The Google Interstitial Penalty: How It Impacts Brands and What You Must Know

Google has recently announced that their interstitial penalty has gone live, and we want to make sure our community is up-to-date on what this penalty entails and what Google wants to accomplish by enacting it.

Over the summer, Google announced that there would be an impending interstitial penalty for
intrusive ads on websites. Like the mobile-friendly update in 2015, this penalty ideally boosts the user experience while also providing website owners with enough time to make the adjustments before their sites lose traffic or rank. In a sense, this is related to the mobile-first bias as interstitials are even more disruptive on the small screen.

What are interstitials?

Interstitials are ads that appear when a person lands on a page on your site and “come between” the user and where the user intended to go. It will cover the original page of content, immediately drawing the attention of the visitor to the ad material. Typically, users have the option to skip the ad or else there is a countdown that will automatically redirect the person back to the original content after a few seconds.

How do sites use these interstitial ads?

Interstitial ads are attractive to site owners because of their ability to focus the attention of users on the ad material and drive response. Since they dominate the screen while they are displayed, many brands see positive returns.

Globally, interstitial ads produce results. It was reported that several brands using them saw strong returns in the past, including a hotel chain that saw a 25x increase in video views and a game developer that saw a 7x increase in conversions. A study reported by the China-based company, Appflood, said that as much as 70 percent of mobile ad revenue comes from interstitial ads. The prominence and value of these advertisements, however, is likely to decrease as Google’s penalty against sites that use them continues to roll out.

An example of one of these interstitial ads can be seen on the website, Whosampled. When visiting the site, users are prompted to download their app, but the ad itself completely covers the screen and can thus make it difficult for people who just want to navigate to the original page of content.

What to avoid for the Google interstitial penalty

Google’s Interstitial penalty

Google gave website developers a warning that they were planning to penalize websites that used what they termed, ‘intrusive’ interstitial advertisements. The search engine explained that they wanted to lower the ranking of websites that had interstitial ads hindering the ability of the user to access the content they sought. Specifically, Google listed in their announcement the types of interstitial ads they will target:

  • 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.

Google also offered this image as a guide for site owners to understand the types of ads targeted.

Avoid the Google interstitial penalty
From Google’s announcement

In contrast, Google said that the penalty will not impact these types of ads when used correctly:

  • Interstitials that appear to be in response to a legal obligation, such as for cookie usage or for age verification.
  • Login dialogs on sites where content is not publicly indexable. For example, this would include private content, such as email or unindexable content that is behind a paywall.
  • Banners that use a reasonable amount of screen space and are easily dismissible. For example, the app install banners provided by Safari and Chrome are examples of banners that use a reasonable amount of screen space.
ads that will not be penalized with the Google interstitial penalty
From Google’s announcement

Since the penalty went live on January 10, 2017, we have already begun to see the impact of this change on site users. For some sites, this penalty has been severe and resulted in noticeable drops in ranking with some marketers reporting that offenders have lost as many as ten or more spots in the mobile SERPs. It is believed by many in the community that the penalty has been rolling out slowly, which means that some sites might still be penalized in the coming days and weeks as it begins to hit all offenders.

What the Google interstitial penalty means for brands

It is important for all site owners to recognize the intentions of this update, even if they do not use this style of ads themselves. Google has been paying increasing attention to the mobile user experience, including the impending launch of their mobile-first index and the push towards greater AMP usage. They want to make sure that users on mobile devices have a seamless experience. Interstitial ads can make it difficult or confusing for people trying to access the original content, thus the penalty. All brands, however, should be paying close attention to how they can improve the mobile experience for their users, as Google is likely to continue to push towards optimal mobile user experiences.

All BrightEdge clients can easily track their mobile rankings and traffic with the BrightEdge platform. We encourage you to play close attention as this update goes live. Even if you do not use these types of ads, it can be helpful to see if you might even receive a bump in traffic as your competitors receive the penalty.

Now that Google has officially gone live with their interstitial penalty, it is important for brands to remain in compliance with the latest recommendations. We will continue to look for ways to help our clients optimize their marketing strategies while also keeping you updated on the latest changes that Google proposes.

After the Google interstitial penalty make sure all your channels are in order