Most of you will agree that pop-ups – or interstitials, as they are stylishly called — cause a huge disruption in user experience. Especially the ones that, well, pop up as soon as users click onto a site and have no clue what the content is going to be like. In those first crucial stay-or-go moments, when they’re deciding if they will or will not bounce off, up comes the pop-up, asking them to subscribe to this random site’s weekly newsletter!

Then there is the treasure hunt that goes on to because X doesn’t mark the spot. Some genius marketer decided to hide the knock-off button. A pop-up takes over the screen with no visible X button to make the darn thing go away.

If a user is bouncing around like a crazy ball, looking for some specific information in a dozen different websites, imagine how quickly the annoyance builds up from having to slay a double dozen pop-ups to accomplish his/her mission.

Bizarrely – or perversely, in this case – pop-ups are an effective conversion tool for businesses. Because, while a majority of users are tearing their hair in frustration, a few others are busy signing up for whatever it is that the pop-ups are offering. And it’s these few users, who are adding up quickly as weeks and months go on, creating enough ROI for the pernicious practice to continue.

Digital marketers take a somewhat hypocritical stance on the pop-up issue. In order to defend this intrusive CTA device, they separate their personal opinion from their professional one. Yes, pop-ups are annoying, they agree, and as palatable as spam, but hey – they work well enough to pull an average of 2% opt-ins. So…

So as of January 2017, Google has stepped in to put some checks and balances on pop-ups. The big picture is not fully revealed yet, but the caveats they have imposed may well be the beginning of the end for interstitials in the near future.

Google’s main concern is the major hindrance pop-ups cause to a smooth mobile experience. Here’s an excerpt from what Google has to say:

“Pages that show intrusive interstitials provide a poorer experience to users than other pages where content is immediately accessible. This can be problematic on mobile devices where screens are often smaller. 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.”

GOOD VERSUS BAD INTERSTITIALS

Google are clearly exampled these:

BAD INTERSTITIALS:

Examples-of-intrusive-pop-ups

In the image above, you can see why Google considers them disruptive and likely to be penalized. In each of the examples, the pop-up is covering the content underneath, and on a mobile screen, it is really hard sometimes to put a finger unerringly on the X button. As it is, mobile phone screen are so small. The obstruction caused by such blanket pop-ups makes navigation really hard and totally ruins the browsing experience.

GOOD INTERSTITIALS:

Interstitials-that-are-allowed-by-Google

“Good” maybe pushing it, but for now, Google is allowing the kind of pop-ups you see in the image above. The cookie usage interstitial and the age verification one serve a gateway permission purpose and therefore will not be penalized by the new regulation.

The third example is the telling one – that still leaves room for marketers to play in. In it, the pop-up is significantly smaller, and not covering the entire mobile screen space. As a result the X cancel button is also clearly visible.

IS THAT ALL?

The examples provided by Google (as seen above) are indicative of how far you can safely push the envelope without attracting penalties. From here on, it is up to you to choose how to interpret it.

On the face of it, the following categories of interstitials are safe by all reckonings right now:

• Interstitials that pertain to legal matters like age verification, cookie usage, username/password for gated online communities, subscription-based content hidden behind a paywall.

• Small banner pop-ups that do not swallow the entire screen space.

• Exit intent interstitials. Google seems only concerned with the doorway obstructions created by pop-ups. Once a user has entered a website and begins navigating within it, the interaction becomes one between the user and the website. Google is not going to police it. So any exit intent pop-up you place is okay at this time.

• Pop-ups that are triggered when a user clicks on a button or link. Again, this is a post-entry activity that Google is currently not worrying about.

The caveats placed by Google in January pushes their mobile-first index, which means the spotlight is not on desktop usage.

So can you keep using screen takeover techniques with large pop-ups like you always did in the desktop experience?

If you ask me, erring on the side of caution is the safest bet for a long-term strategy. Regulations on desktops may well be on the horizon – nobody can really tell – so if you stay conservative with pops-ups across all devices, you won’t be blindsided by a second regulation rollout that casts a broader net.

The lesson in all of this is to re-think your interstitial strategy across the board at this time. Think why you’re using pop-ups – don’t do it just because you can. Use as few as possible, and use them judiciously, after weighing all the pros and cons. And think long-term. A good interstitial strategy that actually helps instead of hinder the user experience is what you should be thinking about, because ROI is clearly at odds with what users want.

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Alicia is the National Business Development Manager at Mastodon Media. She  is loud, in your face, and has a DEEP passion for making your business hum. Chances are she has an idea for your business already. She is an artist when it comes to seeing what you need, and getting the rest of us to make it happen.

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Mastodon Media is a fully integrated advertising agency based outside Seattle, WA. With more than 30 years of experience, Mastodon is one of the leading ad agencies in the region, offering a full-service approach and customized ad solutions.