Taking the air out of pop-ups

Some online publishers are taking pins to pop-up advertisements, but Web surfers won't likely notice a decline in the annoying marketing ploy anytime soon.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
7 min read
Some online publishers are taking pins to pop-up advertisements, but Web surfers won't likely notice a decline in the annoying marketing ploy anytime soon.

After years of witnessing the mainstream Internet become a jack-in-the-box of commercials, Web surfers may see some relief from a handful of sites, which are hoping to reverse mounting ill will stirred by the ads. Women's network iVillage this week said it would pull pop-ups from its site, America Online recently quieted the riot of pop-ups served to its members and InfoSpace stripped its search property Webcrawler of all such promotions.

Pop-up ads are spontaneous browser windows that jet out at Web users entering an online site, exiting it or just surfing around. As old as the commercial Web itself, the ad format truly came into vogue when Web publishers got pressed for cash in the dot-com crunch. Eager to convince reluctant Fortune 500 companies that Web advertising could be as intrusive, and effective, as TV commercials, sites such as USA Today, AOL, MSNBC, Amazon.com and Yahoo began triggering the ads regularly to grab readers' attention. The proliferation of pop-ups also launched obscure goods, such as X-10's surveillance cameras, into Internet infamy.

In the balance, Web surfers accustomed to free, relatively unfettered content felt hung out to dry. Many have gone beyond mere griping, turning to software programs that help block in-your-face ads altogether.

But while some Web sites--heeding the threat of dwindling audiences--pare back or regulate the use of pop-ups and other rich media ads, the overwhelming majority of the Web will continue on as a springboard for animated, boxy commercials, media executives say. They argue the format is here to stay, along with other larger, imposing ad styles. But a more polite approach could be the trend in the future.

"The industry is finding a line between the needs of consumers and advertisers--both parties need each other, and the pop-up is dancing right on the line," said Nick Nyhan, president of advertising research company Dynamic Logic. "The truth is, just because it's interruptive for the consumer, doesn't mean it's bad for the advertiser. What's bad for the advertising is when it's overly irritating; that's where pop-ups ran into trouble."

While seemingly inescapable on the Web, pop-ups comprise less than 3 percent of the total number of advertisements online, according to researcher Nielsen/NetRatings. The majority of the ads originate from community sites such as Geocities and Tripod and portals such as About.com or Yahoo. Yellow- and white-page lookup sites, as well as gaming sites, fall in line closely behind these categories.

Though unpopular with consumers, the ads are favored by advertisers because they're generally thought to get a higher response from viewers. Some researchers estimate that they garner three to six times greater click-through rates than standard banners or display ads on the Web.

Still, over time, they can prove to be less effective as readers tune them out or avoid sites that host them altogether.

Pulling back on pop-ups As a result, some Net operations are taking a step back.

Earlier this year, then AOL Chief Operating Officer Bob Pittman said that he would cut back on the ads because of the circuslike atmosphere they can create. In recent months, AOL has sheathed 90 percent of its pop-up advertising displayed to some members, according to company spokesman Nicholas Graham.

"We are committed to reducing the number of pop-ups our members see on the AOL service," Graham said. "We recently pared pop-ups to our members, and additionally we've replaced welcome screen promotions with member-focused news and content...in response to member feedback to make improvements to the service."

Financial site Economy.com said it plans to offer a pop-up-free version of its site for subscription. InfoSpace recently removed pop-ups and banner ads from its search property Webcrawler as a promotion to improve the speed and efficiency of search queries. Webcrawler, which itself queries the databases of several other search engines such as FAST and Overture, will be ad-free through Labor Day and may continue as such if consumers warm to the site.

Without the money from the ads, InfoSpace relies on income from the paid search results contained within many of its search partners such as Ask Jeeves and Overture.

"We know they don't like pop-ups," said York Baur, executive vice president of InfoSpace's Wireline division. "Our thought is that if we can increase page load times, we'll have a more competitive search product."

iVillage said this week that it would stop displaying and selling pop-ups, save those for in-house research and questionnaires. But it also will continue to display "superstitial" ads, or full-sized commercial-like ads that appear when surfers hop from one page to another as opposed to atop or behind pages. The ads, which are supplied by technology developer Unicast, are outside the definition of pop-up ads, according to Unicast spokeswoman Allie Savarino. While pop-ups are random, she said, superstitials play in "the transition, making them much more consumer- and advertiser-friendly."

Savarino said the consumer backlash to pop-ups is a boon to Unicast's business, which is focused on a uniform set of commercials for the Web.

"The chaos of so many different things coming at users is creating the backlash, not the formats themselves," Savarino said.

Meanwhile, many other major sites are turning to regulating the ads. MSN, for example, said it limits the frequency of pop-up ads to only one per visitor every five days. "We have had no consumer complaints about pop-up ads due to the fact that we do regulate these ads through frequency control, so there is not oversaturation," an MSN representative said.

Yahoo uses this prescription, too, generally targeting ads to certain categories and visitors. Web portal Terra Lycos says it limits the number of pop-ups that appear on the site for any one visitor, but pop-ups comprise less than 1 percent of the total ads displayed on its sites. The company does not have plans to reduce the number further.

Other major sites aim to regulate the frequency of pop-ups. CBS SportsLine, for example, delivers only one pop-up ad every 20 minutes, according to Bruce Jaret, vice president of sales marketing services at the company. CBS SportsLine uses what's known as a "session cookie" to track a visitor's time on the site and prompt a new ad.

Jaret, along with other executives, says the pop-up ad is maligned because it's abused by some overzealous sites. If properly regulated it can be effective, they say, but it should mirror offline advertising such as TV and radio spots.

How much is too much? Dynamic Logic's Nyhan argues that there's a confusion between the format and the frequency: Pop-ups are not the problem as much as the number of times some sites shove them at people. He also said that research shows the average Web surfer can tolerate three pop-up ads per hour. Compared with TV advertising, which he estimated runs about 15 times per hour on average, that's reasonable, he said.

"If you ask people if they want advertising, generally speaking they are going to say no," Nyhan said. "But if you ask people if advertising is appropriate, they understand there's a price for free content."

Other sites toe the line.

Search provider Ask Jeeves, a top 20 Web property, said that it only uses "pop unders," a similar format that lingers in a browser window behind the requested page. One advantage of a pop-under ad, says Ask Jeeves spokeswoman Carrie Bishop, is that it doesn't interfere with the viewer's experience. The promotions, making up about 6 percent of all ads served on the site, are also targeted so that they are more relevant to visitors, she said.

Like many other major sites, Ask Jeeves has received complaints about the promotions, but it's not always a simple matter to track down the source of a pop-up. Third-party applications installed on consumers' PCs can generate pop-ups that make it appear the site requested is delivering the ad. Web surfers who keep multiple browser windows open could also confuse the origin of such ads.

In a rare move, search site Google decried pop-up advertising on its home page early this year after many of its visitors confused pop-up advertising from other software programs or sites as Google's own. The company firmly said it does not sell the ads.

While some are drawing a line in the sand, others are beginning to experiment for the first time with the advertising genre.

A longtime holdout in Web advertising, online auctioneer eBay began testing pop-up ads on a limited basis on its site in May.

That sites like eBay, one of the top destinations online, are taking to the ads is a sign of the ebb and flow advertising will undergo.

"I don't think the pop-up is going away anytime soon," said Pam Stein, who manages online advertising for United Airlines' Web site. "The major sites that are responsible will do it in a regulated way.

"The pop-up is maligned right now, but ultimately it will become a very attractive ad unit," she added. "There will be fewer of them, and they will be more regulated."