In another step towards improving the quality, speed and delivery of content to mobile devices, Google has rolled out an algorithm penalty that will punish sites that use intrusive popups or interstitials.
Google specified back in September 2016 that any website that is using intrusive interstitial popups on mobile may not rank as highly:
Pages that show intrusive interstitials provide a poorer experience to users than other pages where content is immediately accessible. This can be problematic on mobile devices where screens are often smaller. To improve the mobile search experience, after January 10, 2017, pages where content is not easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search results may not rank as highly.
This is another step that Google has taken towards improving the mobile experience for users. It can also be said to be an “evolution” of their mobile-friendly algorithm update back in November 2015 that penalised sites using giant app install interstitials. As a result, Google are now taking action against sites using other forms of intrusive mobile popups or interstitials.
What are Interstitials?
Interstitials are full screen popups that appear to the user as soon as they land on a page – desktop or mobile. They block out all the content on the screen and require an action from the user to dismiss them. Examples include:
- Pop up advertising to monetise sites
- Forms to access gated content such as PDFs, whitepapers and other forms of content that require something in return from the user
- Conversion drivers such as free trial and newsletter sign-ups
- Notifications with legal information, such as cookie usage and user age verification
Full screen interstitials do carry some advantages. For example, they overcome the main challenge on mobile devices – limited space. By taking over the screen, the message grabs the user’s full attention, which can lead to higher conversion rates. However, because interstitials take up the full width of the screen on a mobile device, they can be a barrier to accessing content. This often frustrates users and can put them off returning to the site. This is the primary reason why Google has decided to take action. They see interstitials as a barrier to information the user is looking for. Overall, they don’t support Google’s objective of providing pages with relevant and easily accessible information.
Examples of Intrusive Interstitial Popups
Google’s aim is penalise mobile pages that block content with an interstitial popup that make it hard to navigate when you’re on a mobile device. I’m sure many people that use mobile devices to browse the internet have felt frustrated by a full screen popup at some point.
To help determine whether you’re site is safe, here are some examples of intrusive mobile interstitials and popups that could result in a penalty from Google:
- Popups covering the content on a page immediately after users navigate from Google’s search results, and/or while scrolling up and down the page. This could included newsletter sign-up forms and access to gated content like whitepapers
- Popups the user has to close before they can view the content on the page
- Popups which relegate the content on the page to “below the fold”. This essentially means that users have to scroll down the page to bypass the popup to view the content.
Source: Google Webmaster Central Blog
While Google has identified what forms of intrusive interstitial popups will be punished, there are some that won’t be affected. These include:
- Popups that appear to visitors to present information related to a legal obligations, such as cookie usage and verification of age for adult content
- Popups that give access to content that isn’t publicly available and/or not indexed by Google (i.e. pages cannot be found in Google search)
- Popup banners that are easily dismissed by the user and take up little space on the page.
Source: Google Webmaster Central Blog
Will Google’s mobile update affect you?
The good news is that the new algorithm penalty will only impact mobile. So if you have full screen interstitial popups showing to desktop users, you don’t have anything to worry about your search visibility on desktop being affected by Google’s update. Google will only look at when a user clicks on a result in Google’s mobile SERPS (search results pages) to a landing page – not when a user jumps from page to page while on the site.
How to avoid being penalised for intrusive interstitial popups
1. Assess Your Situation
If you know that you are using, or have used popups on your website in the past, assess what these are and whether they might be affected by the new update. It’s important to be honest with yourself about the intention of your popups, how your users engage with it, and whether it improves or disrupts user experience. If you’re making content inaccessible and disrupting the experience, then it’s likely that it will raise flags with Google and damage your ranking. These new signals are effectively just adding to the increasing need to ensure your website is mobile-friendly, and it’s something all businesses should be serious about by now.
One of the first actions you can take is to test your landing pages on mobile devices to make sure they don’t fall within Google’s perception of intrusive popups.
If you have sign up forms in place capture leads and content downloads, it’s pretty important that you audit these yourself to make sure they aren’t covering the entire screen and reduce the risk of being penalised. Be sure to use tools such as mobiletest.me and Screenfly to assess how your popups appear on mobile devices.
2. Ditch full screen interstitial popups
Bearing in mind Google’s examples of intrusive popups that are likely to result in a penalty, it’s clearly time to ditch full screen interstitial popups on mobile devices. There should be no barrier to the content – whether it’s a popup that covers the screen at first glance and or as users scroll down the page. If you produce and advertise gated content on your site, such as downloadable whitepapers that require a sign-up, find an alternative way to promote these that don’t hide all the content on the page.
If your website runs on WordPress, and use plugins to power data capture mechanisms, now’s the time to review them. Adjust the size of popups within plugin settings (if they allow it) so they don’t cover the content on your mobile pages or find an alternative.
3. Rethink how your site generates revenue from ads
Did you know that global mobile advertising spend exceeded £100 billion in 2016? Google’s perception of intrusive ads on mobile devices is certainly going to make an impact, at least on how ad publishers are presenting ads to users.
If your website relies on generating revenue from intrusive popup ads, now is the ideal time to rethink your monetisation strategy. While you will experience a hit at first by removing advertising that restricts the view of content, it won’t be as significant compared to being penalised by Google and losing organic search traffic and rankings as a result.
4. Monitor your mobile search traffic & rankings
If you do continue to use interstitial popups even if they’re small and non intrusive, I would recommend that you keep a close eye on your mobile traffic and rankings to make sure you haven’t been penalised by Google.
With all of the recent algorithm updates that have impacted mobile search, it’s clear that Google is on a mission to further refine the mobile experience with this latest addition. While Google’s initiative to punish intrusive interstitial popups will put businesses under some strain to make necessary adjustments, it will result in significant long term gains. These include increased user engagement and visibility in the mobile search results pages.
Are you concerned about intrusive popups on your website? We’d like to hear from you.