It’s here, amigos: on 10th January 2017, Google’s pop-up penalty kicked in. And already, some are reporting drops of 10 places or more in the mobile SERPs. All because of ‘intrusive interstitials’. Problem is, this includes a lot of methods of lead capture.

That’s right – all that pop-up based lead capture you’re doing? It could be seriously damaging your SEO efforts and traffic. And with mobile-first indexing on its way, you can imagine the collateral.

But don’t worry! Get ready to learn how to avoid the Google pop-up penalty perfectly legitimately, and still get the results you want.

Start with the basics – what pop-ups are still okay?

First of all, let’s not all panic. Google have provided some semblance of guidance for what sorts of pop-ups they will allow.

In their own words, here are a few examples of interstitials and pop-ups that “would not be affected by the new signal, if used responsibly”:

An example of an interstitial for cookie usage.
An example of an interstitial for age verification

Interestingly, Google has also advised that some interstitials and pop-ups will not be punished on mobile pages…

…but only if they take up just a “reasonable” amount of screen space:
An example of a banner that uses a reasonable amount of screen space.


Whether it’s as straightforward as measuring out a pop-up to ensure it matches this size is unclear. Not to mention unrealistic. Still, if you want to avoid the Google pop-up penalty it’s probably worth bearing this in mind.

Make your user journey from SERPs to page as easy as possible

“To improve the mobile search experience, after January 10, 2017, pages where content is not easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search results may not rank as highly.”
Google Webmaster Blog (Tuesday, 23rd August 2016)

Straight from the mouth of Google, this is our next point of call. Broken down to its bare essentials, this means your content needs to be readily available as soon as the user clicks through from the search results. Don’t force visitors to see an ad or pop-up before they see the content. Do your best not to annoy them. How? By minimising the barriers between their browsing experience and your content.

Think smart. Think exit-intent.

Without full transparency on how the penalty will work, inbound marketers were always going to worry about how this would affect them. Thankfully, people have already started to ask the right questions…and more importantly obtained some vital information from Google on how this penalty algorithm works.

Basically, Google will only care if you are instantly chucking a pop-up in a user’s way before they get to read your content. Since we’re not yet sure if there is a case of judging the time elapsed between users reading your content and when a pop-up appears, it’s probably safer to assume that if at any point the pop-up becomes ‘intrusive’ by interrupting a user experience, then your page will be penalised. Personally, I’ve decided to delay most of my email capture pop-ups from appearing for at least 30 seconds. To me, that seems non-intrusive. But hey, Google have been pretty vague about this, so we’ll see what happens.

The solution is exit-intent or action-orientated pop-ups. These appear only when users either click to close your page, return to the previous page, or complete a certain action on your page (like clicking a link)…and they won’t be affected by the pop-up penalty. John Mueller confirms as much in the Google Hangout below—because as far as Google are concerned, once the user is on your site and interacting with it, that’s your business. So that would suggest that you can avoid the pop-up penalty simply by making the transition from Google’s SERPs to your own free of pop-ups, and after that…you’re good to go.

Have your cake and eat it. Nom!

Mobile isn’t everything. Although mobile traffic has now started to outstrip organic desktop traffic, desktop traffic still exists. Think mobile-first, not mobile-only!

In this vein, remember that you can still continue to use pop-ups and play by the rules. Intrusive interstitials are still allowed on desktops, after all. 

So while you need to be careful about how you use pop-ups and interstitials on mobile devices, there’s no real reason to change how your pop-ups appear on desktop devices. These days, you can use display targeting rules to dictate how pop-ups display across devices. On mobile? Toe the line. Desktop? Go nuts, amigo. Most pop-up software/programs should have this functionality built-in.

Focus on a content marketing strategy instead

The goal of this penalty is to make content more accessible, so why not take advantage of this? Take this opportunity to prove to your stakeholders that the hard-sell, ‘get it right now’ approach is not sustainable.

Instead, develop a content marketing strategy and create diverse content (blog posts, white papers, infographics, video tutorials) to attract the right audience. In the long run, this not only builds you something worth your users’ time—it also starts to map out what content you produce is successful. In turn, you can then start measuring what stuff you are doing that your audience best engages with. Get that hard data, and you can really build something sustainable.

What else should you do?

Easy. Focus on voice search, and long tail queries. There are dozens of articles, videos, and data to show you how important these are becoming. Colloquial search is the future, amigo, so get on it before your competitors steal a march on you.

How do I know if my site’s been hit by the pop-up penalty?

If you’re worried that you’ve already been hit by this penalty, it’s best to find out for certain so you can deal with the problem head-on. To do this, check the date Google last crawled your site by looking in your Analytics account. The algorithm for this penalty started rolling from 10th January, right on schedule, but Gary Ilyes advised on Twitter that the algorithm update required a re-crawl of the entire web for the penalty to be in full effect. So if your last crawl date is since the 10th and you’re not seeing any major drops in ranking, then chances are you’ve  successfully avoided Google’s pop-up penalty. Congrats!

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