumers will peek at ads in search engines as a "secondary thing," Nielsen says, since they usually have specific product targets in mind.
JetBlue Airways was one of the sites to get it right, Pernice Coyne says. The company did a good job producing an uncluttered, three-column home page. "When there is less on a page, users read more," she says. Pernice Coyne also praised Sears for providing tables that make it easy for potential buyers to compare products by price and other features.
But more often, companies struggle to find a balance between information and design. "We have lots of examples of bad design," she says. For example, surfers who went to the investor relations page at Agere Systems tuned out text boxes with potentially relevant information because they thought they were ads; they were not. Mistaken identity was also a problem at Adelphia's site.
Study participants were baffled by one of Sony's websites. For example, asked to find Sony's New York City store, users landed at SonyStyle.com. Some users could not tell whether the page was an official Sony site.
"That sort of thing happens a lot," Pernice Coyne says. "Companies get cute about their Web branding."
The study echoes earlier findings that consumers are blind to banner ads. Still, at least one group - small children - doesn't shy away from banner ads, because kids like sites with lots of bright images.
"The more eye candy, the more they are going to click," says Allison Druin, an information technology professor at the University of Maryland.
But starting about age 7, kids become more discerning, Druin says.