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Fighting Surf Wars

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The metaphor comparing the business world to a battleground is overused. But it’s not trite to say that a fierce struggle is raging between Web advertisers trying to capture your attention and Web consumers who want to surf unfettered.

The stakes are high. With the collapse of the dotcom economy based largely on the simple, unobtrusive banner ad, Web publishers are desperately trying to come up with other, viable business models.

If they fail–if Web site owners can’t bring in adequate revenue–the Internet won’t achieve its potential of near-instant linking for individuals and organizations with the information they need and the entertainment they want.

New Ways to Intrude

To entice you to visit their sites and buy their products, Web advertisers are resorting to ever more intrusive and interruptive technologies. They include:


  • Pop-up ads.


    These appear in a new browser window when you arrive at a Web page and block part of that page or all of that page.


  • Pop-under ads.


    They load in the background under the current page and appear when you close that page.


  • Spawning.


    It occurs when multiple browser windows open, one after another, when you enter or exit a site.


  • Mouse trapping.


    This disables your ability to click back to a previous page or to use your mouse to exit your browser.


  • Pop-up spam.


    Spam of this sort pops up on your screen if you’re connected to the Internet regardless of whether you have your Web browser running.

Web advertisers are using these techniques in ever greater numbers. Almost one out of three of the largest Web sites in the U.S. now use pop-up and pop-under ads, according to a survey by Cyveillance, an Internet services consulting firm. About 5% use mouse trapping. And 1.4% go so far as changing your home page or favorites list.

Many of these techniques were developed by programmers of adult Web sites, having no shame. Some mainstream Web sites, having no shame, are now following their lead.


What’s a Surfer to Do?

Web surfers are fighting back. Some are using ad-blocking software, sometimes called “ad killers.” These programs are widely available as inexpensive “shareware” or “freeware,” typically from individual entrepreneurs. Popular choices include AddSubtract and Guard-IE Popup Killer and Privacy Suite, available from download sites such as CNET’s Download.com, at http://www.download.com.

One program, Pop-Up Defender, uses a reviled form of marketing, e-mail spam, to try to persuade you to buy it in order to stop another reviled form of marketing, pop-up ads. Don’t be a sucker.

Ad blocking software is beginning to become mainstream. For instance, EarthLink subscribers get use of a pop-up blocking tool for free. And, for some time, utility powerhouse Symantec, at http://www.symantec.com, has bundled an ad-blocking component with its Norton Internet Security. More recently, Web browsers such as Mozilla, at http://www.mozilla.org, and the newly released Apple Safari, at http://www.apple.com/safari, have begun to offer this capability, preventing consumers from having to use a third-party tool.

You’d think advertisers would get the message. But reports indicate that some sites are upping the ante, resorting to technologies that disable all or part of their sites if they detect you’re using ad-blocking software.

Bad move, says Gary Stein, an analyst specializing in Internet marketing at Jupiter Research, a market research firm headquartered in New York City. “In a war between advertisers and consumers, consumers will win,” he says. “An angry consumer won’t be a customer.”

Recognizing that the Internet is all about freedom of choice, some enlightened Web site owners are adopting different strategies. America Online now bans third-party pop-up ads (but not its own). Salon.com, at http://www.salon.com, bans all ads if you subscribe ($30/year), or you can choose to view the site for free, including its pop-up and banner ads.

Slippery Slope Strategies

Some Web site owners will be tempted to use “integrated advertising” to make ad messages seem like regular content or “contextual advertising” to tailor ads to individuals by tracking their surfing habits.

Making ads more “relevant” in these ways, however, is a slippery slope, raising thorny ethical and privacy issues. Blurring the lines between editorial and advertising is deceitful unless sites clearly label the sponsored content, as print publications do with advertorials. And using “spyware” that tracks what you do online risks creating a huge consumer backlash. A better approach here is to ask surfers to answer questions voluntarily.

What advertisers need to do in general, says Stein of Jupiter Research, is what they’ve always done best–be creative. Instead of hijacking consumers’ surfing time, create interesting ads with fun or substantive content that people want to see.

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://www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.

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