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Why pop-up light boxes are a bad idea

If you spend any time looking around the web, the chances are you will have come across the latest craze that’s pretty much guaranteed to annoy – or at the very least confuse website visitors: Pop up light boxes, also known as interstitials.

Pop-up light box asking for email address

Hang on… I was reading that. Pop-up light boxes are spreading like wildfire.

You arrive on a web page and suddenly the screen goes dark and a form appears, blocking out the content of the page.

Usually they invite you to sign up to the site’s newsletter, like it on Facebook, create an account or worst of all, it’s an advert.

Many allow you to cancel the pop up and view the content behind it but some don’t.

Here you have a choice: Do what they want or go somewhere else.

If I’m at a desktop PC or a laptop, my instinctive reaction is to shut them down without even reading them.

But on a phone the effect is often to render the site completely useless.

Update September 2016: Google has just announced that sites that use interstitials will be penalised in searches. See our updated post on pop-ups for more information

Why are pop-up light boxes bad?

Pop-ups of any kind essentially take over your computer and stop you from what you are trying to do.

As if this is not enough, they then demand that you do what the website owner wants you to do before you can carry on with what you came to do.

In a world where increasingly a good website is one that allows visitors to do what they want to do quickly and easily, then twisting arms to get newsletter sign ups, Facebook likes or even to draw attention to your latest products is just plain rude.

But in the end it’s never, ever a good idea to put things in the way of what people want to do on your website.

A history of pop-ups

Everyone who works in website usability knows pop ups either annoy or confuse web users. Why? Because we’ve been here before.

Ten years ago the web was in the midst of the first pop-up war, when it was almost impossible to get around on the web without multiple adverts appearing in pop-up windows all over the place.

Mainly, they succeeded in annoying web users, with a 2004 study showing that pop-ups were the most hated advertising technique on the web.

It wasn’t long before pop-up blockers – software that stopped pop-ups from appearing – became very popular.

Research showed that website visitors didn’t just dislike them, they actively hated them, and often transferred that hate not only to the advertiser responsible, but also to the site that exposed them to the advert.

In the end the pop-up blockers won and the problem went away. People were once again able to browse the web in peace.

But now pop-ups are back. Enter the pop-up light box, also known as the modal overlay.

Another pop up light box

Writes a blog post complaining about pop-up light boxes – then obscures the blog post with one!

Pop-up light boxes get around the blockers by appearing inside the page.

Generally to stop them you have to disable Javascript, which most people don’t know how to do, and if you did that a lot of websites would not work properly. So we’re stuck with them.

And it’s only going to get worse.

Why do people use pop-up light boxes?

Just about everyone seems to agree that pop-ups of any kind, let alone pop-up light boxes, are very annoying and frustrating indeed, so why does anyone use them?

While researching this article I came across a blog post from a web designer who admits to hating pop-up light boxes, yet still has one on her website!

The answer lies in the obsession with numbers.

In our business we come across a lot of people who think like this: They constantly count their Twitter followers, their Facebook likes and the number of newsletter subscribers they have, as if it’s a badge of honour.

It’s all about quantity, not quality, and there’s no consideration for the fact that those things in themselves do not have any value.

Increased subscribers

People who advocate pop-up light boxes, especially to get website visitors to subscribe to their newsletter, will claim they work in vastly increasing newsletter sign ups and apparently they do.

But usability research shows why that might be – that website visitors sign up because they think they have to in order to make the pop-up go away. So they end up subscribing to a newsletter they don’t even want.

Andy Beaumont, technical director at digital advertising agency Albion London, has seen people struggle with them in website user testing.

He says: “Analytics will tell you that you got more “conversions”. Analytics will show you rising graphs and bigger numbers. You will show these to your boss or your client. They will falsely conclude that people love these modal overlays.

“I have tested this design pattern with real people, and a significant portion of them believe that they must do what the box is begging them for in order to close the overlay.

“These people (remember, they’re people, not “conversions”), are signing up to a newsletter they don’t want. They’re then going to be irritated by it for several months until they work out how to unsubscribe from it.”

Why you shouldn’t use pop up light boxes

Pop-up light box demanding newsletter subscription.

It’s hard to think of anything more annoying than one of these popping up when you are trying to read a page

Our 2004 study that named pop-ups the most hated advertising technique on the web also listed the reasons why they provoked such a negative reaction.

Those tested especially did not like pop-ups because they cover what you are trying to see and try to trick you into clicking on them. The same things apply to the new breed of pop-up light boxes.

