Engadget managing editor Ryan Block struck a nerve yesterday when he posted a scathing attack on keyword popovers, such as those supplied by "IntelliTXT / Vibrant Media and like ad services whose entire business depends on polluting your content, confusing your audience, and tricking them into clicking on ads that just won't go away.""With all due respect to you, friends, f---ing stop it," Block wrote, though using the letters I've omitted. "Seriously, stop supporting these shysters that advertise by generating fake links and popovers on your content."
Truer words were never written. I detest popovers and evidently so do many others, as can be seen by the number of supportive comments on Block's blog and can be inferred from the almost 800 votes his post has received on Digg.com to date.
I realize that the publishing business is under pressure these days and profit margins are thinner than back when newspapers were a license to print money, but disrespecting online readers with intrusive ads just forces people to install ad-blocking software.
In keeping with his surname, Block encouraged just that: In a follow-up post, he listed a variety of ways to disable or eliminate IntelliTXT's popovers. Good riddance.
The New York Times does it more or less the right way: Double-clicking on any word in an online article executes a search for that word using the Time's Answers.com database in a new browser window. It's unobtrusive, responsive, and doesn't do anything without affirmative action from the reader. The only advertising that follows as a consequence of such a query is a subtle text ad or two -- not as effective, perhaps, as a flashing banner but not enough to prompt an ad-blocking rebellion, either.
The Time's could treat its customers even better, however. There's no reason why a reader should be forced to consult a source chosen by the paper. Just as computer users can choose their default search engine, the Time's should allow its readers to determine where keyword queries initiated by double-clicking in an article go.
Computers put the user in control. While software can be coded to take that control away, users, in almost all cases, have access to software that puts them back in the driver's seat. Rather than fighting customers with arbitrary restrictions and obnoxious impediments to productivity, publishers and just about every other online business should focus on making the ride more enjoyable rather than on seizing the wheel.