On-page SEO

SEO: Google’s Mobile Update to Impact Interstitials, Pop-ups

Google will update its mobile-friendly search algorithm in January 2017 to make smartphone content visibility a ranking signal. Sites that display “intrusive interstitials” — pop-up boxes, mainly — that impact usability for searchers on smartphones may find that their content does not perform as strongly as it used to in mobile search.

The update planned for January 2017 is being positioned as part two of Google’s “mobile-friendly update,” dubbed “Mobilegeddon” by the search community, that made waves in the spring of 2015. Part two targets intrusive interstitials that make it difficult for users to access the content they expect to see.

As with Mobilegeddon, Google announced this update ahead of time —before it is released in January — to give businesses an opportunity to adjust their strategies.

Google’s intent of the “mobile-friendly part two” update is to ensure that mobile searchers can easily access the content they expect to see when they land on a page from Google’s search results, as announced in the Google Webmaster Central Blog: “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.”

What qualifies as an intrusive interstitial by Google’s definition? Some examples, from Google, are shown below.

Examples of interstitials that make content less accessible. Source: Google Webmaster Central Blog.

Examples of interstitials that make content less accessible. Source: Google Webmaster Central Blog.

The line is a bit fuzzy, but interstitials that meet the following criteria may impact the mobile rankings for a page, according to Google’s Webmaster Central Blog.

  • Showing a pop-up that covers the main content, either immediately after users 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.

Keep in mind that the opinions of website owners and managers of what is and is not intrusive don’t apply here. Google owns the definition and the enforcement of that definition in the search rankings.

The Webmaster Central Blog also shows examples of interstitials that would be acceptable after the January update, and not affect mobile rankings.

Examples of interstitials that would be acceptable after the January update, and not affect mobile rankings. <em>Source: Google Webmaster Central Blog.</em>

Examples of interstitials that would be acceptable after the January update, and not affect mobile rankings. Source: Google Webmaster Central Blog.

The specifics given on Google’s bog are as follows.

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

So will part two be another Mobilegeddon? John Mueller, webmaster trends analyst at Google, explains the update more softly, giving the vague answer of “not really.” He also reminds us, “In general, no single factor will always trump all others for all kinds of queries. It really depends on the combination.”

It’s important to remember, though, that the update will impact only a subset of natural search performance. Mobile search rankings worldwide on Google only may be lowered starting in January 2017 based on the accessibility of content to smartphone users, specifically content obscured by intrusive interstitials that aren’t required by law.

That means that organic search performance on desktops will not be impacted. If the majority of your natural search traffic comes from desktop users, you may be tempted to brush this update off as unimportant to your business. But remember, poor performance today doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s low potential. It means that you may not be competing effectively for the mobile shoppers seeking your products via the search engines.

The update will also not impact sites that avoid large, intrusive interstitials for things like email collection, promotions, app installations, or display advertising.

The good news is that the rankings changes from the “mobile-friendly part two” update are executed in real time, meaning that each time Google crawls your site it can re-rank your pages according to new mobile-friendly changes you’ve made. This isn’t always the case; some updates are processed in batches outside of the real-time search results, resulting in periods of months between changes in the rankings.

Google developed a tool to help site owners test their sites’ mobile-friendliness. The Mobile-Friendly Tool takes about a minute to crawl through a page and analyze it, returning either a green light or a list of items that violate Google’s mobile guidelines. More information on your site’s mobile status is also available in Google’s Search Console in the Mobile Usability Tool.

It’s no secret that Google values the mobile search experience. Over half of all searches on Google come from smartphones, making mobile front and center for the search giant.

Remember, Google makes money selling advertising and information. But if the content that mobile searchers land on when they choose a page from the search results differs from what they were expecting — or if that content is obscured — then searchers have a poor experience and may defect to another search engine or go straight to their favorite information source. Google needs those searchers to sell to advertisers, and feed its core business.

Jill Kocher Brown
Jill Kocher Brown
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