Last updated on July 31, 2021.
A full guide to Google intrusive interstitials (and a lot of tips and best practices).
Have you ever opened a website on your mobile phone, and instead of the content you were looking for, you were forced to look at an annoying pop-up? That’s an intrusive interstitial.
In this guide, you will learn what intrusive interstitials are, how they influence a Google page experience, what types of intrusive interstitials there are, the best practices regarding intrusive interstitials, and more!
⚡ Google page experience signals are becoming a THING. Make sure to check my Google page experience audit (a checklist of 15+ items and a free audit template) and my Core Web Vitals audit guide (a checklist of 35+ items and a free audit template).
What Are Intrusive Interstitials?
Intrusive interstitials are basically pop-up advertisements. Such kinds of ads block all or most of the page, which can make it hard for consumers to access the information they clicked for.
They can be quite frustrating to deal with for users, especially on small mobile screens. Here are some ways it can damage a page experience for the audience:
- The intrusive interstitial covers the main content on the web page.
- The intrusive interstitial isn’t responsive. It can be impossible to close the pop-up on mobile devices, making the content on mobiles inaccessible for users.
- The intrusive interstitial doesn’t get triggered after the audience makes an action. For example, “Click to subscribe” doesn’t work. This can be off-putting for the consumer who is already irritated by the pop-up window.
Intrusive Interstitials Are A Page Experience Signal
When it comes to ranking, content is king. But, it’s not the only thing Google looks at when ranking pages, especially when multiple web pages and websites offer nearly the same content (from a user-value perspective).
Page experience signals measure a user’s interaction and experience with a website minus the content value they get from that website. And intrusive interstitials are an important part of it. Here are the current five Google page experience signals:
There are a few things you need to understand about intrusive interstitials in the context of the Google page experience:
- It affects both mobile and desktop users, but Google’s earliest examples and guidelines associated with intrusive interstitials are mostly about accessing websites on mobile phones.
- It could have been an underlying factor of the mobile-friendly page experience signal, but since Google made it a separate signal, it might have considerable weightage.
- Google considers intrusive interstitials a hindrance to a user’s content accessibility, which results in a poor experience.
- Google has defined instances where intrusive interstitials might and might not be penalized with a drop in ranking.
- Intrusive interstitials have been a ranking factor since January 2017.
An important thing to understand is that even though it’s important, intrusive interstitials are considered a “softer” negative ranking factor. And most importantly, it penalizes web pages and not entire websites.
⚡ This article is part of my entire Google page experience series of guides which talk about every Google page experience signal in detail:
- An in-depth guide to Google page experience
- An in-depth guide to Core Web Vitals and each of the three metrics (Largest Contentful Paint, First Input Delay, and Cumulative Layout Shift)
- A guide to Google safe browsing
- A guide to the difference between HTTP and HTTPS
- A quick guide on how to check if a website is mobile-friendly
Two Types of Intrusive Interstitials
Even though most interstitials are “intrusive” in nature, not all fall under the same category, and Google doesn’t tar them all with the same brush. So there are two types of intrusive interstitials:
- Not Penalized
Intrusive Interstitials That A Site May Be Penalized For
Any interstitial that makes content less accessible for the user, and does not fulfill a legal or “responsible” obligation, might be penalized by Google since they hurt a user’s page experience.
- A pop-up ad that won’t go away unless you click on the tiny cross button that’s brutally close to your mobile screen’s edge.
- Pop-ups with timers that you can’t close for five seconds more.
- Useless interstitials that appear as soon as you click the link on the search results and hide the content you clicked for.
- Ads, pop-ups, or interstitials that appear midway through your scroll and you have to dismiss before continuing to access the full content.
- Stand-alone interstitials that overshadow the underlying content and have to be interacted with (or dismissed) before you can reach the content.
Intrusive Interstitials That Are “OK”
The important thing to note is that not all interstitials are intrusive. There can be an ethical or legal obligation to build interstitials into the design of the website, depending on the type of content you have and the country you reside in. Google is aware that such exceptions do exist and doesn’t penalize websites for such interstitials.
