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Google’s Interstitial Update: What You Need to Know

Google’s Interstitial UpdateIn August 2016, Google announced that it was going to roll out an update that would help users access content more easily on mobile by changing the way it ranks pages with interstitial or “pop-over” windows. As of January 2017, these rules have been rolled out; potentially affecting mobile search rankings on a number of sites. But what exactly does this update entail? And could it affect your website? Let’s investigate…

What Update?

In the past few years, usage of interstitial windows has grown and grown. Many sites (this one included) use in-page windows that “pop-over” the main content to present the reader with an additional offer. Some examples of interstitial use include collecting names and email addresses to opt them in to a relevant email newsletter, or to sign up for a free ebook or other resource. They can also be used to encourage social media follows, or to provide a money-off voucher.

These kinds of windows can be really useful to site owners in gathering information from interested parties in order to market to them further; a practice known as lead generation. However, when this interstitial window is poorly designed or programmed, viewing the page on a mobile device can sometimes feel like playing a game of “hunt the x” when all you want to do is access the page underneath. Google is well aware of the tricky nature of these pop-over windows when accessed on mobile, and as of 10th January 2017 it’s changed the rules about how pages with particularly invasive interstitial windows rank in mobile searches.

Pop-overs that hide too much of a page’s core content and require the user to dismiss the window to simply access the page in question all serves to make a page less accessible. Pages like this will now be penalised with lower mobile search rankings. However, if you use an interstitial that covers a reasonable amount of screen-space such as a small strip banner at the top or bottom of the screen, this will not be penalised.

Interstitial windows that are used for responsible purposes will not receive a penalty regardless of their size. These purposes include legal obligations such as agreement to cookie usage or age verification functions. Sites that use an interstitial window for a crucial login function also appear to be unaffected by this new ranking signal.

Google is keen to remind us that this is just a single ranking signal among hundreds of other factors that decide a page’s ranking, and that it only affects search results shown on mobile devices.

If you use interstitials that show on mobile, Google’s official announcement is well worth a look to see if you comply. If you want to test your current webpages to see if they are still considered mobile-friendly by Google, you can check out their mobile-friendliness test here.

As a part of this update, Google is also removing the “mobile-friendly” tag from its search results. In the announcement linked above, they state that 85% of pages in mobile search results are already mobile-friendly, so the tag is increasingly redundant.

When?

Though the change was announced in August 2016, the new ranking factors came into force on 10th January 2017.

Why?

Google is a service provider, and as such they want to make sure that their users are receiving the best possible experience. Therefore, when someone performs a Google search, it’s in Google’s best interests to get the user to the information they need as quickly as possible.

Since Google introduced the “mobile-friendly” label in their search results back in 2014, it signalled that it was aware of the problems that mobile users frequently faced in accessing non-mobile-friendly sites.

This new development revisits its concern for mobile usability, and updates the rules now that the landscape has changed. It is doing away with the “mobile-friendly” tag that the 2014 update established, as many sites have adapted to become mobile friendly in the past few years. However, Google recognises that one of the more annoying problems facing mobile web users nowadays is that of awkward and ungainly interstitial windows which may be difficult to dismiss on a mobile device.

Most mobile internet users have come across a poorly designed and programmed interstitial that impedes your progress and makes you play a game of “hunt the x” – or simply rage-quit out of the whole page entirely. Google ultimately wants you to access the information you are after regardless of which platform you are on; so by ranking pages with poorly optimised interstitials lower down, it results in improving an average user’s experience two-fold:

  • Users are more likely to access usable information more easily on a mobile without interruption
  • Much like the “mobile-friendly” update back in 2014, it is possible that it will force webmasters to up their mobile friendliness game, making the web a more functional place for everyone regardless of what device they’re on.

Please note that these new rules only affect rankings on mobile search; rankings within searches made from desktop computers will remain unaffected.

Google is also quick to remind webmasters that this is just one element among hundreds of ranking factors that go into deciding where you place in search, so it may not mean life or death for your website; however it’s well worth knowing how it could affect you. Additionally, bear in mind that if search (specifically mobile search) is not how you attract most of your customers and leads, then you may not have too much of a worry on your hands.

How Do I Check My Site?

If you use interstitial windows on your site and you’re concerned about this update, Google provides the following resources to help keep you on the right track:

If you’re using pop-over windows on your site, you need to know about Google’s recent update Click To Tweet

Have you been affected by the latest interstitial update? What tools have you used to ensure compliance with the new rules? Do you think this is a good move from Google or not? Please share your thoughts down in the comments!

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