During a recent marketing conference, the speaker (a veteran among digital marketers) captivated his audience with a simple statement regarding website interstitials: “I haven’t even had a chance to like you yet – and now I hate you!” His statement strikes a chord with a growing number of web users. In recent years, we have seen the proliferation of intrusive, annoying website interstitials and ads rise drastically.
How Do Interstitials Impact the User Experience?
For those who don’t know, website interstitials are the annoying boxes that suddenly appear on a website, usually to request an email address. The page’s content behind the interstitial (if it doesn’t take up the entire screen) is darkened and inaccessible. The only way for users to continue is to either fulfill the call to action or click an elusive “x”. Together with excessive ads and auto-play videos, they help to interrupt – and therefore diminish – the user experience.
Why Interstitials are Used
So why even bother with interstitials? The excuse is always the same: they’re effective. Yes, they may help capture a database full of email addresses. But at what cost? Even as the user experience continues to take center stage in the world of digital marketing, webmasters still callously ignore these annoying interruptions. And where there is an annoyed visitor, there is a blight to the user experience that can (and should) be improved.
Similar to interstitials, overlays also interrupt the user experience. However, these at least give visitors a chance to avoid using them, as it typically won’t appear unless the mouse is moved across an ad. Then, it also halts the visitor until they either click an “x” or visit the advertiser’s website.
The Impact of User Experience on Search Ranking
Even Google has started to take note. As of January 2017, their mobile index now penalizes websites for having intrusive interstitials. While they were not clear as to what exactly they consider intrusive, representatives for the company certainly made it known that occupying an entire mobile screen will incur a penalty. If this seems to significantly improve the experience for mobile searchers, it seems likely that the penalty will be extended to the desktop index as well.
The Competitive Side of the User Experience
To be clear, this is only one of many ranking factors. Yes, a website with intrusive interstitials can technically still rank high in the search results. However, search engine ranking is extremely competitive. If a business believes that it can improve its own ranking by implementing ads or interstitials that are less intrusive than a competitor, they stand a real chance of fulfilling that goal. And as other sites begin to take note and change their implementations, we’ll begin seeing those sites rise in the results as well.
And that, of course, is only one of many digital marketing factors to consider. Think about how many news sites interrupt you while reading with either an interstitial, ad or auto play video that swoops in suddenly and forces the user’s hand if they wish to continue. Now, imagine if a competing news site did not interrupt their experience. All else equal, which site are they more likely to begin visiting on a regular basis? This same approach can apply to websites across all industries.
The Growing Problem of Website Interstitials
The efficacy of these digital marketing technologies have led webmasters down a dangerous path. They are now more willing to ignore a crucial aspect of the user experience: the first impression. This is what the referenced digital marketing speaker was alluding to, as most interstitials pop up very shortly after visiting a site.
The Good News
As we alluded to earlier, interstitials and ads aren’t always bad; they just need to be implemented properly. In fact, it is completely possible to set them up effectively without annoying website visitors. Even Google recognizes this and has stated that interstitials designed properly will not incur a penalty. What does this mean? Unfortunately, they didn’t offer much more information than that.
While Google may choose to remain elusive about its algorithm, many digital marketers have looked to the iPhone’s own popups. Similar to interstitials, they perform a similar function without taking up a significant amount of screen space. This seems to align well with the search giant’s recommendations. It’s also good practice for UX design in general. Essentially, a good rule of thumb is to design popups that only take up as much screen space as necessary. Beyond that, you’re probably in dangerous grounds with both visitors and search engines.
Many websites also implement interstitials that only display as the user is leaving. Right now, Google has announced that these sites will not be penalized – they are, however, “looking into it”. These certainly interfere with the user’s experience, as they must now take additional action before moving on with their browsing. It may not be as irritating, but it does impact the user experience. And with Google focusing on this impact to its searchers, it’s probably best to stay ahead of the game and avoid them.
Interstitials and Legal Obligations
At this point, many webmasters begin to worry about interstitials that are required by law. This is common among sites that rely heavily on cookies. Many of these cookies are downloaded to the user’s computer so that they can track certain behaviors or retrieve and send specific information. Many nations have laws requiring webmasters to inform visitors of this practice.
Interstitials may also serve another legal purpose. For example, many videogame sites, popular among teens, feature product pages for their titles. These pages often include photos and videos, which may be explicit for violent games. So, to avoid any liability, most sites will request the visitor’s date of birth before allowing them to enter. Granted, visitors can always lie about their actual birthdate, but at least the website has done its part to avoid liability. In this way, interstitials certainly aren’t bad for users or search engines.
Ads and Videos
The same holds true for ads and even video: they’re not always bad. In fact, ads are what help keep so much of the content and services on the Internet free. So they certainly provide benefits to both visitors and webmasters. They just need to be implemented properly, much as they were in the earlier days of the web. Back then (even ten years ago), ads were typically placed along a sidebar. That way, they could maintain visibility without interrupting the user’s experience. Sponsorships have also proven to work well, and we see digital marketers innovating new ways to implement user-friendly web ads every day.
As for auto play video, this can be a little tricky. It absolutely can impede the user experience, especially if the volume is not automatically muted. However, many video hosting services set videos to start automatically by default, and not everyone knows how to change those settings (if it’s even possible). So while digital marketers shouldn’t worry too much about auto play video, they should avoid implementing videos that resize and shift into the user’s view as they attempt to navigate the site.
The placement of videos can vary, but it’s perfectly fine to include it at the top, even above the fold, if it is relevant to the content. Some videos are placed to the side, which is also fine as long as they don’t shift unexpectedly. Ideally, they’ll also provide as many control options to the user as possible.
Ultimately, ads and interstitials crafted in this form are generally considered more reasonable among visitors than their direct marketing counterparts. Still, if a webmaster is concerned, they can include text informing the user that the interruption is required by law. Of course, if it’s designed properly, this likely won’t be a problem anyways.
Under these and similar circumstances, Google has explicitly stated that they will not penalize the site. In fact, they understand the importance of not only remaining legally compliant but also of informing (or protecting) the user. Given this, it’s possible that Google may actually encourage sites to adopt the more acceptable forms of interstitials in the future.
What to do if You are Unsure
If you’re unsure of your site’s efficacy, always remember to test. After making a site change, review your analytics frequently for any traffic shifts. We all know that this can take a while (especially with search engines), but by observing your site’s trends over time, you can easily determine whether a change was effective or detrimental.
If, at this point, you’re still not sure, just give us a call or send us an email! We are your user experience experts. Our UX Design experts will help determine your business goals and analyze how your site lines up with search engine guidelines. We can also review your current site or app to determine how well it’s meeting the needs and preferences of your visitors. We can then make and implement specific, measurable recommendations.
Christopher Parker is a writer, web specialist and tech geek. He is always looking for new and exciting freelancing projects.