Everybody who builds websites knows that people find them annoying.

Yet some of the worst offenders are people who should know better, but can’t help themselves.

The mentality seems to be ‘I know it’s bad and I hate it too, but look at the conversions’.

And then of course there’s the ‘everybody else is doing it’ philosophy – an approach that can only lead to disaster. After all, isn’t that how we ended up with a Credit Crunch?

Some people have tried to minimise the intrusion by making the pop up appear after a few seconds, and only allowing it to appear once.

But for every one site trying to limit the annoyance, at least ten will allow it to appear on every page, even to visitors who have subscribed to the website’s newsletter, liked its Facebook page or whatever else they are being forced to do.

That makes the whole experience even more frustrating, as you have done as you were asked, but every page you visit the damned light box keeps appearing.

So if you are tempted to use one of these on your website – or you already have them – ask yourself a few questions:

  • How do you feel about pop-ups when you come across them on a website?
  • If you find them frustrating do you not think your website visitors will too?
  • Is it worth annoying the majority of your website visitors for the sake of a few more newsletter sign-ups, Twitter followers or Facebook likes?

If your efforts to get more subscribers are not working, then look at your newsletter itself and how you are promoting it. Don’t try and twist people’s arms into subscribing for something they don’t want.

Agree? Disagree?

Do you use pop-up lightboxes? If so, why? Do you actually like them? Have your say below.

And feel free to subscribe to our newsletter for more advice articles on how to make your website as good as it can be – and a valuable resource for your business. We will never share your information and we won’t twist your arm to sign up.

More information on pop-up light boxes

Nielsen Norman Group: The Most Hated Advertising Techniques

Andy Beaumont’s pop-up lightbox gallery: Tab Closed, Didn’t Read and the rationale behind it.

Digivate: 3 BIG Dangers of Pop-Up Ads and Forms

More Website Sins

Things to avoid saying and doing on your business website.

  1. Never say ‘Click Here’
  2. Don’t use ‘Under Construction’ pages
  3. Why you don’t need an FAQ page
  4. Why pop-up light boxes are a bad idea

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25 Responses to Why pop-up light boxes are a bad idea

  1. Karl P. February 5, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

    I’ve been battling with myself for about month now, trying to decide whether I should have a facebook-like popup box or not.

    I completely agree that it acts as more of an annoyance to your site visitors than anything else. I can’t count how many sites I go on a day that instantly spam one of these boxes in your face. Then again, maybe it annoys me more because I’m into SEO..

    I’m pretty sure that I’m NOT going to use a lighbox on my site, but what you say to still using a lightbox popup, but only have it display after 2-4 pages have been viewed? (only for a facebook like popup btw)

  2. Patrick Barnes February 10, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    Thanks for the comment, Karl.

    I would say trust your instincts. If you find it annoying then others will. Personally, I’m so used to them that I cancel the box before I’ve even read what it says – it’s almost like a reflex!

    There’s a tendency among web people to say ‘I know it’s annoying, but (for example) it increases newsletter sign ups…’ – In some of the examples in the post the culprits even apologise for doing it – but still do it..

    But those sign ups are inevitably from people who don’t want the newsletter in the first place – that’s the danger of relying on analytics too much.

    Displaying a light box after two to four page views is certainly less annoying, but still annoying nonetheless. Also, how would you filter out people who have already liked your Facebook page, who will be thinking: ‘Why am I seeing this?’.

    If you feel you absolutely have to do it then this could be the way to go, but make sure you test it across all devices and make the light box as easy as possible to cancel and double check it on mobile, which is where I’ve seen the light boxes most difficult (or impossible) to cancel.

    If you have content you want people to share, there’s always the temptation to give users that extra push to share on Facebook, sign up to a newsletter or like the author’s Facebook page.

    But the truth is you can’t MAKE people do things they don’t already want to do on your website, unless you trick them into it, and then they will probably hate you for it.

    However I understand your dilemma and the temptation to use a light box because we’re seeing them everywhere. You have to consider whether it’s worth annoying people just to get a few more Facebook likes.

  3. AB February 26, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

    Idiotic and self-defeating designs like popups / lightboxes are the single biggest reason few website owners made any money back in the dot com bubble. It’s sad to see that people are still listening to self-professed ‘marketing experts’, and their crap advice about how annoying people for their email address before they’ve even been able to read one word of your website is somehow a good idea.

