Does Google penalize sites with pop-ups?

Does pop-ups have an impact on your SEO?

Internet regulation is an interesting arena. It begs the discussion, “how much can we actually regulate what people are putting on the internet?” Is it free-speech? Can it turn into harassment? Is it the best way to bring in sales? Or does it deter potential customers from making the conversion? In this post, we’re focusing on one specific in this realm—pop-up’s. There has been a lot of discussion about whether giants like Google are penalizing sites that leverage them frequently. We’re partnering with our friends at Yarra Web to determine- does Google penalize sites with pop-up’s?

Short answer- yes. As of January 10, 2017, Google made a statement that it will begin cracking down on what they refer to as “intrusive interstitials”. Unfamiliar with the term? It basically means that if the pop-up (or any secondary content on a site) doesn’t have something to do with the product, the brand or the general customer experience, it will negatively impact SEO status on Google.

To the above point, there are a couple of different types of pop-ups. The first (and worst offender in Google’s mind) is the new window pop-up. As moz shares, “new window, no good”. In fact, it goes beyond Google. There are many browsers now, including Chrome and Firefox, that stop them automatically.

Next up is the overlay. The overlay differs from the first pop-up, because it opens in the same browser window. Slightly less offending, right? Yes, as far as Google is concerned. Examples of these would include visuals with call to actions like “sign up for my newsletter” or “purchase my product now”. While not as offensive, it is important to note that these can detract from the user experience, specifically on mobile.

On to modals. We’re venturing into the approved-category in the mind of Google, as these tend to be more useful to the user experience. Lightboxes for images are examples of modals. The caveat here is that you are doing work within the modal, you as a user are engaging with the modal providing information to it, and you can’t see the content of the site that’s underneath it. Unless the content of modals is spam or advertising, you shouldn’t run into an issue when it comes to SEO on Google.

Exit-intent pop-ups are gaining a lot of popularity as of late. They appear as users are trying to leave the site; A last ditch effort to keep traffic on your page and/or cull information from visitors. There’s a reason that these are so successful. Users of any website can become overwhelmed when too much information is presented to them. If they’re then shown one single call-to-action or piece of information, you make their decisions a lot easier.

An example of an exit-intent pop-up window.

Finally, we hit interstitials. Interstitials are what Google really targets in its policy. One example of a case study that comes to mind is Before you can access any information, any articles on the site, you’re brought to a “welcome” page. This page includes sponsor and advertising information. You can’t bypass this screen until you’ve spent a certain amount of time on it. As you may imagine, sites like these tend to have higher bounce rates, as the attention levels of younger and younger generations are persistently reduced.

Pop-up updates are just one of the process shifts that Google has made recently. They’ve also been active in synthesizing what sites are actually mobile-friendly, and which haven’t earned this label. Since this change was made two years ago, chances are good that your company has already shifted its site to be mobile friendly. If not, you’re currently being penalized, and your customers have a much lower likelihood of being able to find you. Hootsuite has an interesting article here with simple steps to follow. Two of the most important are to use responsive design and include viewpoint meta-tags.

Back to pop-ups, there are a couple of specifications that you should be aware of. You will be penalized in Google rankings if you do any of the following:

  • Show a pop-up with the content of the main site, just after the consumer reaches the page from search results.
  • Have a pop-up appear as visitors are exploring the main site.
  • Display a standalone pop up that does not allow the consumer to access the site content without dismissing the pop up.
  • Leverage a template or website layout that shows the top third of the page as content but turns out to be a standalone pop-up.
Example of a type of pop-up, this is a standalone.

A standalone pop-up appears as the top third of a website’s home page.

There’s good reason behind this. Google’s end-game will always be to improve the user-experience. They believe that these intrusive interstitials create a poor experience for users and ultimately impact their bounce rate, their exit rate, and even their time onsite. If content is immediate and uninterrupted, consumers are far more likely to explore the site and ultimately make the conversion. Feedback from users has been overwhelmingly positive, as evidenced by the many different social posts to that effect.

Now, there are some exceptions. The specific verbiage from Google is that the following examples “would not be affected by the new signal, if used responsibly.” Interstitials that reference a legal obligation don’t fall into the negative bucket. Examples would be age verification or forewarning of cookie usage. Another area is login dialogs, where the content of a site isn’t indexable publicly.

Some retailers are actively opposed to moving away from pop-up’s since this can be a main source of growth for their subscriber lists. We’re guessing that you’ve been greeted with a discount or ‘sign up now’ pop up at least once when visiting a retailer’s site on your mobile phone. Those pop-ups will now be to their detriment. This shift should have major impacts to ecommerce, especially since most retailers see more than 50% of their traffic on smartphones.

So how do you know the quality of your user experience and whether certain design elements may be harming your conversion rates? The best way is to analyse certain metrics. The ones that we would recommend tracking are browse rate, bounce rate, return visitor rate and time on site. You can track these using Google Analytics (which will have the best indication of how your site fares on Google). When in doubt, keep the design of your site simple, clean and explore it from the perspective of your customers.

Looking for more tips on SEO? Check out our post How to get started with SEO.

Questions? Let us know in the comments below.

Patrick O’Doherty is founder and Managing Director at Yarra Web, a digital agency who has proudly been supporting digital and bricks and mortar businesses since 2008.


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