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Google to crack down on pop-ups

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Google is about to release a change to its mobile search results that penalises websites using pop-ups.

Nobody likes a pop-up on a website. They used to open up a plethora of windows on your desktop but these days this type are mostly automatically stopped by your browser. More recently though they appear within the page itself and can prevent you from viewing the content behind them until we take some kind of action. Sometimes there is a very small close button but a new tactic is to use wording that forces you to accept a negative sentiment to close the pop-up. E.g. ‘No I don’t want to earn lots of money’, ‘No I don’t want to improve my lifestyle’.

Despite being annoying to your site users, it’s still considered acceptable in the marketing world for collecting a users contact details because it’s so effective. Done well, with a good offer, it’s probably the best tactic available to build an email database. The trade off of annoying people versus building that database. But whilst that’s great for the site owner, it’s not so great for the end user who originally came to the site looking for information and not to sign up to your marketing.

Google is now taking action on this and will begin to penalise websites that obscure or block access to content that was indexed in Google mobile search.

Mobile is everything

Google over the last couple of years made the transition to preferencing mobile friendly websites on mobile search. That is websites that are readable from a mobile phone without having to zoom in and out everywhere just to read or click through to other pages. This has been a slower than expected transition and not as dramatic a ranking signal as many predicted. But it’s obvious the more and more we transition our lifestyles to accessing content from mobile devices, the greater Google will preference mobile friendly websites.

There’s a big difference between your website working on a mobile phone, and actually being mobile friendly. If you are not sure if your website is mobile-friendly or not check out Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test.

The potential mobile search criminals

So the pop-ups that Google are trying to prevent on mobile search are the ones that stop the user from reading the content that was originally indexed by Google. They include:

  • Pop-ups that cover the main content or entire page as soon as you land on the page, but also those that pop-up as you are scrolling through the page and potentially those that appear as you try to exit the page.
  • Interstitials, that is a page or block of content that is shown before you get to the information you intended to see. Often an advertising message prior to reading an article.
  • Even large blocks of content that appear at the top of the page and act like an interstitial, pushing the actual content down the page could be penalised.

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There are some cases where you could legitimately use some of these methods for functionality that is not marketing/sales based and Google claims using them for this purpose will not get you penalised. It does make you wonder though how they will determine this without manual intervention.

Not the next ‘mobilegeddon’

The change in Google’s algorithm won’t take effect until January 2017, so there’s no need to immediately change your strategy, but you will need to start thinking about it now. Google have stated that whilst this new ranking signal will impact mobile search results, it’s one of hundreds of signals that Google use. Websites that are penalised for having pop-ups may still rank well if their content is high quality and relevant to the search term.

It does mean that the only time digital marketers condone the use of pop-ups (collecting email addresses) may be under review and require an alternative strategy in 2017.