Google cracks down on interstitials

Love them or hate them, interstitials are the latest advertising technique to come under the Google microscope. In August this year Google announced it was going to crack down on the ‘intrusive’ ads in its quest to deliver the best mobile experience. Those who use interstitials seemingly have two options: risk precious search rankings as Google penalises pages with interstitials, or ditch the ads and find alternatives.

Why use interstitials?

Interstitials have long been a controversial choice of digital advertising, and as they have evolved so too has the controversy.

Originally shown whilst a website or page was downloading, pop-up interstitials have since developed to show at ‘natural’ transition points between pages or to block content access. More recently interstitials have been popping up immediately after accessing content from search results, or else at random points while browsing a website to capture email addresses in exchange for discounts.

They range from simple pop-ups with an easily visible button to continue to the web page, to forms that require information before gated content can be accessed. Regardless of the type of interstitial, many users find them intrusive and annoying, often leaving or avoiding websites altogether that use large interstitials.

google-interstitials-engagement-rates

Despite this, the potential gains of interstitials make them an attractive choice for marketers. The very nature of interstitial ads makes them unavoidable for users and guarantees premium visibility for key messages. As annoying as many perceive them to be, interstitials tend to receive more engagement than other ad formats such as banner ads. In a 2015 report by Celtra, interstitials achieved a 4% engagement rate, while banners and expandable banners achieved just 1.1% and 0.87% respectively.

The flexibility of interstitials in terms of size and design also provides a platform for marketers to gain a range of information and customer details. Interstitials can be a key component in building email lists and opening up more channels of communication to improve brand awareness.

Why is Google cracking down?

While marketers may be reaping the benefits of interstitial ads, users tend to find them intrusive and irritating; Google has had enough.

Last year Google took a small step in this direction by penalising app interstitials that covered a significant amount of the screen. Any interstitials for app downloads that were significantly bigger than the Google endorsed banner apps for Safari and Chrome were no longer considered mobile friendly.

As Google continues to optimise and prioritise mobile, interstitials as a whole have come under fire. The intrusive nature of these ads is amplified on smaller screens, where pop-ups can take up most of the screen and users can struggle to locate exit buttons. To improve mobile experience for all users Google will start to penalise web pages that use interstitials and interrupt user flow on mobile websites.

Will I be penalised?

Google have highlighted problematic interstitials that will be penalised as well as some that shouldn’t be affected if used correctly.

Interstitials that marketers should look to start avoiding include:

  • Any popup that covers or blocks the main content at any point – either straight after a user clicks on a search result or at any point while viewing the content.
  • A standalone ad that fills the screen and must be dismissed before viewing the content.
  • An interstitial that takes up the entirety of the page above the fold, appearing as a standalone ad, with the main content beneath the fold.

google-interstitials-bad-interstitials

The types of interstitials that won’t be penalised:

  • Legal requirements such as cookie information or age verification.
  • Private content that uses login dialogs.
  • Banners that are non-intrusive by taking up a reasonable amount of screen space and are easy to dismiss.

google-interstitials-good-intersititals

If you do use and rely on any of the interstitials Google has highlighted as problematic, don’t panic just yet. The new mobile signal is just one of many that Google will use for mobile search rankings, so pages with highly relevant, quality content will still be able to rank well. However, marketers shouldn’t just ignore the new changes; the new signal could be the difference between two similar search results getting the top spot.

Alternatives to interstitials

Banners

For marketers or retailers that use interstitials particularly to encourage mobile app downloads, there is good news. Google specifically recommends Smart Banners for Safari and Native App Install Banners for Chrome, both of which will continue to be considered mobile friendly.

The biggest advantage of these app banners is their design and salience with users. Both Apple and Google have designed their app banners with the user in mind; ensuring users can browse content or dismiss the banner easily. Additionally the increasing popularity of these app banners makes them immediately recognisable to users, who are assured that they won’t be taken to a third party website, and are much more likely to feel safe enough to click through. Daniel Bathgate at Google writes “banners provide a consistent user interface for promoting an app and provide the user the ability to control their browsing experience.”

For anyone using interstitials for anything besides app promotion, banners can still be a viable alternative. Banners using a reasonable amount of screen space should still be considered mobile friendly by Google, and more importantly will be less intrusive on user experience. Marketers and retailers alike should look to adapt and refine messages to smaller banner sizes, with particular focus on optimising their CTA.

Data capture

If interstitials are being used to capture email addresses or other data from users then consider embedding a data capture form into the page instead. Rather than having a separate link to a sign up page or having potentially irritating interstitials, data capture forms make it easy for users to sign up at any point without leaving the page or being interrupted. Additionally data capture forms are relatively flexible and can be embedded anywhere on the page.

What do we think?

There will undoubtedly be many marketers and retailers bemoaning this latest addition to Google’s mobile friendly rule book. On the whole interstitials do see higher engagement rates than other ad formats, whether it’s downloads or email capture, and those that have experienced success with interstitials have come to rely on them to build their email lists and increase app downloads.

Yet many marketers question the actual success of interstitials and whether these ‘benefits’ can ever really outweigh their impact on user experience. Users can often use false information just to bypass interstitials, making email lists less than useless, while others may engage with interstitials once to view the content quickly and never return. It’s impossible to really measure the negative impact caused by user annoyance and irritation, including detrimental effects on brand awareness.

If used correctly marketers can still design interstitials in the form of banners or less intrusive formats; displaying information relevant to the page content and the user without interrupting user experience. While there may be a drop in overall engagement, the quality of data captured and leads generated should improve as only genuinely interested users choose to engage.

If you’re worried about the change and how to implement alternatives to interstitials, or want to discuss how to improve your user experience, call us today on 01344 266 844.

Katy Smith

Katy Smith

Digital Marketing Executive

Katy is a Digital Marketing Executive at Netmatter with a degree in Marketing. She has so far gained experience in various areas of marketing including email, copywriting, social media and SEO.

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