Intrusive Mobile Interstitials: Definition and Impact

One of the greatest things that Google has led site owners to realize is that digital marketing success should focus on good user experience – good consumer experience – and that all other tactics can fall in line below that concept.  Case in point: their PageSpeed metrics have told us our goal isn’t just abject site speed, it’s about developing a site that makes users happy…  yes, a fast site does this but let’s also focus on making visitors happy by delivering “above the fold” content first.  Sites that comply with this consumer-first point of view are rewarded with increased organic rankings and conversion rates.

Google has made this consumer-centric point of view a centerpiece of their approach to a mobile-first world.  It’s a marketer’s job to deliver consumable, relevant and share-worthy content experiences to their customers through their small screen and often bandwidth-limited smartphones.   Accordingly, we’ve seen many of Google’s recent changes have pushed standards that will deliver a great mobile experience: their mobile-friendly ruleset, enhanced mobile product listing ads and increasing adoption of accelerated mobile page (“AMP”) listings are just a few examples.   On January 10, 2017, there will be a new entry into this list…

Intrusive Mobile Interstitials

Starting January 10, 2017, Google announced sites with intrusive interstitials will fail to be considered mobile friendly and, as a result, will not rank as highly in organic search results.   What is an “intrusive interstitial”?

  • a layer (usually a <DIV>) presented on top of a web page that covers the main content
    • immediately after the user navigates to a page from the search results
    • or automatically while they are looking through the page
    • that the user has to dismiss before accessing the main content
  • a web page that uses a layout where the above-the-fold portion of the page appears similar to a standalone interstitial, but the original content has been in-lined underneath the fold

The announcement is similar to Google’s mobile-friendly algorithm update around app install interstitials, which officially took effect in November of last year. At that time, app install ads were the only interstitial formats in Google’s line of attack:

Mobile web pages that show an app install interstitial that hides a significant amount of content on the transition from the search result page will no longer be considered mobile-friendly. This does not affect other types of interstitials. As an alternative to app install interstitials, browsers provide ways to promote an app that are more user-friendly.

Pop-ups Versus Interstitials

If the details around the newer mobile interstitial policy seem a little fuzzier than you’d like, you’re not alone. First, let’s start by establishing the somewhat-academic definition of a pop-up vs. an interstitial:

Pop-up or pop-up ads are generally defined as advertisements promoting a 3rd party that appear in an automatically-appearing, new window.  Google has said for some time that site owners should limit their use of this kind of distracting ad (mostly in the context of AdWords landing pages).  The use of true pop-ups and pop-unders is fairly rare in the sites we see today.

Interstitials or modal overlays that promote a brand’s own call to action (like a sale or email sign-up) are Google’s focus for this new policy but, interestingly, even they do use the phrase “pop up” to refer to same-page overlays as well.   The items in question appear in the same window as the “main” content and are usually displayed using a <DIV> or lightbox coding.

What is Considered “Intrusive”?

On the Webmaster Blog, Google provides these images to demonstrate interstitials that will fail their mobile-friendly test:

Mobile Interstitials

This makes perfect sense particularly as Google continues to place increasing emphasis on improving mobile search and site experiences.  Mobile devices by their nature are very personal to the user, and so for marketers, the ability to preserve that more intimate experience through appropriately timed and contextually relevant content is key to maintaining positive relationships. Mobile interstitials are not only intrusive, but they also demand attention from the end-user, rather than encouraging that person to interact on their own terms.  Unfortunately, while the content itself may be offering something of great value – like a specially personalized offer or a sign up for a useful newsletter – the delivery of that content may actually inhibit engagement all together.

Safe/Responsible Use of Interstitials

Google does provide some clear rules around techniques that don’t negatively impact the user experience and, therefore, will not be affected by the new signal. These include:

  • Interstitials that are intrusive but have to do with cookies, age restrictions or site login or access (we anticipate some false positives with these)
  • Interstitials that “use a reasonable about of (mobile) screen space” and are easily dismissible, such as their already-blessed app install banners.

For those of you that use homepage interstitials to promote sales or an email newsletter, the devil is in the details of what equates to a reasonable amount of screen space. That’s where Google provides no explicit guidance.  Aside from recommending removal of all of these type of (valuable) interstitials, the best guidance we can provide today is to use app install banner sizing as our guide – they generally take up around 20% of the mobile screen view.

How to Prepare

As with all Google updates, it’s wise to have a plan in place ahead of time to make any needed adjustments. We’d recommend creating an inventory of organic landing pages that use interstitials. For the landing pages that receive little or no Google organic traffic, it’s safe to leave them alone for now. However, those with Google organic traffic – like the home page or category pages – changes will need to be made:

  1. Opt for a two-stage interstitial – one where the interstitial is launched only when someone clicks a (small) call to action to activate it.
  2. For mobile browsers:
    • eliminate or render the interstitials to 20-25% of the screen view
    • if you want to get a little more page “real estate”, use a header image/code to achieve the interstitial’ s goal instead of a DIV or lightbox. With that said, be very careful to use no more than 50% of the screen view with this element to avoid Google’s prohibition on “using a layout where the above-the-fold portion of the page appears similar to a standalone interstitial
  3. For the desktop experience, there is no clear guidance other than older Google warnings against taking up significant above-the-fold real estate with advertisements.  This likely applies to desktop browser interstitials – keep them from being more than about a third of the screen size, or adopt a template that uses only a portion of the header for promotions.

I’m sure there will easier “workarounds” suggested – like putting the interstitial on a 7-10 second delay – but we don’t recommend that route, as Google mentioned that it considers pop ups that block main content “while they (users) are looking through the page” equally intrusive.

So there you have it: this tried-and-true mechanism marketers have used for years has become a target of Google’s mobile friendly algorithm. Is it for the best? Absolutely. But, for webmasters and brand owners, this may be another item that forces a conversation about what content is being placed in front of customers and whether it is, in fact, providing value to their experience.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Richard

    What do you think about a time delay on the interstitial page, say 60 seconds?

    • Clay Cazier

      I think there’s one giveaway that says they’re looking for that. In the blog post, they say this is an example of what they’re looking for: “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.” (my emphasis added)

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