It's an ad ad ad ad world

Guess how many ad impressions - ads loaded into Web browsers - are generated in just one week? How does over 24 billion sound? If you feel that a disproportionate percentage of those ads are hitting you square in the face, you're not alone.

However, even people who detest Web ads concede that the explosion in Web advertising has financed a no-cost Internet rich in content. Even the most intrusive ads help pay for the Web's free content. If every surfer blocked all the advertisements all the time, companies might have to charge user fees for their Web services or, worse, they could go out of business.

The latest generation of online ads doesn't just sit meekly on a host page, carrying an identifying label that says "Advertising" and hoping to get clicked. Instead, the ads pose stealthily as non-commercial content or bombard our eyeballs with pyrotechnic excess. And Darwinian competition among advertisers has spawned increasingly aggressive forms, formats and features of ads.

If you want to put an end to the madness on your desktop, you can use ad-blocking software to eliminate most ads that appear in your browser. We tested four applications against the most aggressive ad environments, and found that Intermute's $US30 AdSubtract Pro was the most effective.

When it rains ads, it pours

TV has its 15- and 30-second spots. Magazines have multi-page spreads on heavy stock, and perfumed blow-in cards. The Web, however, features a bewildering blizzard of advertisement styles, sizes and traps - some ancient (in Web years), some brand new. Before you can fight ads - or decide whether to try - you need to know what you're up against.

Standard banner ads, including new formats such as the vertically oriented skyscraper, stay inside the primary browser window. Not so with the now-infamous pop-up and pop-under ads: they appear in new browser windows, typically stripped of toolbars and menus, and either cover your original browser window or hide beneath it. Similar to pop-ups and pop-unders are interstitials (ads that appear after you click a link but before you see the next page) and pop-up transitionals (a type of ad that plays in a separate window between two pages of content). Superstitials, the most highly evolved ad species, move across the face of a Web page, as if they were animations projected on a piece of glass over the page.

Those ad formats can be annoying, but others are downright pernicious. Most legitimate sites try to avoid using deceptive ads to get clicks, but some don't mind the trick banner, an ad that mimics a dialogue box: you click its OK button to dismiss a system message, only to be drawn into a spiral of other Web ads. Then there's adware like TopText, which skulks onto your system when you install certain shareware or freeware programs and then spawns its own pop-ups to compete with those launched by the sites you visit. (Utilities such as AdAware can detect and exterminate TopText and others of its ilk.)Worst of all are the mouse-trappers and high-speed spawners, so called because they break your browser's Back button and/or disable the close box, and often have the scary ability to replicate windows more quickly than you can get rid of them. The sleazy underbelly of the Web is rife with questionable spawning techniques like these, and you'll likely hit them if you click the links in spam e-mail.

Block that ad

You could apply some ad-blocking techniques without using ad-blocking software. All you'd have to do is turn off all graphics, Java, JavaScript and Flash in your browser - and sacrifice nearly all the interactivity and usefulness of your Web experience in the process. That's why software that selectively removes the ad tumours, rather than killing the patient, is the smarter solution.

The emotionally charged nuisance factor often sparks people's interest in blocking online advertisements, but there are other good reasons to fight back: blocking ads frees up precious bandwidth and can protect your privacy. Ads take time to load, and they get in the way. "They're forcing us to do something" that most people don't want to do, says Intermute CEO Ed English, whose company makes the AdSubtract program.

Many ad servers place cookies on your computer, enabling ad companies to track your surfing. The companies claim that the function of most cookies they set is to regulate the type and amount of advertisements you receive. However, the larger ad services span a wide array of Web sites, so ad-related cookies can also give the ad companies a lot of insight into your Web surfing preferences.

With a bit of effort, you can lessen the load, speed up your surfing, and reduce the clutter on the pages you visit. We snared four different ad blockers - AdSubtract, Guidescope, Norton Internet Security (which includes a Web ad-blocking component), and WebWasher - and ran them through the wringer, testing them against some tough ad-generating sites. We also examined Internet Junkbuster Proxy and Proxomitron, but rejected both. Junkbuster is extremely difficult to set up, and Proxomitron failed to banish some of the most common ads. (For using Internet Junkbuster under Linux, see page 128.)Some ad blockers are better than others, of course - AdSubtract walked away with our Best Bet prize by blockading every ad we encountered. Even the slackest of the four here successfully purged pages of in-frame, banner-style ads.

Most ad-blocking programs work as specialised proxy servers. Running on your PC, they examine the addresses that your browser requests, check each one against the entries in a frequently updated database of ad server addresses, and then drop requests for ad content. Some also rely on pattern matching to look for windows and images that match known sizes and shapes of ads.

