In Search Engine Arms Race, Google Raises User Experience Bar

It already had a reputation as the best of the search engines by dint of the sheer size and speed of its catalog, but Google made a move earlier this week to keep its fan base growing. It not only banned pop-up ads from its site, it made a moral argument against them. It expressed a corporate opinion that they are just plain bad.

Now, mind you, I disagree with that corporate opinion. I think there’s a narrow niche for pop-up ads, but this move rings true to the consumers-first Google brand and is a great strategy for the company.

Poorly executed pop-unders seem to be multiplying across the Web. Instead of simply popping up a new daughter window with an ad, the ads employ JavaScript to hide beneath the site window. But this is a slow, cumbersome process that temporarily takes control of the browser. People like me surf in multiple windows. I hate having these ads pop up and then slink under my other browser windows, interrupting my Internet travels. Worse, the JavaScript then attempts to make the original window active again, dragging that window in front of any new windows that I’ve opened up since first clicking on the original site’s link. is the example that keeps coming to mind. I feel bad picking on the site for this, because the only reason I’m so intimately familiar with the problematic ads is that I think it’s one of the best financial sites on the Web.

Then there are the sleazy, latent pop-unders. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened to me too frequently yet, but just a few instances are capable of creating a lot of annoyance. Sometimes a site will open up an invisible browser window that lurks in the background, calling up pop-up ads periodically, well after you’ve left the original site that spawned this evil creature.

Finally, the “scumware” and “spyware” crowd create further confusion by enabling pop-up ads to suddenly appear in a browser regardless of what site the user is visiting. The scumware companies get people to unknowingly download software that collects information about them and displays ads to them. The spyware folks do the same thing on the up-and-up, letting users know what they’re downloading and seeking their explicit permission. Both can create the misimpression that a site is allowing pop-up ads.

It’s this last category of problems that Google seems to be addressing. Google didn’t accept pop-up ads before this announcement, but it still got complaints. People using software such as BearShare and Gator get pop-ups no matter a site’s policy. By making this announcement public on its very sparse home page, Google is letting everyone know that it has a user-friendly policy.

One industry norm I would like to see introduced is the practice Gator already adopted: The company makes sure that each ad that pops up is attributable to Gator, not to the site. Gator doesn’t attempt to deceive users into believing that its annoying ad came from the site. If Gator users become annoyed by these ads, they can easily uninstall the software.

This has a few beneficial effects. Not only can users do something about the problem, but also the system encourages Gator managers to avoid running annoying ads. Because they fear losing their audience, the managers are inspired by the policy to adhere to fine targeting strategies. It’s the equivalent of mail recipients being able to click a button on an envelope to forever be removed from a list. With that type of user power, we’d get a lot less junk mail.

And this is why online advertising and, yes, even spyware-type systems, such as Gator, will do a lot better than some of their traditional media analogs in the future. We have an audience with a lot more power than that in the traditional media. That forces us to make decisions like the one made at Google. The audience has to come first.

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