Last year, Google announced it would downrank web pages that obscure content when users arrive from search results on mobile. In September, Google said it would implement the changes in January 2017, and here we are.
Google doesn’t want to send mobile users to sites that offer a poor experience. They already have signals to alter the ranking of slow sites and sites that aren’t designed to function well on mobile. The move against elements that obscure content is another plank in Google’s strategy to nudge site owners towards prioritizing the mobile web experience.
Although the new signal is being called a penalty, it isn’t really. It’s one signal of page quality among hundreds Google uses to decide where a page should appear in mobile search results.
Google has been unusually clear about what will cause a page to take a ranking hit. It includes interstitials, pop-ups, and anything that pushes content off the screen. The goal is mobile web pages that immediately present the content users visited the site for in the first place.
As advertising revenues decline and users adopt ad-blockers, publishers are desperate for other sources of revenue, which often leads them to implement promotional strategies that annoy users.
Interstitials are a prime example. Interstitial pages are web pages presented to the visitor before they can move to their intended destination. The Forbes website is a famous example of interstitial pages used to display advertising. Many site owners also use interstitials to promote their mobile apps.
We’re all familiar with pop-ups, although today they’re more likely to be modal pop-ups than the windowed pop-ups of old. Pop-ups are an effective way to gather user information like email addresses — they’ve proven to have higher conversion rates than forms in sidebars and elsewhere on the page.
Also included is content that appears at the top of a page and pushes the other content below the fold. A number of prominent media sites allow the page to load, and then display what’s essentially a full-page ad by pushing the rest of the content off the screen, forcing users to scroll or click to close the ad.
For the most part, Google will downrank sites that obscure content when users transition from search results pages. Exit intent pop-ups — displayed when a user makes a sign they’re about to leave the page — don’t attract Google’s ire. But site owners should be careful. The wording of Google’s announcement implies that delayed pop-ups that obscure content while the visitor is reading or watching it are also verboten. Site owners are unlikely to get around the rules by waiting a few seconds and then showing a pop-up.
The new signal is applied on a per-page basis, which means publishers can be judicious about which pages they display popups on. They might choose to remove interstitials and pop-ups from particularly important or popular pages.