    I’d be willing to bet 90% of people use a compbination of AdBlock and NoScript to get rid of these pointless irritations. The rest simply give a fake email address. Or they just click the back button and view the Google-cached version of your site instead.

    The main reason Amazon was so successful back in the dot com bubble is that they wisely avoided spamming. You were allowed to browse in peace. And when you decided to create an account to buy stuff, you ticked a box if you wanted to receive marketing via email. If you didn’t tick that box, your implicit “no” was respected. That simple respect for the consumer enabled them to make a huge business out of selling other, dumber, people’s products.

    Still, for every Amazon, there’s always a billion more foolish get-rich-quick morons that think putting a lightbox in their crappy website is somehow going to annoy the masses into sending them money. They see the internet as a black box for printing money, and are invariably shocked to find it doesn’t quite work that way.

    • Patrick Barnes February 26, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

      Well put. Totally agree.

      I was trying to be less forthright about it but maybe I should have let rip! These horrible things are appearing in more and more places.

      Came across this on the WPMU site the other day: Commenter complains about the lightbox on the site then marketing guy dives in, says yeah everyone hates them but I’m in charge of conversions so they stay!

      Here it is:

      I couldn’t have hoped for a better illustration!

    • Michael Doane August 26, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

      Funny you say that, AB, because now Amazon just tricks people into buying it’s $99/year Prime service by offering a “free” trial that you MUST input your CC information to receive…

      • AB May 17, 2017 at 11:29 am #

        I noticed they’d started doing that now. That’s why I no longer use them. If you won’t let me checkout in peace without nagging me three times to join your lousy Prime service, I go elsewhere. (Not to mention Prime basically amounts to offering to deliver items in a reasonable time and bundling in some crappy TV service that is nothing to do with your purchase. Delivering items on time is the least I expect – I won’t pay extra for it. And I don’t have a TV. On purpose.)

        Amazon’s unwise pushing of Prime is why they’ve been fined by the ASA and made to refund Prime membership fees to consumers in the UK. Seems they’ve jumped the shark when it comes to unwise and self-defeating marketing techniques.

  4. AB February 26, 2014 at 3:08 pm #

    Yeah, go for it. No really. If it’s annoying after one page, then somehow it will have magically become a completely welcome way to behave after three or four pages.

    And next time you’re on a first date with a girl don’t ask if she’ll put out during the entree. Leave it until the main course. That’s so much more classy and effective.

    • Patrick Barnes February 26, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

      You’re right, of course, AB. When you think about it, it’s still annoying after four pages.

  5. Rob June 23, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    Completely agree with all of the above as a marketer. I work for a digital marketing agency and I wanted to ask what is a good alternative? I have a client who is very forthright on having a pop up light box and I am trying to convince her that it is not the move for her. Any ideas?

    • Patrick Barnes June 23, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

      Thanks for the comment, Rob. It’s a difficult one and it really depends on whether the client is prepared to listen to you or not.

      The problem is they (sometimes) do increase conversions, but those ‘conversions’ are not quality conversions, and the risk is that many more people will be annoyed by the pop up and will leave the site as soon as the pop up appears.

      But obviously you are in a difficult position because I imagine you will at least be partly judged on the number of sign ups, rather than the quality of sign ups.

      In the end all you can do is point your client to articles like this and those linked to from this post and make the case.

      If the client must have an overlay, perhaps a sign-up form that is activated by a button and opens in an overlay will do it? It would at least allow choice on the part of the user.

      There is no doubt that they are annoying – even self-defeating – and the tide is turning against them.

      Here’s another link for you to have a look at. It’s an A/B test result from Which Test Won and while the test itself is interesting, the comments on the results page once again show how lots of marketers hate them too:

      But sadly some still think it’s a price worth paying. Good luck!

    • AB May 17, 2017 at 11:32 am #

      “Get a different web designer” would be my first suggestion for your client. For bonus points, send her that message in a form that makes her enter her email address in a full-page, un-dismissable dialog to be able to read it.

  6. Mid July 24, 2014 at 6:38 am #

    Totally late to this post, but I just wanted to say that I agree with you completely. I absolutely HATE and detest this damn gimmick that has taken over the majority of websites. It annoys me, and I make it a point to never subscribe or even to just close the browser and look elsewhere for what I want/need.

    Those “social media experts” and “marketers” and “website gurus” all say to employ the use of the popup lightbox in order to get tons and tons of newsletter subscribers, but all I can say to that is this: I’d rather have people join my mailing list because they wanted to, not because I strong-armed them into doing it.

