This week, Ethan Zuckerman, writing for The Atlantic, apologized to everyone for inventing the bane of everyone’s online surfing existence — the pop-up ad.
Pop-up ads are one of the most universally hated forms of advertising on the web because they disrupt user experiences and require users to physically click out of the ads in order to continue with what they are doing. Zuckerman, in the late 90s, was working for a marketing content and webpage-hosting website.
He explains that they worked with many different works of revenue streams in order to support the company, including a magazine, a subscription service, and selling merchandise. In the end, though, advertising provided them with the best ROI.
“The model that got us acquired was analyzing users’ personal homepages so we could better target ads to them,” explained Zuckerman in his essay. “Along the way, we ended up creating one of the most hated tools in the advertiser’s toolkit: the pop-up ad.”
He claims his intentions were good. The pop up feature was meant to disassociate the ads with the pages they were linked to, since advertisers worried that placing ads directly on the page would imply that their brand linked to the content listed on the page. He cites an example of car company getting upset when their ad came up on a webpage for adult activity content.
“Pop up ads were a symptom of the Internet’s chaotic origins, along with spam and black hat SEO practices. Today, there’s a nice harmony of refinement,” says Derek Bryan of Quez Media. “Pop up ads aren’t even effective anymore because there have been so many new technologies to fight against them. Things are still evolving, but it’s nice to see that collectively, the web is moving toward better user experience.”
Zuckerman has several ideas as to how to change the current model of online advertising, which he thinks should move away from invading user privacy. He talks about how, potentially, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin could be used to transact very small amounts of money to web servers. If this were to happen then “we might see an Internet supported on micropayments of a fraction of a cent to compensate the operators of services or creators of content,” explains Zuckerman.
Zuckerman points out that, in many ways, ads are worth very little. Facebook is great at producing profit. However, if you do the math of profit compared to the size of their user base, they’re actually making only $.60 per user — an amazing figure considering that users spend hours on their site every single week.
Can the “original sin” of the internet, as Zuckerman calls it, ever be fully expunged? Perhaps not. It’s likely that, in the fringes of the internet, pop-up ads are here to say. Zuckerman has this to say about the future of web advertising: “It’s time to start paying for privacy, to support services we love, and to abandon those that are free, but sell us—the users and our attention—as the product.”