EarthLink: Read AOL’s Fine Print

In the hopes of stealing some thunder from AOL’s splashy debut of its new AOL 8.0 Internet service, rival ISP EarthLink rolled out print ads questioning AOL’s stance on pop-up ads.

In a full-page advertisement running in Monday’s USA Today, EarthLink asks, “It took AOL 8.0 tries to figure out people don’t like pop-up ads?” The ad touts the Atlanta ISP’s pop-up-blocking technology, which cuts out all pop-up ads. AOL 8.0 blocks third-party pop-up ads, but still serves them from its AOL Time Warner sister companies.

“There’s been a whole lot of buzz about AOL 8.0,” said Terry Montoya, EarthLink’s vice president of marketing communications. “AOL has tried to make a big deal about how different they’re going to be. That’s been a lot of smoke and mirrors.”

AOL announced its pop-up ban with the much-hyped launch of AOL 8.0, which is set to battle it out with Microsoft’s MSN 8 service for top-dog status in the ISP world. When it banished pop-ups, however, AOL did not include house ads from the many businesses in the AOL Time Warner family.

EarthLink, the No. 3 ISP behind AOL and MSN, pointed out the loophole of AOL’s policy in a full-page advertisement it ran in USA Today and The New York Times last week. Those ads included an exhaustive list of the hundreds of AOL Time Warner properties that could still run pop-up ads on AOL 8.0.

With Internet users increasingly frustrated by pop-up ads — one ad agency recently reported that 74 percent of Internet users found them the most annoying form of advertising — banning them has become a marketing tool. IVillage announced in July that it would no longer serve the ads, after finding 92.5 percent of its audience identified pop-ups as their least favorite aspect of the site.

EarthLink rolled out Pop-Up Blocker in August. The application is powered by Salt Lake City-based FailSafe Technologies’ Guard-IE application, blocking pop-up ads from users with the Internet Explorer browser. EarthLink provided Pop-Up Blocker for free download to its 4.7 million members. The company does not release the number of users who have downloaded the software, estimating only that it is “well into the six figures.”

With its TotalAccess 2003, the newest version of the company’s Internet access software, Pop-Up Blocker is integrated into the service. Users can block pop-up ads by clicking a button on the toolbar.

Despite much hand-wringing over pop-ups’ place in Internet advertising, research has shown the ad format is not as prevalent as commonly thought. In a study released in September, Nielsen//NetRatings said that only 9.2 percent of online advertisers used pop-up-like ads. Net Ratings’ AdRelevance unit found that 63 advertisers accounted for 80 percent of the 11.3 billion pop-up and pop-under ad impressions served in the first seven months of the year.

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