The (Real) Impact of Popups, Overlays, and Interstitials on SEO
Pop-ups, overlays, interstitials, modules - whatever you want to call them, they’ve long been used as an effective tactic for reducing cart/site abandonment, to recapture sales, and to generate more leads/conversions/revenue. Exit intent pop-ups alone have contributed to a 267% conversion uplift for one of our clients.
Used to highlight a particular offer, while helping narrow down the decision-making process for visitors, effective overlay experiences aim to provide value, and in doing so, fulfill multiple revenue-based goals.
But like most marketing tactics, poor implementation, misuse, and bad practices (especially on mobile where pages have less real-estate) have ruined it for everyone. This has led to degraded user experiences and, not surprisingly, the harsh wrath of Google. Come to smite us for our wrongdoings, similar to an angry parent who’s tripped over an ill-placed skateboard in the dining room, we must now reflect on the consequences of our actions, accept responsibility - and maybe spend a few days in our room without access to electronics.
For now, pages where content is not easily accessible (i.e. include intrusive interstitials) during a transition from mobile search may not rank as high.
Thankfully, like any caring mother or father, Google is forgiving, and really only wants what’s best for you and your future - that being the happiness of your users. You just need to follow a few new house rules when it comes to deploying your pop-ups.
So, dry your eyes, and don’t toss in the towel just yet. There’s a lot to be dismantled, and much to glean from Google’s recent algorithm update - and more broadly, it’s mobile-first indexing strategy.
Not all Popups are Bad
The first key note in regards to Google's interstitial penalty is that not all popups are subject to being penalized.
Additionally, while you might assume this boils down to sheer mobile versus desktop implementation, it doesn’t, nor does it apply to every pop-up on every page of a website.
In actuality, Google has recognized that most people nowadays use its engine to search for results on their mobile device, and as such, algorithms based on the desktop version of a site’s content are somewhat counterproductive, or at least not conducive to understanding the actual relevance of a page for users who are accessing it on mobile.
Thus the mobile-index was born, shifting to algorithms primarily reliant on the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site. In doing so, many examples of intrusive overlays became apparent, frustrating users who expected easy access to what they clicked on from search, but instead experienced obscured or concealed content.
As marketers, and as mobile users ourselves, we can, and should, appreciate, as well as participate, in the good fight for better user experiences along with Google.
But that still doesn’t mean we need to eradicate popups from our arsenal of engagement tactics.
2. Google’s main objective is to help users quickly find the best answers to their questions from search, putting a lot of significance on the first-page user experience. This doesn't include additional pages on the site - for example, a floating cart overlay appearing after a user has been browsing and added items for purchase.
Example of an acceptable interstitial used for age verification
2. Even on the first page, not all interstitials are created equal, and pop-ups displayed to meet legal obligations - such as for age verification or cookie usage - will not be affected. Additionally, content not publically available, or that lives behind a paywall and requires a login dialog, is also not subject to penalty.
To reiterate, Google’s main concern is covering content immediately after a user navigates to a page from search - but there are a few more considerations and practices to keep in mind as you reassess and update the current state of your pop-up game.
When to Pop-up and When Not to Pop-up
While every marketer will hold different beliefs about proper overlay usage, Google has made it pretty clear what rules one needs to abide by in order to ensure potentially meaningful experiences are not impacted by the presence of intrusive overlays.
So whatever your opinion, if these signals aren’t reflected in your pop-up manifesto, so to speak, your UX beliefs aren’t going to save you from ranking poorly.
That’s why you should always avoid:
- Shifting above the fold content down in order to make room for a standalone interstitial.
- Forcing a user to dismiss an overlay before they’ve even accessed content on the page.
- Showing a modal that covers the main content almost immediately, or upon user exploration.
Again, these rules apply to those navigating from search, who expect ease of access to content, and preclude pages displayed due to legal obligation.
In order to ensure you stay well within Google's good books, here's a listing of additional best practices worth keeping in mind.
- Avoid showing pop-ups on landing pages from organic search
- Avoid showing pop-ups from first page views from any source
- For exit-intent pop-ups, avoid deployment upon users bouncing back to Google
- For exit-intent pop-ups, implement a scroll or time-based trigger
- Use small, behavior-based triggered overlays when necessary
- All interstitials should only take up 15% of the user’s screen
- Pop-ups should easily tap closed from an “X” button, or upon clicking outside of the pop-up
There are, in fact, a host of mobile-friendly use cases - such as page curls, sliding drawers, and expanding offers - which can be used without fear of detracting from a site’s UX.
All the marketer needs to be concerned with, as always, is quality design, non-intrusive placement, valuable content, and well-timed, behavior-driven experiences.
Whether for Google or not, if a company wants to improve performance, revenue, and conversions, a great UX will take into consideration all visitors, regardless of traffic source or device.
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