AOL Pops Pop-Ups

AOL announced Tuesday it would install a pop-up-blocking option on the browsers of all users of its AOL 8.0 Internet service, following up on its decision to ban third-party pop-up ads in October with its much-hyped launch of AOL 8.0.

The AOL Time Warner’s Internet unit will deliver the software during automatic upgrades over the next two weeks to its 26.5 million subscribers. The software gives users an icon on their browser that will allow them to block pop-up and pop-under ads from appearing during their Internet browsing. The software will make a noise each time it blocks a pop-up, and users can go to a page to see which sites tried to serve them pop-up ads.

AOL said its pop-up-blocking technology differentiates between unsolicited pop-up advertisements and user-requested ones, such as windows popping up at banking sites. Members have the option of clearing specific sites for serving them pop-up ads.

“AOL’s new pop-up controls will allow our members to explore the Web without being trapped in pop-up purgatory,” said David Gang, AOL’s executive vice president for product marketing. “We asked our members to tell us how we can continue to improve the AOL service, and this feature was near the top of their wish list.”
By responding to members’ complaints about pop-up ads, AOL hopes to put soom oomph in its AOL 8.0 service. So far, however, AOL 8.0 has been a dud. The ISP has failed to see any surge of customers for the service. In fact, in the fourth quarter, AOL’s subscriber base actually declined 176,000 in a period usually known for robust holiday sales.

AOL came under fire from rival ISP EarthLink for still serving its own pop-up ads. EarthLink last November ran an ad campaign questioning AOL’s commitment to banning pop-ups, while touting its own Pop-Up Blocker software, which it began distributing to users in August 2002.

Pop-ups (and their cousins, pop-unders) have quickly established themselves as the bete noir of Internet advertising. However, 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 the fourth quarter of 2002, Nielsen//NetRatings said that pop-up ads comprised just 3.5 percent of total online ad impressions.

The backlash against the intrusive advertising has been growing , however. In addition to EarthLink and AOL, Netscape and publishers like iVillage have said they would no longer serve visitors pop-up ads. IVillage said a poll of its users found 92.5 percent identified the ads as their least favorite part of the site experience.

Some publishers remain unabashed pop-up fans, however, The New York Times Digital has said demand for its pop-up ads has been so great that it has raised rates for them in 2003., likewise, has said it has no plans to stop serving the ads.

Orbitz, the No. 2 pop-under advertiser on the Internet, remains an unabashed supporter of frequency-capped pop-under advertisements.

“Frankly, if a user doesn’t want to receive our pop-under, we don’t want to serve our pop-unders to them,” said Geoff Silver, director of e-marketing at Orbitz. “At the end of the day, nothing is free on the Internet. In order to continue to sustain the advertising revenue that makes sites free, they need to be able to work with advertising vehicles that are successful for the advertiser. This is one of the few tactics that’s been successful.”

The online travel company has rolled out snazzier, interactive pop-under ads , inviting users to “peg the punk” with a snowball or shoot a hockey puck past a goalie. Silver said it plans to continue using the format and responds to customer complaints by directing them how to download free pop-up-blocking software.

AOL itself has a schizophrenic approach to pop-ups, since it continues to serve them on sites it owns. In fact, Silver said Orbitz would continue to run pop-under ads on AOL-owned Mapquest.

“Indications are that many advertisers are succeeding with some pop-up campaigns,” said Charles Buchwalter, senior vice president for client services at Nielsen//NetRatings. “While smart advertisers and publishers will respond to their consumers’ concerns, pop-ups aren’t going to disappear any time soon.”