    It brings memories flooding back about my ex-husband and his parents, who pretty much forced us to go have dinner with them at least once a week (they made it 3 times a week before I put my foot down). The woman thought I was a cold, non-family oriented person and basically guilted me into always going to their place for Saturday dinners no matter what. I remember thinking to myself back then — as I think now — that I’d rather have people come to my home to have dinner with me because they enjoyed my company and actually WANTED to spend time with me, not because they felt a huge sense of obligation to do so.

    • Patrick Barnes July 24, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

      Thanks for the comment, Mid. And an interesting analogy, too.

      One of my favourite WordPress blogs, Elegant Themes, put a modal on their blog a while back. It pops up about 5 seconds after you arrive there. Thing is their blog is really useful and they really don’t need to resort to these tactics. They are most likely putting off potential subscribers by doing so.

  7. Jenne September 8, 2014 at 9:48 am #

    I’m very late to this post, but I found it while looking for a way to block overlays. I hate them. So, since they currently cannot be blocked by me, I’m doing the next best thing. I’m putting the sites that use them on a blacklist. This means that not only will I not see their viral content, I also will not pass it along to others. I do not understand why sites want to annoy and drive away their users.

    • Ash December 26, 2014 at 6:18 am #

      This is what I do: you can use Adblock Plus browser extension and click “block element” then click on the popup and any element of a site you want to never show again. You’ll have to do this for all the parts of the overlay so there’s a lot of clicking, but it’s not too hard.

  8. Amelia Johns May 11, 2015 at 5:54 am #

    Popup good or bad, all depends on how they are used, If customers feel easy in the presence of popups, then it is good. But it popup annoys the customers, then they can be your revenue killer. I have personal experience of popups as I have created them on my PrestaShop eCommerce store by using plugin and reached at a point that popups are very useful, specially to introduce the new discount offers in front of customers.
    At the end I would like to ask you that what is the best time to display a popup either when customers is quiting or when he just entered?

    • Patrick Barnes May 11, 2015 at 11:46 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Amelia.

      Well I’d say never use them(as is clear in my post!), but if you must, a pop-up before quitting the site is the least obtrusive, and that’s what we’re looking for after all.

  9. Anonymous Browser September 16, 2015 at 8:16 pm #

    If you use these on your website, I immediately leave and make a mental note to never come back. All the conversions in the world don’t matter if you make people mad and chase them off.

  10. e October 27, 2015 at 7:07 pm #

    Thank you. The disgusting gutter scum who pop this flashing honking rubbish in our faces need to be tortured and killed. I am serious.

  11. Peter January 6, 2016 at 4:09 pm #

    As a user it’s very simple. If I land on a page and the first thing in my face is a request to like or to subscribe I’m gone. No website is that important and by using these methods it has me questioning the website owners respectability anyway.

  12. Nick January 26, 2016 at 5:33 pm #

    I’m not a blogger or someone who is trying to collect peoples’ email addresses; just your average internet browser. I absolutely HATE when I get a lightbox popup asking me for my email. It disrupts my browsing experience and annoys me. I recently started using browser extensions that specifically block those on websites; and if they found a way to get around my scripts and I can’t get away from the popup, I forget about reading the content on that website and move on to the next. Even if I really wanted to read that content, I’m letting it go because I don’t want to reward the website owner’s bad behavior.

    • Patrick Barnes January 26, 2016 at 5:48 pm #

      Judging by the traffic this page gets two years after I first wrote it, it seems a lot of others agree!

      Sadly, two years on, they are still with us, though I see more and more blog posts begging website owners not to use these intrusive irritants.

  13. John Sinclair June 25, 2016 at 2:39 pm #

    When I find content I like, I actively seek out a signup box on the page. I know what to look for. There’s no need to slap me with a model overlay before I’ve read the article.

    Modal overlays are so common on WordPress powered sites that I simply won’t follow links I can identify as WordPress powered … such as “/2002/12/25/article-for-today”. What is it with WordPressers and the vast number of plug-ins they collect? Is it a competition? Quit with the modal plug-ins already.

  14. Marion November 28, 2017 at 9:24 am #

    Blah, blah, blah. Is there an ADDON to block the shit? We don’t care about the origins of the big bang, we just want to freaking stop them.

    • Patrick December 4, 2017 at 11:35 pm #

      Yeah, I think you missed the point of the article, which was to explain why you shouldn’t use pop-ups. Which is one way to stop them, I guess.

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