Web surfers brace for pop-up downloads

Software makers are popping up boxes that ask people to download applications delivering everything from Gator's password helper to software that redirects people to adult-related sites.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
6 min read
Web surfers who thought online advertisements were becoming increasingly obtrusive may be dismayed by a new tactic: pop-up downloads.

In recent weeks, some software makers have enlisted Web site operators to entice their visitors to download software rather than simply to view some advertising. For example, when visiting a site a person may receive a pop-up box that appears as a security warning with the message: "Do you accept this download?" If the consumer clicks "Yes," an application is automatically installed.

Computer security expert Richard Smith explained that with such downloads, "You don't even know why you're getting this program, and the people who do (pop-up downloads) are relying on the fact that people tend to say 'Yes.'"

"A person should (be able to) request the download" if they want it, or decline it if they don't, he said. "It's the classic opt-in, opt-out debate."

In some cases, people are not even asked whether they want the software. It just installs on the hard drive--a particularly troublesome tactic that some have dubbed "drive-by download."

Some Net users have complained of receiving downloads containing a virus that automatically redirects them to adult-related sites. Such downloads also have been known to install new dial-up programs replacing the existing accounts. The Federal Trade Commission recently brought a case against people who were using such tactics to install a dial-up account for expensive 1-900 numbers.

But those horror stories are the exception. More typically, software makers are simply using the downloads to distribute legitimate products.

One well-known practitioner is Gator, a company that makes a helper application that manages passwords and user IDs. While many people find the software to be useful, Gator also has built in some more questionable features.

The company came under fire last year for selling ads that appeared over the top of ads already existing on major sites such as Yahoo.

While Gator later retreated from its earlier practices, about six weeks ago it turned to download advertising, called "one-click opt-install," on various partner sites.

In addition, online advertising network L90 has sold the one-click downloads on various consenting network sites. Its ad network includes AllBusiness.com, The Golf Channel online and Hollywood.com, according to its Web site.

Look at me
Ads-as-downloads are the latest ploy by software makers to help aggressively distribute technology to a wider audience. They also represent the newest twist on pop-ups and other attention-getting pitches.

In the last year and a half, Net advertising has undergone vast transformations as publishers have sought new revenue sources to make up for a sharp decline in ad dollars. As a result, ads appear bigger, obscure content for a brief time, or use sound to attract attention.

And that's just on the top sites. In less-trafficked areas of the Net, the tactics are even bolder. Some Web sites have been known to launch up to 10 pop-up pages or to use tricks such as "mousetrapping," in which the site launches multiple windows when the visitor tries to exit the page. This clutter has created a haven for pop-up downloads because consumers find it hard to determine the ad's origin.

For Gator, triggering a download via an ad boosts distribution of its wallet and bundled marketing software, the OfferCompanion. To support its free software, the company sells targeted ads to nearly 300 advertisers on OfferCompanion, which delivers price comparisons.

Gator's technologies have already been widely distributed through bundling deals with other popular applications such as WeatherBug and through direct distribution from its site. With nearly 13 million users, according to the company, it's pushing saturation, and it has sought to find new modes of distribution.

"When you hit critical mass, you don't have a lot of options...It's helping expand our reach," said Scott Eagle, marketing manager for Gator.

"We're working (directly) with publishers buying various pop-up advertising; one of them is the popping up of the (security) prompt. (It) says, 'Would you like to try this application? Click here if you do,'" said Eagle, adding that the campaign is still a small piece of the company's distribution.

Several Web publishers said they have been approached by L90 or Gator to run such download ads, but they refused out of fear of a consumer backlash.

"We thought it was dirty," said one Internet executive who asked to remain anonymous. "It's the kind of thing that makes the phone ring."

One executive referred to the download as a "warhead" because it's a small file that executes automatically and always runs in the background. The software verifies whether the computer already has the software, the system is compatible, and cookies are on.

Is it too easy?
Elliot Noss, owner of 9-year-old download site Tucows, said that though he was surprised to receive a prompt for a Gator download, he's savvy to such marketing tactics and declined to accept it. But he's not so sure a Web neophyte would know better.

"An unsophisticated user like my poor mother would have presumed it was something like a browser plug-in necessary to view the site and (would OK) the download," said Noss. "But downloading software especially for unsophisticated users can cause lots of grief and pain. Before something like a download is provided, it should be very clearly requested."

Gator's Eagle said the program is an easy way for visitors to download the software, and he emphasized that they are given the opportunity to click "No." He said the company has done extensive research to find out if this is a valuable means to install software; the results have been "overwhelmingly positive."

"There's no question that there (are) programs that are more aggressive. With this, there's some measure of permission," said Eagle.

Gator buys the ads by the thousands, but Eagle would not divulge what it pays. Sources in the ad industry say the company spends between $2 and $5 per thousand ads. Typical ad rates can run anywhere from about $7 to $20 for general rotation on a top site such as Yahoo. Gator also has affiliate relationships with many sites, which it pays $1 every time a visitor downloads its software.

Gator isn't the only software maker using this tactic to add consumers. Others advertising through downloads include Activator Download and C2 Media.

Meanwhile, InternetFuel, a marketing services company, sells creative ways for software makers to increase downloads. "Does your online business application require a download? InternetFuel can effectively market your download to the user. We offer a variety of delivery options," according to its Web site.

An L90 representative said download pop-ups have been allowed on its network. She said Gator's ad ran on its network of 150 publishers--of those that agreed--and a lower-profile set of publishers called Zonfire.

Among the sites that automatic downloads have appeared on are Innovators of Wrestling, MP3Yes.com, and the Web community site EZBoard. Such sites often launch so many pop-up windows it's hard to determine where the download originated.

A representative for the Interactive Advertising Bureau said the practice is so new that the organization could not comment specifically on it. But the representative said the IAB generally endorses practices that are clearly labeled and are not deceptive.

The IAB recently signed off on a Gator initiative, called online advertising "rules of engagement," which espoused the importance of clearly marking advertisements and the origin of ads.

"Consumers want control of their PCs," Gator President Jeff McFadden said in a statement. "They're confused as to who is responsible for displaying these high volumes of uninvited pop-ups and pop-unders, and they are becoming frustrated. This is hurting ad responsiveness and is giving a black eye to the online advertising industry."