Are Pop-Ups Doomed?

By Brian Morrissey

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With the rollout of the latest version of its browser, Netscape joined a band of Internet service providers and Web publishers catering to users' dislike of pop-up ads.

The decision by Netscape to include pop-up blocking options in Netscape Navigator 7.01 came as no surprise, after AOL Time Warner cousin AOL announced in October that its much-hyped AOL 8.0 Internet service would no longer serve pop-up ads from non-AOL Time Warner companies. The move followed rival ISP EarthLink's decision to begin bundling Pop-Up Blocker in its software in August, saying its 5 million subscribers did not want "annoying intrusions."

On the publishing side, women-focused Web network iVillage got the anti-pop-up bandwagon rolling in August , when it decided to end its use of pop-up ads after internal research showed 92.5 percent of the site's users identified pop-ups as their least favorite part of the site experience. Internet search company Ask Jeeves followed suit in October, saying user experience suffered too much.

Despite the hullabaloo surrounding pop-ups, in September Nielsen//NetRatings released results of a study showing pop-up ads are not the scourge they're often painted as . In the first seven months of the year, advertisers purchased 11.3 billion pop-up ad impressions, taking up just 2 percent of the overall online ad market, with 63 companies accounting for 80 percent of the impressions.

"The whole pop-up issue is going to be a mere footnote of the online advertising story," Nielsen//NetRatings analyst Charlie Buchwalter said. "Pop-ups are a transitional form of advertising."

With AOL and EarthLink, up to 40 million Internet users will have some form of pop-up blocking software pre-installed. According to WebSideStory's StatMarket research unit, Netscape's share of the browser market dropped to just 3.4 percent at the end of August.

Not everyone is convinced pop-up ads will leave the scene anytime soon. Jason Krebs, vice president of ad sales at NYTimes.com, said the ad format continues to sell so well that it has raised its pop-up rates for 2003.

"We're still selling them," he said. "Our advertisers are still finding great value to them, and obviously some of our users find them attractive enough to click on them."

He noted that AOL and Netscape have not banished their own pop-up ads -- a fact that EarthLink recently made the centerpiece of an ad campaign.

Nick Nyhan, president of online advertising researcher Dynamic Logic, said that the pop-up ad form had gotten a bad rap.

"The problem is caused by lack of frequency controls," he said. "But intrusive advertising is here to stay."

A year-old study by Dynamic Logic found that customers were receptive of pop-up advertising, so long as it was rare. However, Nyhan said the introduction of the format a year and a half ago coincided with the bottom falling out of the online ad industry, leading many publishers to turn to pop-ups to use up inventory.

"Part of it is the industry got a little bit desperate," he said.

Buchwalter said publishers now realize the more valuable way of being intrusive is by using rich media.

Online travel company Orbitz, which Nielsen//NetRatings pegged as the second most-frequent user of pop-up and pop-under ads, said it took care not to bombard users. According company spokeswoman Kendra Thornton, Orbitz has a frequency cap of one per site in each 24-hour period. Similarly, Krebs said NYTimes.com instituted a policy of one pop-up or pop-under ad received per site visit.

"Our conversion rate for individuals who click on a pop under and purchase continues to be extremely high compared to other forms of advertising," Thornton said, adding that the company received complaints equal to less than .01 percent of the pop-under ads it serves.

Still, with 687 million pop-up ad impressions served in the first half of the year, the company does get complaints. Part of the difficulty is that limitations in ad serving software make it difficult to frequency cap pop-ups across sites, which means an Internet user could be bombarded with pop-ups as he browsed an array of sites, despite the best intentions of publishers and advertisers. To users annoyed by the format, Orbitz suggests they download Pop-Up Stopper, free pop-up-blocking software.

Krebs dismissed the notion that pop-up ads were uniquely alienating to users, saying that advertising, by its very nature, is intrusive.

"Who likes direct mail?" he said. "It still happens. I don't like it, but I don't tell my mailman to stop delivering all my mail."