Google to 'Not Rank as Highly' Sites With Pop-ups That Hinder Content

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Google announced this week that they are coming after the "intrusive interstitial." Starting Jan. 10, 2017, pages where content is "not easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search results"—due to a pop-up interstitial—"may not rank as highly."

Here are the three types of interstitials that Google will target:

  • 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.

The changes coincide with some of what I wrote about Tuesday—improving the quality of the customer experience on mobile devices. "Pages that show intrusive interstitials provide a poorer experience to users than other pages where content is immediately accessible," wrote Doantam Phan, Google product manager, on their Google Webmaster Central Blog. "This can be problematic on mobile devices where screens are often smaller."

Phan continued: "Although the majority of pages now have text and content on the page that is readable without zooming, we've recently seen many examples where these pages show intrusive interstitials to users. While the underlying content is present on the page and available to be indexed by Google, content may be visually obscured by an interstitial. This can frustrate users because they are unable to easily access the content that they were expecting when they tapped on the search result."

Writing on the New York Magazine website, Brian Feldman said that this could target the prolific "Sign Up for Our Newsletter" pop-ups that publishers often use. He also noted the common refrain, such as "No, I don't want smart takes on tech," that the user must click on to close the interstitial.  "According to people in the know, this passive-aggression is effective," Feldman wrote. "Who doesn't want smart takes on tech...?"

Sites using standalone interstitials or ones "showing a popup that covers the main content" will be lowered in search rankings. But not all interstitials will be affected. Here are examples of techniques that, used responsibly, would not be affected by the new signal:

  • Login dialogs on sites where content is not publicly indexable. This would include private content such as email or unindexable content that is behind a paywall.
  • Banners that use a reasonable amount of screen space and are easily dismissible—for example, the app install banners provided by Safari and Chrome.
  • Interstitials that appear to be in response to a legal obligation, such as for cookie usage or for age verification.

In addition to the crackdown on interstitials, Google also announced that their "mobile-friendly" label in search results will be removed. In November 2014, Google started labeling sites as "mobile-friendly" to denote which pages are optimized for mobile devices. In February 2015, Google laid out plans to unveil mobile ranking changes in April 2015, and then in March 2016, it promised to start ranking "mobile-friendly" sites even higher in May.

But now they feel that the impact has been made, and the label is no longer needed. Google says 85% "of all pages in the mobile search results now meet this criteria and show the mobile-friendly label." So the label is going away "to keep search results uncluttered." But the mobile-friendly criteria will continue to be a ranking signal.

A webpage is considered "mobile-friendly" if it meets the following criteria, as detected in real time by Googlebot:

  • Avoids software that is not common on mobile devices, like Flash.
  • Uses text that is readable without zooming.
  • Sizes content to the screen so users don't have to scroll horizontally or zoom.
  • Places links far enough apart so that the correct one can be easily tapped.
"We'll continue providing the mobile usability report in Search Console and the mobile-friendly test to help webmasters evaluate the effect of the mobile-friendly signal on their pages," Phan wrote.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…