Latest online ad gimmick: hyperlinks

Move over spam, there's a new ad scheme called Toptext that is delighting advertisers and drawing ire from users who view it as yet another obnoxious online advertising gimmick.

Popularized by a California firm called Ezula Inc., Toptext technology highlights words on a Web page which then link you to an advertiser. But for those who have unknowingly downloaded and installed Toptext, the technology is more a scourge than a revolution.

Toptext works with Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer browser 4.0 and above. It's typically bundled with free software programs and is currently being distributed with popular file sharing software such as IMesh and KaZaa.

But while advertisers are seeing results with TopText, critics view the technology merely as the latest iteration of intrusive advertising and liken it to pop-up and pop-down ads.

Nonetheless, Ezula says its Toptext program has been downloaded more than 1 million times since its April launch of the service. Currently it is working with 30 advertisers, including Wells Fargo Bank, and highlights 7000 keywords.

"There is always someone who is going to complain," says Henit Vitos, Ezula's co-founder. Most complaints, she says, are because people didn't pay attention when installing the program Toptext came bundled with. She points out that you can simply uninstall Toptext through Add/Remove programs feature in Windows.

Keywords appear on Web pages with thick yellow lines below them and become hyperlinks that connect to advertisers. For example, when the word "hip hop" appears on a Web page you can click on it and you're taken to an advertisement for BMG Music Services.

Contextual irritation

Toptext is what is called "contextual advertising," the advertising industry's latest attempt to reach consumer eyeballs online by placing ads based on the context or subject of the text on a Web page. The novel advertising system also underscores the increasing financial pressures on Internet companies to develop stable revenue streams.

"What we're seeing is a lot of experimental advertising," says Stu Ginsburg, spokesperson for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade association that sets guidelines for online advertisers. "Online advertising is constantly evolving. It will always test the boundaries of what is annoying and what works."

How It Works

Ezula technology is similar to SurfPlus and AdPointer. Each is a program you download, which creates hyperlinks within the text of a Web site linking to advertisers. In the case of Ezula, advertisers buy keywords or phrases. Then when one of those keywords is clicked on advertisers pay between 30 cents and one dollar a click. That may seem steep, but Ezula claims 25 percent of those that click on a link take some sort of action at the advertiser's Web page.

ITraffic, an online ad agency that sells Toptext keywords to its clients, says Toptext is more effective than banner ads. "Most banner ads are beneath or above the content on a Web page," says Jerry Quinn, an ITraffic spokesperson. "Ezula can put ads right in the middle of any Web page."

Bad Buzz

Ezula has become the talk of the Internet with some online bulletin boards buzzing with angry users who feel they were tricked into downloading the program.

Some within the advertising industry call Toptext "guerrilla" advertising because it gives rival companies the ability to manipulate and advertise on a competitor's Web site.

Microsoft garnered similar criticism when it introduced a comparable technology called "Smart Tags" with its release of Office XP. It had planned to include Smart Tags with its upcoming 6.0 version of its Internet explorer browser but didn't because of concern that the tags would give Microsoft too much control over consumers' Internet use.

After installing Toptext, a search with the popular Google search engine for "home equity loan" delivered results mixed with four Google "sponsored" links. Sprinkled in the search results were yellow highlighted words linking to a Wells Fargo home equity loan advertisement.

So far, Google and others aren't losing too much sleep. "We aren't concerned with Ezula because Toptext doesn't appear to be having any significant impact on the Web," says David Krane, Google spokesperson. He says Google wasn't aware that such a technology existed.

The Market Will Decide

At least one analyst suggests Ezula's Toptext advertisements may be short-lived.

"The issue is whether or not these ads are relevant to the consumer and are genuinely helpful," says Carl Lehmann, vice president of electronic business strategies at the Meta Group. "Are these ads better? In theory they make a lot of sense, but in practice they don't."

He says consumers have a low tolerance for annoying technology.

"If Ezula can't live up to its promise," Lehmann says, "consumers will delete Toptext and never think twice about it again."

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