Back in 2015, Google announced that mobile searches had overtaken desktop for the very first time. Following this shift in the landscape, Google also announced that it would be focusing its future algorithm updates to reflect this new reality. Among the many changes that followed in the preceding years was the controversial introduction of amp links, which are designed to enhance the browsing experience for mobile users, albeit at a cost to content creators.
By 2017, Google had set its sights firmly on a common feature of websites, one that users had complained about for some time: intrusive interstitial pages.
What Is An Interstitial Page?
An interstitial webpage is a web page that loads before the content that a user requests. After the user clicks on a link, the interstitial page is served up to them before the page that they have requested. This is a useful tool for website owners who need to convey information to a user before they access a particular part of a website.
For example, a common example of an interstitial page would be the age verification page that appears on adult websites. Users navigate to the website as they would for any other website and request to access its homepage. But before the homepage is given to the user, the interstitial page appears like a pop-up asking them to provide their age.
An intrusive interstitial page is one that occupies a significant portion of the users’ display, forcing them to interact with the interstitial before they can continue to the content they are trying to load. This is the kind of interstitial page that Google doesn’t like.
Google And Interstitials
While Google is not averse to interstitial pages per se, they have seriously clamped down on what they consider to be intrusive interstitial pages in the last few years. These interstitial pages include those that exist only to display an ad to the user before they access a website. Intrusive interstitial pages are effective at driving conversions. That’s why so many websites have used them in the past. However, users largely seem to find them a nuisance. Because of this, Google has started to take a dim view of them.
While interstitial pages can be annoying for users browsing on a desktop, they are even more frustrating for mobile users who are working with strict data limits. Every unnecessary page and every unnecessary element on a page that a website has to load represents a data cost for the user.
Hiding Intrusive Pages From Google
In a recent Q&A, Google’s John Mueller opened up about Google’s stance on interstitials in response to a question from the audience.
Cloaking is when a website serves different content to Google’s bots than it does to human users. This can be used to create a false impression of the website and trick Google into categorizing it incorrectly. While cloaking is usually frowned upon by Google, it seems that there is an exception when it comes to interstitials.
According to Mueller, website owners are allowed to serve intrusive interstitial pages to direct traffic that comes straight to the website without using a search engine, while serving up smaller and less intrusive interstitials to users that are accessing the website via search results. As long as Google’s bot is seeing the same page that the user coming from Google’s search engine would see, they do not appear to have a problem with the use of cloaking.
In some cases, websites are legally obligated to display certain information to their users, and this is generally done by using interstitials. Perhaps the most common example of this is the interstitial used to inform users about data collection and privacy policies. These interstitials are exempt from the usual rules. Google will not penalize websites for using these kinds of interstitials, irrespective of how intrusive they might be.
Of course, it is down to webmasters to ensure that they are using the appropriate HTML code to tell Googlebot that the intrusive interstitial is a legal interstitial. Without this code in place, Google will have no way of knowing that the interstitial is legal in nature.
How Do You Know If Your Pages Are Devalued?
If you are using interstitial pages on your website, you may want to keep an eye on them to ensure that Google is not devaluing your pages erroneously. Unfortunately, it seems that this is not currently possible. Note that while the use of interstitials is one of the things that the ranking algorithms take into account, there is no specific flag or indication in the user’s search console to tell them that Google is marking them down for the use of interstitial pages.
However, intrusive interstitial pages are considered to be a relatively soft negative ranking factor. This means that they are not the kind of thing that is going to send a website tumbling down from the top of the search engine results page. In fact, the use of an interstitial page should only affect the individual page that it precedes.
Interstitial pages have a variety of legitimate uses, so it is fortunate that Google recognizes this in its approach to dealing with them. In fact, Google has done a better job than it usually does in ensuring that legitimate users are not caught in the crossfire of its efforts to combat bad web design. If you are using interstitial pages for legal purposes, then you only need to mark them with HTML and Google will not count them.
Other than this, you can still use interstitials to drive conversions, provided that you do not make them intrusive and inconvenient for the user. It is also important that you don’t try to pull the wool over Google’s eyes; Googlebot must see exactly what a user coming from the Google search engine would see. As long as you stick to those rules, Google will not penalize you for.