As a Stack Overflow user, ads like this one:

Add image

...confuse the hell out of me. I just spent 30 seconds trying to find the rest of the answers for the question I was reading before I realized this was an ad, and the question didn't actually have 27 answers. I am totally on board with inline advertising, but this ad is objectively making the site harder to use.

Are there any sort of guidelines for what kinds of ads are allowed? I would like to think Stack Overflow could prevent ones like this. If they are allowed or encouraged, I would implore Stack Overflow to change it.

I just took the screenshot above at 7 a.m. on 2/10, so even with all the discussion and promises made in the answers below, the ad continues to run.

  • 2
    The fact that it was in an ad position should have given the game away, and that the target URL wasn't a normal SO address as well.
    – ChrisF Mod
    Commented Jan 12, 2010 at 12:51
  • 2
    @ChrisF: That's true for meta.stackexchange.com/questions/33265/… as well, where Jeff (rightfully so) commented "wayy too FUI (Fake UI)"
    – balpha StaffMod
    Commented Jan 12, 2010 at 12:55
  • 9
    The placement of the ad to someone that isn't a regular visitor to the site doesn't matter, as they won't be familiar where the ad space is supposed to be. Commented Jan 15, 2010 at 14:42
  • 1
    This is confusing, because you linked the original image instead of copying it. It has since been revised. See Alex Papadimoulis' answer for the original image.
    – Perpetual Motion Goat
    Commented Feb 4, 2010 at 9:24
  • This also has incorrect pluralization: "27 answer". meta.stackexchange.com/a/9694/38765 Commented May 16, 2014 at 13:47
  • What is "2/10"? This was posted on 2010-01-12, so what is "2"? Commented Mar 17, 2019 at 11:27

12 Answers 12


I agree that this is too similar, and unlike the woot ad:

  • it is not funny (I am willing to cut slack for humor)
  • it is in the same rough physical area as the UI it is faking

which is not good.

I asked Alex to change this to make it less "UI like" and here's what he came back with:


I am not sure if it has been changed on the live site yet.

edit: this did not "get changed ASAP", sadly, I just changed it today. Now, I shall spin my giant WHEEL O' BLAME!

edit: policy update on these sorts of FUI (fake UI) ads

I’ve updated the guidelines to disallow styles that mimic SO/SU/SF or look like question/answers.

So, there should not be any more in the future.

  • This is how the ad should have looked - with the UI from Startups.com and not Stack Overflow. Looks nice. Commented Jan 15, 2010 at 8:19
  • 1
    Looks like they ripped off SU.
    – random
    Commented Jan 15, 2010 at 8:22
  • 6
    I think it still looks a bit to match like the SO UI, maybe give it a background that is not white. Commented Jan 15, 2010 at 13:01
  • FYI: will get this changed on live site ASAP! Commented Jan 15, 2010 at 18:00
  • D'oh! Totally thought I uploaded it... hmm, I didn't notice it on SO though. Now if only there was a way to disable the reduced advertising (meta.stackexchange.com/questions/14710/…)... ;-) Commented Feb 3, 2010 at 15:23
  • 2
    This still matches the UI. The lack of a "votes" block and slightly different color doesn't really distinguish enough. I click on this accidentally all the time, just trying to navigate the site.
    – Ten Ton Gorilla
    Commented Mar 17, 2010 at 21:25
  • The link seems to be broken. Commented Jun 21, 2019 at 7:58

Any advert that mimics a real UI is bad. The ads that look like popup dialogs are the worst offenders and this example is no different. These ads trick users into clicking them and as a result the user is left feeling confused and then cheated.

If the ad needs to mimic the SO UI in order to trick people into clicking it then that's a bad ad. A guideline recommending that advertisers avoid these rickroll ads would get my vote.

This one is another example...

woot add http://ads.stackoverflow.com/ads/stackoverflow-ad1.png

... although it's clear, from the text, that they're playing on the SO-look-alikeness of their ad.

On the whole I think SO does an excellent job with ads, and the quality of ads on SO is great. Just please don't confuse my aging brain with these ads that look like they're part of the site.

