Google confirms new mobile interstitial penalty is now live

Posted by Rebecca Appleton on 18 Jan, 2017
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The penalty targets intrusive mobile interstitials, meaning sites that use that type of advert within the mobile versions of their site could see themselves tumbling down the search results pages.

Google first indicated its intention to tackle the problem six months ago, meaning webmasters had quite a lengthy heads-up before the sanctions were rolled out last week.

The new interstitial penalty specifically targets those sites that make the transition from the mobile search results to the desired page problematic for users in one of three ways:

  1. By displaying a pop up on the landing page that opens immediately after the user clicks through or as they are scrolling through the page, obscuring the main content.
  2. Displaying an interstitial that must be dismissed before the user can arrive at the desired landing page after clicking through.
  3. Using a page layout which means the above-the-fold portion of the page appears similar to a standalone interstitial, but the original content has been inlined underneath the fold.

Each of these three scenarios can cause problems for the user and make the experience fragmented, by forcing an action to dismiss the ad or, by having the ad cover the content the user actually wishes to see. On the smaller screen of a mobile device, the interstitial ad cannot be as easily dismissed as a pop-up window could on a desktop computer, leading to a fractured and frustrating experience for mobile web users.

The penalty won’t target all interstitial ads and Google has outlined three exceptions which can be used without fear of falling rankings when executed in a responsible and sensible manner:

  1. Cookies – a cookie policy or other legal requirement such as an age verification for alcohol or tobacco products will be exempt from the intrusive interstitial penalty.
  2. Log in pop ups for private or non-publically available content. For example, if you need to log in to a site that requires a subscription, such as a members only area or paywall for a news outlet, an interstitial to obscure content is permitted.
  3. Banners that use only a reasonable portion of the available screen space and can be easily dismissed by the user from a mobile device

 Explaining the rationale behind the penalty changes, Google said,

“Although the majority of pages now have text and content on the page that is readable without zooming, we’ve recently seen many examples where these pages show intrusive interstitials to users. 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.”

The new interstitial penalty and particular significance as work continues on the new mobile search index. Sites falling foul of the above guidelines could see their sites hampered with poor visibility as mobile becomes the primary search index for web users.

So far, there haven’t been any widespread reports of sites being unduly affected by the interstitial penalty.

What to do if your site uses interstitial ads

If your interstitial ads could be classed as obtrusive because they prevent the mobile user easily accessing the content, you’ll need to employ other methods of displaying those ads or pop ups that don’t contravene the Google guidelines. Options include:

  • Interstitials designed to get the user to take an action, such as sign up to an email newsletter, can be changed with a simple design modification. Try a floating or smart bar at the top of the page instead.
  • For adverts, instead of using an obtrusive interstitial, use a banner at the top of the page instead. If using AMP in your content, use the Ads for AMP project to implement this option.
  • A third option is to have the pop up further down the page, so it doesn’t obscure the content when the reader clicks through from the search results pages.
  • An outro interstitial, which appears as the user leaves the site rather than as they arrive, could also be considered.

Has your site been affected? Does this new penalty mean you’ll need to make any significant changes to your mobile site? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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