Popups suck. So why can’t we get rid of them?

The best way to get someone to see something is to shove it in their face. That’s the basic idea behind popups, internet advertisers’ favourite brute-force tactic. Few other design decisions from the internet of the late 90s remain online today. And unlike neon-green text on bright-red backgrounds, the popup seems to be stronger than ever. Even this site, regrettably, has something resembling one.

This method of selling junk and communicating messages, long the domain of perfume hustlers at the mall, is hilariously unpopular among internet users. Popups are at best tolerated, but at worst widely hated – the subject of evergreen memes of scorn. Most browsers come with features designed to stop them. The creator of the foul technology even apologized for inventing them. Perhaps he can take solace in the fact that, if he hadn’t created them, someone else surely would have.

Today’s popups are sometimes there for arguably good reasons, like the one on this page. And they rarely work like their older counterparts. Rather than opening a new, smaller window, most of today’s popups are dialogue boxes that sit on top of the content you’re trying to access. In this way, they can be more annoying than old-school popups since they often prevent you from accessing a page until you interact with them. It also means your browser doesn’t block them.

Let’s look at why you still see popups all the time in 2021.

Why are there so many popups?

There are two reasons popups are everywhere:

  1. Advertising, and
  2. Regulatory compliance.

I’ve explained the first one already. Just think “pushy perfume salesperson” and you’ll have the idea. People see your ad when you place it directly in their path and force them to interact with it. That’s, theoretically, good for business.

Well, more than theoretically. They apparently have a better click-through rate than regular ads, a still-pitiful 2%. People in general dislike being advertised to, so I guess it doesn’t hurt to be as annoying as possible.

That all makes intuitive sense, but I’ll need to explain the second reason.

You’ve probably heard of cookies. Not the baked goods grandma makes, but the annoying ones Big Tech makes that you can’t even eat. They are little text files that allow advertisers and social media sites, among others, to track everything you do. Much less delicious than chocolate chip. They have other uses too (such as allowing you to stay logged in to websites or to keep your preferences intact from session to session), but we’re concerned with the tracking piece.

Turns out you can’t just put these in people’s browsers without their permission. Not in Europe anyway. The European Union has a law called the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, that forces sites doing business in the EU to disclose that they’re looking to collect data from users (like through a privacy policy), inform users of their rights, and give them a way to provide or rescind consent to collect that data.

Frankly, it’s a great idea. The downside is that the only way anyone has come up with to assess whether someone consents is to shove a popup in the user’s face. Hence why this site has one.

I want to see how many readers I’m getting, how long they’re staying on the site, what they’re reading, and where they’re visiting from. Doing so helps me assess and improve my content. But this all requires tracking people (in my case, through Google Analytics). So, I serve up a little popup bar at the bottom of the page to let users know they can opt-out.

There must be a better way for regulators

It floors me that the most decried method of spreading a message online is the method we use to tell people about the rights they have over their data. It’s a well-reported phenomenon that people get fatigued by having to opt-in or opt-out of all these tracking cookies. Some sites’ popups are exhausting all on their own.

The only other way I can think of to do this would be something like what Apple has done with third-party tracking on its app store. Give people an easy-to-use setting right in their browser that communicates their preferences with every site they visit. Of course, that requires buy-in from browser makers and websites. It will probably make the process of running a site more complex too.

And if the results are anything like Apple’s experiment, most websites would be doing a whole lot less tracking, which sounds like something they would be keen to avoid.

Another issue: browsers don’t have the same sort of authority over the web that Apple has over its own app store. Nor should they. But that also means they would have few tools to enforce compliance. It may also be unclear to users whether a site was respecting their preferences, at least until the creepy ads show up again.

If nothing else, can we get developers working on a solution to the perpetual popup problem? I should not need to click “Accept” on your massive, invasive popup every time I visit your site. You’re literally tracking me, collecting all this data. Please save the data point about me that reads “fine, whatever, just track me and stop showing me these popups”.

There must be a better way for advertisers too

I’ll be honest, not all popups are bad. If we’re going to have them, we might as well do them right.

When I know I’m going to buy something, I’m happy every time the site slaps an ad in my face offering a discount for my email address. Don’t mind if I do take that 10% off. I’ve opted into ebooks and newsletters via popups on sites I liked too.

What’s annoying is when I’m bombarded with them on my first visit. I feel like I’m Indiana Jones, chopping away the overgrown brush with a machete so I can get to the ancient ruins. Advertisers take note: that’s a terrible user experience. It’s not difficult to check for first-time or returning visitors. Only show marketing popups to the latter.

When I visit a site, I want it to feel like reaching into a drawer to grab something, which is right on top. That obviously won’t happen every time. Sometimes you open the wrong drawer, and sometimes what you need is buried. Whatever. I just don’t want to beat back a decade’s worth of weeds before I can even make that determination.

I know these websites are tracking me. Why not use that data to set the popups to fire only after you’re reasonably sure I’ll be receptive to them? How would I know whether 10% off and daily spam emails would be of value to me if I haven’t seen your products yet?

To be fair, a lot of sites already do something like this. You can set a popup to pop up when a reader reaches a certain point, or when they move their cursor as though they’re going to leave. That’s when I want to know how to stay in touch.

That’s why the web’s down with popups

So why won’t popups die? Because very occasionally they offer value to a customer. That’s enough of a reason for marketers to embrace them.

Also, because of regulations in Europe. Potential legal trouble in a foreign jurisdiction is enough of a reason for otherwise skeptical bloggers to reluctantly put them on their site.

Although, I do like giving people the option not to funnel more of their data to Google. I just want some basic info about my readers, which I look at a couple of times a month and say “hmm, interesting” before closing the tab. If a few readers opt out, that’s totally fine by me and won’t affect my life at all.

Why not show me you read my content in another, more valuable way: by leaving a comment. Tell me how much you hate popups – or defend them if you see value in them that I don’t. Or post a bunch of malicious links in your comment so the other piece of third-party software to which I occasionally send your data, Akismet Anti-Spam, can delete it before I or anyone else has a chance to waste their time reading it.

Actually, please don’t do that.

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