SEO is tricky.
Even once you’ve positioned your website satisfactorily, it’s still not a done deal: you have to convert the visitors who find you on Google.
That’s why so many websites use pop-ups. With an average conversion rate of 3.8%, they’re one of the easiest ways to convert organic traffic into sales or leads.
However, a recent update of Google’s Search Quality Raters’ Guidelines and numerous articles from SEO experts casts some doubts: can pop-ups undermine your SEO efforts?
In this article, we’ll cover four parts:
Are Pop-Ups Worth the Risk?
Before diving into the topic of pop-ups and SEO, let’s get a couple of questions out of the way first.
Do pop-ups really work? Are they worth the risk?
According to research shared by Jeffrey Vocell from HubSpot, the average click-through-rate of traditional calls-to-action is just above 1%.
Grow and Convert usually observes similar conversion rates, between 0.5 and 1.5% for basic CTAs.
Given these figures, it’s no wonder why marketers want to use a popup once in a while: their conversion rate is up to three times higher than traditional calls-to-action. We ourselves (at Wisepops) average a conversion rate of 3.75%.
These statistics shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Pop-ups offer a few unique advantages that explain why they’re usually associated with a higher conversion rate:
They can be easily segmented based on the visitor’s profile.
Their timing can be tailored to match the visitor’s behavior.
Their design is usually eye-catching, which captures the visitor’s attention and prolongs the time spent on your website (thus increasing the likelihood of conversion).
While website popups may be a good way to optimize a website for conversions, do we know if pop-ups affect SEO? Do they present any risk of jeopardizing our organic search traffic?
What Google Thinks About Pop-Ups
Usually, finding official and precise comments from Google about a particular topic is rare.
Luckily for us, Google is clear about its stance on pop-ups: pop-ups are specifically mentioned in their official guidelines, and their spokespeople have clarified what the search engine thinks about modals.
Let’s dive into their communication around the topic.
Google Interstitial Guidelines
In 2016, Google published guidelines about what they called “intrusive interstitials.”
First, let’s explain what an interstitial is. It’s a full-screen pop-up that appears before a content page.
Now, let’s have a look at the top takes from these guidelines.
First, websites using “intrusive interstitials” could be penalized. So yes, if you don’t respect Google’s guidelines, pop-ups can pose SEO risks.
But the guidelines only target pop-ups that meet specific criteria: mobile pop-ups that are displayed on the landing page right after coming from a search engine results page “that cover the main content.”
In other words, these guidelines don’t concern:
pop-ups displayed on desktops and tablets,
smaller pop-ups “that [use] a reasonable amount of screen space,”
“interstitials that appear to be in response to a legal obligation, such as for cookie usage or for age verification,” or
pop-ups that don’t appear right away.
About this last point: John Mueller, one of Google’s webmaster spokespersons, added that the penalty addresses “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.” (source).
In other words, pop-ups that appear a few seconds after the visitor has scrolled or triggered a mobile exit-intent script are not considered a problem.
(We’ll come back to this later.)
Search Quality Raters’ Guidelines
Now, we know what Google thinks about mobile pop-ups. But what about pop-ups displayed on desktops or tablets?
Again, we have an official source from Google: the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines.
For those who are not familiar with the document, Google actually asks humans (crazy, right?) to manually evaluate Google search results. Using a set of evaluator guidelines, individuals evaluate the quality of the web pages they consult.
Since Google relies on the evaluators’ judgment to improve its search algorithm, we can consider this document a good proxy for evaluating what a high-quality page looks like in the “eyes” of the search engine.
And guess what?
These guidelines contain a section about pop-ups:
What should we take away from this document?
It’s important to add an easy-to-use close button to your pop-up.
Google still insists on interstitials.
It looks as though Google has the same opinion of pop-ups whether they’re viewed on a mobile or a desktop. But the tone seems more moderate for desktops than for mobile.
Other Potential Impacts of Pop-Ups on SEO
Now that we know the direct impact of pop-ups on SEO, we have to wonder if there could be additional side effects of using them.
After all, Google’s algorithm includes hundreds of signals. Could pop-ups affect some of these other signals?
First, there’s pop-ups’ impact on the loading time.
Pop-up scripts and assets add to a page’s loading time. And let’s be clear: they can have a significant impact, especially if they include heavy visuals.
Google has been insisting on the importance of the loading speed for several years, and has shared significant research on the matter. It has even developed a tool for webmasters to evaluate and optimize their page’s loading speed.
But how much does loading time really affect your rankings in search engine results?
Not so much, according to Gary Illyes, a webmaster trends analyst at Google. He recently declared that it was a minor ranking factor:
In short, the impact of your modals on your website’s loading time shouldn’t be a major concern, at least from a pop-up SEO standpoint.
But if you’re still concerned about your pop-ups’ impact on your loading time, there are ways to mitigate it. We’ll come back to this topic later.
Earlier we mentioned that pop-ups were one of marketers’ favorite tools.
But unfortunately, web users take a different stance on the matter. Last year, we ran a survey about how web users feel towards pop-ups. 82% said they hated pop-ups.
Why would this affect SEO?
Because a lot of studies show that Google takes behavioral factors into account in its ranking algorithm. Consequently, if your visitors are so annoyed by your pop-up that they decide to leave immediately or shorten their visit on your website, it could have a negative impact on your SEO.
