People have been saying “SEO is dead” every since SEO started. But this time, could it be different?
Look at what’s happened recently. Google unleashed RankBrain, a machine learning algorithm shift. Keyword research seems to be going the way of the Model T. Artificial intelligence is overtaking the world of SEO. And yet, SEO is not dead. But it is changing in dramatic ways.
In Google’s never-ending quest to provide its users with the best possible search results, it will be executing yet another algorithm update in the near future. According to the Google Webmaster Central Blog, “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.”
If you’re not an SEO nerd, this basically means that sites with mobile popups—or what Google calls “interstitials”—may be penalized. Any sort of potential penalty obviously doesn’t bode well for your website, so it’s important to understand the details of this impending update and whether you’re likely to be affected.
Here is what you need to know to make sure you’re not adversely impacted.
What are interstitials?
First things first. Just what is Google talking about when it refers to interstitials?
The formal interstitial definition from Tech Target is:
“An interstitial (something ‘in between’) is a page that is inserted in the normal flow of editorial content structure on a website for the purpose of advertising or promotion.”
You’ve seen these before, right? You’re tap-tapping along, and then boom!—a popup.
Unlike other types of ads, e.g., banner ads, interstitials require the user to manually click/tap on the ad or click/tap on the “x” (close) button. You’re basically prevented from exploring a website until you comply and click on a link or “x”. This is obviously disruptive, and many people (including Google) feel that it detracts from the overall user experience.
Here are three different examples Google specifically mentions that make content less accessible:
Google also provides some examples of techniques that make content less accessible to a user:
- “Showing a popup that covers the main content, either immediately after the user navigates to a page from the search results, or while they are looking through the page.”
- “Displaying a standalone interstitial that the user has to dismiss before accessing the main content.”
- “Using a layout where the above-the-fold portion of the page appears similar to a standalone interstitial, but the original content has been inlined underneath the fold.”
Not everything that seems like an interstitial is actually an interstitial. Cookie permissions, age verification, and small banners are all okay in Google’s eyes.
A mixed reaction
I think it’s fair to say most of search engine users will be happy about this update. They’ll encounter fewer annoyances when they access content. But as can be expected, not everyone is thrilled.
As you might imagine, there are plenty of publishers who feel that this will negatively impact their conversion rates on products/services/offers.
Here’s a tweet from Skift CEO, Rafat Ali, voicing his dismay:
But regardless of what public opinion may be, this update will happen on January 10, 2017. So love it or hate it, you’ll need to be aware of the potential repercussions of having interstitials on your website.
Google’s logic behind this move
As you probably already know, Google has been placing an emphasis on mobile friendliness for some time. And it’s easy to see why.
With 80 percent of Internet users owning smartphones and 47 percent owning tablets, Google most definitely needs to cater to these users if it wants to remain the global juggernaut it is today.
Because mobile use actually surpassed desktop use in 2015, Google has been putting an increasing priority on optimizing the mobile experience.
Google’s first major mobile-friendly update (also known as “Mobilegeddon”) occurred on April 21, 2015, and there’s been no looking back. They even created the mobile-friendly test, where you can determine whether your pages conform to the new standard and where you can receive input on how you can improve in this area.
Since then, they’ve steadily cracked down on websites that fail to provide a favorable experience to mobile users, and this next update is just another part of this progression.
Are interstitials hurting your SEO?
Up until January 10, 2017, having interstitials on your website shouldn’t have any impact on your rankings, however, while it remains to be seen just how big of an impact this update will be, it’s safe to say it’s not going to do your SEO any favors if you’re still using interstitials.
I think this update is somewhat of a wake-up call, telling us we need to focus more on the user and find ways to promote our offers without being disruptive.
What do I need to do to prevent penalties?
In my opinion, it’s best to err on the side of caution in situations like these. The last thing you want is for your rankings to take a major hit because of interstitials.
I would recommend removing any popups or intrusive ads at least for the time being until the dust settles. If using interstitials has been a key piece of your revenue model, I would suggest considering alternative options, such as replacing a popup with a banner ad.
According to Google, one technique that won’t be affected by the new signal is “banners that use a reasonable amount of screen space and are easily dismissible. For example, the app install banners provided by Safari and Chrome are examples of banners that use a reasonable amount of screen space.”
Usually, the ideal positioning for a banner ad is at the top of the screen, where it’s very noticeable but doesn’t detract from the user experience. You can still use a considerable amount of screen space to grab the attention of visitors as long as it’s not overly intrusive. When done correctly, a well-placed banner ad should still generate a good number of clicks and ensure that visitors are aware of your offers.
Another possibility is a stationary sidebar ad. These tend to work well because they’re still noticeable even after a visitor scrolls down your site. Even when it’s below the fold, a sidebar ad will continue to appear, increasing your chances of getting clicks.
But what if I absolutely have to use popups?
If you feel like skipping popups altogether is going to kill your conversions, there is a third option: the time-driven popup.
Such a popup ad will only appear after a visitor has been on your site for a certain amount of time and explored your content to some extent. Unlike a regular popup, where a visitor is hit instantaneously after arriving on your site, this delayed popup ensures they have at least some level of interest and be more open to an offer.
However, I would still exercise caution with this technique because there is the potential for penalties.
A final note
It’s important to note that there are certain legal-centric interstitials that won’t be adversely affected. For example, an age verification popup won’t be impacted:
Google also makes one important point in relation to the new algorithm update:
“Remember, this new signal is just one of hundreds of signals that are used in ranking. The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal, so a page may still rank highly if it has great, relevant content.”
Translation: if you’ve got epic content that’s highly relevant to what the user is searching for, you probably won’t take that big of a hit even if your site has interstitials.
This upcoming update from Google is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it should create a better overall user experience (UX) so that search engine users can explore a site’s content without being barraged with intrusive popup ads. A better UX is always a good thing.
On the other hand, this can really hurt conversion rates of some businesses. If one of your primary ways of getting clicks and driving revenue has been through interstitials, this can put you in a difficult position. In this case, you’ll need to come up with another strategy for funneling traffic to the desired location.
By making the appropriate changes and striving to create a streamlined, distraction-free user experience, you can avoid penalties and keep the leads coming in.