The 10 Biggest Web Annoyances

Web improvements.
Illustration: Mick Wiggins
In its relatively short life, the World Wide Web has already made many of our most mundane, tedious tasks quicker and easier to perform. But there are still a surprising number of activities--from helping us buy concert tickets to protecting our privacy--that, for one reason or another, the Web still can't get right, stirring the ire of even the most patient users. We look at ten of the worst of them.

Beyond obvious, nagging problems such as e-mail spam, phishing lures, viruses, and spyware, a great many commonplace online frustrations--some dating all the way back to the earliest days of the Web--remain unfixed.

We asked visitors at our online forums to identify what they consider the most dysfunctional aspects of the Web; then we polled our readers to find out which of these problems they find most aggravating. For each difficulty, we identified an "aggravation factor"--the percentage of readers who were either "very annoyed" or "infuriated" by the issue. We start with the ones that irk our readers most, and work our way down.

1. Dubious Privacy Policies

Aggravation factor: 69 percent

Many business-focused Web sites--Particularly in the areas of health and financial services--collect sensitive private information from users. The vast majority of these sites have established privacy policies to lay out what information the site collects and to delineate customers' rights. But the legal jargon in these policies is often laid on so thick that customers can't understand it, leaving them unsure about whether their private data is truly safe from misuse.

Amazon.com's online privacy notice, for example, is a 2700-word document that links to a 2600-word conditions-of-use page jam-packed with arcane legalese. Good luck figuring out your rights if you don't have a J.D. after your name. Privacy policies at some Web sites grant the sites very broad discretion in handling private data, including the right to use the data to market other products and services to members, and the right to share data with unknown, unnamed third parties--leaving the person who supplied the data feeling exposed.

Consumer advocates have found this problem exceedingly difficult to correct because site owners (via their attorneys) go to extremes to avoid legal liability. Of course, you can refuse to patronize any site that you suspect might take liberties with your data. But short of hiring a lawyer to analyze the privacy policy, how do you determine that a site is untrustworthy before it's too late?

2. Difficult Online Forms

Aggravation factor: 65 percent

Filling out a simple form online--be it for something as important as a loan application or as mundane as a news site registration--can turn into an endless cycle of annoying browser refreshes. That's because online forms often mix required and optional fields without clearly distinguishing between the two. While filling out the form, you inevitably skip one of the required fields and then sometimes have to start all over again because the site wipes the page clean. To be fair, things have improved in recent times as companies figure out that user frustration can hurt business. Still, since the problem is so easy to fix, its continued existence is mind-boggling. Site designers should clearly mark all required fields in a different color (red would work just fine). And if a user makes an error anyway, there's no reason to wipe all the fields clean. To move things along smoothly, Web site developers should highlight any field that still needs to be filled in.

3. Overcommercialization of the Web

Aggravation factor: 62 percent

Interstitials; pop-ups; pop-unders; noisy Flash commercials; strobe-lit banner ads; video ads that load without user action... Just another day on the Web.

The idea of pushing advertising in exchange for free Web services has led to overcommercialization of the Web--a major turn-off for surfers. At MySpace, Yahoo, and even (we have to admit it) PCWorld.com such advertising has grown more aggressive, increasingly annoying, and impossible to avoid. On cluttered Web pages, ads jostle against each other and vie for screen real estate with the content that visitors actually came to see. The result? Slower connection speeds, slower page loads, and far less user control over their browser.

Advertisements affect Web content, too. When sites measure the value of content by how many eyeballs it attracts to the ads, unusual, diverse, or niche content can get squeezed out in favor of more-reliably popular middle-of-the-road stuff. "I think in many ways, we have missed the potential of the Web--much like we did with television," says Mike Tinsley, a disappointed Web user in Columbus, Indiana. "When [the Web] was new, it held so much promise to be so useful for education, information, and even entertainment. However, much like TV, the Web has sunk to the lowest common denominator, and I'm not sure we can ever get it back," Tinsley says.

The ad-driven online content industry will continue to devise innovative, eye-catching, and obnoxious advertising formats, so things won't change for the better anytime soon. At the same time, browser makers and other software utility vendors may be able to offer some respite with features designed to restrain advertising annoyances. Browser producers like Microsoft and Mozilla should, by default, block animations or video ads from taking complete control of a Web page and obscuring the content A surfer is trying to view. At the very least, they should provide users an easy way to adjust the settings manually so as to block such intrusive annoyances.

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