Rhodri Marsden: Cyberclinic

Can we stop adverts ruining the internet?
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The Independent Online

SOFTWARE SOLUTIONS

Q. Websites are becoming increasingly blighted by invasive advertising techniques. Is the situation destined to get even worse?

The standard internet banner advert, 468 pixels wide, 60 pixels high and containing the ubiquitous exhortation to "click here", has almost started to look unobtrusive and benign. With UK businesses having spent £1.1bn last year on internet advertising, it's not surprising that they're looking for new methods to distract and attract us. As Catherine Stevens points out, the experience can be somewhat overwhelming for new internet users. "My mum gets annoyed by all the flashing ads urging her to buy cheap flights, as she's not used to mentally filtering them out. I wonder how long it'll take her to acclimatise?" Readers seem most irritated by the ones that pop up when you least expect them. "One Condé Nast site has ads which periodically appear over the text," writes Jenny Grimm, "and getting them to disappear again isn't always straightforward." With disgruntled surfers demanding solutions to such invasive techniques, software developers have been riding to the rescue. Users of browsers such as Apple's Safari have long had the option to stop certain kinds of pop-up windows appearing, but a more recent extension for Firefox called Adblock filters out nearly all advertisements, and is increasing in popularity. "It's indispensable," writes Ant Chapman. "I find many websites are unusable without it." Adblock has caused consternation for certain web-based businesses who depend on advertising for survival; blogging site LiveJournal altered its terms and conditions to stop people using the site with Adblock turned on, only to backtrack - perhaps realising that it's not only unenforceable, but also bad PR.

In theory, the internet should provide the perfect forum for advertising; businesses are able to get detailed feedback on our mouse-clicking responses to each campaign, helping them to target us more efficiently. Google's database stores our searching habits, pumping out advertisements that supposedly correlate with our individual interests - although it doesn't always work; this week their Gmail service recommended that I check out a Tom Jones tribute act. One New York advertising company, Tacoda, has gone as far as running brain-scanning tests on volunteers to help hone their online techniques. Any form of advertising will be irritating for a proportion of internet users, but many of this week's correspondents are prepared to put up with it in return for a free service. "Essentially, the web needs a source of money to survive," writes Chris Townsend. "And I'd rather be distracted occasionally by an advert I'm not interested in than have to pay to view a site."

Diagnosis required

Jez Traynor writes with next week's question:

"Most people I know have a copy of Microsoft Word, but barely anyone has paid for it. In the fight against music copyright, is the battle against pirated software being forgotten?" Any comments, and new questions for the Cyberclinic, should be e-mailed to cyberclinic@independent.co.uk.

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