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Google's Intrusive Interstitial Penalty - What you need to know

In August 2016, Google announced they would be introducing a penalty that impacts websites that display ‘intrusive interstitials’ on mobile devices from January 10th, 2017. This update aims to improve user experience for users on mobile devices and will target websites that have interstitials that prevent a user from easily accessing the underlying content.

Interstitials, or popups, are commonly used to encourage users to sign up to a newsletter and to promote offers, and while these may be beneficial from a marketing perspective, they can often lead to a poorer user experience. Google stated that this type of interstitial ‘can be problematic on mobile devices where screens are often smaller’.

Google’s John Mueller and Gary lllyes have both confirmed that this penalty is now being rolled out.

Who will be impacted?

This update impacts pages where content is not easily accessible to a user on a mobile device due to an interstitial, and this can result in the page not ranking as high in the mobile search results. It only impacts interstitials that are present when a person clicks from Google’s mobile search results to your website, and it does not affect pages after the first click, so if you have an interstitial that is set to appear after a user clicks through to second page, this update won’t impact it. Your desktop interstitials will also not be impacted. This update will become increasingly important when Google have rolled out their mobile-first index.

Google have given the following 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 every site will be affected by the penalty, there are some exceptions, such as:

  • A popup that is a response to a legal obligation, e.g. for cookie usage or age verification
  • Login dialogs where content is not publicly available, e.g. content that is behind a paywall
  • Banners that use a reasonable amount of screen space, e.g. app install banners used by Safari and Chrome

Is this the same as the App Install Interstitial Penalty?

Previous to this update, Google also announced in November 2015 that webpages with an app install interstitial would no longer be considered mobile-friendly, and as a result, these pages would no longer be prominently displayed in Google’s mobile search results.

Google have now stated:

We previously explored a signal that checked for interstitials that ask a user to install a mobile app. As we continued our development efforts, we saw the need to broaden our focus to interstitials more generally. Accordingly, to avoid duplication in our signals, we've removed the check for app-install interstitials from the mobile-friendly test and have incorporated it into this new signal in Search.

What should you do?

If you are currently serving a full page popup or intrusive interstitial that prevents your users from easily accessing content on mobile devices, then there are a few solutions you can implement to avoid a potential penalty and drop in rankings.

Banner Interstitial

Redesign your interstitial so that it can placed in a banner that takes up a reasonable amount of screen space and that is easily dismissible, rather than having a full-page popup.

Second Page

This penalty will only impact pages that users initially land on from the search results, Google are not looking to penalise all pages with interstitials on your site. So, you can set up the interstitial to appear when a user clicks through to another page on your website, even if this is a full-page popup.

Exit Intent

Popups that are triggered by exit intent are still allowed by Google. In a Google hangout video filmed shortly after the penalty was announced, John Mueller explained that exit intent popups would be exempt. He stated:

At the moment those wouldn't count. What we're looking for is really interstitials that show up on the interaction between the search click and going through the page and seeing the content. So that's kind of the the place we're looking for those interstitials. What you do afterwards like if someone clicks on stuff within your website or closes the tab or something like that then that's kind of between you and the user.

So, if you want to carry on displaying pop-ups on your website then any of the above solutions can help you avoid being hit by this penalty.