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Safely Navigating Google's New Popup Penalty

Changes are coming to mobile

24Jan

Google has changed.

In the past, the search engine giant would act swiftly and mercilessly, coming from seemingly nowhere to drop the hammer on websites that were practising low-quality, spammy 'optimization' techniques designed to manipulate Google's search algorithm. The force with which that hammer is swung has gradually lessened more and more, to the point that Google is now often providing several months' notice before rolling out a major algorithm change. Such was the case with Google's Mobile-Friendly Update, and again with the recent 'Intrusive Interstitials' penalty, announced more than four months before rollout.

If you missed the memo, you're not alone. Here are a few things you need to know to keep your business's site safe from Google's most recent penalty.

Full-Page Interstitials Must Go

Sorry, Forbes. You're now the poster boy for what a modern website should not do. Your giant, obnoxious, full-page interstitial that precludes viewers from viewing any of the content they came to see is expressly mentioned as a site characteristic that will warrant a penalty from Google. In the eyes of Google (and the rest of us,) '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.' Google then goes on to warn that, '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.'

If you're using massive, full-screen pop-ups to serve ads or force users to believe they must opt in to see your content, beware. This algorithm is coming for you.

Not All Popups Are Bad

As I mentioned previously, Google's drop of the hammer has lightened considerably over the years. And while incredibly invasive interstitials are certainly a no-no, their guidelines leave some room to work within. Here's a look at what Google expressly penalizes as a part of their new update:

- Showing a popup that covers the main content, either immediately after the user navigates to a page from the search results, or while they are looking through the page.

- Displaying a standalone interstitial that the user has to dismiss before accessing the main content.

- Using a layout where the above-the-fold portion of the page appears similar to a standalone interstitial, but the original content has been inlined underneath the fold.

Notice the emphasized text. Google stipulates specifically that popups are not to appear 'either immediately after' a user arrives onsite or 'while they are looking through the page.' Some experts, like Soffront CRM CEO Manu Das, believe that these guidelines leave important room for interpretation.

'Gathering new leads,' he says, 'is at the core of any successful marketing automation campaign.' He recommends setting triggers to delay the display of popups until a visitor has reached the end of a page. He also points out that users coming from sources other than Google may continue to be shown opt-ins in a way that maximizes lead gathering. 'It is unwise to place all of your eggs in the Google basket,' he says. He recommends leveraging a variety of channels to ensure that new changes to the Google algorithm do not have too great an impact on your business.

This is a Mobile Penalty

The good news? After a recent move to focus its index on mobile results first, Google has made it clear that this new penalty will primarily affect a site's mobile rankings.

The bad news? SEO agencies like Levy Online have noted that changes to Google's mobile ranking results often predate and forecast changes to its desktop results. Levy spokesman Steffan Hernandez pointed out that, 'While losing ranks in the mobile index is a big deal – since mobile traffic across the internet is only continuing to grow – the fact that these rankings appear to be connected to desktop results as well makes this update even more consequential.' According to Mr. Hernandez, shifts in mobile SERPs (search engine result pages) often precede similar changes to desktop SERPs by a few days, but are often in firm alignment.

So what does this new Google penalty mean for your business? Likely nothing...yet. Many SEO specialists are reporting little movement in SERPs since rollout began on January 10th. But changes are coming sooner than later. I recommend making yours now before you find that Google's hammer finally drops.

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