When you visit a website and your browser screen suddenly fills with a pop-ad that blocks out most of the page, do you think: "Oh goody! I get to learn about a product!" Or do you start looking for the tiny little x you need to click in order to close the ad and get to the content behind it as quickly as you can?

Google is betting on the latter. That's why the company announced in a blog post today that sites with what it calls "intrusive" pop-ups will rank lower on mobile searches than sites without pop-ups or with ads that use "a reasonable amount of screen space." (Google, of course, will decide what's reasonable and what isn't.)

It's also planning to lower the rank of sites with intrusive interstitials. In English, that's the screen you see while waiting for your page to load. If the interstitial serves a legally required purpose, such as obtaining your permission to use cookies or asking you to confirm that you're over 18, it won't be penalized, Google says. But if that screen is an ad, the site will risk losing rank in mobile searches.

The new rules take effect January 10, which gives developers and publishers (such as Inc.com) about four-and-a-half months to decide what to do about them. Among publisher websites, of course, pop-ups are very widely used, which would seem to leave them between a very large rock and a very hard place. No news site ever wants to lose rank in Google searches, but neither do they want to turn away the advertising revenues pop-up ads provide. Without ad revenues, they can't produce the quality content that leads to high search ranking. But without that high ranking, they can't provide the page views advertisers pay for.

Et tu, Google?

Google says it's putting the rules in place to create a better user experience. That makes sense, but several observers have noted that one of the biggest purveyors of the poor user experiences pop-up ads and interstitials provide is Google itself. Consider, for instance, the endless parade of pop-up ads that appear in even the shortest YouTube videos. Or the gigantic page-covering ad for YouTube Music one reader posted in the comments section of the Verge's article about the new rules. In an even greater bit of hypocrisy, Google appears to have created its own unit for selling interstitial mobile ads earlier this summer.

The new rules may pose some conundrums for publishers, web developers, and advertisers, but they're definitely good news for most users. No one likes to be interrupted by an ad covering the screen while trying to read the latest news. If Google applies these rules equally to itself, it will have done a good thing. If not--maybe it's time to reconsider Bing.

Published on: Aug 23, 2016
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