A New Google Algorithm Will Penalise Intrusive Full-Screen Ads

The Internet is currently buzzing with news of Google’s latest search algorithm, which is designed to penalise mobile webpages that use intrusive interstitial ads that disrupt the user experience. This is good news from the user’s perspective, as it ought to make the Internet an overall friendlier place. However, it also means that web developers and site operators may need to rethink and revise some of their advertising tactics.

Google announced the new algorithm on Tuesday (read the official announcement here) and said that it will go into effect on 10 January, 2017. To be fair, this isn’t the first time Google has taken a shot at interstitial ads. A previous algorithm that penalised such ads compelling users to download an app was released in 2015, and this algorithm is set to replace and improve upon the previous one. 

In Google’s own words:

“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.”

So the plan is to penalise pages that make use of intrusive interstitial ads so that they don’t rank as highly in the search listings.

What Are Interstitial Ads?

Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to define precisely what an ‘interstitial ad’ is. These are the full screen ads that pop up while you’re reading a web page and cover all (or at least the vast majority of) the screen. You can find a more elaborate and rather technical explanation from Google here. In this case, the ads their describing are used in mobile apps, but the concept is exactly the same.

Interstitial ads are typically displayed before you browse a page of content. This is the same format of pop-up used to have users confirm their age before visiting a restricted site. And last, the interstitial ad format is particularly popular for trying to get site visitors to hand over their contact information by signing up for a newsletter or requesting a free download.

The problem with these ads is that they almost always detract from the user experience. And as web users, we’ve all been there. Imagine: Just as you’re about to dive into a listicle covering the ‘Top 10 Ways to Show Your Cat You Care’, a full-page ad springs up asking you to enter your email address so that the site starts sending you more cat-related emails than you could possibly care to read.

In many cases, site visitors would be forgiven for thinking that entering their email address is a requirement for accessing the content. The submit button features prominently while the button to close the ad out is more difficult to find. It may be hidden behind a snarky phrase like ‘No thanks, I hate cats’, or it may come in the form of a faintly coloured ‘x’ up in the corner that’s easily missed.

When Will an Interstitial Ad Be Penalised?

Obviously, there are situations in which interstitial ads are entirely appropriate (the age-verification form mentioned above comes to mind). So how will the Google algorithm determine which pages with interstitial ads are worthy of being demoted?

In their announcement, Google said that pages would be penalised when the interstitial ads “make content less accessible to a user”. That’s a bit vague and general. Fortunately, they gave three examples for clarity.

Here is what Google says the new algorithm is going to penalise:

  • Popups that completely cover the main content – either at the beginning of the session when the user first navigates to the page or as they are in the process of looking through the content.
  • Pages that produce a standalone interstitial ad that the user has to close or dismiss before they can gain access to the content.
  • Pages that use a layout where the top (i.e. above-the-fold) portion of the page looks like a standalone interstitial ad, such that the user has to scroll down to reach the content. 

As you can see, it appears that Google is most concerned with user experience when it comes to targeting these ads. If a site visitor is on their way to reading an article, and they’re suddenly faced with a largely irrelevant ad that obstructs their view of the content and requires some sort of interaction to dismiss, then a penalty is likely to result.

Not All Interstitial Ads Are Under Attack

As already mentioned, there are certain instances where an interstitial ad makes sense. And Google acknowledged as much in their announcement. Again, here are three examples from Google:

  • Interstitial ads that are necessary due to legal obligations; this would include the aforementioned age-verification popups or notifications of cookie usage. 
  • Interstitials that serve as login dialogues on pages that are not publically indexed; examples include unindexed content sitting behind a paywall as well as login dialogues for emails.
  • Banner-style interstitials that occupy a reasonable amount of screen space and are easy for the user to dismiss.

In other words, the format has its place. It’s the execution that Google is taking on with its new algorithm. And following on from the third point, it appears that Google is okay with bottom-banner-style interstitial ads. These leave the main content unobstructed, so the algorithm isn’t going to bother with these.

What Google’s Latest Algorithm Release Means for Webmasters

While this new algorithm is big news for webmasters and developers, it’s safe to say that it’s largely good news. Using interstitial ads to disrupt the user experience is a dodgy practice, at best. There has been some chatter about how this relates to ‘page-level ads’, which AdSense has been pushing. But on the whole, the online community has been pleased.

You’ll also find a few prominent voices asking how much authority we’re willing to give Google in this regard. There’s no question that the world’s favourite search engine exercises an alarming level of control over how the rest of us develop the Internet. But at the end of the day, this is the world we live in – and it’s not altogether bad at this point.

Rest assured that we’ll keep you up to date on the latest best practices in web development. And if you have any questions about how this affects any campaigns you have with us, feel free to get in touch.