Google is updating its smartphone search algorithm to penalize mobile sites that display pop-over content that covers most of the page’s content.

Google Inc. will ding websites in smartphone organic search results if the page displays a full-screen ad known as an interstitial banner, the search giant says. The change will take effect Jan. 10.

Google’s actions target websites that cover the page the search result directs to with a pop-up or other content that a user must dismiss before accessing the searched-for content. The penalty affects only smartphone search results.

The algorithm change is meant to improve a smartphone user’s experience when she transitions from Google to the web page, Google says. Although the content beneath the interstitial is sometimes still visible and Google can index the content, the search giant deems such displays a poor experience because the consumer cannot interact immediately with the site, Google wrote in its official webmasters blog that announced the change.

This change is significant for retailers. Google dominates mobile search—89% of organic search visits on mobile devices were made via Google in the United States in the first quarter of 2016, according to performance marketing agency Merkle Group Inc. On average, retailers in the Top 1000 receive 10.44% of their traffic from natural search, according to

Plus, e-retailers often use interstitials to promote seasonal sales, gather email subscribers, offer a customer survey or promote users to download an app. Retailers should review their use of pop-over content on pages indexed within mobile search results, and make sure such content complies with Google’s new guidelines, says Brian Klais, founder and president of mobile marketing and mobile search engine optimization firm Pure Oxygen Labs.

“This update will force retailers to rethink best practices in email marketing as well as consumer experience surveys,” Klais says. “Retailers should not assume their high rankings will automatically translate into a hall pass on this new point. Conduct an audit to be sure.”

Pop-ups that encourage a shopper to sign up for an email subscription list—often while offering a pot sweetener such as a percentage off of a purchase—are an effective way for e-retailers to gain subscribers. E-retailers that use them grew their email lists by an average of 47.87% year over year, according email marketing firm Listrak, which surveyed more than 400 of its e-retailer customers last fall.

Google says not all pop-ups will be penalized. It makes exceptions for interstitials that have to appear because of a legal obligation, such as age verification; those that display a login because the content is not publically available, such as a news site behind a paywall; and pop-over displays that take up a “reasonable amount of screen space and are easily dismissible.” Google cites small app-install banners that mobile browsers Safari and Chrome provide as examples of interstitials that consume “reasonable” screen space.

Retailers such as Touch of Modern Inc., No. 259 in the Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide, Gap Inc. (No. 20) and Groupon Inc. (No. 26) currently use interstitial tactics. Touch of Modern immediately shows an interstitial banner asking consumers to log in to its members-only site, which is a Google-OKed popup. The retailer is unsure if it will make any changes as it is too early to see how this change will impact them, if at all, a spokeswoman says. Groupon and Gap did not respond to a request for comment.

Interstitials are just one factor among hundreds of signals Google uses for its smartphone search results ranking. If a web page contains an “illegal” pop-up but it is still is a strong match for the search query, the web page may still rank highly, Google says.

Google has made several smartphone-specific algorithm changes within the past few years, including one in September 2015 that similarly penalized retailers for having pop-ups that asked consumers to download a company’s app. This algorithm update will fold that rule into this one, Google says.

“Mobile users have been frustrated by this for years now thanks to companies like Yelp and Trip Advisor and others who have abused interstitials to force mobile users to install the app to proceed,” Klais says.

In fact, when Google implemented the app interstitial penalty in September, Yelp Inc. was outraged. Yet, the customer review site did not change its tactics and continues to show a full-page interstitial prompting consumers to download its app after clicking on a link from mobile search results.

“Google saw its users fleeing mobile search via an exit door that led to apps,” Luther Lowe, vice president of policy at Yelp, told Vertical Web Media last year when Google made the announcement. “To make sure they can continue to extend their search monopoly onto mobile, Google is essentially telling app developers, ‘We’re losing too many of our users to your apps, so your new users will have to go through a doggy door.’”

While businesses may not want to change their marketing tactics, they shouldn’t be surprised by this change, Klais says.

Google wants to maintain their leading position in mobile search, and we all know mobile searchers expect Google to serve relevant results,” Klais says. “Google is saying it may stop ranking your content highly if you are making it difficult for Google searchers to consume indexed pages.”

Tyler White, senior analyst at Adobe Digital Insights, also is not surprised by the change, as Google prohibited the use of interstitials in its Accelerated Mobile Pages project. AMP is an open-source framework that allows businesses, including retailers, to build lightweight mobile pages that load as fast as possible on smartphones.

Google also announced it will remove the mobile-friendly label it added beneath smartphone search results that met this criteria. Being mobile friendly still matters and those standards for the ranking remain, but 85% of pages in organic search results meet Google’s standard and it no longer felt the need to label them.


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