Does this mean that all pop-ups have a direct negative impact on visitors and could have an indirect negative impact on your SEO?
Not necessarily–there are a lot of factors involved. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
In an article for CXL, Ott Nigulis quoted 3 studies that showed that pop-ups didn’t have any impact on a website’s bounce rate. The bounce rate (the proportion of visitors who leave your website after visiting only one page) is an interesting factor, because it’s one of the easiest ways to estimate the impact of pop-ups on the user experience. If visitors are annoyed enough to leave a website, the bounce rate will increase.
These studies also found that pop-ups had no effect on the average session duration (how long your visitors stay on your website). Again, this metric is a good proxy for evaluating people’s feelings during their navigation: visitors tend to stay longer on a website if they feel comfortable browsing it.
Although the pop-ups used in the study did not impact bounce rate or session duration–either positively or negatively–we could argue that the right pop-ups can actually reduce the bounce rate of a website or increase the average session duration, as well as contribute to improving the navigation experience. For example, pop-ups that suggest additional content to read or offer product recommendations can hold the visitor’s attention a little longer, thus increasing the likelihood of conversion.
In any case, we’ll show you later how you can make sure your pop-ups don’t have a negative impact on your visitors’ behavior (and maybe will have a positive one!).
Let’s recap what we’ve learned so far about the impact of pop-ups on SEO:
Using pop-ups in an inappropriate way can trigger a penalty from Google.
To avoid a penalty, Google recommends using pop-ups that don’t make your website’s content less accessible and are easy to close.
We can assume that pop-ups could have an indirect impact on your SEO if they degrade your visitors’ experience.
Now, let’s see how you can use what we’ve learned to create better pop-ups.
How to Use Pop-Ups Without Putting Your SEO at Risk
Now that we know the exact impacts pop-ups can have on your SEO, it’s time to see how you can design SEO-friendly pop-ups that respect Google’s recommendations and positively impact your visitors.
Adjust Your Pop-Up’s Timing
Let’s start with the easiest recommendation of all: optimize your pop-up’s timing.
Google made it clear that it doesn’t like pop-ups when they’re displayed right away. It’s highlighted in both the “intrusive interstitials” article and the Search Quality Raters’ guidelines.
This still leaves us several options for displaying your pop-ups:
Add a delay before displaying the pop-up.
Display the pop-up on the second page viewed during the session.
Add a scroll condition (e.g., display the pop-up once your visitor has seen 50% of the page).
Use exit-intent pop-ups.
These options have an added benefit if you’re using pop-ups to collect email leads. Your leads will be more qualified because your visitors will have more time to explore your services before you ask them to share their email address with you.
Optimize Your Modals for Mobiles
Again, it’s very rare that Google gives clear SEO guidelines on a specific topic.
This means that we should follow their intrusive interstitial guidelines strictly.
For mobiles, it means two things.
First, it means using pop-ups that only occupy a reasonable amount of screen space. We usually stick to 20%-30% of the screen, as in this example from Thinx:
Second, Google’s guidelines insist on modals that are easy to close. It’s especially interesting on mobiles, where clicking an element is usually harder than on desktops. So what size and position should you use for your closing X? A study conducted by Honeywell found that the optimal size for a button on mobile was between 42 and 72 pixels.
In addition to choosing a suitable size, we also recommend you take the time to test the closing X to make sure it’s not too close to the edges of your visitors’ screen. This could make it hard to tap as well.
You’re still free to design larger pop-ups if you don’t display your popup right away.
Optimize Your Pop-Ups for Speed
Though loading time is a minor ranking factor, we know it can have an impact on your conversion rate as well. So let’s not take any risks.
Especially since optimizing the size of your pop-up is pretty easy.
These services allow you to check how much time your pop-up takes to load. When using Pingdom, you can sort your resources by load time to identify offenders more quickly.
Once you’ve identified the offender, there are usually several easy ways to reduce the loading time:
Use a script or a pop-up software that has been optimized for performance.
If you’re using pictures, make sure to compress them using a service like CompressJPG.
Whenever possible, use HTML instead of pictures. HTML is usually lighter.
Put Yourself in Your Visitors’ Shoes
Don’t forget — Google also cares about user experience.
In this context, it’s important to think like a visitor. Will your pop-up bring any value to your visitors? How will it contribute to improving their experience on your website?
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to point yourself in the right direction:
Will my pop-up in any way interrupt my visitors in their navigation (e.g., will it appear when they’re right in the middle of reading one of your articles)?
What does my pop-up contain that’s valuable to the visitor (e.g., urgent information, exclusive offer, discount code, etc.)?
How easy is my pop-up’s message to read and understand? Could it be shorter?
This exit pop-up found on Grubhub is a good example:
Displayed on exit, it didn’t interrupt my navigation.
It included an offer I couldn’t find anywhere else.
The message was clear and straight to the point.
This one from Helpscout is another great example:
Displayed when I was about to leave their website, it didn’t interrupt my navigation.
The benefit is clear: I can receive a PDF of the article I was reading.
The text is straight to the point.
Pop-up SEO: Wrap-Up
After checking Google’s guidelines concerning pop-ups, it is pretty clear that pop-ups–when correctly implemented–are not a threat to SEO. We hope our recommendations will help marketers improve their pop-ups and make them less intrusive and more relevant.
And that–as experiments show–you can, in turn, bring in more conversions from your pop-ups.
Greg is a former Head of Growth at Wisepops.