  • 7
    I would exclude the woot ad (I have previously stated that I like it). That one is clearly not a question.
    – balpha StaffMod
    Commented Jan 12, 2010 at 12:57
  • 3
    The woot ad is fine.
    – Pekka
    Commented Feb 3, 2010 at 11:48
  • woot ad actually made me to check it out. and i never click ads. Commented Feb 3, 2010 at 12:22
  • This is more clever advertising that I think is very well done. It catches my eye since it matches the site UI but it's easy to pick it out as a joke. The ad in question is just a little too close to being legit that it may end up with a user clicking on it and being taken somewhere they didn't want to go. That's what should be avoided.
    – Shane
    Commented Mar 2, 2010 at 16:44

The advert was designed to mislead.

It misled me.

It will be misleading thousands of visitors, even after the "changes".

I am quite surprised to see it still on the site.

  • 5
    Agreed. My Alex's own admission this ad attempts to be similar enough to appear to be part of the site proper. Whether it takes milliseconds or 30 seconds to realize you've been "tricked", I still think it falls on the "gotcha" side of web advertising. To put things in perspective it's not like we're talking about break-dancing aliens or "virus warnings", but still it's a trend I'd like to see discouraged.
    – NobodyMan
    Commented Feb 5, 2010 at 18:11

I agree that these ads are distracting. Even after stumbling over it more than once and now knowing that it's an ad, it often catches my eye at first glance and makes me have to focus too hard to find what I'm looking for.

I'm not a fan for the same reason I dislike animated ads- it's not the animation per se that's a problem. It's that it distracts from the desired content.

  • 1
    well, in ads' defense (ducking), they are supposed to be a little distracting. Not too much, though, which is why the ad in question got changed and we never, ever allow animated ads. Commented Feb 2, 2010 at 22:27
  • 1
    @Jeff: O Rly? meta.stackexchange.com/questions/34181/… ;)
    – perbert
    Commented Feb 3, 2010 at 4:01
  • 2
    @Dan: Agreed, I'd rather see a spinning flashing ad than one that misleads me into clicking.
    – user142809
    Commented Feb 4, 2010 at 13:02

I would also like to comment that these ads are STILL too similar. I've been using the site regularly for a week or so now, and they STILL throw me off.

I checked a lot of pages to see what happened when not logged in, and it seems that the Startups.com ads only show for logged-in users. It's like we're being punished for being regular contributors :P

Also, for the record, there is not always a black border. Sometimes there is, but often I get this version: http://scottcranfill.com/images/so_ad.jpg


If I don't see that ad removed and something being clear that it was removed, I will not return to Stack Overflow again.

Someone told me to come here to this site, and I, being a complete newbie, clicked on the stupid ad, and I also tried to downvote a question, because that ad was between answers, and I thought that Stack Overflow allowed "related" questions appear below a question.

And yet, I am still confused, the ONLY ad that I have seen so far is this one or ones like these, and they are confusing the hell out of me.


It looks like these sorts of "lookalike" ads are still being allowed:

Ad from Super User with similar interface http://ads.stackoverflow.com/ads/1_home4film_su_banner_1%20728x90.png

Now, this ad has a different color scheme than Super User, where I saw it, and is offset slightly by the "film-strip" look, but it still proved to be confusing to me (briefly). I don't use Super User nearly as much as I do Stack Overflow, so I'm not as familiar with the color scheme. The font rendering actually tipped me off sooner, as I'm on a Mac but the fonts look like they were rendered on Windows, then I noticed the content was ad-like (though it has just enough overlap with Super User that it might plausibly be an SU question), and then I noticed the color difference.

I feel that these sorts of ads, even with some offset and a different color scheme, can be confusing, and it feels like advertisers are trying to trick me into clicking on the ads. I don't appreciate them trying to fool me like that.

On the other hand, of course, this is a Stack Exchange site that's being advertised; it can only look so different from one of the Trilogy sites. I guess I'm just not sure exactly where the line is drawn on these kinds of ads, but I'd prefer it to keep these ads looking a little less similar to the interface than they do.

