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ComputerSavvy The Battle for Your Eyeballs

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A battle is raging between those who feel Internet users should control their own time online and those trying to wrest that control away. The battlefield is advertising.

The Web can be an ideal medium for putting your message out, with its space flexibility and multimedia possibilities. But new developments in Web advertising are making it an equally ideal medium for putting your foot in your mouth. The following is an account on the state of advertising on the Web.

Banner Ad Response Disappointing

The Web standard for enticing people to visit your site is the “banner ad,” the typically small, rectangular box that Web sites place on other Web sites. It’s the banner ad that allows the bulk of the Web to be free, just as the TV commercial allows network television to be free.

Banner ads, however, have come under criticism for failing to deliver the promised eyeballs. Fewer people click through banner ads to the promoter’s own Web site. According to “The State of Internet Advertising,” a report issued recently by market research company AdRelevance at http://www.adrelevance.com, click-through rates are at their lowest ever.

Emerging Options

Web marketers have been scrambling to devise more effective alternatives. They’re using TV as a model, reasoning that if annoying TV commercials a la the classic “Mr. Whipple’s ‘Please don’t squeeze the Charmin’” can be effective marketing gambits, why worry about annoying Web consumers with repetition, intrusiveness, and loss of control.

The stakes are high. Web sites that need ad revenue to survive aren’t getting it. As the online ad market falters along with the rest of the cyber economy, established media companies such as CNBC.com are laying off employees and ad-driven Internet sites such as Living.com are shutting down completely.

You’ll likely see larger, flashier, and more intrusive banner ads in the near future. In February, the Internet Advertising Bureau, at http://www.iab.net, announced new standards for bigger Web ads. The standards include lengthwise ads called “skyscrapers” that run down the side of a Web page, large square ads, and “pop-up ads” that spontaneously appear in a new browser window when you arrive at a Web page.

Pop-ups, sometimes ridiculed as “whack-a-mole ads,” are controversial because they degrade your browsing experience by forcing you to close them to see the content underneath.

Some Web sites, including computer news site CNET, are experimenting with larger ads offering “Flash animations,” those in-your-face special effects loved by some and hated by others.

You’ll likely see video in banner ads as well. Online advertising technology company Bluestreak, at http://www.bluestreak.com, has recently introduced a technology it’s calling “StreakingMedia” that lets advertisers include streaming audio and video in their Web and e-mail marketing campaigns.

The most vexing Web ad developments involve various techniques that try to prevent you from leaving a Web site. “Mousetrapping” disables your browser’s back and forward buttons, requiring you to type in a Web address or go to your Favorites or Bookmarks menu to leave the site.

Another technology, called “multiple window exiting” by proponents and “browser hijacking” by critics, doesn’t even let you do this. First appearing with pornographic Web sites, the technology continually throws new browser windows at you when you try to leave a site. Try backing out of a site, opening another site, or quitting your browser, and another browser window pops up. Try closing that window and still another window pops up. This happens repeatedly, the purpose being to generate mindless “hits” or frustrate you into reading what they’re forcing down your throat. The only way to get out is to keep clicking, ad nauseam.

This technology is so obnoxiously intrusive that only those such as Internet “bad boy” Sanford Wallace, the former self-proclaimed “Spam King,” could embrace it. Check out his site, PassThisOn.com at http://www.passthison.com, for a taste, but expect to be left with a bad taste. Woe to mainstream sites that fall for these kinds of shenanigans–beware of the backlash.

How Consumers Can Fight Back

Clearly, the Internet ad industry needs to improve response rates. The trick–a devilish one–is to do it without alienating Web surfers. Most people will tolerate a reasonable level of advertising in their surfing activities. Most won’t stand for getting shoved around.

Ultimately, the personal computer revolution, upon which the consumer Internet is based, is about personally controlling your experience. Fortunately, technology can also come to the rescue here.

Advertising Killer,

at http://www.buypin.com/akiller.php, is a free program that automatically closes pop-up ads as soon as they appear, and the similarly named AdKiller, at http://www.adkiller.com, masks banner ads. Commercial software such as Norton Internet Security, at http://www.symantec.com, includes controls for banner ads and pop-up windows as well.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or

http://members.home.net/reidgold.

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