Software tool smothers sponsored search

InterMute plans to offer a new tool that will let Web surfers block text-based ads from appearing in a Web search, so that noncommercial results come to the fore.

For one software maker, the fight to block overbearing Web advertisements such as pop-ups is shifting to the ad industry's hottest sector: commercial search.

InterMute, the maker of anti-pop-up software AdSubtract, plans to upgrade its technology next month with a tool to suppress sponsored search results proliferating online. Called "Search Sanity," the tool will let Web surfers block text-based ads from appearing when they conduct a Web search so that noncommercial results come to the fore, CNET has learned.

InterMute declined to comment on the timing of the tool's launch, but a company representative said it will be a feature of AdSubtract 3.0, expected to debut in early December. AdSubtract 3.0, downloadable software, will likely cost customers a one-time fee of $30.

About 18,600 people have downloaded earlier versions of AdSubtract, according to CNET, a division of parent CNET Networks. The software lets people stamp out pop-up windows and block Net-tracking technology such as cookies.

InterMute also declined to describe technically how Search Sanity would work, but it said the goal is to "bring purity back to Internet searches and provide users more accurate results."

Text-based advertisements have become a staple of Web search in the last several years on such popular sites as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN. Portals and publishers have cottoned to the ads, because they can be highly targeted to what Web surfers are searching for, proving more effective for marketers. Advertisers bid for the terms that trigger their ads but only pay when someone clicks on a link.

As a result, search engine marketing has helped resuscitate online advertising, which has stagnated in the last several years. Keyword searches made up 31 percent of the $1.66 billion in U.S. online ad sales for the second quarter of 2003, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry trade group.

But some industry watchers worry that Web search providers and publishers could go too far in their quest for profits. For example, sponsored listings for certain keyword searches can result in text ads that dominate the page.

"This particular move is only going to affect the industry adversely if search providers and publishers turn consumers against them by overdoing it," said James Lamberti, vice president of media solutions at ComScore Networks, a research firm.

"There has to be a commitment to the consumer (from search providers) to say, 'Here are the natural listings, and here are your commercial listings.' It's not always clear, and it could be detrimental in the long term, if consumers begin to turn against the concept of sponsored advertising," Lamberti said.

Whether a large number of consumers will want Search Sanity remains uncertain. According to a new survey from Nielsen/NetRatings, as many as 24 percent of people polled said sponsored search results were more useful than regular search results, and about 51 percent said they were just as useful as noncommercial listings.

However, InterMute could have a market in the roughly 25 percent of people polled who said they found sponsored search results less useful than natural search.

InterMute's plans come as the backlash heats up against pop-ups, the chief form of advertising AdSubtract aims to thwart. Internet service providers, including EarthLink, America Online and Yahoo, have moved to block the intrusive ads. And now Microsoft plans to arm consumers with tools to block them through Internet Explorer, a move that could go a long way to making pop-ups obsolete.

Ed English, CEO of InterMute, recently applauded those efforts, saying it legitimizes the need for technology that blocks other forms of online advertising.

"Users clearly are fed up with pop-ups and other types of overdone Internet advertising," English wrote via e-mail. "Surfing the Web with less junk jumping out at you from your browser makes for a more productive and enjoyable Web experience. Pop-up blocking is just the tip of the Internet annoyance iceberg."

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