Pop-up ads, those reviled windows that intrude on your Web surfing, seem to be on the decline. But don't celebrate yet: New forms of advertising that may be just as annoying and even more intrusive are likely to replace them.
Thwarted by both ISPs and blocking utilities, use of pop-ups has waned over the past year. Internet advertising analysts say Microsoft's decision to put a pop-up stopper into the next version of Internet Explorer hastens their demise, but no one expects them to disappear soon. And new styles of ads, including screen-grabbing full-motion videos and rich media that overwrite the screen, are starting to appear.
"All these technologies will contribute to the downfall of pop-ups," says Jupiter Research associate analyst Nate Elliott. But decline isn't the same as imminent death: "Pop-ups will be a viable advertising medium for several years to come," he adds.
Pop-up ads originated with adult-content Web sites, but have become prevalent at mainstream sites (including PCWorld.com). In December 2001, according to data from Nielsen//NetRatings' AdRelevance service, 1.4 percent of all Web ads were pop-ups or pop-unders. By July 2003, pop-up and pop-under ads hit their peak at 8.7 percent of all online ads. Six months later, during the height of the holiday shopping season, their use had plummeted by nearly 30 percent, accounting for about 6.3 percent of all online ads.
Doing the Job
Why did pop-ups become so pervasive? They are 13 times more effective at generating clicks than standard banners, according to 2003 research by ad firm Advertising.com.
"Everyone hates advertising, but it works," says Jim Nail, a senior analyst with Forrester Research.
Jupiter's Elliott agrees with Nail: "Pop-ups work well for the same reasons people hate them in the first place: They get in your face and force you to read the message." As pop-ups did their job, advertisers and Web site publishers began running more of them. And users reacted by seeking ways to block them.
"If I were an average user, I probably wouldn't want [pop-ups] either," says Chris Vanderhook, chief operating officer of SpecificMedia, an online advertising firm that operates two networks of pop-under ads. "There are too many on the Web--way too many," he contends. "When we first started, it was supposed to be one per user per day."
Enter the Blockers
Today, about 20 percent of surfers use pop-up blocker software, which prevents sites from serving ads in new browser windows, according to Forrester's Consumer Technographics Survey. That's higher than last year, when 13 percent of Internet users ran a pop-up blocker. But such blockers can't stop advertising delivered by adware (ad-supported software that installs on your PC, often with another application, such as Kazaa).
The battle has accelerated. In August 2002, EarthLink was the first major ISP to give its customers a pop-up blocker. AOL imposed pop-up controls last year, and Microsoft put Pop-Up Guard into MSN Premium in January. No-cost toolbars from Google, Dogpile, MSN, and Yahoo block pop-ups. But the biggest blow may come from the built-in IE pop-up blocker in Windows XP Service Pack 2, shipping in the first half of 2004.
More than 95 percent of Internet users surf with IE, says site-tracking service WebSideStory, so a built-in pop-up blocker could be devastating, if it's activated. The pop-up blocker in XP SP2's beta version is switched off by default, but when the browser first encounters a pop-up ad, IE asks whether the user wants to turn it on, says Matt Pilla, a senior product manager.
Microsoft has not decided whether to activate SP2's pop-up blocker, but analysts expect it to stay off by default--and be less effective. "Users will have to go in and change the settings," says Jupiter's Elliott. "And people, in general, don't tend to change their settings."
But Internet ad firms will be ready. They're already developing technology that evades the pop-up blockers. Vanderhook says that SpecificMedia isn't doing this, but instead is designing new types of ads.
The new ads--rather than the blockers--may eventually doom pop-ups. Some firms already offer rich-media ads that stream audio and video or scroll text and images across the screen. Online ad maker Unicast promotes full-screen video that shows television-quality ads in 15- or 30-second spots. Unicast's ads download a 2MB video file to a temporary cache and play only between Web pages or at a "logical break period," much like a TV ad, says Allie Savarino, Unicast senior vice president. The file won't affect PC performance, and users can always close it, Savarino adds.
She predicts that people will find these ads less intrusive than pop-ups. "The creative flexibility that this format gives advertisers allows them to deliver messages that consumers will tolerate," she says.
Whatever their form, online ads are here to stay. "We have to find a way to coexist with advertising," argues Charles Buchwalter, vice president of client analytics for Nielsen//NetRatings. That's because advertising pays the bills.
SpecificMedia's Vanderhook takes a more hostile view of ad avoidance: "Blocking pop-ups is almost like ripping off music online," he says. "When you go to ESPN.com every day, you enjoy its content for free. But it's not free; it's paid for by advertising."
Still, the pop-up wars continue. New technology will surely block new kinds of ads. EarthLink already lets customers block rich-media ads, and AOL plans to do the same by the time you read this.
According to some analysts, technological evolution should lead to better advertising, delivered in less intrusive, more manageable formats. In an environment where survival depends on adaptability, pop-ups may be headed for extinction.