The problem here is that pop-ups come from many, many different sources and may be of many different kinds. Some are the very legitimate price you effectively pay for viewing a free website, others not so much.
Free isn’t free
First, remember that free websites are not free. They cost money to set up, they cost money to maintain, and they cost money to be informative and useful. Trust me on this – I know!
So, that money has to come from somewhere. They have to pay the people that run the site and the people who help the people who run the site; they have to pay for the hardware, and for the software. You get the idea. There’s really no such thing as “free” on the internet.
Somewhere, somehow, someone has to pay the bills.
Advertising is perhaps the single most common way that websites attempt to generate revenue, and many websites will actually use pop-up advertising.
Website-generated pop-ups happen in two distinct forms.
The first are pop-ups that actually open up an entirely new browser window. That window might appear in front of or behind the window that you’re looking at. It’s also the kind that’s the easiest for a browser’s built-in pop-up blockers to block. Most browsers already block them by default.
The second kind appears like a small window or an overlay within the web page that you’re looking at. These are nearly impossible to block, because the browsers don’t see them as pop-ups at all. They’re just parts of that same web page that, for a while, were hidden. When they un-hide, they appear to the viewer to “pop up”.
Website owners choose whether to use either of these two types of pop-ups on their sites, or not. For example, Ask Leo! has no advertising pop-ups that make new browser windows. In fact, there’s not supposed to be any kind of pop-up except for the newsletter offer and the social media overlay, which I’ll talk about in a moment.
Other website make different choices. Websites that include more aggressive pop-ups typically make more money because, to put it bluntly, those more aggressive pop-ups work. While they may alienate some readers, perhaps even to the point of never returning, the increase in advertising revenue makes up for it.
There is another pop-up that’s not under the control of website owners. That’s pop-up advertising that’s generated on your machine by malware.
Sometimes toolbars and other software installed on your machine include embedded pop-up advertising. They actually hook themselves into your browser in such a way that they modify the pages that you visit, and very often the search results. With that modification, they add pop-up advertising to sites that don’t have it.
The site gets no benefit. You just get annoyed. But the advertiser gets seen and the advertising service that caused that pop-up to get added gets paid.
More often than not, these are the results of what we call foistware or “PUPS”: Potentially Unwanted Programs. They get on your machine when you install something else unrelated. There’s often a checkbox in the setup program that you can un-check to avoid installing them. In other words, if you’re not paying attention, they get installed.
And you see pop-up ads from sites that don’t have any pop-ups at all.
But the rest – the honest presentation of advertising by the sites you visit – pop-up or not, that’s how they stay in business.
The Ask Leo! Newsletter pop-up and social media overlay
As you’ll likely see in the comments, people are sometimes annoyed with the pop-up newsletter offer here on Ask Leo!, as well as with the social media overlay that normally appears over to the left.
I’ve tested with and without, and to be completely blunt Ask Leo!’s survival requires that they remain. Without them normal attrition is such that the newsletter would fade away, visitor traffic would dwindle and the site would cease to exist.
The main centered newsletter pop-up is configured to appear exactly and only once every 90 days1. (The website has no idea who you are, so it has no way to “know” that you might already be a subscriber.) Dismiss it by clicking on the “X” in the upper right corner, or pressing the ESC key.
The additional pop-up that may appear from the bottom of the page also only appears once a month2, and is also quickly dismissed by clicking on the “X” in its upper-right corner.
The social media bar, while not technically a pop-up (it’s always present), can be minimized. Hover your mouse over the bar, and a double arrow will appear underneath the bar. Click on that to minimize the bar to the left.
Both the newsletter pop-up and the social media overlay are intended to help people engage by subscribing to future updates, and sharing interesting content with others. This is true to varying degrees on any site that uses these or similar techniques.
Many people find them useful. Others ignore them without a second thought. And some, unfortunately, are annoyed.
Regardless, consider them part of the “price” of information being made available for free on the internet.