Nobody really likes a modal pop-up ad or newsletter sign-up, especially ones that take over the entire screen.

Unfortunately they’re such a common occurrence they now just form the regular background noise of annoyance in our everyday online life. Like someone bumping into you in the street while looking at their mobile phone or ‘Despacito’.

However, like with any form of display advertising that we’ve trained ourselves to ignore, marketers have come up with even more manipulative ways to catch people out.

Publishers will argue that display advertising is necessary for their survival, and that’s fair enough – it’s a terrifyingly bleak future for businesses models that once thrived in the display friendly world. But if you’re blatantly disregarding usability (and visitors’ feelings, as you’ll discover later), then you’re paying too high a price.

Here are some examples of manipulative pop-ups that make the vein pop-out of my forehead…

Search Engine Watch

In the interest of transparency, I was the editor of this website between 2015 – 2016, and for added diplomacy, the people that edit and write for the site are very lovely and are still producing excellent content.

Now that brief pleasantness is out of the way, look at the state of this email sign-up…

Although it doesn’t trigger till you click on your second page, it loads instantly before you have a chance to read. There’s no ‘X’ to close the popup, nor can you click outside the box to navigate away.

And here’s the sneakiest bit…

You’d naturally assume that because the right-hand side message says ‘No thanks. Ask me later please’ that the message on the left says ‘Yes please’. Nope, that’s not the case at all. It actually says ‘No thanks, I am not interested.’

Therefore in the split-second where you’ve decided not to fill in your email address and you want the box gone, you’ll probably click the link that gives permission to trigger it again on your next visit.

And if that’s not annoying/confusing enough, this little guy suddenly slides in from the right hand side…

This whole thing reminds of the bit in Jurassic Park where the raptors get that evil game warden, and he’s all smugly condescending and reverential, despite the fact he’s dead meat. It’s the best non-Jeff Goldblum bit in Jurassic Park.


You’ll probably have encountered this new pop-up recently if you’ve signed into Gmail on your desktop…

Taken at face value, it doesn’t seem too intrusive. It appears in the top right corner and it’s easy to close or click away from. But then… what’s that little pin-prick of annoyance? Why do you feel like telling Gmail to ‘mind your own business’ in a colourful manner only befitting sailors and my uncle Derek, who isn’t a sailor but does drink a lot of rum?

Ah, manipulinks! The little bits of link text that try to shame users for opting out of an offer. These are also called ‘confirmshaming’, which is a good name too. Another good name is emotional blackmail.

Nng recently covered the topic in an interesting post calling out companies for shaming users for micro conversions and I’ll call back to their examples shortly…

As for Google, SHAME ON THEM for being so manipulative! Who would have thought it from such a famously non-evil company!?

More manipulink madness

Here are a few more egregious examples found by NNg, myself and my new favourite Tumblr:


‘No thanks, I’ll have a microwave dinner tonight’ – Like there’s no other alternative than a microwave meal or finding a recipe from Delish. Nng also points out the copy indicates that users will ‘unlock exclusive recipes’ but doesn’t communicate the fact that users will also be signed up for the newsletter. A manipulink and dark pattern all rolled into one.

Women’s Health

’No thanks, I don’t need to work out’ – which I suppose is slightly better than saying ’No thanks, I’m happy sitting here surrounded by empty pizza boxes’ as it maybe infers that you don’t need the gym because you’re naturally chiselled like Michelangelo’s David. Clearly some thought went into making it just ambiguous enough – but still, it’s unnecessarily rude.

As NNg says, “sacrificing your relationship with your users just to get a few more email addresses misses the forest for the trees.” More visitors will see this message than will actually sign up for the newsletter, so why generate that kind of ill-feeling?

There’s even worse to come

During my research, I was pleased to learn there’s a confirmshaming Tumblr page. I’m also pleased that ‘hot garbage’ has now entered my vocabulary…

Here’s some of that hot garbage…


‘You’ve let your ICEdot profile expire. ICEdot Panda is now very sad’ – You’re the ones keeping a live panda in your office! I’m not paying you $10, heaven knows what you’ll do with it.


‘I prefer to troll the internet alone’ – Somehow making it seem like if you don’t join their food community, you might as well be in the alt-right.


‘I’d rather make a poor investment’ – With many of these it just feels like marketers have just seen other websites use this kind of language and assume that it works, without thinking (and yes, testing) whether it really does make a difference.


‘I don’t read’ – Just wanton douchebaggery. You can hear the guffaws and ill-timed high fives.

Jacob King

’No I want to continue dwelling in my mom’s basement’ – this one covers the entire screen entirely…

You may be surprised to learn that this is an improvement on an earlier version, which is screamingly offensive.

Humbling moment of self-discovery

Not all bad pop-ups are intentionally manipulative, sometimes they just haven’t been tested properly.

Because I didn’t want to seem like too much of a self-righteous jerk, I decided to run some UX tests on my own personal website and its newsletter pop-up.

In the clip below, you can see where we completely overlooked the user experience…

I hang my head in shame and apologise to all Firefox users.

EU cookie law corner

I won’t go into the confusion around the EU cookie law, and to what extent websites need to warn visitors that they’ll be tracked using cookies (it’s a time constraints thing, plus I don’t know) – however there are ways of displaying the message to avoid unless you want to make visiting your mobile site an absurd experience.

Here’s Games Radar mobile experience for first time visitors… not that you’d be able to tell.

Also note the pop-up ad for extra bonus obfuscation points.

Forbes hall of shame

I could talk about the user experience of Forbes all day long, and I probably will at some length on this blog in the near future. But here are a couple of recent examples that I discovered while innocently browsing some links a friend had sent me.

Here’s me reading a Forbes’ Game of Thrones article on my mobile…

What do you mean you can’t tell it’s an article? What about the bit that says, “And of course, I’ve griped at length about th…”

On a desktop version of the article, this autoplay advert for dog food had the sound turned on. It’s also tiny and took me ages to find where the sound was coming from.

It also hides the controls for turning off the sound until you hover at the bottom of the ad. And then the mute button doesn’t work anyway. I know this isn’t technically a pop-up, but still… COME ON!

Also what is this classic bit of Forbes user experience really for…?

Another sneaky ad impression? A way to artificially double pageviews? Maybe they genuinely think they’re adding value with their ‘quote of the day’? I nearly wrote that last one with a straight face.

Back in 2012, a managing editor at Forbes answered the question “why is the UX of Forbes so terrible?” on Quora.

Here’s Bruce Upbin’s response:

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“As for the interstitial full-page ad that pops up before reaching your article or the home page, chalk that up to the worsening economics of web advertising. CPM rates continue to fall for banners and other forms of display advertising. Forbes is almost entirely dependent on display advertising for its revenue. Those welcome ads are premium priced and highly lucrative for us.”[/perfectpullquote]

If people are still reading Forbes, and Forbes is still making enough revenue from the advertising frenzy that hides business news website – they’re not likely to change any time soon. But in sacrificing usability and online reputation, what kind of legacy are they leaving?

That’s something for them to mull over while they sip brandy, dine on beluga caviar and take dollar bets on whether they can bankrupt an employee and install a homeless person in their place just to settle a philosophical argument.

It’s now clear that I may not understand how the real world works.