The 2017 Mobile Update: Interstitials and User Experience

It’s a well-known industry fact that Google does not make it a habit to disclose if and when its algorithm updates are currently running or released. But, when it comes to mobile, the search engine giant has been rather forthcoming about making sure most websites are at least “mobile-friendly.” This is large because over half of Google’s traffic can be traced back to searches originating from a mobile device. In April 2016, Google further encouraged web admins to hop on the mobile bandwagon by giving a ranking boost to domains whose pages were mobile-friendly.

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Fast forward to four months later, when “85 percent of all pages in the mobile search results now meet this [ mobile-friendly ] criterion and show the mobile-friendly label,” the label itself is being removed. However, the criteria will remain in effect as part of the ranking signal. Now that a majority of websites are, in fact, mobile-friendly, you might be wondering, “what’s the next improvement Google will be looking to target?” The answer is user experience. Specifically, how easily users can access the content of your domain on a mobile device.

Although Google will remain largely vague about what does or does not constitute a penalty, much like Jeremy Renner’s character (William Brandt) from Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation where his canned response to nearly every question was: “I can neither confirm nor deny details of any operation without the Secretary’s approval.” There are times when Google does at least provide guidelines. This is one of those times: 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 Webmasters Blog, August 2016

Do you Mean Google Is Telling Us What They Want?

Essentially, yes. We’re actually getting preemptive information about how users perceive interstitials to help web admins evaluate and improve the user experience. This is much bigger than ads and pop-ups blocking content because it’s largely about the responsible use of “interstitials” which is essentially any kind of pop-up or overlay that momentarily keeps the user from reading the page content. It’s time to begin testing and evaluating how your domain is currently serving interstitials to mobile users. This means you can avoid losing mobile rankings if you prioritize the user experience and their interest in your content.

Google’s helpful and hurtful interstitial techniques

  • The following are examples of techniques that make content less accessible to a user:
  • Showing a popup covering the main content, either immediately after the user navigates to a page from the search results or while looking through the page.
  • Displaying a standalone interstitial that the user has to dismiss before accessing the main content.
  • Using a layout where the above-the-fold portion of the page appears similar to a standalone interstitial, but the original content has been inlined underneath the fold.
  • Conversely, the following are techniques that, used responsibly, would not be affected by the new signal:

Interstitials that appear to respond to a legal obligation, such as for cookie usage or age verification.
Login dialogs on sites where content is not publicly indexable. For example, this would include private content such as email or unindexable content behind a paywall. Banners that use a reasonable amount of screen space and are easily dismissible. For example, the app install banners provided by Safari and Chrome are examples of banners that use a reasonable amount of screen space.

The above excerpts were taken directly from the article on the Webmaster Central Blog, which contains helpful illustrations that further illustrate what techniques have been deemed helpful or hurtful as to how users interact with the interstitial served on mobile. It’s important to note that interstitials are not directly related to ads potentially blocking content but could also be considered prompts for newsletter sign-ups or special discount offers you may be serving up to mobile visitors. The point is, this is the time to begin testing and evaluating whether or not your interstitials behave in a way that complies with how users want to consume content on mobile or whether it’s potentially hindering the initial user experience.

Ready to test? Consider the following questions and data points

Qualitative evaluations: Review the examples in the Webmaster blog post against your domain’s interstitials to determine how the current implementation on your domain could be perceived.
Ask yourself, “Is the current implementation more likely to help inform my users of something useful to them, or is it inhibiting them from quickly consuming the content on the page?”
Ask yourself, “How are users currently engaging with the interstitial? Is it converting (i.e., collecting an email address), or is the primary interaction users are having to “X-out” or close out of the pop-up?”
Quantitative evaluations: Set up A/B tests on mobile traffic with and without the current interstitials to evaluate performance against a few data points.
Does the page bounce rate improve when the interstitial is removed?
Are mobile users visiting more pages without an interstitial presence?
Design 1-2 alternatives of the interstitial to determine if another design is less intrusive for users.
Remember, search query intent is still a strong signal coupled with the page being mobile-friendly. You wouldn’t want to risk losing rankings on mobile because you put your own agenda before the user’s intent.

Hardcore webaholic. Unapologetic pop culture enthusiast. Music evangelist. Avid alcohol lover. Social media trailblazer.
Spoke at an international conference about implementing dolls in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Spent 2002-2007 working with human growth hormone in Pensacola, FL. Spent college summers exporting foreign currency on Wall Street. Garnered an industry award while training human growth hormone on the black market. Spent 2002-2007 promoting fatback in Libya. Spent 2001-2007 implementing jack-in-the-boxes in Libya.

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