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Google’s Mobile Interstitials Penalty – How to Avoid It
Posted by Cameron Francis on April 07, 2017 in Google,Mobile

Google Mobile Interstitials Penalty

Google has rolled out a ranking penalty intended to take mobile user experience a notch higher.

Starting January 10, 2017; Google is cracking down on sites that display intrusive interstitials on mobile devices.

Intrusive interstitials, according to Google, include:

1. Popups that cover the main content that a user is trying to access, either immediately after the user navigates to a given page from Google’s search results, or while the user is looking through the page.

2.  Standalone interstitials that the user has to dismiss before he or she can access the main content.

 

Interstitials often grey out the content beneath them, forcing you to carefully click the small “x” to opt out of the popup.

If you’ve bumped into these interstitials covering your entire screen then you know there’s nothing fun about it.

Landing on such a page can be very frustrating – and Google has noticed it. Going forward, any site that displays such content on their mobile web pages, instead of what the user expects to see, immediately will “not rank as highly.”

In practice, such sites encroach upon Google’s mission to provide its users with the most relevant and useful information in the best possible way.

The tech giant is also driving its emphasis on the mobile search experience with this new ranking penalty. It has continuously shifted toward a more mobile-friendly internet and it only makes sense.

Mobile searches have now surpassed desktop.

Roughly 56 per cent of internet traffic to top sites comes from mobile devices, according to SimilarWeb’s 2015 report on the state of the Mobile Web.

Focusing on providing the best user experience on mobile is the sensible thing for Google to do. And Google’s mobile interstitials penalty wouldn’t have come at a better time.

 

What’s targeted by the interstitials penalty?

Not all interstitials are being hunted by Google’s new mobile algorithm. Specifically, the search giant is interested in ads that “can be problematic on mobile devices where screens are often smaller.”

The types of interstitials considered problematic include:

  • Popups that cover the main content, either immediately after the user navigates to a page from the search results, or while they are looking through the page.
  • Standalone interstitials that the user has to dismiss before accessing the main content.
  • Layouts where the above-the-fold portion of the page appears similar to a standalone interstitial, hiding the main content underneath the fold.  

Google uses these images to explain what problematic popups and interstitials are.

popups and interstitials

By implication, this penalty applies only to intrusive interstitials that happen directly after navigating to a specific page from a Google mobile search result.

Pages after that are therefore exempt from this penalty. You could therefore have an “intrusive interstitial” coming up later in the user’s click path on your mobile web page without experiencing reduced ranking.

 

Exemptions to the rule

Google has offered a couple of exemptions to the penalty. They recommend the use of interstitials that are easy to dismiss and take up only a reasonable amount of mobile screen space.

The tech magnate gave the app install banners provided by Chrome and Safari as examples of banners that take up a reasonable amount of screen space.

If you are legally obligated to obtain consent to place cookies on a user’s device before they can use the site, you are allowed to do so without being flagged for the penalty. The same exemption applies to sites that are required to verify a visitor’s age before they can access the site’s content.

The last exemption to the rule applies to sites whose content is behind a paywall, and requires users to sign in to view them.

Here are images to illustrate the exemptions under these new mobile search guidelines.

new mobile search guidelines

 

Alternative ways to avoid the Mobile Interstitials Penalty

Google has made this penalty easy to avoid. There are a number of things you can do to guarantee your site’s mobile ranking will remain intact.

1. Think like Google

This is by far the easiest way to avoid the mobile pop-up and interstitial penalty. The tech company aims to make the internet easier to browse, more accessible, honest and intuitive – and mobile browsers are central to this strategy.

On the bright side, Google has made it clear what it considers unacceptable and what is okay.

Despite how much your subjectivities may affect your interpretation of the size of problematic and unproblematic banner ads, there’s a yardstick you can use to measure what’s acceptable under the new guidelines.

Keeping these guidelines in mind will keep your mobile web pages safely under Google’s radar.

Thinking like Google includes making sure to have only popups that serve a real, authentic purpose.

2. Make content on mobile readily available

Google is looking to improve the mobile search experience. It says “pages where content is not easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search results may not rank as highly.”

To help yourself, start helping the search giant. Make your content easily accessible to mobile users.

3. Display intrusive interstitials only on desktop

Now that the focus is on mobile, you don’t have to risk getting flagged by the search engine. The penalty applies only to intrusive interstitials on the mobile platform. This means that if you have to use this type of ads, place them on desktop.

Google is only concerned about mobile devices which often have smaller screen sizes. So you can still safely use your display targeting rules in your interstitial or popup program as long as you show them only on the larger screens.

