Ever had an annoying pop-up offering you embarrassing physical-ability enhancers that you simply had no use, or stomach, for? With the prioritizing advertisements design pattern, this problem belongs to the past. Large companies such as Google and Facebook are experts at showing the right advertisements to the right people. And while, at first glance, this may seem like a pretty nifty feature that actually helps you avoid ads that have nothing to do with who you are or want to be, it is actually a dark pattern designed to seduce you into buying more things than you intended. Let’s have a look at how they do it.
Advertising is a necessary evil, which means designers are constantly trying to find ways that force you into viewing and clicking on links to the sponsors' and advertisers' links. For example, when users sign into their Google mail accounts, the first messages that greet them when they choose the 'promotions' option are sponsored advertisements. These are arranged above any of the emails from any other source you might have actually chosen to receive mail from or that might be directly relevant on the basis of websites you have previously used, such as Amazon. In comparison with the plague of spam that one would find featuring Viagra knockoffs and breast- or penis-expansion pumps, this sort of advertising seems far less toxic, perhaps even welcome. Still, they are promotions, ones targeting you – you probably know full well that the word ‘coincidence’ doesn’t apply here, and that some benign algorithm hasn’t gone through your email history in order to read your mind and magically come up with something you really, truly, genuinely want deep down but just hadn’t realized you wanted it. Well, if that’s what you thought just now, you’d be right – you are not being psychoanalyzed by your computer at all. Your laptop is not an oracle; nor is your smartphone a mini Zoltar the Fortune-Teller. In fact, any resemblance between your deep-held wants and what you see in these promotional messages is purely down to chance. You weren’t actually expecting a free lunch or Caribbean cruise, were you?
Author/Copyright holder: Unknown. Copyright terms and license: Unknown.
Gmail uses a special Promotions tab to sort out the email messages that have a commercial message. Within this tab, Google prioritizes advertisements that it adds itself, based on your browsing history. Although indicated with a different background color and the word ‘Ad’, it is an instance of a dark pattern, as the messages serve Google’s own purposes rather than yours.
Why is this classed as a dark pattern?
Google are prioritizing the contents of your email account on the basis of what serves it (Google) best. Instead of inserting the advertisements among the emails you have received from other people, companies, businesses, or websites, they are given pride of place at the very top of your message list. While Google kindly (irony alert) places the sponsored ads in the promotions tab, rather in your primary or social tabs—where the majority of the most important and relevant correspondence emails are sent—the messages are made to appear like all other emails, tricking you into thinking each is just another promotion from an outside party.
Google collects information from your email messages so as to be able to make its advertisements more and more relevant to the interests you pursue and the activities you undertake. For example, you might be planning a short break in Europe and—within hours—you will receive a sponsored advertisement from a holiday-planning website, such as Thomas Cook. Google might give you the impression that providing ever-more relevant advertisements benefits you, but it is merely trying to perfect its method of spamming your promotions account. By using information from the sponsored links you reject and those you select, Google can improve the economy of advertisements to successful conversions (i.e., websites you visit and make purchases on), which increases its own advertising revenue.
"We Know Where You Are. We Know Where You've Been. We Can More Or Less Know What You're Thinking About."
—Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO
Author/Copyright holder: Marktplaats. Copyright terms and license: Fair Use.
The Dutch Marktplaats (a website where people can sell their personal stuff to others) boldly implements the prioritized advertisements design pattern by placing commercial providers at the top of the list of search results, leaving any private offerings out of first sight. The advertisements can be recognized by the green label ‘Topadvertentie’.
In slight defense of Google, the sponsored advertisements are distinguished from the other promotional emails, with the addition of the word 'Ads' under each message and some slight color difference (as you can see in the image at the top). However, the designers have also switched the delete/close function to the right-hand side—unlike all other emails, which have a checkbox on the left-hand side—thus circumventing the users’ automatic approach to deleting messages and making their job harder. Therefore, Google has adapted the sponsored advertisements so they are eye-catching and force the user to engage with the display consciously in order to work out how to clear the sponsored advertisements. Perhaps cynically, or perhaps not-so cynically in some cases, Google’s hope as to what you do next may run along the lines of this: “That’s right – check this one out before you get rid of it; in fact, give it a good old read. You may just like it; why, you might even like it a lot.”
Author/Copyright holder: UI Patterns. Copyright terms and license: Fair Use.
The UI Patterns website also sneaks in an advertisement at the top of its search results. Here, advertisements can be distinguished from screenshots of design pattern examples by the blue label ‘Advertisement’.
The Take Away
Companies who use the prioritizing advertisements design pattern aim to seduce you into buying products or services that third parties offer. It is a dark pattern, because they don’t show you these advertisements because it will help users to do what they want, but rather because it will increase their own revenues. If you want to incorporate the prioritizing advertisements into your design in a more responsible way, you should at least clearly distinguish the advertisements from the rest of the content. This way, users aren’t tricked too much, and they will be able to ignore the prioritized advertisements while proceeding with their tasks. That means you get the benefit of deriving some traffic in this way while keeping the name of the organization you’re working for that much more clear of cynical, if justified, aspersions – quite handy for smaller companies and start-ups who need to keep their reputations spotless.
References & Where to learn More
Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Moyan Brenn. Copyright terms and license: CC BY 2.0.
Jenifer Tidwell, Designing Interfaces: Patterns for Effective Interaction Design, 2010
Martijn van Welie, Pattern Library, 2008
Harry Brignull’s website dedicated to deceptive design