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Tuesday, January 20, 2004  

Internet: Pesky pop-ups are on their way out

The 800-pound gorillas are signing on to the movement to end one form of annoyance on the Internet -- pop-up advertisements. The New York Times reports Time Warner, owner of AOL, and its competing portals, have decided it is time for the weasel to stop popping.

The big ads that flash in separate windows above or below Web pages are among the most intrusive, and to many people, the most obnoxious features on the Internet. Not coincidentally, the pop-up format is also among the most effective for advertisers and the most profitable for Web site publishers.

But the potential reach of these ads is starting to be sharply curtailed as major companies, like Time Warner's AOL unit, Yahoo and Google, distribute software that blocks pop-up ads from opening. This summer, Microsoft will put a pop-up blocking feature in the next release of Internet Explorer, the dominant Web browser.

Earthlink has taken the lead in the backlash, providing pop-up blocking software to its customers.

"There is a consumer revolt as forms of advertising get more intrusive," said Rob Kaiser, vice president for narrowband marketing at EarthLink , the first big Internet service provider to distribute pop-up blocking software. The reaction to pop-ups, he said, is similar to the rush to join the government's do-not-call list to block telemarketing calls and the increase in the use of video recorders to block TV commercials.

I haven't tried Earthlink's blocker, but I do rely on the feature when I am surfing with Apple Computer's Safari, which I use about 80 percent of the time. In fact, it is one of the decision makers in regard to which browser I open. Internet Explorer renders more web pages effectively, but does not block ads. It is also slow compared to Safari and OmniWeb. But, a world in which pop-ups are stymied is not perfect surfdom. There is inconvenience in not having ancillary windows open when signing into a service such as Wi-Fi hotspots or completing forms. Ideally, it would be possible to have pop-up windows without them being taken over by intrusive advertisers.

A shill of the advertising industry says Internet users should appreciate pop-up ads.

"I haven't spoken to any people who say I love pop-ups, send me more of them," said David J. Moore, the chief executive of 24/7 Real Media, an online advertising firm. "But they are part of a quid pro quo. If you want to enjoy the content of a Web site that is free, the pop-ups come with it."

Not necessarily. There are methods of advertising that don't make spectacles of themselves. This user has responded to sites that insist on bombarding her with pop-up ads or else, by choosing 'or else.' I avoid About.com sites precisely because they wallow in pop-ups that appear to slow browsers equipped with blockers. Similar sites also get shown to the door.

An estimated 20 to 25 percent of Internet users are believed to enable pop-up blockers. The proportion has doubled in just one year. I suspect more surfers would employ the option if they were aware of its existence and/or how to use it. The lack of awareness is likely to change.

"In the year and half since EarthLink offered blocking software, one million of its five million customers have installed it. AOL added pop-up blocking to its software in 2002. Google added a blocker to its toolbar, a small program that adds some features to Internet Explorer. Yahoo, more recently, added a similar feature to its toolbar. And Microsoft's MSN just added a pop-up blocker to its most recent software.

The biggest potential impact will come this summer when Microsoft releases its Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, which will add a pop-up blocker and many other features to Internet Explorer. For now, Microsoft says Internet Explorer will not block pop-ups unless users enable the feature."

Some advertisers and web site owners are responding to the change as if they have a divine right to intrude into our lives. "A guy has to make money," says a proprietor of tourism and pornography sites. My response is a guy doesn't have to make his money in such an annoying way. I look forward to the elimination of pop-up ads. Next, I hope something can be done about redirects -- bots that grab users' browsers and take them to unrequested webpages.

Reasonably related

  • A discussion of extending blocker capabilities at Slashdot.

  • Google's official statement on pop-up ads.

  • The Financial Times asks: Should some forms of pop-up ads be illegal?

  • 6:48 AM