To use or not to use pop-ups? That is the ques­tion. Specif­i­cal­ly, it’s the ques­tion on a lot of SEO experts’ minds since Jan­u­ary, when Google’s began devalu­ing intru­sive pop-up ads along with oth­er intru­sive inter­sti­tials that might dimin­ish mobile user expe­ri­ence.

Of course, pop-up adver­tis­ing works. The aver­age con­ver­sion rate of high-per­form­ing pop-ups is 9.28 per­cent.

Heck, just over a year ago I wrote an arti­cle about pop-up goals and how to get more peo­ple to click your con­tent. Under­stand­ably, many busi­ness­es are loath to lose such an impor­tant part of their fun­nel.

So if you can’t afford to lose inter­sti­tials entire­ly but don’t want fall afoul of a Google penal­ty, what do you do?

Here are seven tips that will help you use pop-ups intelligently without risking your SEO.

1. Understand Which Interstitials Are No-goes

Google’s mobile inter­sti­tial penal­ty specif­i­cal­ly tar­gets intru­sive inter­sti­tials. Note that “inter­sti­tial” is a broad term that can be wide­ly applied to most pop-ups, over­lays, and modals, but not all inter­sti­tials are con­sid­ered equal­ly intru­sive.

As a gen­er­al rule of thumb, if your inter­sti­tials are spam­my, dif­fi­cult to dis­miss, or dimin­ish your users’ expe­ri­ence, your mobile page may be deval­ued. And, because Google’s index­ing is now mobile-first, this may hurt your posi­tions in the SERPs more than you real­ize.

The following are all examples of interstitials that make your content less accessible:

  • Con­tent-cov­er­ing pop-ups that users are forced to close to con­tin­ue read­ing.
  • Stand­alone inter­sti­tials that must be dis­missed before users can access your con­tent.
  • Decep­tive page lay­outs whose above-the-fold por­tion looks like an inter­sti­tial.

You should also avoid ads that Google’s known to dislike and has penalized in the past, including:

  • Clas­sic inter­sti­tial ads and splash ads that inter­rupt users as they nav­i­gate between pages and/or before they reach your home­page.
  • New win­dow pop-ups that open as soon as a user clicks on your page.
  • Wel­come mats, new win­dow pop-ups, and oth­er intru­sive ads.
  • Over­lay modals that are dif­fi­cult to close and/or eas­i­ly redi­rect vis­i­tors who acci­den­tal­ly click on them.
  • Intru­sive light­box ads and pop-ups.

Using Pop-ups Without Harming Your SEO

Fur­ther­more, Google’s John Mueller con­firmed that inter­sti­tials trig­gered by exit intent are still allowed. How­ev­er, be care­ful about rely­ing too heav­i­ly on these. Annoy­ing your vis­i­tors is nev­er a good idea.

2. Continue Using Non-intrusive Interstitials

Google doesn’t penal­ize non-intru­sive inter­sti­tials. These include any­thing you’re legal­ly required to dis­play to restrict con­tent or keep your users informed, such as age ver­i­fi­ca­tion inter­sti­tials and cook­ie use noti­fi­ca­tions.

Oth­er pop-ups, such as ban­ner ads, slide-ins, inlines and tabs, that take up a rea­son­able por­tion of the screen (15 per­cent or less is rec­om­mend­ed) are also OK, as long as they’re easy to dis­miss.

If you aren’t sure whether your inter­sti­tials are con­sid­ered intru­sive, I rec­om­mend avoid­ing full-screen over­lays, wel­come mats, and ad modals. When­ev­er pos­si­ble, try to switch to top ban­ners and slide-in box­es that allow users to con­tin­ue view­ing your con­tent and don’t dis­rupt UX too much.

3. Switch to Timed Pop-ups

If you absolute­ly must con­tin­ue to use pop-ups and over­lays, you can try to redesign them to be as non-intru­sive as pos­si­ble.

One of the biggest things you can change is the tim­ing of your inter­sti­tials. For exam­ple, instead of dis­play­ing a pop-up as soon as a user lands on your page, time your pop-up for when users have fin­ished your blog post.

You can also lim­it how long pop-ups are dis­played — a pop-up that auto­mat­i­cal­ly clos­es after three sec­onds of user inac­tion is bet­ter than one that nev­er clos­es on its own.

Of course, the chal­lenge with this type of inter­sti­tial is that timed pop-ups are only as effec­tive as your con­tent. If your con­tent isn’t com­pelling enough to keep users on-site, click­ing through your pages and read­ing your con­tent, then con­sid­er invest­ing in your con­tent mar­ket­ing before you start plug­ging it with ads.

4. Watch Out for “Gray Area” Interstitials

Some inter­sti­tials impact­ed by Google’s inter­sti­tial penal­ty might sur­prise you.

