The Impact of Popups, Overlays, and Interstitials on SEO

There's a lot to be dismantled and much to glean from Google’s recent algorithm update. In this post, we uncover the truth behind popups and your search rankings.

Head of Content, Dynamic Yield

Popups, overlays, interstitials, or modules… whatever you want to call them, they’ve long been used as an effective tactic for reducing cart/site abandonment, to recapture sales, and generate more leads/conversions/revenue. Exit intent popups, alone, contributed to a 267% conversion uplift for one of our clients.  

Used to highlight a particular offer while helping narrow down the decision-making process for visitors, effective overlay experiences aim to provide value, and in doing so, fulfill multiple revenue-based goals.

But like most marketing tactics, poor implementation, misuse, and bad practices (especially on mobile where pages have less real-estate) ruin it for everyone. This has led to degraded user experiences and, not surprisingly, the harsh wrath of almighty Google. Come to smite us for our wrongdoings, similar to an angry parent who’s tripped over an ill-placed skateboard in the dining room, we must now reflect on the consequences of our actions, accept responsibility, and maybe spend a few days in our room without access to electronics.

For now, pages where content is not easily accessible (i.e. include intrusive interstitials) during a transition from mobile search may not rank as high.

Thankfully, like any caring mother or father, Google is forgiving and really only wants what’s best for you and your future, AKA the happiness of your users. You just need to follow a few new house rules when it comes to deploying your popups.

So, dry your eyes and don’t toss in the towel just yet. There’s a lot to be dismantled and much to glean from Google’s recent algorithm update, and in general, it’s mobile-first indexing strategy.

Not all Popups are Bad

And therefore, not all popups are subject to being penalized.  

Additionally, while you might assume this boils down to sheer mobile vs. desktop implementation, it doesn’t. Nor does it apply to every popup on every page of a website.  

In actuality, Google recognized that most people nowadays use its engine to search for results on their mobile devices. Meaning, algorithms based on the desktop version of a site’s content seems pretty counterproductive. Or at least not conducive to understanding the actual relevance of a page for users who are accessing it on mobile.

Thus the mobile-index was born, shifting to algorithms primarily reliant on the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site. In doing so, many examples of intrusive overlays became apparent, frustrating users who expected easy access to what they clicked on from search but instead experienced obscured or concealed content.

Totally fair.

As marketers and mobile users, ourselves, we can and should appreciate as well as participate in the good fight for better user experiences alongside Google.

But that still doesn’t mean we need to eradicate popups from our arsenal of engagement tactics.  

Here’s why:  

  1. Google’s main hustle is helping users quickly find the best answers to their questions from search, putting a lot of significance on the first-page user experience. This does not include additional pages on the site, for example, a floating cart overlay appearing after a user has been browsing and added items for purchase.

Legal obligation popupExample of an acceptable interstitial used for age verification

  1. Even on the first page, not all interstitials are created equally, and popups displayed to meet legal obligations, such as for age verification or cookie usage will not be affected. Additionally, content not publically available or that lives behind a paywall and requires a login dialog is not subject to penalty.

To reiterate, Google’s main concern is covering content immediately after a user navigates to a page from search. But there’s a few more considerations and practices to keep in mind as you reassess and update the current state of your popup game.

When to Popup and When Not to Popup

While every marketer will hold different beliefs about proper overlay usage, largely influencing the tactics they use and overall impact on a user’s time on their site, Google has made it pretty clear what rules one can abide by in order to ensure potentially meaningful experiences are not detracted from by the presence of intrusive overlays.

So whatever you prescribe to, if these signals aren’t reflected in your popup manifesto, so to speak, your UX beliefs aren’t going to save you from ranking poorly.

That’s why you should always avoid:

  1. Shifting above the fold content down in order to make room for a standalone interstitial.
  1. Forcing a user to dismiss an overlay before they’ve even accessed content on the page.
  1. Showing a modal that covers the main content almost immediately, or upon user exploration.

Again, these rules apply to those navigating from search who expect ease of access to content and preclude legal notifications as well as gated information.

As a personalization platform that heavily uses overlays to individualize experiences for users, Dynamic Yield, much like Google, cares a lot about the impact our capabilities have on the customer journey.

Committed to adhering to the most up-to-date changes taking place in a rapidly evolving landscape which is now driven by the wants and needs of the end user, we’re distilling a few additional best practices to help our readers, prospects, and customers build the best experiences possible.

  1. Avoid showing popups on landing pages from organic search.
  1. Avoid showing popups from first page views from any source.
  1. For exit-intent popups, avoid deployment upon users bouncing back to Google.
  1. For exit-intent popups, implement a scroll or time-based trigger.
  1. Use small, behavior-based triggered overlays when necessary.
  1. All interstitials should only take up 15% of the user’s screen.
  1. Popups should easily tap closed from an “X” button or upon clicking outside of the popup.

There are, in fact, a host of mobile-friendly use cases such as page curls, sliding drawers, and expanding offers that can be used without fear of detracting from a site’s UX.

Mobile friendly popups

All the marketer needs to be concerned with, as always, is quality design, non-intrusive placement, valuable content, and well-timed, behavior-driven experiences. Whether for Google or not, if a company wants to improve performance, revenue, and conversions, a great UX will take into consideration all visitors, regardless of traffic source or device.

Don’t have the design or development resources to create high-end overlays from scratch? Dynamic Yield’s new personalization template library includes ready-to-use HTML, CSS, and Javascript experiences that marketers can customize accordingly and then set live.

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The Impact of Popups, Overlays, and Interstitials on SEO
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