Popup ads are back

It's easy to forget now, but there was a time when any web page could pop open as many windows as it wanted without your consent. In the early 2000s popup blockers became so ubiquitous and effective that now advertisers hardly bother with them anymore. In fact, the popup problem had been so thoroughly solved that I had hardly even thought about them until recently—when they reemerged in a new form.

There's an irritating trend on a growing number of sites to use modal in-page light frame style popups (or "hover ads" if you prefer) not to display third party marketing messages, but to beg for "conversions." The thinking goes something like this: if we harass and beg every person who comes to this site, some small fraction of them will give us an email address, which we can use to market to them more later. Some people won't like it, and some might even leave the page all together, but that value will be outweighed by the increased number of conversions.

What's most disheartening is that, from what limited evidence I can gather, that reasoning appears to be correct.

Take a look at just a few samples I've gathered casually browsing the past few days. All of these met the following criteria: 1) they showed up the first time I ever visited the site, 2) they showed up immediately on the first (and only) page I viewed, and 3) they blocked access to the content I arrived looking for:





Guys, guys, I know your marketing team is laser focused on conversions, and that this seems like an effective conversion formula—but I'm here on your site for the first time, I know nothing whatsoever about it. You want me to supply an email address within the first 3 seconds of having visited your page? I am never going to do that. At a minimum, I want to click around and grasp what I'm signing up for, so I have some basis to decide whether I want it. When a site fails to afford this opportunity, as often as not, I just close the tab.

A common reply to this line of reasoning is "hey, if it works, it works," but I'm here to say: just because it works, doesn't mean you should do it. Yeah, maybe every 1000 impressions for your modal signup form garners 1 conversion, but what about the 999 people who you just frustrated? The frustration may be small in each case, but spread out across thousands of websites, the frustration starts to look not so small after all. If we all acted this way—willingly inconveniencing huge swaths of people in order to gain any small personal advantage—I think the world would be a much drearier place.

Let us not forget, old-style window.open() popups weren't originally invented to display ads. They've been largely eliminated, not because they stopped being a useful, but simply because advertisers used them with such abandon that the rest of the web was becoming unusable. We broke that feature of the web because we couldn't be trusted to use it responsibly. Now do we need to break another?

15 Comments

Which one?
This must give you a horrible experience on the web. Why would you want to block all javascript?
You don't disable _ALL_ of the javascript, just the annoying bits. It has a pretty good filter
You can just disable all JavaScript in chrome settings. Why would he get an extension for that?
Why would you use Chrome?
Maybe 5-10 years ago, turning off JavaScript was the right approach, but I don't think turning off JavaScript is a viable solution for the modern web. Stuff will be broken throughout the vast majority of sites that you'll have no idea about. Sites are way too dependent on JS at this point in time. I think a better solution is just not returning to sites that offer a horrible user experience. I'm thinking about sites like Forbes that show those massive interstitial ads before pages. Or any site that offers a popup that asks you to like a page before you can see the content. If you're that desperate for more likes, there's a ton of companies listed at http://www.buyfacebooklikesreviews.com that you can get more and just move on.Just don't sacrifice the user experience for these stupid marketing goals. You might meet the goals, but nobody is going to come back to your site when the experience is less pleasant than a dentist visit.
Except with noscript you have to way of closing popups...
It likely won't popup then. That would be a very poor implementation if noscript users were stuck staring at the ad.
I've had to implement a modal like pop-up at my advertising gig. It was already initialized on page load and used JavaScript to close. Users would have been stuck, but if they clicked through they would have gone directly to the content that the client wanted the user to see. Client didn't care about the minority that would be using noscript.
I'm not too pissed off when there's an X on the ad so you can close it right away. But I actually ran into a site that had no way of closing the popup modal. I ended up using my inspector to delete it so I could read the content anyway.
I've come to a point where I will close a website/tab if one of those things lovely modular windows pops up before even get to read some content. The ones that show up after scrolling through content aren't much better though. Glad I'm not the only one noticing this very annoying trend!
Really? This is nothing new. Noscript is nothing new. Popup blockers aren't new. Popups aren't new and never went away, just because you declare "they're back."
I agree with some of your post. For example, I agree that popups didn't go away because the author declared that they were back. I also agree that they never went away. After all, you had to use a popup blocker to make them go away, which implies that they were still there. Of course, their frequency was reduced by 99.9% because 99.9% of all users use a popup blocker, but as you say, they're still out there, looking to prey on the .1% of all people not using a blocker. These newer (back in the pre-CSS days, they weren't really feasible) overlay screens that you have to close are annoying, especially when they try to hide the close button.
Criticisms of hyperbole and ego boosters aside, pop-ups are a real problem that has been mitigated by abundantly available pop-up blockers. Modal overlays are as bad, if not worse than pop-up windows. They have all the same security issues as pop-ups which few have addressed. The modal designer can display a close box, but what's to keep it from being a link that installs malware. Secondly, legitimate sites are reinforcing this as a norm by embracing the technology and desensitizing users from the dangers with their embrace of the practice. I do not write javascripts for browsers, but believe that it should not be that much harder to design a product that can distinguish a modal window from other objects and block it, or allow a user to right click and block the modal window even if it requires refreshing the page after doing so. There is little little solidarity for consumers to boycott offensive use of modal windows. There is little incentive for developers to stop using them because of the flawed conversion models. There is not enough justice applied to those who would abuse them. That leaves only the development of a way to disable them. This is the real issue.

Add new comment