If you happened upon nj.com in the last month, you might have noticed a clucking penguin waddling across the computer screen, stumbling over text as it promoted a local utility company.
On a cricket league chat board in New Zealand, exasperated users have been deluged with floating squares that try to interest them in mattresses, dating services and officially licensed trinkets from the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy.
On the Web, the floater's time has come.
Not to be confused with pop-up ads, which open new windows and clutter virtual desktops, these floaters, or overlays, or popovers (no one can agree on a name), can evade the pop-up blockers that many Web browsers have incorporated.
In the last year, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, which collects and analyzes data on Web advertising, the frequency of these ads has risen markedly, by almost 32 percent from December 2003 to December 2004, while pop-ups in that period declined by 41 percent.
The floater ads, often using a computer's Macromedia Flash Player to run, overlay the content of the page rather than spawning new windows. They have been around since 2001, but their rise has been abetted by the growing use of high-speed Internet connections, allowing them to play with greater ease.
Floaters are one example of a variety of online ads known in the industry as rich media. Some variants include banner ads that expand to show graphics and streaming video when the cursor is waved over them; a tamer version packs the video and graphics into a static, or polite, banner. All have a common characteristic: they cannot be categorically blocked by existing technology.
To many, they are just as irritating as pop-up ads, if not more so. On the New Zealand cricket chat board, one user declared, "This form of advertising is without a doubt the most ridiculous and offensive form I have ever come across."
But as with pop-ups (before pop-up blockers), their appeal to advertisers is simple: they get people to click, usually transporting them to the advertiser's site. While static Web ads typically have "click through" rates of 0.5 percent of viewers, according to numerous industry studies, the rate for pop-ups and floaters is 3 percent to 5 percent, though some studies suggest that many of those clicks are attempts to get rid of the ad.
According to Nielsen/NetRatings, the sites on which such ads were most common in the year ended in December were three Microsoft sites - www.msn.com, www.msnbc.com and Hotmail - followed by espn.com and www.yahoo.com.
Although most advertisers and the sites where the ads appear seem happy with the use of the floater ads, recent research suggests problems. A study of 2,500 British Internet users released last month by OMD UK found that just as many Web users (44 percent) were annoyed with floaters as they were with pop-ups. Many major sites, like nytimes.com and www.msn.com, limit the number of times a person is shown such an ad. (At nytimes.com, the limit is once per visit to the site.)
"We want to do something that's informative and entertaining as opposed to being annoying," said Joanne Bradford, vice president and chief media revenue officer for msn.com. "That's our guiding principle." To that end, the company introduced on Feb. 1 a design that limited the number of ads on the main page. (Ms. Bradford would not say by how much.) The action, she noted, did prompt "a little bit of squawking" from advertisers.
Still, of the 122 sites that DoubleClick, an Internet marketing company, counts as users of its advertising services, only 16 percent limit the number of times a user is exposed to an ad, according to a recent report by the company. Some are trying to figure out other ways to stop the onslaught. Mozilla, designer of the popular (and free) Web browser Firefox, which offers a pop-up blocker, is trying to block floater ads as well, but has so far been unsuccessful, said Chris Hofmann, director of engineering for the Mozilla Foundation. "It really is an arms race," he said.
Jarvis Coffin, chief executive of Burst Media, a company that sells advertising for more than 2,000 Web sites, said that even though he is a fan of the "rich media" ads, he warns that advertisers should understand that they cannot deluge people with the technology without consequence. "Just because you can do it doesn't make it a smart thing to do," he said.
Jonathan Miller, New York Times. February 24, 2005
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