New Netscape punctures pop-up ads

The new version of AOL Time Warner's Web browser signals deflationary times for one of the Web's most despised--but reportedly effective--marketing formats.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
4 min read
AOL Time Warner has released a version of its Netscape browser that lets Web surfers suppress pop-up ads, a further sign of declining fortunes for a widely hated marketing format.

The new pop-up-stopping Netscape 7.01 was released Tuesday, offering a belated compromise for Web surfers increasingly buffeted by intrusive advertising.

Netscape's decision to offer pop-up blocking comes as the advertising unit finds itself under siege by irate Web surfers and Web properties increasingly nervous about the format's use--particularly America Online.

AOL's popular proprietary online service recently revised its pop-up policies, ending sales of the format to third-party advertisers--a move AOL said would cost it $30 million next year. The change comes as the company faces a dizzying decline in ad and e-commerce revenue, which are expected to drop 40 percent to 50 percent in 2003 on top of similar declines this year. The company is also saddled with declining subscriber growth rates.

Some Web watchers said AOL's new stance will likely stoke a broad consumer backlash against pop-ups that could eventually lead more publishers to cut back on or abandon the format.

"The pop-up ad is so negative right now that, over time, it will be all but gone from the landscape as advertisers work to find new and more palatable ways to get their message across to consumers," wrote Jupiter analyst Michael Gartenberg in an e-mail interview.

Although AOL is moving to distance itself from pop-ups, it's being cautious; some researchers have identified the format as among the most effective marketing tools available on the Web. Netscape 7.01 comes with the pop-up filtering off by default. Once enabled, the filter is preset to allow pop-ups on some sites, including several of AOL's own properties.

AOL said users can alter those settings to block pop-ups on all sites, explaining that the exceptions were selected to ensure a seamless Web experience on certain popular sites that use pop-up windows to display important nonadvertising information.

Pummeling pop-ups
Netscape's pop-up blocker comes four months after Internet service provider EarthLink offered its subscribers a pop-up blocking add-on to Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. And in August, Netscape's Mozilla group offered a similar feature in its browser. At the time, Netscape took some heat for not following suit.

Mozilla, formed and funded by Netscape to govern the open-source development of its browser code, independently publishes browser builds that anyone can download for free and licensed use. Netscape bases its branded browser on that code, but incorporates Mozilla features selectively.

Jupiter's Gartenberg called Netscape's pop-up tool a sign of an attitude adjustment at AOL--but not one that is likely to recruit many IE users.

"Netscape's inclusion of a pop-up blocker reflects the changing nature that its parent company AOL has toward its customers," Gartenberg said. "As AOL recently announced that it would begin to remove pop-ups that are universally reviled by consumers, this addition to Netscape is a logical progression. While useful to the few Netscape users that are still out there, it's not likely to win many new converts."

Netscape, Mozilla and EarthLink are not alone in cracking down on pop-ups. Popular search site Ask Jeeves banned its advertisers from using them on its site.

But one influential advertising trade group shrugged off the notion that the new anti-pop-up policies and software were having much of an effect against the ad format.

"We have a lot of research that shows pop-ups to be among the most effective of the advertising formats," said Stu Ginsburg, a member of the Interactive Advertising Bureau. "Anything that inhibits legitimate advertising is obviously a subject of concern. And if it becomes an issue, we'll bring it up with our general membership. But so far it hasn't."

Ginsburg declined to comment on AOL Time Warner's various anti-pop-up moves, citing the company's membership in the group.

A self-serving decision?
While AOL Time Warner has acted repeatedly against pop-ups in general, it has in more than one of those instances preserved its own ability to use the units.

The policy announced in October, for instance, bans pop-up ads from "third-party" companies, and for AOL merchandise. That encompasses the "large majority" of pop-ups that AOL members receive, according to AOL.

But the new policy, which goes into effect once current ad deals expire, still allows for pop-up advertising for AOL services and new features, and pop-ups from AOL Time Warner companies.

While that opens the door for pop-up ads from a wide array of media properties, mostly these will be magazine offers, according to AOL. The company also noted that users can opt out of receiving "even most" of those pop-ups.

In a similar attempt to preserve its own pop-up prerogatives, Netscape's new ad blocker comes with a default list of Web sites--which browser users can alter--whose pop-ups will be permitted even once the user activates the tool.

Out of the 15 sites Netscape lists by default, seven--including aol.com, aim.com, cnn.com and turnerclassicmovies.com--belong to AOL Time Warner companies.

Netscape defended the list, which it said would smooth the surfing experience for users who opt to use the blocking tool.

"There are a number of Web sites that use pop-up windows as a means to launch critical information or applications," wrote a Netscape representative in an instant message interview. "In order to enhance user experience, we've prepopulated 'Exceptions' with the names of some of these types of Web sites that require pop-ups to be enabled in order to be viewed correctly."

"Popup Window Controls" are turned off by default in Netscape 7.01, but users can turn the feature on and change the list of excepted sites under the "Privacy & Security" category of their "Preferences" file, under the browser's "Edit" menu.