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Friday, 9 August, 2002, 07:55 GMT 08:55 UK
Why ads on the net don't work
Computer consultant Bill Thompson
Technology consultant Bill Thompson has had enough of the hard sell on the web but is not optimistic about the alternatives to advertising.
I am fed up with pop-ups, pop-unders, interstitials, expanding banners and the rest of the toolkit used by those who want to sell me stuff while I surf the web.

It seems that every time I click on a web link I get an advert appearing in a small window on top of my current browser.

And every time I close down my computer there are two or three large-format ads that have been left there to tempt me to purchase some useless piece of technology, apply for a credit card I don't need, or spend some money I don't have at a gambling site.

I never, ever, click on an advert. I never have, not since the first ones appeared on the nascent web back in 1996. I never will

Many of my favourite sites are infested with crawling insects, racing cars or flying pigs, all cleverly positioned over the text I'm trying to read and attempting to get my attention.

Sometimes I will be distracted by a strange noise coming from my laptop, only to discover someone's multimedia advert playing a sound at me repeatedly in a vain attempt to interest me in some financial product or network accelerator.

Stop the ads

I want to tell all of these advertisers to stop, because it is getting in the way. I use the net a lot - for work, to find nice hotels in Padua, to find out what's on TV or at the movies and just because I like surfing and being surprised by what I find.

But I never, ever, click on an advert. I never have, not since the first ones appeared on the nascent web back in 1996. I never will.

You would think that with all the profiling, data acquisition and expensive analysis done, the people behind the majority of online ads would have realised that I'm a lost cause and given up on sending these useless pieces of artwork down the wires to my PC. But no, they remain eternally optimistic.

The growth of intrusive advertising highlights the fundamental problem facing today's internet.

Making money

The days when a company could plan to run at a serious loss in an attempt to build market share, spending venture capital or living off inflated share prices are long gone, and now every online activity has to aim for profitability.

There is no sign that people are yet willing to pay for the material they read online. How many web-based subscriptions do you have? I don't have any at all, and I'm a media junkie.

Only the well-funded, often the new media operations of large companies with wide interests, or the tiny niche players will survive

So money has to come from other sources. Advertising is the one people know best. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be effective.

There is, at last, some evidence that the main commercial sites are realising that this aggressive advertising does not work.

The women's online network iVillage has just announced that it will no longer sell pop-ups, and even cash-strapped media giant AOL Time Warner has reduced the number of pop-ups that members are exposed to each hour they are online.

Unfortunately online adverts, especially the loud, flashing ones that really get noticed, tend to have a similar effect on readers as requests for money. Visitors simply go elsewhere.

Survival of the biggest

Many other people feel the same way, and business plans based on increasing advertising revenue could well go the same way as those which relied on 'first mover advantage' and the 'new paradigm'.

Screen grab of an ad
Some ads float across the screen
This would be a significant problem for the net. If sites start dropping off the web because there is no money to support them, then the direction of internet evolution could shift significantly.

Only the well-funded, often the new media operations of large companies with wide interests, or the tiny niche players will survive. There will be no room for the net's equivalent of small and medium sized businesses, the powerhouse of the real economy.

There will be a lot less variety or innovation. There will be less experimentation, and the risk of stagnation.

So where is the money going to come from? Perhaps the answer is not to try to make the web more like commercial TV, with intrusive and unavoidable commercials every 15 minutes, but to think more carefully about the ways we engage online.

Show me respect

I don't want intrusive adverts, but I don't mind commercial links. I don't want pop-ups, but I don't object to Google's sponsored results at the top of the screen. I don't want the hard sell, but I don't mind a commercial net.

The solution may be for the web merchants to stop acting so desperate and instead to respect site visitors and try to give them stuff they find useful, rather than irritating. It may be worth a try, anyway.

For those whose fingers are poised over their keyboards. I know that I could install ad-blocker software that would get rid of many of these intrusions into my online activity, but I have resisted this temptation so far.

This is partly because I don't necessarily trust the ad-blockers to do a good job and let through all the stuff I actually want.

Mostly I want to know what is really happening out there on the net, and do not think a filtered experience would help me to understand the evolution of our online world.

It is only by experiencing this stuff first-hand that we can hope to understand and perhaps even change it.

Is there a technology issue that gets you going? Tell us what you would like Bill to write about in his regular column.

I completely disagree, advertising on the web does work as so many people I know purchase through links and banners on websites, yes pop ups are very annoying but they still attract peoples attention.
Stuart Oxley, England

I work in online marketing and some of your point were very true.
Tyson Pearcey, UK

Advertising on the web is still being done in an old fashioned 'blanket advert' manner. We are missing the potential for more directed/informative adds, the ideal web add won't be an add any more but a piece of related yet interesting information on a product/service etc.
Lon Barfield, UK

Pop-ups are annoying sure. But I'd rather just click them closed every time rather than start having to pay to use the web services I want. Let their marketing campaigns go nuts on my subconscious.
Adam, UK

In the same way that we walk down the street and window shop. The internet should be free to use. But we should pay for the upkeep of the internet, in the same way that we pay for the street to be built and maintained. So people should pay their ISP to provide the infrastructure of the internet.
Stuart Stanton-Davies, UK

Its politically incorrect to say that net advertising has no future, otherwise name like MSN, Loot, eBay wouldn't have survived or bloomed as they have in the recent past. At the same time, I don't agree with advertising ideas through junk mailing, junk mails caused users go against the advertised organisation, due to the huge hurdle they cause while looking for important info on net.
M Siddiqui, UK

If a company decides to have a web presence then it must itself have something to sell, either a product or simply just itself, the website is a self advertisement. Amazon sells books, Lastminute sells holidays , they are making money from the net. As an illustrator I'm more concerned about what's happening in the editorial sector. Will subscribers to a paper magazine really start paying for an online version and how can the company shift its huge advertising portfolio onto a website? Looking ahead or rather dreaming ahead I can see the likes of the Economist developing into a web-based media company almost like a TV/film/radio station on the net. Like other traditional media companies perhaps they'll end up having commercial breaks! Control of how the website is seen by the end-user will increasingly be in the hands of the site owners not the consumers.
Steve, UK

Internet ads are the electronic equivalent of junk mail. At least trees don't have to be cut down to send me an internet ad. But no, I don't read them. I just click them off just as I throw all junk mail in the bin.
Colin, UK

I am in total agreement. I simply click adds off as soon as they appear. Advertisers need to think clearly because word of mouth is still the best form of advertising. The irritating use of adverts on the web is probably one of the quickest ways of annoying potential customers. Also, if someone wants me to pay for information, I will look elsewhere to find it for free. I would only ever pay for a service that I really really needed and could not get anywhere else. Which after eight years of using the web, has never happened.
Ben, UK

It seems to me that the majority of ads are for unknown and untrusted firms or products. There is no feeling of security in clicking on them. I don't trust them at all. The established firms do not tend to advertise in this manner.
Paul , Dublin, Ireland

Yes it can be annoying. But if 10 million people surf a site that has a pop-up advert, and 20% click on it and then 10% actually purchase the product, then I'm sure that out weighs their costs for the adverts. Got to look at it from both sides. One thing I will say though is sites trying to invoke auto-installs on your PC that create pop-ups as soon as you go online, those should be stopped.
Ross, Glasgow

I disagree with you in only one area, which is that of pop-under adverts. Whilst none have interested me so far I look longer at them because I am at a natural break in my concentration (closing the browser for example). They've not caused me any real inconvenience either so I don't apply negative thoughts to them or their products and services. Given the fact I never pay for content, pop-under advertising seems a decent alternative. I just wish they'd advertise something I find interesting..
Andy, UK

I don't mind a pop-up ad say the first time you visit a website each day for example. However the ones that pop up at every change of page on a site drive me insane. There is one property website I stopped using because every click on a search button or on a property's details elicited a pop up for their sister website.
Jon, UK

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The Bill Thompson column is courtesy of BBC WebWise, part of BBC Education's ongoing campaign to teach people about the internet and how to use it. Bill is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology

See also:

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