Pop Goes the Pop-Up

Usher Lieberman remembers the pop-up ads. “You would get them on every other site. You’d see them come up on Orbitz. You’d see them come up on CNN. It was very annoying,” he said.

As head of The Usher Group, a four-person public relations firm in Denver, Lieberman eventually found that pop-ups were more than merely annoying: They were getting costly. “It’s like playing Whack-a-Mole. You point your arrow to the corner and keep hitting ‘close,’ and then you shut down Outlook by accident and you end up frustrated. I don’t know that I can qualify the productivity drain, but it was enough that I thought we needed to do something about it.”

Nielsen//NetRatings says the Web served 13.4 billion pop-up ads in the first quarter of 2003, a 24 percent increase from the previous quarter. Fortunately for small business owners, however, there is plenty that can be done: Everything from free fixes that actually work, to higher end solutions that can be purchased individually or wrapped up in larger security or anti-spam packages.

The range of choices is hardly surprising, given the breadth of the problem, which has increasingly become a time-waster for small businesses that rely on Internet access. While there are lots of pop-up blocking programs for Windows, there almost none for Apple systems. Those running the Apple OS might want to look at Rampell Software’s “Unpopular” tool.

“We have businesses who purchase our software just based on the fact that they are spending far too much time getting rid of these ads. Either they get tricked into clicking the ad window instead of the Web page they are trying to click on, or else they are just tired of seeing these camera ads with the scantily clad women,” said Matina Fresenius, CEO of Panicware. The Seattle company offers a free pop-up stopper that blocks virtually all unwanted windows. The top-of-the-line version cost about $30, and together the free and paid versions boast about 15 million users.

Another free solution: Switch browsers. That is what Lieberman did — trading in Microsoft Internet Explorer for Netscape, and he said it has solved all his pop-up woes. Netscape comes with a pop-up blocking feature that is easily configured and, in Lieberman’s experience, highly effective.

Another free blocker is included in the downloadable Google toolbar. “I have to say that I’m pretty impressed with it,” one user told us. “It counts how many pop-ups it has blocked, and mine has counted 627 since I signed up for it a few months ago.”

In other cases, a blocker may be wrapped up in a larger product offering. Take for example the small-business online portal known as SBC Yahoo! DSL Business Edition. Included among its productivity features is an option to keep those pesky pop-ups at bay.

“Even the casual Web surfer experiences pop-ups interfering with their everyday browsing, and with small businesses it is that much more dramatic,” said Steve Hahn, manager of business DSL marketing at SBC Corporate Communications. “What we hear from our small-business customers is that time is money, and with the prevalence of pop-up ads increasing, they need a feature like this in order to help them focus on running their businesses.”

Likewise, Symantec includes pop-up blocking in its Norton anti-spam and Norton firewall products, as well as in its Norton combined Internet security product. According to Group Product Manager Kraig Lane, the issue here goes beyond mere annoyance, and even beyond the productivity question. Battle enough pop-ups, he said, and pretty soon you will find yourself staring down the barrel of a bandwidth crisis.

“With some of these things, they keep on opening window after window as you try to exit,” he explained. “In a small business, that can start jamming your Internet traffic. Imagine that instead of 16 employees going to one Web page each, now you have 16 employees each going to 16 pages at the same time.”

That kind of scenario calls for defensive action, or better still, why not try to preempt the onslaught? It is possible, some say, to adapt one’s surfing practices in order to minimize the possibility to encountering a pop-up barrage in the first place.

“Don’t allow employees to download whatever programs they want off the Internet,” said Fresenius.

Why? Because a majority of the pop-ups delivered these days do not originate on a particular Web site. Rather, they are contained in so-called adware or spyware programs, which sneak onto the desktop embedded in free software programs.

“Employees may just want to download a screensaver or some file-sharing software for music to use on their break, and then they end up spending hours getting rid of unwanted pop-up ads,” said Fresenius. “We have talked to IT departments who have spent hours getting rid of this junk.”

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