To Pop, or Not to Pop

There comes a time in the life of every website publisher when he has to ask himself a question, “Should I use popunders, or not?”

On the pro side of this question, popunders have many things going for them. They are a way to monetize your site without taking up any screen real estate. They also of course pay much better than normal banners. For general audience sites the average rate for a leaderboard from an ad network nowadays is going to be less than $1 CPM, but for a popunder its usually around $4 CPM. Personally, I use popunders on some sites, if I did not I would lose around $5000 a month, and that’s too large a sum for me to leave on the table. Popunders also work to bring attention to something. SitePoint for instance uses popunders to advertise their own newsletters and products, and they are a good way to grab user attention. I took a cue from SitePoint some years ago and used a popunder to advertise one of my newsletters and subscription rates more than tripled.

The downsides to running popunders are also quite numerous. People dislike them because they can be annoying. Some popunder companies or advertisers are unscrupulous and may try putting automated adware downloads in their ads. If your popunders annoy a directory editor or someone else considering linking to you, you might end up losing that link. You’re also not allowed to advertise with Google AdWords any page that has a popunder on it.

Also, some people feel that you will actually lose visitors if you run popunders, and that if you do not run popunders your traffic will increase (and thus your banner revenue incrase) so that you will end up making more than if you did still run popunders. As discussed in this thread that isn’t the case for most people. Probably because those who so vehemently hate popunders likely have blocking software installed anyways, or it could simply be because people are still willing to deal with popunders if they need the information your site provides.

There is of course a middle ground in all of this. It is generally considered acceptable to run just one popunder per user session, and most major ad networks allow you (or sometimes force you) to do this. No more will users get popunders with every page view, but rather just one per session. If you’re using popunders to promote your own products or services (or an affiliate program for that matter) you can do this limiting yourself with a simple bit of javascript found here.

You still need to be worried about directory editors though, if you’re trying to get listed in DMOZ or Yahoo’s directory using free submission popunders can hurt your chances. In a way the persistent editor bias found in DMOZ is a little unfair considering they do not offer a paid submission program for commercial sites, but in any case you’re really at an editor’s mercy when submitting and you’re going to want to do everything you can to make their visit to your site as pleasant as possible.

So what do you do? Be sneaky. I made my own little ad serving script that decides, using cookies that track user sessions, when to serve popunders, and from what networks, and also when to serve banners from the various networks. Within this script I have a small bit of code that checks the referrer of the visitor for their first page view. If the referrer matches one I am watching for I turn off advertising for that visitor. So ideally directory editors should have a nice ad free visit to my site. Is this sneaky? Sure, but I feel that there is a lot of unfair prejudice against ad supported sites, especially among certain groups of people, and so I consider this just tit for tat. Now, the actual strings I search for are surf.yahoo.com, dmoz.org/editors, and google.com/evaluation/. The third isn’t really a directory, its what you’ll see when Google sends a manual reviewer to your site. Google doesn’t have any rules against popunders, other than in conjunction with their adwords program, but you never know the personal attitudes of the review and you do not want to risk them tanking your site because of a popunder. For more on Google’s manual evaluations see this thread.

The final issue I wish to discuss is the “drive-by-downloads” that might strike your visitors. There isn’t really much you can do about this other than by using more reputable popunder companies, or those that specifically state they do not allow these types of ads, or networks that clearly label these types of ads so you can choose not to run them. Even then though occassionally an advertiser breaks the rules, you just have to hope the network is quick in disabling their campaign (or that a user informs you so that you can). You could of course also encourage your users to get Firefox which should make their browsing experience a little safer, and with Google’s new referral program you can even earn $1 for each new Firefox user you refer.

Some of you may be wondering why I’ve talked only about popunders and not popups. The reason is that popups are quite rare these days as they were generally considered even more annoying than popunders. Most networks focus only on popunders now. Still, if you do run popups, the concepts I’ve mentioned above do apply.

For popunder providers I recommend Tribal Fusion, Burst!Media, and Casale Media. I used to also recommend Fastclick but lately their rates have fallen and their referral program change left a bad taste in my mouth. Of those mentioned above Casale seems to have the most inventory for me, Tribal Fusion the overall best rates, and Burst the lowest inventory with the lowest rates (unless they get you a targetted popunder campaign, which Burst does do from time to time). Fastclick also has high inventory, but low rates.

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  • kmsiever

    For the record, the ODP “doesn’t have any rules against popunders” either.

  • http://www.dvdverdict.com/ mjackson42

    Call me naive, but I wouldn’t want to put anything on a site that would bother me personally when visiting a site, no matter what sort of revenue it’s going to bring me. That includes the skanky True.com banners (or banners for other sites of its ilk), the Javascript rollover embedded ads, ads for those “get a free IPod!*” services, and popping ads. Why create a site you wouldn’t want to surf?

  • http://www.websitepublisher.net aspen

    For the record, the ODP “doesn’t have any rules against popunders” either.

    Sure, no actual rules, but many editors have an obvious bias against sites that exist for profit. This is something that has been experienced by many webmasters and even outright stated by many editors. In fact when I was an editor I recall seeing many deletion notices that listed popups or unders as a reason.

  • http://fairsky.us/home Joshua Paine

    mjackson42,
    I half agree with you. I *hate* pop ups/unders. It ticks me off no end that SitePoint sometimes runs pops that get around my Firefox pop-up blocker. [[Side note to sitepoint: I read a lot of your bloggers and contribute (sometimes even usefully) to discussion, but without a public apology for forcing pop-ups on me and others like me when you know we have already made a positive choice to avoid them, I'm not buying any of your paid products, though some look mighty interesting.]]