  • To be clear you you find it confusing despite it being in a standard leaderboard ad position (this is standard across the web, not just SOFU sites), using different fonts and colours, having a black and white border and the URL being a great long garbled mess? Commented Feb 10, 2010 at 9:50
  • 2
    @home4film.com That's right. I usually use SO (or meta) where my rep is high enough that I don't see ads on top, so I wasn't expecting it. Most ads on most sites that appear in that location don't look similar to the site's interface. The colors weren't sufficiently different for me to realize it was an ad, though I did notice the font difference before I actually hovered over it to see the URL or clicked on it. I realized it was an ad eventually, but spent a few seconds staring at it trying to figure out what the new feature was supposed to do and how this was relevant to my question. Commented Feb 10, 2010 at 13:53
  • 1
    @home4film I'd suggest, if you're not actually trying to trick people, that you do something like displaying the interface on one half or two thirds of the ad (either horizontally or vertically), fading to a standard banner of some sort with the name of the site or something sufficiently different that it's obvious what's going on. Commented Feb 10, 2010 at 13:56
  • thanks for the suggestions, I definitely don't want to trick anyone. I thought the differences were clear enough to avoid any confusion. I don't think there is any capacity or appetite on SOFU's part for animated ads (other than the one two part gif they currently host) so fading would not be an option. However I could certainly look at, say, introducing the site logo and moving the other content over so the differences are more blatant Commented Feb 10, 2010 at 14:40
  • @home4film I meant fading in space rather than in time; a gradient where the interface is only visible in half of the space, and a logo or something is visible in the other half. Thanks for being willing to discuss the ad; the extra transparency really helps a lot. Commented Feb 10, 2010 at 15:54

It caught me out repeatedly, too. It is similar enough in appearance to the actual content, that I find myself erroneously reading the ads on every page.

Rather than lead me to click on it, I was irritated at the clearly underhanded tactics (this is no different to full-page ads misleadingly presented as articles), and promptly blocked the ads in my user stylesheet. Normally, I don't block ads, as I realise the sites depend on ad revenue (though I do block Flash, natch), but such devious ads as these (and similar ones introduced on digg.com) are a guarantee that I will block the ads, and assume the advertising company is just as dishonest and cynical as their advertising methods.

If SO wants to show such ads, that's your call, but allowing such dubious advertising practices only reflects badly on the site.

Please forbid such deliberately misleading and confusing ads.


I'm in the process of advertising my site on Super User (still waiting for them to get back to me...). One of the ads I've prepared is a banner ad that looks a bit like the startups.com ad (I actually made it back in December when I asked this question, so I'm not copying, I'm not).

The reason I've gone for this type of ad is that it gives an immediate clue that the site is similar to Super User, so it would be a familiar experience for users, and it would be difficult to convey that message otherwise.

I did however want to ensure that it stood out from the host site. I hate ads that pretend to be content and wouldn't have a favourable response to any ad that tricked me, so why do it myself?

I've got a filmstrip border on the ad to tie in with the theme on my site and the colour scheme is based on my site's, so I think it clearly distinguishes it from the actual Super User content while still implying a familiar experience for any would-be users.

  • We'll get you set-up soon. We don't have ads running on SU yet, and have to do a handful of things before we can even start a campaign there... but were almost there! Commented Feb 3, 2010 at 15:18
  • Oh, this is the ad that I was confused by. I understand the desire to emphasize the fact that this works similarly to SU and other trilogy sites; but I still found it confusingly similar. What if it faded from something that looked like the interface to something that was more clearly an ad? The film strips really didn't do it for me, I was just wondering if they were a new UI convention or something. Commented Feb 10, 2010 at 4:31

Get 200 reputation points and you won't see it anymore. You'll only see side ads, and those are much easier to filter out visually.

  • 6
    The fact that only people with lower reputations see the ad also shouldn't matter, since I think we can agree the users with lower reputations are less likely to know that the differences are obvious and are more likely to mistake this for UI. Commented Jan 15, 2010 at 14:43
  • That's true, but if you've seen advertising on other sites and compare it to our site, you have to admit that it's minimal here, doesn't get in the way, and I don't think it's an issue. The instant they click on the ad they'll see it's an ad and decide whether to continue or go back. I don't like ads that mimic the site, but the impact is very, very low.
    – Pollyanna
    Commented Jan 15, 2010 at 15:58
  • I wasn't tempted to click on it, I was just confused about the number of answers to the question I was looking at. I didn't really read anything, I just saw the "27 answers" part at a glance. I absolutely agree about the minimal advertising and I didn't think it was tricky in that way. Commented Jan 15, 2010 at 18:49
  • 6
    The fact that only those with lower rep see the ad makes it worse, not better. They are the very people who are likely to get peeved off but such blatantly disguised ads and not return. Is that the objective? When I first came across SU I was a little reluctant to return because of all the ads and that's without even seeing some pretending to be part of the site. Commented Feb 3, 2010 at 1:42
  • 2
    Exactly. As I wrote on my awnser, I clicked on the ad exactly because I was new to the site. It really pissed me off. Then it also confuse the awnser number, and like I said, I clicked on stuff that I should not, because of the ad.
    – speeder
    Commented Feb 11, 2010 at 5:48