No anti-ad utility works flawlessly, but without ads, pages definitely load more quickly. In informal tests, pages with their ads blocked appeared in 60 per cent of the time they took with ads.

Finally, some advertising tactics defeat most ad-blocking software; rarely do the anti-ad programs prevent mouse-trappers and the high-speed window spawning that often accompanies them. In our tests, only WebWasher managed to circumvent these ultra-aggressive annoyances.

An ad-free future? Unlikely

The Web is the new frontier of publishing, and online advertising is in Wild West mode. "Anyone can have the publishing tools to put something on the Web, and not all those people play by the same rules," says Greg Stuart, president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an online ad industry group.

To Stuart and the IAB, there are no bad advertisements, only bad practices. "We're not out to stifle innovation," Stuart says. The IAB's guidelines are voluntary, apply only to its members, and include no mechanism for calling an advertiser to account. "If a member company was disguising an ad to look like a system message, we would probably have a discussion with them," Stuart says - but he adds, "the people who are doing that are not my members."

"You can't rely on the [advertising] industry to police itself," says AdSubtract's Ed English. "Too often, advertisers think they've won if we click, no matter how they got us there."

Beating back the tsunami of ads is a daunting task - and, until recently, few people even bothered to attempt it. As ads have become more intrusive, though, that situation may be changing.

As recently as last October, analysts found that three-quarters of surveyed Web surfers didn't even know that Web ad-blocking software existed. However, as advertisers' tactics change, disgruntled users will likely take matters into their own hands. Marissa Gluck, a senior analyst with Web rankings firm Jupiter Media Metrix, says that Internet users are less tolerant of intrusive ads, particularly pop-ups and pop-unders. "In 1999, 23 per cent of the people we surveyed found pop-up ads very annoying, to the point where they would consider not returning to the [offending] site," Gluck says. "But in 2001, that number was 41 per cent."

Site visitors are mad because they're being subjected to a glut of ads and to sometimes-questionable advertising tactics, adds Brian Murray of Cyveillance, a company that tracks public perceptions for some major Web advertising clients. His company's research found that intrusive techniques such as spawning and mouse-trapping have moved from porn and gambling sites to the mainstream. Many sites that depend on ads as a primary source of revenue use pop-ups, pop-unders, and superstitials - sometimes all at once.

Why do advertisers use intrusive techniques when most surfers hate them? Frankly, it's because they're effective. Some sites that depend on advertising to make ends meet even take the aggressive step of blocking users of ad-blocking software. One German company, mediaBEAM, has developed software it calls AdKey that can tell whether a Web visitor's browser has loaded ad graphics. If AdKey determines that the visitor is using blocking software, it prevents the user from visiting the site as long as the blocking software remains on. A German hacker managed to find a way around the software, but mediaBEAM promises that AdKey 2.0, a work in progress, won't suffer from the same weakness, raising the stakes in the race between ad and anti-ad forces.

The future looks grim for anyone who wants to see fewer or less-intrusive ads. Research firm GartnerG2 projects that online advertising will more than double by 2005. That means a lot more ads, and probably new evolutionary steps in advertising technology. One way or another, the battle to capture our attention on the Web is only heating up.

Is it wrong to block ads on free sites?

All of us use ad-supported Web sites. Does that mean that we're duty-bound to support ads? Absolutely, say advertisers. "Users must accept the quid pro quo of advertising," says Greg Stuart, head of the Internet Advertising Bureau, an online advertising trade association. "They're getting something for free or at a reduced cost. And yes, blocking ads violates that implied contract."

That basic deal seems to be acceptable to most users and sites. After all, successful ad-free sites that charge subscription fees are as rare as hen's teeth. Porn sites aside, you could count them on a couple of hands. Without advertisements, the Web as we know it would vanish more quickly than a pop-up slain by AdSubtract.

Of course, some sites don't want to depend on users choosing not to block ads. If more sites adopt software like mediaBEAM's AdKey, which denies site access to visitors who block the site's ads, users may feel more pressure to accede to this unspoken contract. But will users give in? "Most people would equate ad filters with a TV remote used to switch the channel when an ad comes on," says Junkbuster's Jason Catlett. Ed English of AdSubtract puts it even more bluntly. "Are you obligated to read every single ad that's in a print magazine or a newspaper?" he asks. "Of course not."

Blocking the most intrusive ads is an easier call. After all, you may put up with a perfumed card inserted into a magazine, but would you feel as generous if it popped out and spritzed you in the eye?

"It's like it's never enough," says AdSubtract's English. Banners led to animated GIFs, which led to Flash animations, which begat pop-ups and pop-unders. Ads litter our drives with temporary files, hog CPU resources, and consume bandwidth. In the end, English says, "People have a right to control what appears on their computer."

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Gregg Keizer

Gregg Keizer

PC World
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