For mobile devices, shorten your messages and use slide ins or banners instead. The bottom line is, you don’t really have to cut intrusive interstitials out of your marketing strategy altogether.

You only need to do away with them on your website’s mobile pages.

4. Look into new strategies

Ad publishers have to adapt or risk losing organic search traffic. The only way out is to look into new strategies for the mobile platform.

Revenue may be severely affected at first, but once you adapt new strategies, with time they are likely to provide results. It’s inevitable that ad publishers change their revenue model and figure out new ways to keep the dollars coming in without disrupting mobile user experience.

5. Shift from ads to content marketing

Having learned that Google’s aim for imposing the interstitials penalty is to make content more accessible, use that knowledge to your advantage.

Develop a content marketing strategy to replace the ad strategy for marketing your products and services on mobile.

Mobile use is on the rise, and a content marketing strategy targeted to mobile users may be a great source of revenue. Be sure to observe the rules of content marketing, chiefly consistency.

Creating relevant content and distributing it consistently is a powerful way to attract users and eliminates the need for a hard selling.

Content can include round-ups, blog posts, guides, infographics and videos that educate your audience about your business, or how to use a product or service.

High quality content will entice your prospects to try out your offerings. And they won’t go farther than your business to buy the product.

6. Maintain your mobile friendly practices

With all the fuss about the intrusive interstitials penalty, you might have missed or overlooked the first and equally important part of the announcement: Google will no longer display the “mobile-friendly” label alongside your content in search results.

It’s the same for everyone. The tech giant is removing the label for all sites and not you alone.

This decision might have something to do with the fact that more than 85 per cent of all pages in mobile search results currently meet the criteria. So it isn’t that necessary to have the label displayed.

It is crucial for you to remain mobile friendly. It matters for your audience and as such it matters for Google. And what matters for the search engine determines your ranking.

7. Review your WordPress plugins

If you are using a WordPress Plugin to display pop up messages for various purposes such as membership offers, coupons, promotions or anything else, you’ll want to check to ensure that the plugin does not create issues that can derail these new requirements.

Specifically, review everything to do with sizes and inlining or greying out of content for the user. Once that is done, you can be sure to avoid getting penalised.

Remaining in compliance with the search engine’s new guidelines may be something as simple as adjusting sizes by use of the very plugin settings provided. Let content be the focus of your every page.

8. Retain your page-to-page interstitials

Google made it known that it won’t be penalising webmasters for any page-to-page interstitials. The idea is not to penalise every page that has interstitials. Rather, only those that users land on from search results attract the penalty.

So be smart. If you want to continue displaying interstitials then bring them up when a user navigates from one of your mobile pages to another.

9. Create high quality content

Content quality has always been a critical ranking factor. And Google reminds that interstitials are just one of the parameters they use to rank content.

If it determines that your content is highly relevant to the search, the page may still be served in search results even if it contains an intrusive interstitial.

Caveat: this is a long shot. Because you won’t always have the yardstick to determine how many other competing sites contain equally relevant content.

The best thing to do is stay compliant with the guidelines.

10. Display interstitials triggered by exit intent

 

If they are important to your marketing strategy, you may continue to display interstitials that are triggered by a user’s exit intent. Even if they are in the very page the user lands on after Google’s search engine results page, you are unlikely to be penalised for it.

Google’s main concern is for the user to see and interact with the content they expect immediately when they navigate to that page. What comes after that can safely pass as non-intrusive.

According to Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller, any interstitials that are triggered by a user’s exit intent “wouldn’t count” at the moment.

What they’re looking for is “interstitials that show up on the interaction between the search click and going through the page and seeing the content…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.”

Conclusion

Google has a mission to create an honest, organised and useful internet where information is universally accessible to everyone who needs it. So it keeps working on ways to improve the search experience for its users.

Introducing penalties for pages with intrusive interstitials is just one way of helping users find the content they need without getting bombarded by annoying interstitials and pop-ups.

While as an ad publisher you may require time to make the inevitable adjustments, no doubt you’ll see the benefits at the end. You might begin to realise on-site time, reduced bounce rates and even more page views for every visit. Meanwhile sit tight.

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Cameron Francis

Co-Founder

Cameron Francis is the CoFounder & Managing Director of ETRAFFIC, Melbourne's #1 Creative & Digital Marketing Agency. For over a decade Cameron has been providing growth marketing and digital strategies for over 2,000 small businesses, start-ups & entrepreneurs around the country.
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