NOTE: This post was originally published on August 30, 2016. We updated it on March 8, 2017, to include a new section that reviews the impact of Google’s interstitials update.
You know those obnoxious ads that block the main content of a website? They pop up immediately after you navigate to a page and unless you dismiss them, you can’t even access the site’s other content. Intrusive and irritating, these interstitial ads disrupt the user’s online experience and prevent them from promptly reaching the site. In blocking users’ exploration of the World Wide Web, interstitials are highly likely to elicit groans, sighs, and curses of frustration from users. Luckily, Google is groaning right along with us.
Just last week, on August 23, 2016, the company announced on the Webmaster Central Blog that they will soon begin punishing sites with interstitial ads. By targeting the obstructive and inappropriate use of interstitials, Google hopes to help users reach their online destinations with ease. Take that, annoying interstitial that I can’t figure out how to dismiss!
Google to Punish Sites with Interstitial Ads
First, before you get too excited about Google’s plan to reduce the number of intrusive interstitial ads online, we should note that this is just one of two upcoming SEO changes. Google will also remove the mobile-friendly label that previously helped users recognize mobile-friendly sites. Now that 85% of websites include readable text and appropriately spaced tap targets, Google finds the mobile-friendly label unnecessary. Removing it will reduce the clutter of search results pages.
Now to the good stuff!
What exactly is an interstitial?
The adjective interstitial means “of, forming, or occupying intervening spaces, especially very small spaces.” On the World Wide Web, an interstitial is a page that appears before the destined webpage and blocks the page’s main content. Although Google’s spiders can still index the underlying content on the page, the interstitial visually obscures the content.
Most interstitials are quite small, requiring only a portion of the screen space. However, when an interstitial pops up on a small tablet or cell phone, the barrier is especially noticeable and exasperating. All interstitials require the user to take action before they disappear, and many use a dismissing “x” in the corner that is so tiny, you will probably accidentally hit the space around it, causing a new tab or page to pop up. Interstitials can take the form of advertisements, forms, informational material, or login prompts, amongst other items.
Some interstitials are simply annoying, like unappealing ads. Others are important and necessary, like informational forms on alcohol websites that ask for the user’s age. Google will only penalize interstitials that negatively affect the user experience and make content less accessible.
Wait – Google won’t penalize some sites with interstitials?
That is correct. Google recognizes that some interstitials are important, unobtrusive, and necessary. Examples of these include the following:
- Login interstitials on sites with private content (like e-mail and sites that use a paywall)
- Banners that don’t take up much space and that the user can easily dismiss
Google considers these interstitials necessary, appropriate, and/or reasonable. However, other sites with interstitials will not fare well after the new changes go into effect. For example, Google will penalize (1) sites with pop-up interstitials that block site content, (2) obstructive interstitials that require dismissal, and (3) interstitials that cover the above-the-fold portion of a webpage and hide main content beneath the fold.
In addition, Google was already penalizing sites using interstitials that ask the user to install a mobile app. However, it previously used the mobile-friendly test to identify and punish these sites. Now, Google will identify these sites using the new Search signal.
How will Google punish sites with interstitials?
Sites that use frowned-upon interstitials may not rank as highly once Google’s new plan goes into effect. For most sites, this will not dramatically influence ranking results. However, when several sites are neck-in-neck, the presence of interstitials could give one site a downward nudge.
When will the plan go into effect?
Google’s plan to penalize sites with interstitial ads won’t go into effect until January 10, 2017. So if your site currently employs interstitial ads, you may wish to remove them in the next few months. Or if you planned to implement interstitials soon, you may want to rethink your strategy to avoid a penalty.
UPDATE: How has the interstitials update impacted websites?
It’s now March 8, 2017, which means that the algorithm update has been live for nearly two months. According to Search Engine Land, reporting on February 10, there has still not been a widespread impact. Many domains employing interstitials are ranking at the same place they did prior to the rollout of the algorithm.
One website that did take a hit is Pinterest.com. This online “catalog of ideas” uses interstitials in a variety of ways, most of which are not intrusive or unpleasant. For example, they sometimes hide content beneath a fold, requiring members to login using an interstitial. Just a week after the update arrived, Pinterest experienced a notable drop in mobile ranking visibility: 35% in the USA (source).
While the algorithm has not influenced most mobile rankings in a significant way, it has influenced the publishers of websites. Fearing that the algorithm would punish their websites, many publishers removed their mobile pop-ups and interstitials (source). Some did this before January 10, but many others, late to the game, did it after the rollout occurred. Clearly, these publishers were not aware of how little the algorithm has impacted SEO; they simply trusted early predictions. So regardless of its effect on SEO, for anyone who despises interstitials ads, this algorithm update provides a reason to celebrate.
However, just because the algorithm currently lacks leverage in most circumstances, that doesn’t mean Google won’t update it in the future to extend its coverage. Some websites have held onto their interstitials and others may bring them back now that they know it won’t damage their SEO. If Google strengthens the algorithm, those sites could take a big hit. So tread lightly, my friends.
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