As of January 10, 2017, Google officially rolled out a mobile search index update that devalues sites using obstructive mobile modal overlays and interstitial windows.
Google is constantly updating their mobile search index algorithm with a main goal in mind: to easily and effectively route users to the content they want. According to Google’s Webmasters announcement, if there is an intrusive interstitial (pop-up) that appears between users’ click into the search link and landing on the page content, Google will impose a ranking penalty. According to Google, intrusive interstitials visually obscure site content and physically obstruct user access to the content they expected, ultimately contributing to a poor user experience.
In the interest of user experience, this mobile search index algorithm shift may be considered a victory. But, for many mobile sites, interstitials are an important site element for driving engagement and conversions.
Before diving into the implications of this index shift, note that there are a few exceptions. If the mobile modal windows appear for legal obligation, such as age verification or for cookie usage, the site will not be devalued. If modal windows appear on site where the content is not publicly indexable (email, private accounts, content behind a paywall), the site rank will remain unaffected. Also note that this update is only for Google’s mobile search index, and therefore will not impact rankings on desktop sites.
Google points out an important exception to implementing interstitials on your mobile site: size. If you have call-to-action messages that are important to conversion and promotion, like newsletter sign-up, account creation, subscription enrollments or recommended app downloads, including this content as a banner won’t negatively impact your rankings – and better yet – may have a more positive impact on mobile site user experience than their intrusive interstitial counterparts.
Google includes illustrated examples of appropriate interstitials:
Photo via Google
Not all mobile interstitials are problematic. The penalty applies only to pages accessed directly from search results, or those which appear immediately when a visitor lands on the site page. In shaping your mobile marketing strategy, it’s important to understand that Google is not devaluing interstitials across your mobile site. So if a user clicks to your site via Google then navigates from one mobile site page to another, or if modal windows are strategically programmed to appear after the initial user landing, it’s a still perfectly acceptable method to engage site visitors.
To integrate interstitials into your mobile site design, consider strategically programming pop-ups based on specific user actions. Interstitial messages and calls-to-action (CTA) should complement the natural flow of user engagement, appearing at a time and place that ensures minimal disruption to user experience. Programming scroll-based pop-ups, which would appear when a user scrolls a percentage of the mobile page, or hyperlink triggered pop-ups, which would appear when a certain link or CTA is clicked, are two perfectly acceptable strategies to unobtrusively integrate notifications & messages into your mobile site. With this index update, you may also include mobile modal windows that appear upon exit intent.
Also consider where messages and CTAs appear on your mobile site. For example, visitors that land on your homepage may be more inclined to engage with newsletter opt-ins, subscriptions, or account creation. Consider including a slide-in at the bottom or top of the webpage, or embedding your CTA among content for a seamless user experience. In contrast, users in the shopping funnel may be interested in targeted, product-driven discount codes or promotions, like “10% off red dresses” when a user navigates to the “dresses” category landing page. Or, during the mobile checkout process, consider emphasizing free/discounted shipping offerings, like minimum order value requirements or shipping-incentivized sign ups.
But, these strategies aren’t proposed as ways to “cheat the system”. Remember that Google’s main intention is to maximize user experience, and in our similar efforts to provide the best ecommerce experience to customers, bombarding users with full page interstitials may prove counterproductive. So when designing and placing your update-complaint modal windows, consider popups, slide-ins, or banners that take up no more than 25% of the mobile screen. You may also want to consider using an onsite messaging bar across pages, where you could deliver marketing content without interfering with general content accessibility.
Pre-update mobile pop-ups and intrusive interstitials tended to be difficult to dismiss, and would invasively obscure the content users came looking for. On the whole, ecommerce retailers will have to get targeted & creative with interstitial messaging format, timing, and placement to promote site engagement and conversions. When integrated thoughtfully, retailers can still effectively communicate with customers without sacrificing the overall mobile site experience.