The Top 10 Most Annoying, Frustrating, Irritating, and Sinister Online Ads

Today's annoying online ads are a mix of Big Brother meets Madison Avenue, old-fashioned in-your-face marketing, and tactics that are downright mean. I rounded up a list of today's ten most annoying online ad categories. Many of them may have you longing for the days when the most pesky ads promoted an X-10 wireless camera.

Some of these ads flash, blink, vibrate, and somersault around your browser window. Others expand, pop open a window (even if you have a pop-up blocker), and play sounds or video. The most sinister don't appear to do anything at all and quietly attempt to hijack your PC.

What's behind this new breed of advertising? Naturally, money is greasing the wheels of online ad innovation. Consider eMarketer's forecast, which indicates that U.S. Internet companies are spending $21.4 billion in 2007 on online ads. That budget will grow--by 2011, an estimated $42 billion will go toward online ads, according to eMarketer.

However, as you grind your teeth trying to ignore a banner for Smiley Central riddled with talking emoticons, keep in mind that as irritating as Web ads are, they help keep Web content free. Without them, we'd all have to pay a nickel every time we wanted to watch a YouTube video of people riding down escalators in shopping carts.

Even so, "rich media advertising" can consume a lot of CPU cycles and tax your system--never mind your patience. Other forms of online advertising, such as column ads (those adjacent to content on a page), often interfere with surrounding content. When online advertising goes too far, sometimes you have to fight back with ad-blocking tools.

What's too much advertising? What's the just the right amount? That's for you to decide.

(For more information on tools, see our story "15 Downloads That Will Block Annoying Ads and Pop-Ups")

1. Old-School, Annoying, Attention-Grabbing Ads

LowerMyBills' dancing ads work by grabbing attention.
Recently I was having trouble focusing on the text of a CNN.com story. I quickly realized that my concentration troubles were due not to a bout of attention deficit disorder, but rather to a LowerMyBills ad that was blinking, jiggling, and dancing beside the text I was trying to read.

It occurred to me then: Why are online ads so obnoxious? The answer is, they work by grabbing our attention. Just as I can't ignore the silhouetted images of two-stepping cowboys in the LowerMyBills ads, the LowerMyBills brand is now stuck in my head like a song I hate and can't shake. (LowerMyBills would call that effective marketing).

Experts say that obtrusive ads are going out of vogue in exchange for ads tailored to the interests of individual Web users. If that's true, would someone please tell CNN.com? In the meantime, if you're interested in death by LowerMyBills ads, visit the Web site Adverlicio.us, which has archived nearly all the LowerMyBills ads.

2. Noisy Ads

Some ads start playing audio without any warning.
Obnoxious isn't quite strong enough an adjective to describe ads that automatically start playing audio on my PC without any warning. I'm not naming names, but I've spotted such ads on plenty of sites. It leads me to wonder: Whose hair-brained idea was it to hijack my PC's audio, anyway?

If you want to place blame, start with the advertiser, of course, but then consider the Web site where the ad appears. According to online-ad experts, Web site owners set the policy governing the types of ads their pages display.

One online-advertising company, EyeWonder, says that about one out of ten video ads it creates on the behalf of its customers will initiate audio when you roll your pointer over the ad. Most advertisers provide a button to start the audio, says Jason Scheidt, director of marketing for EyeWonder.

3. Floating Ads

Floating ads dominate your Web browser with an animated message.
In today's advertising environment, you need the dexterity of a video-game pro to chase down the Close button on ads as they float across your display. These specimens, called floating ads or "page takeovers," briefly dominate your Web browser with a Flash-based animated message. You've probably seen them (perhaps even on--gulp--PCWorld.com) running across your screen as the page loads.

I asked one advertising insider (who didn't want to be identified) if he would confirm my suspicion that some advertisers intentionally make it impossible to find the Close button. His response? "Of course they do. These advertisers know they are getting away with something. And that 'something' is not about making your life easier."

4. Triple Threat: Floating Video Sales Pitch

In this combo ad, a talking pitchman invades the screen.
Sometimes in the technology world, things go together like peanut butter and jelly. Other times, the convergence is a car wreck.

I spotted an online ad for Toyota in which a pint-size pitchman waltzed out from the lower-left corner of my screen. The combination video-audio-floating-takeover ad simply started yakking, with no warning, and the ad didn't disappear until he was done. Talk about an annoying car salesperson.

5. Mouse-Over Land Mine Ads

Contextual advertising technology lets sites generate keyword pop-overs.
Ever think navigating a Web page with your mouse is like a game of Minesweeper? One wrong move, and--pow!--ads start springing up out of nowhere. For that, you can thank the advertising company Vibrant Media: Its IntelliTXT contextual advertising technology lets many sites display keyword pop-overs.

The service works by underlining certain words in an article so that when you run your pointer over one of them, an ad springs up. Wait a few seconds, and the ad disappears. Some of those ads can be text with images, or even videos. Either way, I find them horribly annoying.

These pop-overs are worse than the pop-up ads of the 1990s. Some Web pages are loaded with as many as eight IntelliTXT keyword pop-overs. At least you can kill off pop-up ads pretty easily with the Alt-F4 key command, whereas IntelliTXT ads always reside on the Web page, waiting to pounce. The result is a Web page full of pop-up distraction that makes reading the page's content difficult.

