Browser wars is a popular (and retro!) topic these days. In this post I’ll discuss another kind of browser war that I’m afraid all browsers are at risk of losing.
Features like the pop-up blocker were not designed for web developers — they were designed completely in the interest of users, who were fed up with annoying ads that popped up over and under the web page you were currently visiting. This effectively forced web designers to adjust their practices and keep the users’ interests more prominently in mind. I think this is a wonderful example of how web browsers can change the web for the better. Before the pop-up blocker, web designers were dictating how their web sites should behave, and users had no other choice but to put up with it.
There are of course many other examples of when browser features have helped tame annoying web design practices, such as scrolling text in status bars, disabling the context menu when right-clicking, and blocking third-party cookies — the general theme is that the browser balances the sometimes bad urges of web developers and designers with the actual needs of the user. And as a result, the web becomes a better place. Mozilla has its own spin on this that captures the essence of Firefox: Firefox answers to no one but you.
The yellow pop-up blocker info bar in Firefox. A rare sight these days.
Back in 2004, when Firefox was first launched, window.open was the way of displaying pop-ups. These kinds of pop-ups are trivial for Firefox to detect, since the web page creates a separate browser window for the ad (this usually happens when a page loads, or at some other event which is straightforward enough for a browser to determine that it isn’t explicitly requested by the user).
Today, most modern web sites have become smarter and use more sophisticated technologies to display pop-up ads embedded within the web page triggering the ad. In fact, a quick anecdotal survey shows that most large, international websites have completely stopped using the traditional pop-ups. You can still find them on smaller or more local websites though (for example, Swedish news sites like aftonbladet.se are typically a year or two behind the more recent web page practices used on websites from the US in general, and the Valley in particular). The original pop-up blocking implementation certainly still matters, but its relevance is decreasing.
New websites use all sorts of clever (and highly annoying) tricks to make sure their ads are not missed by anyone:
- Inline pop-ups — these behave similar to the traditional pop-ups, but the ad content isn’t actually displayed in a separate window. Instead, the ad is embedded in the web page itself. From a technological point of view, a browser is then unable to distinguish the ad from the rest of the web page, so it can’t block it.
- Hover ads — this is similar to inline pop-ups, but taken to an increasingly more annoying level: here, the ad doesn’t just block a particular area of the web page, it follows along on your screen as you scroll down on the page — often with a smooth movement to give the impression that it’s actually hovering over the page. It’s like the ad is trying to say “I’m here! Look, I’m still here!”
- Splash screen ads (I just made this term up) — these are by far the most annoying ads and are commonly seen on sites like di.se and e24.se (two popular finance websites in Sweden). This is like an ad saying: “Look, I’m not going to let you read the web page until you’ve paid attention to ME!” Web designers do this by overlaying the ad so it completely covers the content of the page (alternatively, it redirects you to a separate page). If you pay close attention, you will see a tiny link to get to the page you actually wanted to visit, but the web designer has usually made it the smallest link on the entire page — despite the fact it’s the link you are most likely going to want to click. These type of web pages clearly answer to no one but the ad provider — certainly not to you.
- Video ads — as videos are getting more and more mainstream, the most common practice today by content providers is to show an ad before playing the video clip you actually requested. This is similar to those “important messages” you see when inserting some DVDs, and just like those messages, you can’t skip these ads. You simply have no choice but to watch the entire thing. (Some content providers add a small clock countdown in the corner to at least let you know how long you have to put up with watching the ad — it’s clear that they’re aware of the inconvenience for the user here.)
All of these types of web ads have one thing in common: it’s next to impossible for web browsers to block them. These ads are, from a technical point of view, integral parts of the web page itself, and as such they’re indistinguishable from the “good” content on the page.
Where do we go from here?
Web browsers make at least a bit of an effort to block advertisement today with their aged pop-up blocker feature, but it’s also clear that they are not able to block all attempts of displaying advertisement on the web. (And should they? Unless we can create a world where advertisement is not just generally unwanted, but also not necessary to make the online economy spin, I would say we probably shouldn’t try to block them all. But that’s a much deeper discussion than I’m aiming for in this blog post.)
More importantly, however, web browsers are no longer stopping bad design practices. Showing an ad as a splash overlay covering the entire page and blocking the user from seeing the actual content of the page is exactly the kind of thing that Firefox effectively stopped in 2004 — but so far there is no solution in place in any web browser on the market to stop the new pop-up behavior that is at least as bad as the traditional pop-ups.
Taking a step back, what is the role of the browser in this new world where web pages are becoming more like web applications that live a life on their own terms? How can we ensure that the browser still acts as a balance that puts the user first? Of course, I don’t have the answers to these broad questions, but it’s definitely something I think must be discussed.