Web Informant #256, 30 July 2001:
Those annoying pop-under ads


Web advertising continues to scale new heights of annoyances, and the latest round of "pop under" ads continues this trend. For those of you that are lucky enough to be unaware of these things, let me educate you. Go to the NYTimes.com site and just click on a random story. You'll soon see another window open in your task bar (if you are running Windows) that will be a small browser window, advertising for NextCard's credit card products. You can click on the OK button and get more information (which is what NextCard is hoping you will do), or you can be annoyed and try to remove this window and get on with your surfing of the news of the day.

The pop-under ads are typically a smaller window that comes up underneath the current window you are using to surf the web, hence the name. Until recently, they were pretty much the province of the porn industry and other shady operators. With the Gray Lady (or whatever moniker you want to attach to the Times' web site), they have reached a new level of respectability and prominence. And they are annoying: because trying to close the pop-under window is distracting and while not very time consuming, these mouse clicks tend to add up over the course of the day if more sites adopt these ad practices.

Lest you think pop-under web advertising is just a fad, the bad news is that ubiquity can deliver the goods: last month the X10 web site was the fourth most-visited site, largely on the number of their ads that popped over and under numerous web sites (including the Times'). Success breeds imitators, and more sites are making use of this technology, according to various news reports.

As the number of dot-bombs increases, web site owners are increasingly concerned about where they will get the cash to keep all those 20-somethings around to develop new content. And one trend is to have less and less screen real estate devoted to actual content, and more and more space given over to advertising. This isn't a good thing. Granted, someone has to pay the freight, but a far better solution would be to charge for "enhanced" content or some kind of subscription basis. Too bad few people have had much luck with charging for subscription sites, outside of the Wall Street Journal and Consumer Reports.

Here is a better solution: combine a free site with fee-based managed services model. You can view some or most of the content on the site for free, have at it and enjoy as you wish. But if you want to personalize the content, or buy one or more service offerings, then you will have to pay a small monthly fee. This is exactly what Catch The Web does. The company had a web offline capture tool that originally was a piece of standalone software. But they have migrated to a more interesting business model, charging a monthly fee to store your captured pages on their site for a small fee. Now this is something that others should emulate.

Another model is sponsored content or advertorials. But this gets tricky, especially as it becomes harder to separate the ads from the editorial on sites like cNet and ZDnet. Take a look at one of the sites that I write for, Windows2000Advantage.com. You could consider it as an entire advertorial site, since it has Microsoft and Compaq as its sponsors. To their credit, they do state this in several places (and the site has its own annoying pop-over subscription windows, too.) Other sites have less clean a division between sponsored and independent content, and when you mix the two on the same web page you are asking for trouble.

In the meantime, count me as a pop-under detractor. Let's find some other ways to pay for content than annoying the readers.

Self-promotions dep't

My most recent feature story for Var Business is about how to build a mobile portal for your enterprise. You can find the article here.

I also continue to write product reviews for two of the TechTarget web sites. My most recent review of Adobe Acrobat for SearchWin2000.com can be found here.

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David Strom
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