Pop-ups and interstitials. Are they soon to be the new prefix to “…is dead”? And is that a good thing?

It’s an issue that has divided the digital marketing community. So why are digital marketers suddenly so worried about pop-ups and interstitials?

“Hi there, I’m a Google pop-up penalty”

On 23rd August 2016, Google announced that pop-ups and interstitials that effectively ‘gated’ content will be cracked down on from January 2017. Essentially, this algorithm updates means Google will penalise you for the use of ‘intrusive’ pop-ups, meaning your ranking in the mobile search results will suffer if you use them in what is effectively a Google pop-up penalty. Ouch. And with Google’s recent announcement of a switch to mobile-first indexing, you can be sure that this will hurt those websites that fail to adapt.

The idea is to make the web content easier to access and navigate on mobile devices. Which I’m all for. Hell, Google is really only maintaining its unofficial motto, ‘Don’t be evil.’

That’s something we can all get on board with…right? Because pop-ups and interstitials are just plain immoral…?

Well actually, no

There are plenty of companies out there that use email capture and gated content (content that requires a sign up via a pop-up to access) to attract prospects, gain subscribers, and capture leads to then market to later on. “Okay, you want this great content?” says the company, “Well you can have it in exchange for a marketing opportunity.” That’s give and take, and some businesses stay afloat almost entirely on this model. The rationale behind this being if they don’t want the content or marketing, they can just close the pop-up.

For the most part, that seems fair to me – especially when it comes to the intrusive, annoying interstitials they refer to, like the one Google give as an example:

Example of an intrusive interstitial affected by the January 2017 Google pop-up penalty.
The Google pop-up penalty will apply to this kind of interstitial, they have confirmed.

But if you’re a business that relies on – or at least encourages – email sign-ups to feed into your sales funnel, the potential fallout from blocking certain pop-ups is frightening. By their own reckoning, Google will punish websites using pop-ups like this:

Another example of a pop-up that will trigger mobile ranking punishment from January 2017.
You will also be penalised by the January 2017 Google pop-up penalty if your website uses pop-ups like this.

That’s not okay, in my eyes. If this is a ‘catch all’ situation, then this is death to pop-ups, and ta-ta to most traditional email marketing list building tactics. Which sucks. Companies will suffer, and far more than is needed for the consumer to (rightly) enjoy a positive user experience. Hopefully pop-ups will be judged on how long they take to appear rather than this catch-all possibility, but that remains to be seen.

For the time being, however, this actually causes me a bit of a moral quandary – I’m not sure I agree with Google’s decision. And that raises a really incredible question:

Does that make me evil?

Google’s unofficial motto for some time has been ‘Don’t be evil.’ This has lead to a number of articles praising them for this action, which in turn effectively denounce those who don’t agree. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, I guess. But something about it doesn’t sit well with me.

It’s inevitable that as a marketer you are less offended by marketing tactics. Clever ad? Props to the creators. Moved the aisles around at Tescos? Alright, kind of inconvenient, but they are cleverly trying to move you towards other parts of the shops. To me, that’s interesting. Intriguing, even.

Of course many non-marketers just won’t take this attitude. With popups, for instance, people may see them as an irritation delaying you getting to the content. They don’t immediately add value if you just want what’s behind them.

But for me, as a customer I genuinely take a look at what these pop-ups are offering. More often than not I will close the popup, but if I find the content useful, I might just sign up or action it. So really, I don’t mind them too much unless they’re the kind that emerge from within a page’s copy while you’re reading it. It’s annoying, disorientating, and just plain poor.

C’mon people, we’re all better than this kind of spammy approach.

There’s a reason I’m ‘grey-hat’ on this: Pop-ups work.

I know email captures pop-ups, for example, work. They work really, really well.

For example, SumoMe users collected 23,645,948 email addresses with pop-ups in less than two years. That’s crazy.

Founded by Noah Kagan, SumoMe are just of the companies – like OptinMonster et al – who built a business out of the successful use of pop-up email capture forms. This isn’t Black Hat SEO murky business either – it’s plainly out there, and widely used. You don’t collect more than 23.6 million emails in such a small space of time if people aren’t interacting with the pop-ups, after all.

Although you might argue that websites and companies could find different ways to get people to sign up with their email address, there’s nothing particularly wrong with pop-ups used in this manner – and frankly, if you’re assaulting your visitors with pop-ups before they’ve even seen your content, then you’re doing it wrong.

Instead, you need to be more patient with them, meaning they not only become less offensive – they become more effective.

Some pop-ups and interstitials may not trigger this penalty

In the end, there’s no getting around it: Google is going ahead with their pop-up penalty. However, fotunately it looks like they are being less draconian than originally thought. From what has been explained so far, some types of pop-ups and interstitials will be exempt from this penalty.

For instance, although initially it appeared that the penalty might impact pop-ups on scroll, Google (in the form of John Mueller) explained that the Google pop-up penalty algorithm only assesses “the interaction between the search click and going through the page and seeing the content.”

Any interaction thereafter – such as  an exit-intent pop-up or interstitial or a click-based one – is between you and the user.

Search Engine Roundtable thankfully recorded the whole video of him saying this, which you can find at about the 12:10 mark:

So maybe it’s not as bad as it sounded at first.

It’s also aimed primarily at mobile search results, so your desktop organic SERPs should be safe from the penalty…for now.

Still want to use pop-ups?

Ditto. Pop-ups are far from dead. Stayed tune for my next piece on some great tactics to avoid the Google pop-up penalty…

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *