Pop-Ups Under Siege

When Google announced the official release of its revamped toolbar last week, the first enhancement the company highlighted was its ability to block pop-up and pop-under advertisements. The move puts the popular search engine squarely in the growing camp opposing the Internet’s most unpopular ad format.

The growing list of companies providing technologies to consumers fed up with pop-ups, combined with an online advertising recovery that’s spurring new interest in different ad formats, could end the reign of pop-ups in the next year, according to Web ad industry executives and analysts.

“I believe from the very bottom of my heart that pop-us, while a very wonderfully ingenious idea, are not the most effective way to reach consumers,” said Paul Iaffaldano, Weather.com’s chief revenue officer. “I think the industry will move beyond pop-ups in the next year or so.”

For now, though, Weather.com will continue to serve them, to the tune of about 10 million per week, according to Iaffaldano.

In fact, pop-up advertisements seem more prevalent than ever. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, 7.3 billion pop-up ads were served in July, up 189 percent from the same month last year. Pop-ups also represented a greater percentage of online ads, growing from 3 percent to 7 percent.

The rising numbers are mostly due to the belief that the format works well for direct response and the fact that publishers have sold it relatively cheaply. Charles Buchwalter, a Nielsen//NetRatings analyst, said both factors helped pop-ups gain in popularity during the online ad industry’s long slump. Now, however, sites are more attuned to consumers’ distaste for overly intrusive ads that mar their online experience.

“When all is said and done, the consumer always wins,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time that advertisers begin to look to other forms from pop-ups.”

One of the factors likely to push advertisers in that direction is the growing arsenal of pop-up blocking options. Both EarthLink and AOL began offering its customers blocking tools the past year. According to EarthLink, 13 percent of its 5 million subscribers have downloaded the software since it began offering it a year ago. AOL did not provide figures for its users, which first got an option to block third-party pop-up ads in March. (AOL continues to serve pop-up ads for AOL Time Warner properties.)

So far, the Internet service providers’ blocking technologies have had little effect. Iaffaldano said Weather.com has not seen any decrease in ads served that it could trace to pop-up blockers. Jason Krebs, vice president of advertising at NYTimes.com, concurred that the blockers have yet to be felt.

“We haven’t seen traffic go down at any point,” he said. “We haven’t seen any decrease.”

Krebs estimates that NYTimes.com serves between 4 million and 6 million pop-under ads per week.

Online travel company Orbitz accounted for 872 million pop-up ad impressions in July, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. A company spokeswoman declined to comment on its plans regarding pop-up ads, referring instead to the company’s policy of informing Internet users who complain about the ads how to download free pop-up-blocking software.

Google’s entry into the anti-pop-up arena will undoubtedly spur further adoption of such technology. According to a company spokesman, the toolbar has been downloaded “millions” of times since its introduction nearly three years ago. All toolbar users will soon be automatically updated with the new version, including the pop-up blocker.

In addition, an MSN representative confirmed that next release of its Internet service software would likely include some type of pop-up blocker. In addition, the company is exploring its own toolbar to compete with search rival Google that could include such an option.

“We don’t stop technology from making the world a better place,” Krebs said. “If this is what people want, we’ll adapt and advertisers will adapt.”

Krebs said pop-up blocking technologies might speed advertisers to move to different options, such as large ad formats, leaving pop-up ads as a niche.

“Advertisers will adjust,” he said. “Advertisers will find a way. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that they are very smart about how they get their message across.”

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