As I’m sure you’re already aware, mobile is fast becoming the platform of choice for content consumption and search. Publishers have received the message loud and clear. In a recent blog post, Google announced that the majority of mobile searches return results that it considers mobile-friendly.
However, the news isn’t all good. The search giant is concerned that many sites are using interstitial advertising and modal popups to hijack users’ attention as soon as they land on a page.
In response, Google is once again pulling out its search-ranking stick to punish sites that provide a poor experience on mobile. From next January, sites that immediately obscure content with interstitials and popups will do worse in the SERPs than sites that don’t.
“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.”
Those who argue that popups and interstitials don’t degrade user experience are unlikely to find many who agree with them. Users who click on a link in the SERPs are almost certainly not interested in a full-page advert or an email signup form. They want the content and they want it immediately. Presumably, Google has metrics that indicate users who find that content is blocked when they arrive at a site don’t stick around for long.
Popups are especially annoying on mobile, where it’s often difficult to find or activate the link to close the popup or move to the content page.
However, popups and interstitials have proven an effective technique for publishers. Content-obscuring elements generate higher conversion rates than subtle advertising that is easily ignored — although some would argue that such conversions are of a low value.
There are some exceptions to Google’s disapproval of popups and interstitials: cookie permission popups, legal age warnings, and other legally required messages will not attract punishment.
It’s also worth mentioning that Google is fine with app install ads and banners that don’t obscure content or consume the entirety of the above-the-fold area of a page.
Furthermore, Google stresses that the signal will apply to pages “where content is not easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search results”. Many sites track mouse movement to show popups when it appears a user is about to navigate away from the page, or use scroll tracking to display popups when a user has scrolled to the end of a page. It seems Google doesn’t have a problem with these techniques, just those that immediately obscure content when the user clicks from the SERPs.
Ultimately, whether to follow Google’s “advice” remains the decision of site owners. The new negative ranking signal will be one signal among hundreds. A site with great content that would otherwise rank high for a query isn’t likely to be substantially impacted, all else being equal.