February 19, 2009

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Pop go the ads
Getting your attention by annoying you

By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

It’s reader mail time!

I recently got a computer bug that brings up these full screen advertisements when I go to a site. What can I do to get rid of it?

While there are computer infections that can lead to more popup ads being displayed on one’s PC, I suspect that’s not what’s happening here. The unfortunate truth is that the rumors of the popup ad’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

The advice used to be simple: download Firefox. This alternative to Internet Explorer, available at www.getfirefox.com, was at one time far superior in terms of its ad-blocking capability. As it has become used by more and more people, however, evil Web designers have found ways to pop their ads into new windows — or even superimposed on the content of your current window — no matter what browser you’re using.

The latest versions of Internet Explorer now include popup blocking, but Firefox still gives you more control and capability. Apart from the built-in options to block or allow popups and images from certain sites, Firefox can be enhanced with add-ons.

Adblock Plus is the most prominent, letting you right-click pretty much any banner ad and block just that image or any content from that ad provider. How it works is actually pretty simple: it reads the URL of every Web page element and allows it to load or not based on the filters you build up as you use it. Even though you might be reading a page on, say, www.yahoo.com, the ad is actually served from www.obnoxiousadvertising.net, so it’s fairly easy to just stop that content. This isn’t anything Firefox can’t already do; Adblock Plus just provides a much more friendly way to access the functionality.

It’s so friendly, in fact, that you can download pre-made sets of filters right when you install the add-on. You might even find those filters overzealous. For instance, they blocked the ads that show up in my Gmail inbox, which I like having around for entertainment value alone. One ad for alpacas shows up with every message from one particular friend, for no readily apparent reason. I missed that, so I looked at Adblock Plus’s list of filters and removed the Google entry.

The kind of ad I think you’re talking about is a bit more pernicious, because rather than just an image, it’s probably served with a piece of JavaScript embedded in the code of the page you’re viewing. You can disable JavaScript, or restrict its use to only certain functions, but then other features of Web sites might be crippled. Another add-on, NoScript, helps to curb those ads as well, though its main focus is to prevent malware from infecting your machine.

Access to Firefox’s built-in options and add-on choices can be found in its Tools menu item.

Now, your question mentioned a computer bug. If you did actually pick up some nasty code somewhere, a virus and spyware scan is in order. Ad-Aware (www.lavasoft.com) and Spybot Search & Destroy (www.safer-networking.org) are my personal favorite spyware checkers. A free anti-virus program is available at free.avg.com. Paid versions give you features like constant protection and more proactive cleansing.

I still hold out hope that one day advertisers will get irrefutable proof showing that it’s better to have subtle ads that pull in fewer clicks but more revenue rather than intrusive popups that irritate a large number of people. Until that day, there’s software.