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Net Surfing Consumer's Site Viewing Habits

USA Today reports that seeing is believing when it comes to understanding how consumers surf the Internet. And they see very little online � including pricey banner ads. That's one of the key findings of a study by the Nielsen Norman Group, an authority on making websites and products easy to use.

Applying sophisticated eye-tracking equipment, the Fremont, California, firm was able to track what consumers really look at on the Web vs. what they say they look at.

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.

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.

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.

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