The Rise and Fall of the Pop-up Ad - and What's Set to Replace it

The Rise and Fall of the Pop-up Ad - and What's Set to Replace it

Since the creation of online advertising in the 1990s, the web has been irreversibly changed – and the pop-up ad has certainly played a huge part in this. From revolutionary to irritating to hated, this blog will take you through the history of the pop-up, why it has become such an unpopular form of online advertising and the industry-first alternative to it.

But first, let’s explore what the advertising world looked like before pop-ups dominated our screens...

The ad world before pop-ups

In 1990, there were only 3 million internet users in the world. Only 5 years later, this had increased by over 400%, and soon rose much higher. With this growing trend, the potential to serve ads to such an expanding audience was too much to ignore - and so, online advertising began.

1993 - Display advertising

Needing to find other revenue streams to support their sites, the first ever clickable display ad was sold, now known as the banner ad.

1998 – Search advertising

The first auction for search advertising keywords was created by and boomed soon after when Google launched its own search advertising program in 2000.

And then came the pop-up ad…

Who is to ‘blame’ for the pop-up ad?

According to the inventor himself, Ethan Zuckerman is. Writing for The Atlantic in 2014, Zuckerman admitted that he, alongside colleagues, was responsible for creating the pop-up ad in the late 90s – what he now describes as “one of the most hated tools in the advertiser’s toolkit”."one of the most hated tools in the advertiser’s toolkit"

Zuckerman explains that whilst working for, he and his team spent five years trying to come up with new online revenue models, but failed to get funding for any of their business plans.

But then everything changed. According to Zuckerman, a major car company found out that one of their ads was being served on an adult site, so tarnishing their brand. The challenge was set – to come up with a way of making sure there was no direct association between the ad and the site it was placed on.

And so the pop-up ad was born.

To disassociate the ad from the site, Zuckerman designed the ad to jump in front of the site’s content. Its design would also naturally clash with the site’s, strengthening this disassociation.

At first, pop-ups were popular for they were the only ad at the time that could really gain the user’s attention - the banner ad was all too easily ignored. By 1997, pop-up ads were being served on some of the biggest sites on the web, such as AOL and the New York Times.

However, as the years went by, user dissatisfaction began to grow. So much so that companies began selling software to block them such as PopupCaptor and AdSubtract. By 2004, a study found that 95% of web users reacted ‘negatively’ or ‘very negatively’ to pop-ups appearing in front of their window.

At Ve, we undertook our own research to understand how the user reacted to pop-up ads. We found that a relatively small demographic of users actually engaged with them, primarily as a result of ad blindness – a phenomenon whereby users consciously and subconsciously ignore and refuse to interact with the ad.

So what makes the pop-up so unpopular?

1.   Disrupts user experience

The primary reason behind the hatred of the pop-up is its obtrusive nature. Jumping up in front of the user and blocking the site’s contents, it disrupts the user experience. This negative emotion then leaves a bitter taste for their experience of the site as a whole, discouraging them from using the site in the future.

2.   Not of interest to the user

Initially, pop-ups were used by page owners to allow other’s ads to be placed on their site for additional revenue. This was unpopular for the user because the ad was often not of interest to them – they were visiting the site for its content, not for another site’s contents.

3.   Encourages clickbait

Many designers of pop-ups are guilty of trying to simply gain clicks in order to generate page views. As a result, this had led to the creation of many pop-ups that, according to Zuckerman, have “little thoughtful engagement” as they try to lure the user into clicking them.

As Zuckerman puts it – with pop ups “we get less news that helps us engage as citizens and more news designed to get us to click the “next page” button”.

A revolutionary alternative to the pop-up ad – Digital Assistant

Understanding the user’s dislike of pop-up ads, here at Ve we have created a revolutionary alternative to the pop-up – Digital Assistant.

Creating an industry-first user-centric solution, Digital Assistant unobtrusively reveals itself on the right-hand side of the screen, rather than jumping in front of the user and disrupting the user experience. Its content is also highly targeted to provide helpful personalised messages, improving site usability and guiding the user through each stage of the buyer journey.

This barely scratches the surface. Our revolutionary onsite engagement solution offers a huge amount of advantages over the traditional pop-up ad and you can learn more below:

Website Optimisation


How HP

achieved an engagement rate of 14.4% with personalised messaging from Digital Asssitant

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Posted by Kate Rogerson

Kate is a Copywriter and loves sports, pubs and the tech world.