I'm sorry, but it's a bit obvious, as in most browsers the image looks different than the actual text.

This one in particular is innocent enough, because they aren't getting any money out of each click, as http://startups.com is not a third-party product, and all you have to do is click "back" on your browser.

Also read Has anyone clicked the new Woot! ads? and Am I the only person to find the woot ad noxious?.

  • It's a StackExchange site, but it's not run by SO. I don't think they get that ad space for free.
    – balpha StaffMod
    Commented Jan 12, 2010 at 12:59
  • It's from The Spolky, IIRC.
    – perbert
    Commented Jan 12, 2010 at 13:00
  • 2
    I think the point is that without a guideline saying "no fake SO UI ads" that you'd have difficulty kicking out less innocent that chose to use the fake SO UI. Commented Jan 12, 2010 at 13:01
  • 1
    ... it's not at all animated. Our team optimizes and uploads into our ad-serving software. Advertisers can't do that directly. Commented Jan 12, 2010 at 20:07
  • 2
    I hope it is not animated.
    – perbert
    Commented Jan 12, 2010 at 20:12
  • ^^ Automated. Not animated. Commented Jan 13, 2010 at 17:08
  • 1
    In my browser it look the same. Also, even with it being "innocent" my internet connection is not good, and it wrecked my navigation, and also I am a newbie and I clicked stuff that I should not, because the ad confused me.
    – speeder
    Commented Feb 10, 2010 at 3:02

Just to clarify, did it take you 30 seconds to realize this was an ad? As in one-mississippi-two-mississippi-three-mississippi...thirty-mississippi thirty seconds?

For reference, here's what the ad looks like live:

Ad in question

Anyway... we felt this particular ad was acceptable in the leaderboard space because:

  • that's not where "question blocks" generally appear; they are only seen on list pages where there is no leaderboard ad
  • there are constantly ads in that leaderboard space
  • there is a border that separates it from content
  • font and sizes are different from actual fonts
  • "business" and "make-money" are not real tags
  • anyone interested in the question can find the answer by clicking on it

For comparison (note that it will never appear in a list like this), with the borders removed... Comp

The purpose of these ads is not to confuse, but to catch your peripheral. When you see a similar UI, you're drawn to it and -- ideally -- within milliseconds, you realize it's an advertisement. I'm sorry that this took you a full thirty seconds, though...

  • Also, it should be "27 answers", not "27 answer", that reduces the time to nano-seconds!
    – juan
    Commented Jan 12, 2010 at 20:12
  • 18
    @Alex: look over your list of points there again. Every one of those is a very minor detail. If you are not extremely familiar with the site you won't have the knowledge to notice those things. If you aren't a "visually detail-oriented" person, you won't notice those things. If you often use different browsers to visit the site, you might write off the differences as being "some browser issue". In any case, you wind up with someone being confused, at least for a while. Count me as a vote against this style of ad.
    – retracile
    Commented Jan 12, 2010 at 21:01
  • 4
    This is why I'm glad I passed 200 reputation a LONG time ago. :) Commented Jan 12, 2010 at 22:06
  • 14
    I don't appreciate the multiple attempts to mock me. I think you've completely proved my point with the side by side comparisons. At a glance there isn't enough difference to know that one is fake and the other one is different. Commented Jan 15, 2010 at 14:40
  • 6
    It's hard enough to get new users to notice the FAQ banner that drops down from the top of the page, let alone try to differentiate those extremely fine points you list. Those points are not justification, they're excuses. Commented Feb 3, 2010 at 1:37
  • 8
    This is why you are referred to as an "ad weasel".
    – raven
    Commented Feb 6, 2010 at 15:51

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