So such interstitials, even though they are intrusive and might block a user’s access to the content, are permitted. A few examples are:
- Intrusive interstitials that the website is legally obligated to present before the user can continue on the website. This includes cookie usage notifications that you have to agree to and the age-verification pop-up that certain websites have.
- Not all content is available for all viewers. Some of it is only for users that have already signed up with the website or paid users. A pop-up that informs you about it or prevents you from accessing the content until you fulfill the website’s criteria for that content is permitted.
- Interstitials that hover over the screen, giving you ample access to content and not aggressively dominating the viewport, are not penalized.
This is a reasonable pop-up that prevents you from entering a Cannabis website unless you are of legal age.
The following website allows you to see some free stats and a certain number of premium stats per day. Once you’ve exhausted that quota, you are greeted with a pop-up that prevents you from accessing the content. It also falls under reasonable intrusive interstitials that are not penalized.
And finally, there is a cookie notice popup on Google Developers.
In the Google Search Central documentation, you will find a lot of tips on how to use and not to use intrusive interstitials.
Intrusive Interstitials: Best Practices
Google might not love interstitials, but do you know who might? Your sales teams! Interstitials and pop-up ads might be annoying, but they also work.
They can be a potent marketing tool and drive more sales (or get more useful information) if they are leveraged the right way, i.e., without going against Google’s guidelines and directions.
Popups are also a great wait to get new subscribers to your e-mail lists. Nothing works better than opt-in popups.
A few good practices regarding intrusive interstitials you need to keep in mind are:
- The safest way is to stick with interstitials that fly below the Google radar. Age verification, cookie-usage notification, gated content, etc., are all safe intrusive interstitials. You will stay in Google’s good books if your website doesn’t have anything that Google can penalize, including annoying interstitials.
- Think user-centric. If you can find a way to annoy your user with your intrusive interstitials without triggering negative page experience signals, that’s not a win. You will still be driving away many mobile users from your website, albeit more “organically.”
- Audit your mobile website and find out about all the intrusive interstitials that are annoying your users and Google algorithms. If there are pop-ups, you need to keep, consider using in-line styling, slide-ins, and reasonable banners for displaying the same content/message without barring your user from accessing the content they clicked for.
- Google doesn’t penalize ads, but it doesn’t like them when they hinder a user’s ability to access the content. Ads that are embedded on the side of the web page (without displacing any content) and don’t pop up ruining a user’s page experience are fine. But pop-up ads, whether they appear when the user first clicks the link or is midway going through your content, qualify as “guilty” intrusive interstitials.
- Pop-ups used smartly are OK. You can add a pop-up when the user is finished reading the content or have scrolled through to the end of the content, and even then, it shouldn’t hide the screen, especially the last piece of the content. Make it easily dismissible just to be safe.
- Creating pop-ups or interstitials that only occupy a small fraction of your web page might not be penalized. They might still help you get your point across to the users, albeit in a non-annoying manner.
- Testing is essential. A/B test different types of banners, pop-ups, and interstitials to see which ones are being penalized and which ones aren’t.
Apart from these clearly “good” practices, there are two which might be considered a bit shady, but they may still let you fly under the radar; hence they can be effective:
- A web page might get away with offering an intrusive interstitial to “direct traffic,” i.e., ones that come from typed URLs or bookmarked pages and non-intrusive interstitials to the organic traffic that lands on the page via Google SERPs. It might fall under cloaking.
- Page-to-page traffic is not analyzed the same way. Google would only penalize pages for intrusive interstitials that appear on search engine results. So if a page is not there, or it’s already buried too far in rankings that you don’t care, either way, intrusive interstitials on that page when you are routed to it from elsewhere might be okay.
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Olga Zarzeczna is a senior SEO specialist with 8+ years of experience. She has been doing SEO for both the biggest brands in the world and small businesses. She has done more than 150+ SEO audits so far. Olga has completed SEO courses and degrees at universities, such as UC Davis, University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins University. She also completed Moz Academy! And, of course, has Google certifications. She keeps learning SEO and loves it. Olga is also a Google Product Expert specializing in areas, such as Google Search and Google Webmasters.