To Pop, or Not to Pop

Chris Beasley

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,, and 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.