You're probably familiar with the ways that websites place ads or newsletter signups as annoying overlays on top of websites. Well, get ready to see fewer of those ads, or at least see Google stop sending you to sites that use them. Yesterday (Aug. 23), Google announced that it will be penalizing sites that use these screen cluttering-tactics by demoting them in its search results.
Google says the change will be effective after Jan. 10, 2017, giving websites a few months to change their practices or risk lower traffic coming from the search engine. The company said it's focus is on companies that "make content less accessible to a user" and the first perpetrators of this design sin are those who use popups that obscure "the main content" of a page when a user lands on the page from Google, or "while they are looking through the page."
Google's also targeted sites that display "a standalone interstitial that the user has to dismiss before accessing the main content." That's likely referring to every single site that makes you enter your email address or tap an X to see the article or content you're looking for. Of all of the practices Google is looking to penalize users for using, this seem like the most widespread one.
Lastly, Google is borrowing language last seen in the newspaper era, saying it will penalize sites that split content between an "above the fold" section and a "underneath the fold" area. This sounds like Google is referring to sites that ask you to click a "Read More" button to see the rest of the article, but since Google's language is so convoluted, it's not certain.
Not all overlays are worth a penalty, though, as Google says it won't demote sites that start with a login window or present a window that is "in response to a legal obligation," such as sites asking you to accept their cookies usage or verify your age.
Google will also not punish sites that present overlay ads or banners "that use a reasonable amount of screen space and are easily dismissible." While that language is vague, Google notes that "app install banners provided by Safari and Chrome" will be acceptable to their standards.
This change is similar to Google's recent decision to make its cleaner Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) a larger part of the search results users see. Both decisions seek to make the internet more user friendly, targeting ads as the reason why our experiences aren't as good as they could be.
So, how will this affect you? The sites that violate these rules now have a little more than three months to discover a new way to serve ads, and since many rely on traffic from Google, expect to see them pivot in the new year. Unfortunately, if sites can't find ads that generate the same revenue, this new rule could run the risk of sites getting forced to eliminate positions. Only time will tell.