The difference between pop-ups, interstitials and banners, how they impact SEO, and the pros and cons of using them on your website.
It’s funny how some marketing strategies stand the test of time. Despite breaking almost every user experience (UX) best practice, pop-ups remain one of the most popular methods of generating leads from online traffic.
It’s a tug-of-war between design principles and marketing results. Many brands find pop-ups still convert large volumes of traffic – but at what expense? To answer that question, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of using pop-ups on your website.
Let’s go back to 2017 quickly
In January 2017, Google announced an update that would penalise sites using pop-ups and interstitials on mobile – this only affects the mobile SERPs.
We typically advise against showing pop-ups to mobile traffic anyway, due to the number of UX problems they cause, so you may need to rethink your approach if you’re currently showing them on mobile.
There were some exceptions:
- Pop-ups notifying users about Cookies
- Asking users to confirm their age or any other legal requirements
- Login panels or other UI elements
- Banners that only take up a small portion of the screen, as long as users can dismiss them easily
Essentially, Google didn’t want to see pop-ups that made content less accessible to mobile users. Which means prompts to download your mobile app, email signup forms and other obtrusive pop-ups and interstitials now get penalised.
What’s the difference between pop-ups, interstitials and banners?
The terminology on this topic can be a little confusing as terms like pop-up and interstitial are used almost interchangeably. There are some differences worth understanding, though.
There are various different types of popups you can use but they all “pop up” on top of a web page. So, generally, the content has already loaded and a pop-up blocks the view of the page to deliver a message.
Full-screen pop-ups will block the entire view of the page but it’s also common to see lightbox pop-ups that block a portion of the page. Normally, you’ll set a pop-up to trigger after a short delay, when a user scrolls to a certain part of the page or use something called exit-intent popups that trigger when a user’s mouse hovers near the top of the browser window.
Even Google uses the terms pop-ups and interstitials almost interchangeably but a true interstitial is a full-screen message that appears while a web page is loading, often preventing access to the content until you see and ad and click to remove it.
Perhaps you remember these monstrosities that used to appear on the Forbes website. These were true interstitials and Google allowed the publisher to get away with using these for way too long. Even after Google rolled out its pop-up/interstitial update, these things lived on (on desktop) but, thankfully, Forbes eventually pulled them from its website.
Banners are unaffected by Google’s pop-up/interstitial algorithm as they only take up a “reasonable” amount of screen space (far-right in the image above). The key design aim with banners is that users can interact with page content as normal – the only real difference is that a small portion of the page is covered up.
In theory, this presents the least amount of friction.
That explains the key difference between these three but keep in mind that the phrases “pop-ups” and “interstitials” are often used interchangeably.
How do pop-ups and interstitials impact SEO?
The simple answer to this question is that there’s a specific check in Google’s search algorithm for popups and interstitials on mobile. If these are detected and considered to be obtrusive, then your pages are likely to rank lower.
“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.” – Webmaster Central Blog
However, the full SEO impact of using pop-ups and interstitials can be much larger than the direct search penalty. If blocking access to your content is resulting in higher bounce rates, less time spent on your websites, fewer pages visited and preventing people from linking to your content, the broader SEO penalty is going to be huge.
Relevant, high-quality links are still the biggest ranking factor in Google’s search algorithm and pop-ups greatly reduce your chances of getting these by reducing the percentage of visitors who engage with your content, let alone share it with others. Likewise, Google wants to rank pages that provide the information people are looking for and a bad mix of high bounce rates and low times on page suggests your content doesn’t belong at the top of the SERPs.
So why do so many brands still use them?
The pros of using pop-ups on your website
Google updates aside, there are still some positives to using pop-ups for desktop traffic:
- They convert like crazy – There are so many case studies of pop-ups increasing lead counts, it’s easy to see why they’re popular.
- They demand attention – Hijacking the entire screen isn’t subtle, but it certainly gets attention.
- They focus on one message – With so many different messages on your site, pop-ups give you space to focus on one call to action (CTA).
- Huge ROI potential – Pop-ups basically cost nothing, so the ROI potential is massive.
- They’re less intrusive now – A number of variations on traditional pop-ups are designed to be less intrusive on user experience.
In most cases, the goal with popups and interstitials is to convert users and this is where your choices become a little more difficult. If you’re prioritising conversions above all else then pop-ups are probably something you’ll want to test. On the other hand, if the highest rankings or best user experience are more important to you, then these probably aren’t for you.
The cons of using pop-ups on your website
Even before Google announced the upcoming algorithm change, the list of reasons not to use pop-ups and interstitials was big enough:
- They’re annoying as hell – Again, this is especially true for full-screen intrusions.
- They block content – And, because they tend to load last, users have already started reading by the time you block their view.
- They force a user to take action – Which is fine if they convert, but only exaggerates your intrusion if they don’t.
- Bounce rate – Quite often the action users take is to leave your site.
- You lose other potential leads – Even if your pop-ups generate leads, you’ll be losing others by interrupting user sessions.
- They can damage brand reputation – The spammy nature of pop-ups isn’t exactly a confidence boost for consumers.
- Pop-ups are awful on mobile – We’re glad Google penalises sites for showing pop-ups to mobile traffic.
Essentially, it comes down to what kind of value pop-ups bring to your marketing strategy. If you’re generating solid leads by using them, then it may be worth the compromises.
Guidelines for using pop-ups on your website
If you decide pop-ups or interstitials can add value to your marketing strategy, consider these guidelines to reduce friction:
- Disable them for mobile – They suck for mobile and you’ll soon get penalised for using them.
- Offer something valuable – You need a damn good reason to justify interrupting users.
- Be relevant – Make your message relevant to the content on any given page.
- Be selective – You don’t need pop-ups on every page.
- Take your time – Don’t trigger them right away – give users a chance to view your page before you block it.
- Make them easy to close – Don’t force users to click some tiny ‘x’ to close your pop-up.
- Test variations – Fine-tune your pop-ups to get the right balance between leads and a smooth UX.
Finally, take a look at the different variations of pop-ups available right now. For example, exit pop-ups only trigger when a user’s mouse moves to the top of the browser, while scroll pop-ups trigger at a certain point of the page or when users scroll up. These can help reduce the negative impact on user experience.
Is it worth using pop-ups / interstitials at all?
The fact is, pop-ups will probably cost you leads, increase your bounce rate and make you less trustworthy to certain users. Only you can test and optimise to see if the leads you’re generating through pop-ups/interstitials outweighs the losses in terms of search ranking, UX, etc.
Just make sure you’re aware of what compromises and weigh up all the variables. For example, are those email sign-ups worth the loss of traffic that may never come back again? These are the kind of questions you need to be asking and you’ll only get the answers from solid data. So test everything you do before using any pop-ups or interstitials and be sure you’re getting a good enough return to justify them.
More design tips you may like
- Design ROI: Is your business looking good?
- What happens when I click this button?
- 5 steps to better call to action design.
- 5 quick UX tests you can do in-house.
What do you think?
As a marketer, do you think there is a place for pop-ups? Or as a website visitor do you find them annoying and intrusive? Tweet us what you think.