Google Plans to Punish Popups, Balkhi and Van Kooten are Not Concerned

Image of mobile popups crossed out.

Google is flexing its muscles again, leveraging its dominance in the search engine market to push its own idea of what website best practice looks like. They announced that popup “interstitials” will make your site have less relevance if they appear on mobile devices.

In April of 2015, Google tweaked their search algorithm to make sites that were not mobile responsive have less relevant results on their search engine. Back then, I wrote this piece:

If you don’t know what Mobilegeddon is, you’re already doomed

I was heavily in favor of the move at that time. It seemed pretty obvious that sites that weren’t mobile responsive simply weren’t paying attention. This move I’m also in favor of, but it definitely feels a lot more in the realm of Google pushing their agenda rather than being some benevolent protector of the web.

Here’s the gist of it:

“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. To improve the mobile search experience, 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.”
~ Almighty Google

There’s a couple important caveats to this:

  • It’s only if your popup appears on your site on mobile devices (or smaller screens).
  • Somehow, they’re smart enough to know not to punish your mobile site if your popup is an Age Restriction popup, or the European Cookie Law popup. That’s helpful and pretty smart.

More importantly to the majority of WordPress users, they seem to purposely NOT mention the very popular Exit Intent popups. These only display when a user indicates (usually only on desktop where the mouse cursor leaves the browser screen) that the user is intending to go somewhere else.

These were made amazingly popular by the research and products of Syed Balkhi, specifically his OptinMonster product. I reached out to Balkhi on Twitter to get his initial reactions.

He also affirmed that popups can be problematic when used badly.

Balkhi is a really smart guy, and knows his market and his product inside and out. He’s obviously not worried by this news at all — in fact he might even be embracing it. The more educated users are about best practices with popups, the more likely they will be to chose his product.

Nevertheless, there are several features of OptinMonster that I think might be a little problematic after this new algorithm rolls out:

My Gripe with Popups

I’ve read the articles that say “They just work!” including Balkhi’s. I’ve seen the numbers. But I’ve also been extremely annoyed by them — especially on mobile devices.

I do believe that Exit Intent is the best way to do popups constructively — that’s what we use on our site. But I personally prefer what many call “scroll-triggered boxes” or slide-ins. These are like drawers that roll up discreetly towards the bottom or top of your screen once you get close to the end of an article. In Balkhi’s list above, that’s “scroll %”. They don’t obstruct the content, they are animated to get the right kind of attention, and are easily dismissable.

On my personal site I use Boxzilla by ibericode for my scroll-triggered boxes. I also pinged founder Danny Van Kooten. Here’s his reaction:

I haven’t done the research myself yet, but I have a sinking suspicion that those who subscribe via a popup — even an exit intent popup — are less likely to remain a loyal subscriber than those who seek out that subscribe box. When people say “they just work”, I ask “For how long? And what’s their open rate?”

Bottom line

Bottom line is that Google will be “search shaming” your pages if your mobile users can’t see your content easily. Start adjusting now before “Popocalypse” comes in January 2017.


7 thoughts on “Google Plans to Punish Popups, Balkhi and Van Kooten are Not Concerned

  1. Hi Matt, Thanks for sharing your thoughts and opinions from the experts as well. I agree, most people do not use popups properly. I end up closing 99% of the popups without even reading what they have to offer because they appear as soon as I land on the site. I take this as Google’s way of reminding users to use Popups properly 🙂

  2. I’ve been in both camps — I’ve been annoyed by popups and also found them helpful. The difference between my impression of a popup really comes down to: 1. Is the content on the site interesting to me that I’d want to return in the future? 2. Have I been given enough time to determine if the content is interesting to me? 3. Is the offer in the popup relevant to me and my interests? Every single site whose popup annoys me fails those three criteria. They have poor content, or don’t give me enough time to view the content before they ask me to subscribe. Or they offer me something in the popup that isn’t relevant to me, or my current browsing experience. Well targeted popups though, I happily subscribe and typically enjoy the content I receive in my inbox. The argument about whether they are great or terrible is like most things in life — it’s relative to the situation and the execution. 🙂

  3. Rarely do I subscribe to a site via a pop up. Forbes’ use of "popups" and gating is among the worst that I’ve seen. When I consider subscribing to a site it’s usually because I have either a relationship with the writer (Chris Lema, Tom McFarlin, Matt Mederios, Carl Alexander, etc.) or the site/service (WP Site Care, Envato, Media Temple, etc.). When I’m on mobile, popups are way more annoying so I’m glad that Google is taking action here. Nice post!

  4. It’s nice to want this to apply only to sites like Forbes and the NYT and "big media sites" but the casualties will end up being the smaller sites who don’t know any better and don’t stay up-to-date with best practices and Google’s algorithms. It would be best for plugins like OptinMonster to take the lead and insert warnings into their product for certain popup methods with this new information if they truly want site owners to get value out of their service. It will be more important to use the tested/proven popup strategies vs. the ones that seem to be the most visible. From what I’ve seen so far, they seem to do a pretty great job communicating this type of stuff to their customers so I doubt it will impact their business too much.

    1. I have a feeling we’ll hear plenty from OptinMonster about this as more details come out about Google’s actual plan for rolling this out.

  5. Maybe I’m a bit of a glutton for punishment, but I slightly enjoy the Forbes pop-ups that give you the daily motivational advice and whatnot. Of course, I’d rather not see it 90% of the time, but sometimes it says exactly what I need to hear. However, I don’t want to be assaulted with pop-ups to sign up for 10% off my first purchase every 3 minutes on your site. That’s a sure fire way to lose a sale. If you retarget me in social ads after, I am even more likely to not go back to your site – ever. Another good debate topic would be the pop-ups that essentially BLOCK visitors from accessing your site if they use ad blocker plugins/extensions. I use ad-block, but if the site has a nice notice in the sidebar saying "Hey! We make money off our ads, would you please disable adblock and help us out?" I’m more than likely to add an exception to their site. But limiting my access altogether is a great way to increase your visitor bounce rate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *