America Online Inc. announced this month that it will stop accepting new pop-up ads on its Internet service, becoming the latest online company to curb the practice following widespread complaints from users.
Consumer advocates and industry analysts hailed the move as a victory for millions of Internet users who regard the ads as one of the biggest annoyances to logging on to the Internet. Many commercial Web sites serve up the ads whether consumers ask for them or not, forcing people to manually click them off to remove them from their screen.
AOL chief executive Jonathan Miller outlined the change in New York as the company formally released the latest version of its software, AOL 8.0, which helps people connect to the Internet and make use of e-mail and other Web services.
The effort to appease subscribers comes as monthly fees are proving to be a more reliable source of revenue than online advertising. AOL also faces new challenges from competitors that in recent months have taken steps of their own to rein in pop-up ads.
One rival, EarthLink Inc., recently released software called Pop-Up Blocker that allows its users to avoid the ads wherever they surf the Internet. Last July, iVillage Inc., whose Web site caters to women, eliminated pop-up ads after a survey showed that 92.5 percent of its audience described the ads as the most frustrating part of being online.
"It is a breath of fresh air to see Internet innovators rethinking dependence on advertising to grow their services," said Gene Kimmelman, Washington director of the Consumers Union. "The success of the Internet in my mind has been this enormous explosion of consumer demand for pure communication, individual to individual, and I think the rude awakening is that pop-up advertising was a terribly annoying interference."
AOL had projected that it would earn about $30 million from pop-up ads in 2003. The company said it will honor any existing contract to deliver pop-ups ads but will not renew the agreements. Instead, it will seek to generate ad dollars through less-obtrusive advertising and by promoting more of its exclusive content. The company still plans to use pop-ups to promote some its own products, though those ads will be curbed as well. (The Washington Post Co. also serves pop-ups to visitors to its Web site).
"There is going to be an across-the-board reduction in pop-up ads," AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said.
AOL Time Warner Inc. Chairman Stephen Case said the elimination of pop-up ads is one of numerous changes AOL is making after listening to customer feedback. Miller said he hopes the move will help the company retain customers. AOL is eager to hang on to customers as its primary business of connecting people over dial-up telephone lines shifts to catering to people who access the Internet over high-speed lines owned by cable and telephone companies.
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