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Chrome and Firefox are fixing the internet's most annoying problem

There are useful notifications – and then there are the notifications your web browser wants to send you. After years of invasive popups, two of the world's biggest browsers are finally clamping down on the annoyance of websites that want to ping you with updates.

By now you'll be familiar with browser-based notifications. Visit a new website, or clear all your browsing data, and in either the upper left- or right-hand side of your screen a pop-up will appear with a simple question. This website wants to send you notifications, do you give it permission to do so?

With each prompt to receive notifications from a website there are two options – allow or block. Neither are given particular prominence in their size or placing but the appearance of the prompt is an intrusion.

The initial request for permission, which can be found everywhere from news websites to your favourite shops, can stop you working, get in the way of something important and cause irritation. They usually pop up before you've had a chance to actually see what's on the webpage you're looking at, and they require a tap or click straight away. And if you accept you'll be at the mercy of how many notifications individual websites decide to send you.

Browser-based notifications aren't limited to one particular service: Chrome, FireFox and Safari all allow websites to use them. They can have useful applications, such as providing alerts about new email. But billions of prompts asking users to signup for notifications are ignored every month. So in the latest versions of Chrome and Safari, their presence is being downgraded.

Perhaps the most significant step is from the team behind Google Chrome – the world's most popular browser. The company has said that browser-based notifications are a "common complaint" and can "interrupt the user’s workflow and result in a bad user experience".

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Chrome project manager PJ McLachlan wrote in a blog post this week that the company would start limiting the notifications in one of the next versions of the browser, version 80. "Chrome 80 will show, under certain conditions, a new, quieter notification permission UI that reduces the 'interruptiveness' of notification permission requests," McLachlan says.

So what does this look like? If you usually block browser notifications, Chrome will put permission requests from websites behind a small notification symbol at the right end of your browser's URL search bar. On mobile there will be a small alert at the bottom of your bowser window, which vanishes after a few seconds, saying that notifications are blocked. You can see what it looks like in practice below.

Handily, Chrome is making it easy for you to stop seeing these permissions prompts. "Users who repeatedly deny notifications across websites will be automatically enrolled in the quieter notifications UI," the company says. And those websites that nobody wants to get notifications from will also suffer: the company says sites with low acceptance rates will "automatically be enrolled in quieter prompts".

If a website improves its user experience, it may then be allowed to show prompts again. Google says it will publish stats on per-site information about notification acceptance rates in the first three months of 2020. "We recommend that websites wait until users understand the context and see benefit in receiving notifications before prompting for the permission," the firm says.

This proactive approach of stopping notification prompts is likely to be popular with users. In November 2019, research from Firefox creators Mozilla found that around 99 per cent of notification prompts go unaccepted, with 48 per cent of them being denied outright (most are just ignored).

In essence, nobody finds them useful. In one month Mozilla found that 1.45 billion prompts were show to users – only 23.66 million were accepted. As a result, the latest version of Firefox, which was released this week, doesn't use notifications prompts at all. If a website tries to send a notification request it is relegated to the address bar and will show as a speech bubble.

Mozilla's research shows why notification requests need to change. Websites that served notification requests before the visitor had done anything on the page were only accepted one per cent of the time. On the other hand, websites that waited until the visitor had already clicked around or scrolled on their sites before serving prompts had accept rates as high as 17 per cent.

But Mozilla found the amount of websites that give users a chance to read a page before forcing the option of notifications on them is tiny. "Post-interaction prompts are sadly rare on today’s web: there were only 785 in the dataset, compared to 66,413 pre-interaction first-time prompts," Mozilla says. "So the post-interaction accepts only represent 11 per cent of all accepts."

This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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