The Pop Up Piggyback

Is it just me, or have these interstitial ads or whatever they call themselves suddenly become ubiquitous, and no less annoying for it? They now seem to be everywhere (even O’Reilly uses them, shockingly, although it does offer a way to disable them). These are ads, courtesy of companies like Vibrant Media IntelliTXT, that add underlined links to certain words on a website which, when you move your mouse over them, pop up an ad that’s tangentially related to the word in question. This one, for example:

Intellitxt

The ad is for digital cameras. The word link is “review”. The piece itself is about solar-powered garden lights from one of my favorite gadget sites, the long running Gadgeteer. But these ads drive me nuts. Move your mouse over any of the nine links on that article and you’ll get a popup window like the above. Few of them are useful or relevant, as the following study reveals:

  • AC adapter – as in “There’s something really cool about using the power of the sun instead of the power of an AC adapter, when it comes to powering products” — throws up an ad for Laptop AC adapters
  • Review – as in “that’s why I was more than happy to review a solar powered garden accent light” — throws up an ad for Digital Cameras
  • Light weight – as in “The product is composed of a durable and UV protected resin material that looks very much like stone, while remaining light weight” — throws up an ad for Light weight (sic. The ad text is for “Shop for great deals on light weight and millions of other products”. No idea what they’re talking about)
  • Picture — as in “One clue that this might be the case [i.e. that the product cracks; They’re thorough in their reviews over there] is the picture hanger built into the back of the stone” — throws up ad for Free Digital Photo Software
  • Battery – as in “On the back of the stone, you see the battery compartment” — throws up ad for PDA batteries
  • Batteries — as in “Two rechargeable nickel-cadmium AA batteries are included and pre-installed” — throws up ad for Siemens Cordless Phone Batteries
  • Rechargeable batteries — as in “pre-installed rechargeable batteries store energy to power the light at night” — throws up ad for Sanyo rechargeable batteries, the first ad in this bunch which is vaguely relevant to the context.
  • Photo — as in “The built-in photo sensor automatically activates the light” — throws up an ad for Musical Slideshow software
  • Flash — as in “Here’s a picture of the stone that I took without a flash” — throws up an ad for Pentax SLR Digital Flash, arguably relevant but so specific you have to wonder whether anyone is really going to be reading the piece and needing a Pentax SLR Digital Flash
  • Conclusion: Out of 9 ads, 1.5 might be possibly considered useful to the reader.

I’ve whinged about this before (and before), believing it was too intrusive and likely to create a conflict of interest on the part of content creators who may be influenced to insert words that are more likely to match contextual words sold to advertisers. In the example above, for example, a less scrupulous content producer than The Gadgeteer might have chosen, or be encouraged to choose “photo sensor” over “photosensor” (the latter spelling slightly more popular online than the former) because the word “photo” would attract more ads. That’s not a sinister example, but what if the ad sellers forwarded a list of words popular among advertisers, which would steer content producers into putting those words into their writing?

(Vibrant Media says that “IntelliTXT ad units are delivered in real-time and deployed after the article has been published by the website. This is an automated process that cannot influence, or be influenced by the Editorial Team at this website or any other partner publication.” It also includes in its guidelines (PDF) a line: “Vibrant Media strongly encourages publishers not to implement IntelliTXT in late breaking news, political coverage, or other news channels that Vibrant Media deems to be controversial or inappropriate.”)

But the conflict of interest issue (news websites like Forbes.com stopped dealing with IntelliTXT, apparently over this issue) is less important to me than the annoyance and befuddlement that comes with these faux links. There is one real link in Julie’s review but it’s lost in there. First off, it’s the same color as the IntelliTXT ads, but it’s not double underlined, and it’s covered, when the mouse moves over the line above, by an IntelliTXT pop up (see if you can spot it in the screenshot above.) I find these ads annoying, distracting, and not a little confusing. When you compare it to the contextual ads displayed alongside content, you can’t help wondering whether this is a big step backwards for online content. (The ads alongside Julie’s review include one on Solar Powered Fountains and one on Solar battery chargers. I’d argue both those are a darned sight more relevant than any of the interstitials.)

Vibrant Media call this kind of advertising “user-driven advertising”. How is it user-driven? It says that “IntelliTXT helps empower users to view relevant advertising on their own terms.” Relevant? I think not. How “empower”, exactly? “Own terms”? I’d argue IntelliTXT piggy backs a fine tradition of hyperlinking — the vision and bedrock of the World Wide Web to sucker users into mistaking a popup ad for a genuine link.

Vibrant Media sells the idea to advertisers as a way to “Use words to brand. Cut through the online advertising clutter”. Actually, I’d argue it adds to the clutter, and, as the example above shows, has nothing to do with “branding” as anyone I know might understand it.

So what can one do? First off, IntelliTXT isn’t loading anything onto your computer. The ads are sleazy, but the actual implementation isn’t. If you’re a Firefox user, install Greasemonkey and then this IntelliTXT Disabler script. The IntelliTXT links will load, briefly appear and then you won’t see them no more. If you’re not a Firefox user, get it. Sure, websites need advertising to survive, but lets make sure they are either smart ads, funny ads, ads that are relevant to the content, ads that don’t mislead the reader, and, finally, ads that don’t get in the way.

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All opinions are my own, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters.

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