Have you ever tried to read an article on your phone while dodging an onslaught of pop-ups? What about tapping the first Google result and being greeted with a full-page advert that pretty much obscures the entire page? Yeah, we’ve all been there, and we all find it equally as irritating – so what is actually being done to stop it?

At the start of 2017, having identified this dilemma and listened to the concerns of users, Google began penalising sites with so-called ‘intrusive interstitials’ by reducing their influence in mobile search results. That’s annoying pop ups to me and you. As Google put it: “pages where content is not easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search results may not rank as highly.” Essentially, since mobile screens are smaller than desktop screens, interstitials designed for the latter are a lot more disruptive to the user’s experience of a page when displayed on the former, often blocking the main content altogether (more on this below). This is a big problem for Google considering how visible such pages can be within their mobile search results pages. Therefore, the main aim of this update is to ensure that users get the content they expect upon tapping on a search result instead of large adverts about shoes – a cause that we can all no doubt get behind!

What are intrusive interstitials?

An intrusive interstitial can be defined as extraneous content (such as pop-ups, surveys and adverts) on a webpage that blocks the content initially sought out by the user (such as articles, videos and apps). Webmasters who haven’t yet optimised their sites for mobile use might be worried about receiving an intrusive interstitial penalty, as might digital advertisers who use interstitials to secure leads for their clients.

So in the interest of clearing up any confusion, it’s important to understand what counts as an intrusive interstitial by Google’s standards, and which interstitials are acceptable by those same standards (yes, not all interstitials are necessarily a bad thing). According to Google, the interstitials which are penalised by the update take on three main forms, each of which makes the content on a page less accessible on mobile devices:

  • Pop-up interstitials that appear over a page’s content and stay there until manually dismissed by the user. These tend to show up either immediately after a page loads, or while the user is scrolling through a page.
    • Standalone interstitials that appear to users when then navigate to a page from the Google search results. These present themselves as full-screen pages that have to be ‘skipped’ in order for the user to access any of the content. Ahem… Forbes.
    • Above-the-fold interstitials that appear at the top of a page, with the content peeking out from underneath the fold. These usually cover most, if not all of the screen, requiring the user to scroll down to get to the content.

Generally speaking, the central features of an intrusive interstitial include: appearing without any prompt from the user; closing only when manually dismissed by the user; and obscuring most of the page on which they feature. In other words: very annoying stuff! Still, there are some cases where an interstitial won’t be penalised by Google:

  • Legal interstitials that must be shown as a matter of necessity i.e. age verification forms.
  • Login interstitials that block unindexed content inaccesible through search i.e. paywalls.
  • Banner interstitials that take up only a small amount of space at the top of a page.

If an interstitial is not intrusive and doesn’t completely block out the page’s content, or if an interstitial is intrusive but must be displayed in order to satisfy a legal obligation or block private content, then they will most likely not be penalised as an intrusive interstitial.

Note: for handy images that clearly show the differences between these interstitials, check out Google’s original announcement on the Webmaster Central Blog.

Fighting for great mobile user experience

To understand the reasoning behind this penalty, we need to look at the problem from Google’s perspective. Intrusive interstitials aren’t just damaging to the user’s experience of particular webpages, but also to their experience of the search engine they used to find those pages. As such, it is in Google’s best interest to crack down on sites that obfuscate relevant content with display ads, pop-ups, dialog boxes, and other irritants. After all, a search engine should be offering up only the most valuable of results to users, not setting them up for a user experience defined by frustration!

So contrary to the fears of many webmasters and advertisers, this update isn’t just a case of Google ‘banning pop-ups’. Pop-ups are always going to be around, and Google has no desire to hit them with a complete and total ban (for one thing, they only have the power to influence rankings, not the content of a webpage). Rather, this penalty is about improving the experience of users browsing through Google on their mobile devices. It’s another example of Google putting the user’s needs at the very top of their priorities. But user experience is just one part of the reasoning: add to this the increased need for mobile-friendly webpages and you have a very important change on your hands.

The great mobile migration

For a while now, the internet has been playing catch up with the increased use of mobile internet for purposes such as shopping, banking, searching and social media. In 2016, we saw the news that mobile browsing had overtaken desktop browsing for the first time ever, with the latter’s share of traffic decreasing to 48.7%. And yet there are still many who have yet to see the value in mobile accessibility, which results in many websites that aren’t properly developed or designed to be used on a mobile device.

This problem spreads to the use of interstitials on web pages, which quite often don’t properly translate from desktop displays to mobile displays. When viewing pages on a desktop browser, the interstitials in question tend not to cover the entire page and users can work around them to an extent. But screens are a lot smaller on mobile, so interstitials are far more intrusive to user experience than they would be on desktop.

The intrusive interstitial penalty is a part of Google’s big push for mobile accessibility, preceded by updates such as #mobilegeddon back in 2015 and more recently the introduction of Mobile-First Indexing. So just to make it very clear: Google are very serious about mobile search, and they will continue to make it as functional and widespread as possible with more and more updates. The intrusive interstitial penalty is just another chapter within this particularly long book.

Why should you care?

If you’re a webmaster or advertiser and you haven’t gotten around to optimising your website for mobile by now, you certainly should – not just to keep your rankings up and maintain your visibility, but also to make mobile users’ experience of your site as valuable as possible. If you’re still unconvinced as to the benefit of mobile search and don’t see the point of trying to avoid this penalty, let me remind you that more searches take place on mobile than any other device, and 94% of all global search traffic belongs to Google.

While mobile accessibility is an important move for in its own right, hopefully the intrusive interstitial penalty just gives you that extra bit of incentive to hop on the bandwagon.