6. Viral Ads

Sony's attempt at a viral ad campaign backfired.
Sometimes viral ads can be fun, like a personal favorite, "Will It Blend?" In this series of videos, an iPhone and other objects are pulverized in Blendtec blenders. Blendtec created the videos to promote its products in an unconventional way. The idea behind viral marketing is to make ads so compelling that a viewer wants to share them with a friend. Ideally, the viral ad, which is often a video, a picture, or a blog, spreads from inbox to inbox or blog to blog as quickly as a computer virus might.

The only problem with this often obnoxious form of advertising is that for every interesting viral ad we're subjected to at least a dozen annoying duds.

Sony tried to create buzz with a viral marketing campaign for its PlayStation Portable. Sony hired marketing company Zipatoni to create a blog titled "All I Want for Xmas Is a PSP" and pass it off as created by someone named Charlie. The blog contained glowing tributes to the PSP and linked to YouTube videos starring "Charlie" singing the praises of the handheld.

The blog created buzz all right, but not the positive kind that Sony sought. Word got out that both the blog and Charlie were fake. Immediately, Sony had to deal with an angry Web mob who ridiculed the vendor for trying to trick its customers. Sony eventually came clean and admitted to the charade.

Sony is in good company, joining other firms, such as Wal-Mart, that have taken grief for unsuccessful attempts at viral advertising.

7. Expanding Ads

Expanding ads spread across your screen whenever you happen to mouse over them.
Another type of ad that's growing in popularity looks like a regular static ad running on the side or top of Web pages. Yet these ads are anything but ordinary. If you mouse over them, they spread across your screen, taking over your browser window. When you move your mouse away, they slither back to their original, unassuming size.

These ads are getting even slicker, now featuring audio, video, and interactive games. The ads are typically on sites that cater to younger demographics--people, EyeWonder's Scheidt says, who may like such rich media ads.

I don't know about you, but I'm never happy when I accidentally roll my pointer over the top-right corner of a Web page and a Flash animation pretends to peel back the page and show me an ad. Unfortunately, I have to deal with these on my own online home: PCWorld.com runs this type of ad on occasion as well.

8. Personal and Tailored Ads

DoubleClick tailored ads
The behavioral-advertising business is booming with major online ad companies, with DoubleClick leading the pack. These companies give me the creeps, because they track my Web whereabouts and likely know more about my surfing habits than I do. Many create digital dossiers of online users that advertisers can use to show you ads tailored to your online activities.

The move toward behavior-based marketing is a trend, says Greg Sterling, an analyst with mobile market research firm Opus Research in San Francisco. That trend motivated Google to acquire DoubleClick, with the intention of targeting and selling ads more effectively. Privacy activists, of course, are foaming at the mouth, concerned that Google and DoubleClick will know too much about Internet users.

This approach marks a shift from the online advertising model Google established, which displays ads based on a person's keyword searches.

To counter the trend, many privacy activists are urging the Federal Trade Commission to create a "Do Not Track" database; consumers registering there could opt out of being tracked by DoubleClick and other online marketers.

9. Malware-Laced Ads

Some ads on leading Web sites carry a dangerous payload.
No question about it: Online ads that deliver malicious software are beyond merely annoying. Security firm ScanSafe tracks dangerous banner ads that have shown up on MySpace, PhotoBucket, and other leading sites. Such parasite ads typically contain a Flash file that silently installs a Trojan horse or backdoor program on vulnerable Windows systems. Reportedly, 12 million such ads came from RightMedia, an advertising firm in which Yahoo owns an 80 percent stake.

The most devious aspect of these ads is that they require no interaction from you, and Web sites sometimes deliver them innocently. They often come from third-party ad suppliers that act as middlemen between Web sites and advertisers. Sometimes the company delivering the ads to a site is unaware that a bad-apple advertiser has embedded Trojan horses in them. By sheer bad luck you could visit a Web site that inadvertently hosts a Trojan horse ad, and risk infection, says Mary Landesman, a senior researcher at ScanSafe.

"We find this stuff all the time," Landesman says. "We could report one every week."

10. Bait, Switch, and Infect Ads

A related type of online ad is the kind that entices you with too-good-to-be-true offers. Such messages predate the Web, of course, but online they cause a lot of grief, notes Paul Piccard, director of threat research at Webroot Software.

Earlier this month the Web site of the Arizona Daily Star in Tuscon was hit with a "maliciously coded online advertisement," according to the newspaper's own report. The Star reports that the online ad was purchased by a company using a fraudulent credit card. The ad appeared on the newspaper's site for 18 days and "directed some Web visitors to sites that could have installed harmful software," says the Star's report.

Piccard says that such ads typically promote free software or another giveaway, trying to drive traffic to a booby-trapped Web page. If you click on such an ad, it whisks you away to a Web site that attempts to install malware onto your system through Web browser security holes.

As the Arizona Daily Star will attest, these ads can make their way onto legitimate sites and cause havoc. Piccard says that the malicious payloads these ads deliver to PCs include keyloggers (which collect and send personal identifying financial information), adware, and spyware.

What Can You Do?

For the online-ad weary, there is both good news and bad news.

The bad news: If you don't like these ads, tough luck. Market observers say that today's browser-based advertising technology is as creative as it is annoying. This breed of online ad technology is so tightly fused with browsers and Web sites that it's extremely difficult to block.

The good news is that ad-blocking technology also continues to advance--although not nearly at the breakneck speed that ads do. If you want to learn more about additional defensive weapons, my colleague Steve Bass outlines a few of the latest and greatest tools in "15 Ways to Block Annoying Ads and Pop-Ups."

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