For exam­ple, Mueller con­firmed that lan­guage selec­tion pop-ups on inter­na­tion­al sites might be deval­ued, because “yes, those are popups/interstitials too.”

Care­ful­ly mon­i­tor your page per­for­mance if you’re using these or oth­er “gray area” inter­sti­tials, such as sticky side­bars, relat­ed posts, share but­tons, live chat box­es, and coupon pop-ups. While I don’t expect these to neg­a­tive­ly impact SEO, it’s bet­ter to be safe than sor­ry.

5. Use Permitted (but Intrusive) Pop-ups Cautiously

Some ads are def­i­nite­ly inter­rup­tive but aren’t penal­ized. These “gray area” pop-ups are per­mit­ted, but be warned that Google could crack down on them in the future (they’re cer­tain­ly mov­ing in that direc­tion):

  • Page-to-page interstitials:

    Accord­ing to Mueller, Google’s inter­sti­tial penal­ty only deval­ues inter­sti­tials that pop-up when mov­ing from SERP to site page, but inter­sti­tials between site pages are still fine. How­ev­er, we know that Google val­ues good UX, and page-to-page inter­sti­tials cer­tain­ly are not good UX.

  • Interstitials triggered by exit intent:

    Mueller also con­firmed that pop-ups trig­gered by exit intent aren’t pun­ished by the new update. Sim­ply put a no-index tag in your code to avoid land­ing on the wrong side of the inter­sti­tial penal­ty.

Fair warn­ing if you decide to use these inter­sti­tials: They may be penal­ized at some point in the (near) future, even though noth­ing in the new algo­rithm update tar­gets these inter­sti­tials. The only three con­stants in this world are death, tax­es, and Google mak­ing changes for bet­ter UX.

6. You Can Still Use Intrusive Ads on Desktop

Some web­sites have found a band-aid solu­tion to the inter­sti­tial penal­ty, which is to hide pop-ups on mobile devices and con­tin­ue to use them exclu­sive­ly for desk­top vis­i­tors.

Many pop-up plu­g­ins include smart tar­get­ing options that allow you to only dis­play your ads on spe­cif­ic plat­forms. Some web­site plat­forms such as Wix also allow you to hide poten­tial­ly intru­sive pop-ups on all mobile devices.

Again, how­ev­er, pop-ups that are intru­sive and dimin­ish your UX could be pun­ished under a future update. I rec­om­mend you find more per­ma­nent solu­tions than tem­porar­i­ly hid­ing your mobile pop-ups.

7. Restrict Pop-ups to Sources Other Than Google Organic Search

Anoth­er “gray area” that you could exploit is to only put pop-ups in front of vis­i­tors mov­ing between site pages or find­ing your web­site through sources oth­er than Google organ­ic search results. Accord­ing to Mueller, these won’t be impact­ed by the new algo­rithm update:

What we’re look­ing for is real­ly inter­sti­tials that show up on the inter­ac­tion between the search click and going through the page and see­ing the con­tent. So that’s kind of the place we’re look­ing for those inter­sti­tials. What you do after­ward, like if some­one clicks on stuff with­in your web­site or clos­es the tab or some­thing like that, then that’s kind of between you and the user.”

Of course, if organ­ic search dri­ves a lot of your traf­fic and it’s work­ing to gen­er­ate leads, don’t feel too pres­sured to switch. Remem­ber that the new inter­sti­tial penal­ty is just one sig­nal among hun­dreds and an inter­sti­tial ad or two won’t sink a web­site that’s oth­er­wise chock-full of use­ful con­tent.


Wait,” I hear you say­ing. “January’s long gone, but many mobile sites are still using mobile pop-ups and rank­ing well.”

You’re right. Before the update dropped, SEOs were scram­bling to update or remove their mobile inter­sti­tials, but once Jan­u­ary 10 rolled around, every­thing seemed to be busi­ness as usu­al. Glenn Gabe spec­u­lates that maybe this was the point all along:

The true impact has noth­ing to do with mobile rank­ings being impact­ed, a slide in mobile traf­fic or any­thing relat­ed to SEO. Instead, it has every­thing to do with the reac­tion of pub­lish­ers to the news that the algo­rithm was rolling out.”

So even if this is all news to you, you can breathe a sigh of relief — you prob­a­bly haven’t been deeply affect­ed by this update. But remem­ber, just because this update hasn’t had a big impact yet doesn’t mean it nev­er will. Address your pop-ups and inter­sti­tials now so you won’t be caught unpre­pared when/if Google decides to up the ante.

How­ev­er, if you’ve noticed an increase in your bounce rate or a decrease in oth­er UX met­rics (browse rate, return vis­i­tors, etc.) since Jan­u­ary, use the Inter­sti­tial Penal­ty Check­er to see if your pop-ups might be to blame.