Ah, the eternal question: To pop-up, or not to pop-up?
All apologies to Hamlet, but this question just became critical, thanks to Google’s recent announcement that it’ll begin penalizing sites for certain types of pop-up ads.
If you missed this announcement, or if you caught it but are wringing your hands trying to decide what to do about it, this article is for you.
The Details Of Google’s New Pop-up Penalty
The official announcement states that Google will begin docking sites with certain pop-ups — what they call “intrusive interstitials” — that make the underlying content less accessible.
What does “less accessible” mean, exactly? It’s a little vague, but fortunately, Google also provided some examples, both textual and visual:
- Pop-ups that cover the main content, either immediately or as someone is looking at that page
- A standalone interstitial that a user has to take action to dismiss before the main content can be seen
- Using any layout where the above-the-fold part of the page looks like a standalone interstitial, but the actual content is just inlined beneath the fold.
What types of interstitials won’t incur a penalty?
- Any pop-up or interstitial that’s there for a legal obligation — say, a notification of cookie usage or an attempt to verify the age of the user
- Login dialog boxes where content isn’t publicly indexable — i.e., content behind a paywall, private content such as email, etc.
- Banners that only take up “a reasonable amount” of the screen and which can be closed easily — e.g., the app install banners from Safari and Chrome
Google was upfront about the reason behind this change, slated to take effect January 10, 2017. It’s right there in the title — “helping users easily access content on mobile.”
In fact, the company has been pretty clear about its interest in improving user experience across the board, but especially for mobile users. And the reason for that should be pretty clear. According to SimilarWeb, somewhere around 56 percent of all visits to major sites take place on mobile devices.
Now that mobile searches have surpassed desktop, Google is fully focused on ensuring a positive experience for mobile users.
The Argument Against Pop-ups
Why is Google making pop-ups such a significant part of that mobile user experience?
Simply put, most users say they hate them and find them tremendously annoying. We know this because the issue has been endlessly studied and surveyed.
According to PageFair, the use of ad-blocking solutions grew by 41 percent around the world from 2014 to 2015, resulting in 198 million active ad-block users globally. And a full third of web users say they find display ads utterly intolerable, according to Adobe.
Clearly, ads are a perceived problem.
Then there’s the fact that the majority of all web users these days don’t even see true pop-ups anymore since all major browsers have a built-in way to block those pop-ups altogether.
And if all that doesn’t convince you that people hate pop-ups and other kinds of intrusive, annoying ads, consider this: The guy who created pop-ups apologized for doing so a few years back.
The Arguments In Favor Of Pop-ups
The inevitable comeback when anyone quotes statistics such as those above against the use of pop-ups is a simply: “But they work.”
And that’s actually true. Statistics and case studies have demonstrated over and over that pop-ups do work — at least in the sense of improved conversion rates.
Consider one SumoMe study, which found the following:
- The top 10 percent highest-performing pop-ups averaged a 9.28 percent conversion rate.
- The average conversion rate for all pop-ups is 3.09 percent.
Screenshot from SumoMe
Case studies also support the efficacy of pop-ups. WP Beginner increased signups from 70-80 to over 400 a day, just by displaying the pop-up below on single post pages to users who demonstrated intent to exit (i.e., they began to leave the page or site, for instance by moving the mouse to the back button).
And Dan Zarrella’s email subscription rate doubled with a pop-up, while the bounce rate was statistically unchanged (75.66 percent to 75.13 percent) when he temporarily disabled the pop-up.
What Should You Do Before The Pop-up Penalty Becomes Effective?
Some sites are taking a pretty hard line stance in the wake of Google’s announcement, recommending a blanket moratorium on pop-ups except for those required by law. That may indeed be the safest course of action.
At a minimum, you should evaluate your current revenue streams and if any significant portion comes from display ad revenue, you’ll want to spend the time between now and Jan. 10 looking at options for replacing that lost revenue.
Additionally, you’ll want to analyze your site’s pages to make sure all your other mobile-related factors are on target — e.g., text-based content is readable without zooming, you’re not using Flash, links aren’t too close together so that users can easily click the link they want, and buttons are large enough to be legible.
If you do elect to keep pop-ups on your site, make sure they’re unobtrusive, and that they don’t pop up immediately when the page loads. Sixty seconds seems to be a safe place to start, although of course to be certain, you should test this with your own site.
Finally, make it easier for your users to clear the pop-up by simplifying the process of closing it out. Make sure to include a close button or “x” icon, and ensure that it’s located where a user would logically expect it to be.
So – bottom line: Should you deactivate all your site pop-ups?
A definitive “yes” or “no” answer is had to come by, at least with any degree of confidence.
We suggest that you use the time before the Google penalty takes effect to test out your pop-up changes with your own users. As you do, look carefully at the metrics that matter.
For instance, you might lose some search traffic with a pop-up, but you could simultaneously see more highly targeted traffic, resulting in some metrics getting worse while conversion rates and the total number of conversions actually increase. If that’s the case, it might be worth your while to retain the pop-up.
Google’s own announcement supports this approach:
“Remember, this new signal is just one of hundreds of signals that are used in ranking. The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal, so a page may still rank highly if it has great, relevant content.”
In other words, if you’ve got a stellar piece of content and you’re confident your site scores well on most of the other factors Google ranks for, a pop-up may not affect you at all.
But it’s a risk, and site owners must decide for themselves whether it’s worth taking that risk for their sites.
Have you decided whether you’ll take down pop-ups on your site? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.