    I also find drive-by downloads and some sites and advertisements morally objectionable. [[Side note to all ad/content providers: I don't use adblock and I sometimes click on ads, but if I see one ad with continuously flashing colors or excessive cheap sex appeal, I block the whole image server permanently.]] I wouldn’t (I hope) include these on a site for any amount of money. But I think I would use non-sneaky, non-immoral pop-ups if I could make $60K/year doing it.

  • http://www.SitePoint.com Matt Mickiewicz

    All our pop-ups have a “don’t show me ads ever again” link that sets a pernament cookie in your browser. Our goal certainly isn’t to harass regular visitors.

  • http://fairsky.us/home Joshua Paine

    Matt,
    Thanks for responding. I’ll accept that as a good-faith use of pop-ups, even if you are circumventing my browser settings. You can tell how much attention I pay to the actual pop-up ads, though, by the fact that in a few months of being annoyed by them, I never looked at one long enough to notice that link.

  • Ulchie

    I really like the way SP does the popups! I only wish more webmasters did it the same way. Heck, the SP popup is actually neat! The first time I saw it… well I was impressed and I am guessing I wasn’t the only one impressed.

    Well done SP.

  • Etnu

    “For general audience sites the average rate for a leaderboard from an ad network nowadays is going to be less than $1 CPM”

    That’s because leaderboard ads suck. There’s no reason why you can’t get an average of $3-5 CPM (primary unit) from adsense ($7-8 page eCPM). If you’re in a lucrative niche market (web development, finance, etc.), you will easily be sucking in $8+ CPM. Once your traffic is significant, you should be able to direct-sell ads which you can typically get $0.50 – $2.00 CPC for (a $10-40 CPM if you have even a 2% CTR).

    Most popunder clicks are on accident.

    Also, the most lucrative ad network out there (by far) is adsense, and you can’t use popunders / popups with adsense.

  • Sojan80

    In defense pf sitepoint (not that Matt’s response needs any defending), I however, really like the catfish style ads that sitepoint runs. These are to me unobtrusive, and they don’t interupt my surfing or reading of sitepoint content, so kudos to Sitepoint on that. That is something that is really important to me (being able to read the content without having to dodge ads) as I am on sitepoint almost daily for one reason or another, and even I hadn’t noticed the “Don’t show me any more ads link.

    I have also purchased numerous sitepoint produced items in the past and will most likely continue to do so because unlike some other sites I also frquent, sitepoint seems to be right on top of a lot of the things currently going on around the web and they always provide me with meaningful, insightful articles that give me enough info to make up mind on stuff or point me to other resources.

    So, with that said, thanks to Chris for the article on popunders. I thought it was good, and informative, and most definitely targeted towards what you primarily write about which is making your web site make money. Matt, thanks for pointing out the “don’t show” links, even though I doubt I will ever use it.

  • http://www.xhtmlcoder.com/ xhtmlcoder

    I am still a DMOZ Editor and luckily I haven’t had to deal with any submissions with pop unders.

    I’ve had to deal with auto popups but didn’t exclude the sites (even though they were really annoying and did damage credibility of the submission).

    Though I suspect if the site was overrun with them I’d probably have to think very hard about the site content and it’s real worth.

  • http://www.websitepublisher.net aspen

    “For general audience sites the average rate for a leaderboard from an ad network nowadays is going to be less than $1 CPM”

    That’s because leaderboard ads suck. There’s no reason why you can’t get an average of $3-5 CPM (primary unit) from adsense ($7-8 page eCPM). If you’re in a lucrative niche market (web development, finance, etc.), you will easily be sucking in $8+ CPM. Once your traffic is significant, you should be able to direct-sell ads which you can typically get $0.50—$2.00 CPC for (a $10-40 CPM if you have even a 2% CTR).

    Most popunder clicks are on accident.

    Also, the most lucrative ad network out there (by far) is adsense, and you can’t use popunders / popups with adsense.

    Of course thats mostly true, so you’ll notice I said general audience site. Meaning a site with no specific demographic.

    What’s not true about what you said is that you cannot use popunders with adsense. You cannot advertise adsense in a popunder, but you can use adsense on pages with popunders. Adsense also isn’t always the most lucrative ad network out there, it depends entirely on your site’s topic and demographic.

  • kmsiever

    many editors have an obvious bias against sites that exist for profit.

    Perhaps, but having been an editor for the past five years, I can say that most editors do not have a bias against sites that exist for profit. In fact, we have several categories devoted to for-profit sites.

  • Christian Heilmann

    Interesting timing. I just published an article on how to create pop-unders in a cleaner way:
    http://icant.co.uk/articles/how-to-create-popunders/

    Personally I don’t like them much either, but in this case, a friend really needed to advertise a change and simply explaining it was just not enough.

  • http://fairsky.us/home Joshua Paine

    I think we’ve got some terminology confusion going on. AFAIK, a pop-under is exactly like a typical pop-up except that it immediately gives focus back to the parent window, so hopefully the user isn’t distracted at the moment and doesn’t notice the advertisement till later once they’ve closed the browser window. dictionary.com agrees with me http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=pop-under , and that’s the sort of ad I was complaining about sitepoint using (they launched onclick in the body of the page instead of onload to beat the pop-up blocker, though I haven’t seen one for a few days now).

    However, I see Christian is using the term to mean ‘dhtml pop-up simulation.’ Were others using it this way and I’ve been talking about the wrong thing?