Google is finally cracking down on websites that use intrusive popups

Here, we discuss Google's introduction of an algorithm that seeks and penalises 'interstitial-guilty' websites.

OK, maybe not cracking down in the literal manner, but there is some penalty by way of lower SERP positioning.

Google, in its constant push to provide the ideal web experience for the regular mobile internet user has introduced an algorithm, in its latest update, that seeks and penalises interstitial-guilty websites. What are interstitials? My exact thoughts the first time I heard them. Apparently, they are pop-ups that appear on a website immediately a user logs onto it.

Interstitials often sell or suggest something of value to the visitor. While there’s nothing wrong with having propositions on your site, truth be told, it can be annoying to see when you are searching for important information. Especially in the intrusive way they pop-up, sort of like a Jack-in-the-box (and I never liked those toys by the way).

Brendan, online expert at says, ‘Making a proposition to site visitors in the first few seconds interferes with their overall user experience. Often, they just close the box because they are not looking to buy at that time. It’s important to build a relationship before.’

Google’s mobile-friendly ‘war’ began in early 2015 when it began dropping sites it deemed not mobile-friendly from its result page. As a result, many sites have since amended their ways. In fact, up to 85 per cent of websites are now mobile friendly, so Google has decided to take out that label. The mobilegeddon fight has since moved on to other juicier areas, like the interstitial ads.

The crackdown on intrusive pop-ups

Since early, January, Google has been dropping websites with intrusive ads down its search ranking page. They have described it as any item that interferes with the main content, either before, or during the time the user accesses it.

They gave three instances of interstitials that make content access user-unfriendly.

  1. Displaying a pop-up that blocks the main content, either immediately the user lands on the page from search results, or while going through the page.
  2. Showing a separate interstitial which a user has to close before they can access the main content.
  3. Using a layout where the above-the-fold section of the webpage looks like the separate interstitial, but the main content is placed below the fold.

The reason behind these updates can be traced back to Google’s continuous push for a more mobile friendly user experience. According to Google, these intrusive interstitials give users an inadequate experience in comparison to other webpages that present the sought content immediately and without interruption.

I couldn’t agree more too. Twitter already had its response to this, with Rachel Howe, owner of Bite Sized Media, tweeting that Google had already started taking actions on the course. However, Google has also announced that not all interstitials will be punished. According to them, the following cases would not be affected by the new update, if used responsibly.

  • Interstitials that show up in response to a legal duty, such as use of cookies, or verification of age.
  • Login form fields on sites with content that is not publicly indexable. An example of this is private content such as email or unindexable content like credit card details.
  • Banners that use a fair amount of screen space that can easily be dismissed. For instance, Chrome’s and Safari’s app install banners that take up little screen space.

I’d like to discuss Google’s growing internet power, but before that, here are some tips to avoid falling foul of the update.

How to avoid getting caught in the interstitial penalty

  1. Ensure you get rid of any intrusive interstitials that activate the moment a user lands on your website (except it fall into the exemption categories).
  2. Google isn’t saying you should get rid of pop-ups entirely, just not before or during a reader’s content consumption. So, you may hold your pop-up till the visitor is done navigating your webpage- and present it less obtrusively.
  3. Study your analytics. Do people leave at an astounding rate- is your bounce rate high? If it is, find out if you can attribute it to pop-up ads.
  4. To find out more about how people interact with your pop-up (and whether it is worth having at all), consider acquiring a heat mapping program for this insight. Some examples include Virtual Web Optimizer and Hotjar.
  5. Without entirely ridding your website of pop-ups, you can redesign or reimagine more effective ways they could be displayed without interfering with users’ experience. For example, apply the native ad format in the content structure. Make it just as seamless and attractive as possible.
  6. Look into the design and the messaging your pop-ups. Do they fit with the web branding? Also, ensure you are giving visitors something of value in return for their email address.
  7. Finally, keep testing what you have. It is only through testing that you can optimise your website for better results. Are your current pop-ups working? Which methods convert better? Conducting A/B tests of these variations will give you a better insight for the way forward.

Google’s growing power

Now like I said, every period, webmasters and website owner are always on the look-out for Google’s latest updates. This is necessary because one new policy could send your hard-crafted SEO effort into the drain. But the question is, what do you think about the latest update? Is it okay to have Google playing ‘net design’ watchdog?

No doubt, these modifications benefit users’ mobile experience, but on the grander scale, should Google be telling site owners what their visitors think about their site experience? Or how they should design their web page…and penalising them for it?

Sometime in November 2015, Jeremy Stoppelman of Yelp argued that Google was making updates to protect its monopoly on search. His argument was based on the fact that, by asking sites to remove app download banners, it was trying to prevent users from downloading them. In his defence, Stoppelman said, ‘The more people downloaded apps, the less likely they were to use search engines,’ which is not far-fetched at all. After all, when I go directly to Yelp’s app, I don’t need Google to show me the address of a restaurant anymore.

As we continue to respond to the tide of updates from ‘almighty’ Google, let us pause to ask ourselves, Is Google getting too powerful?

See also: Google’s attack on keyword-focused domain names

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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