Popups: A single word that drives both fear and anger into the hearts of nearly all web surfers.
The Web is filled with stories about embarrassing popups loading in the background, annoying, never ending popup loops and, more recently, overlays and other annoying tools that obstruct and restrict access to the desired content.
Popups are annoying but they are also extremely common and, despite technology to block most of them, they are becoming much more common. However, the time has come for bloggers to put a stop to this, to fight back against popups and other visitor annoyances.
The History of the Popup War
The war over popups has been a long and interesting one not too long after scripting on the Web became advanced enough to make them possible.
In the early days of the Internet, popups were incredibly common, many sites opened new windows immediately after a visitor landed on them and they quickly took off as a popular way to deliver advertising to viewers.
Many advertisers, in fact, paid a premium to have their ads featured in a popup because they knew A) They would be definitely seen and B) Sites that used popups risked angering their users.
This spawned a two-prong war against popups. One one side, software developers wrote applications that blocked popups, usually running the background like virus protection. These applications, in turn, had to be updated as websites developed new popup techniques. On the other side, sites without popups began to advertise and promote themselves as “popup free”, this giving visitors a reason to choose them over their competitors.
However, slowly but surely, all of the major browsers began to build in anti-popup technology and, more importantly, turn it on by default. The result was that fewer and fewer visitors were seeing most popups and that reduced both its effectiveness and its frequency.
Unfortunately though, that wasn’t the end for the popup. Instead, it just took on a new form and came back, possibly stronger than ever.
Enter the Modern Popup
With nearly all browsers automatically blocking popup windows, the popup had to get smarter to survive, and it did.
One way was, instead of having the popup load automatically, was to have it load when the visitor clicks a link. These popups are difficult to block because, as far as your browser is concerned, you wanted the popup and requested it. Browsers can’t distinguish between links you click wanting a popup and those you don’t, at least not without breaking many popular sites.
The other way, however, has been to change the definition of a popup. Where, traditionally, a popup has been a new browser window that opened either in front of or behind the existing window, popups now are scripts or pieces of Flash that load within the existing window but on top of the content.
These have become incredibly common, hawking everything from newsletter subscriptions, surveys, ads for new services, and offers to chat. They’ve become incredibly common, including on many mainstream media sites, and are growing in popularity as more and more services and toolkits come online to offer these kinds of popups.
These types of popups are difficult to block, at least without blocking all ads and/or scripts, and are every bit as annoying to visitors as traditional popups. Yet, the’re growing in popularity every day. This is something that has to stop.
Not only will a continuation of this kind of behavior likely result in new tools to block them, tools that may result in the blocking of other, less intrusive, ads, but it risks drawing the wrath of readers in much more dire ways.
The result, inevitably, will be legitimate sites and services caught in the crossfire and a Web that is just a little bit more restrictive.
Killing the Popup
The truth is that popups are a highly effective way to market to readers. They’ve been shown to increase responses drastically. However, they do so at the cost of annoying visitors. Though some will join your newsletter or get your coupon code, others will go away immediately and never come back.
The simple solution is to just not use them. If you don’t like popups, don’t put them on your site. It’s that easy. However, the problem is a bit deeper than that. The taint of a popup doesn’t just affect the site it’s on, but can even hurt the site that sent them there too, especially if they regularly post such links.
This is why I have a policy on my sites and articles of not knowingly linking to sites with popups. Though some slip through, don’t popup every time or change their policies at a later date, I never link to a site that gives me any kind of content-obstructing popup.
That, in turn, is part of the reason why finding links for this article has been so difficult.
To be clear, there is some room for discussion and debate. For example, many sites use various bars such as the Meebo Bar or the Apture Bar (I use Apture on my main site). While these bars do annoy some visitors, they also don’t require any action to view the content and, generally, are out of the way.
For right now, it seems reasonable to focus these efforts on sites that use popups that require action to view the content. They are the most egregious and the ones earning the most wrath.
On that front if bloggers work to not give links to sites with popups, thus depriving them of SEO benefits as well as traffic, then the negatives may start to outweigh the positives and more site owners will take the issue a bit more seriously.
Until then, popups are only going to grow and we may find ourselves in the middle of another war against them. This time, however, there will almost certainly be innocent bystanders hurt.