What Publishers Should Do About Google’s New Interstitial Penalty
Google is serious about improving the mobile web browsing experience. You’re probably already familiar with their AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) initiative to promote fast-loading web pages on mobile devices.
And now, as of January 10, Google is penalizing sites that show “intrusive interstitials” to users of mobile devices. This change impacts all publishers that use pop-ups, welcome ads, roadblock ads, welcome mats, push-down ads, etc. — interstitials by any other name.
It doesn’t matter if the interstitial is a paid ad position or used to build your own email list. Google considers it to be intrusive if:
- It covers your content, either immediately or while a visitor scrolls down the page,
- A visitor must dismiss it to see your content.
- The bulk of the page is an inline interstitial and a visitor must scroll past it to see the content.
But for most publishers, interstitials are a critical part of our revenue and audience development strategy. What are we supposed to do now? Remove them from our sites?
Don’t Let Google’s Interstitial Policy Scare You
I’ll admit that on the surface, this new Google change seems like a huge deal. After all, you’ll often hear that nearly 64% of all searches are done on Google and 60% of those searches are from mobile devices.
But before you do anything rash — like removing all interstitials from your site — you need to put the new policy into context and measure its real impact versus the ROI of your interstitials.
First, for many publishers, Google’s change may only affect a small portion of your traffic. Let’s say, for example, that your site has 100,000 sessions per month (sessions, not pageviews), that Google organic search accounts for 30% of those sessions, and that 50% of those sessions are from mobile devices.
In this scenario, Google’s change only affects 15% of your total sessions. Is it worth throwing away the ROI you get from 85% of your site’s visitors for the sake of the other 15%? This scenario is not that uncommon among publishers, so before making any changes, make sure you look at your own analytics.
Second, remember that even in its own announcement, Google said that interstitials are only one of hundreds of signals used to rank its search results. “The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal, so a page may still rank highly if it has great, relevant content.” Good content and solid SEO practices can far outweigh any negative points you may get from Google for using interstitials.
You Have Other Options for Interstitials
The use of interstitials on your site doesn’t have to be and all or nothing decision. You have a wide variety of options when it comes to using interstitials for revenue or to drive email registration.
- This change only affects mobile, so one option is to only turn off interstitials for visitors on mobile devices, but keep them for desktop visitors.
- You can place the interstitial further down embedded as part of the page. Just don’t put the interstitial at the top of the page so that people must scroll past it to get to your content.
- You can use floating bars or “smart bars” at the top or bottom of the page. These bars take only a small portion of the screen on mobile and are not penalized.
- You can use an exit pop … an interstitial that opens after a person chooses to leave the page instead of before the person can see the content.
- You can use a slide-in or scroll box that appears after a certain percentage of the page has been read.
- You can show the interstitial on the second page of a user visit instead of the first page.
Google claims that it is doing all of this to “make finding content easier for users.” Whether you believe that or not, don’t be too quick to sacrifice your revenue and audience development for this new change. Be smart, look at your own analytics, and examine your options. If you do it right, you’ll find the right balance between SEO, good user experience, and ROI.
Eric Shanfelt is the founding partner of Nearview Media, a consulting firm that helps publishers with their digital revenue, audience and platform development. Eric is a 25-year digital media veteran and has been the Chief Digital Officer for several large publishing companies. You can reach Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org.