If you hide content from mobile users behind an annoying prompt that suggests they'd be happier downloading an app, stop. Just stop.

Google says so.

Starting Nov. 1, Google will penalize web properties that show an app install interstitial instead of the expected mobile content. "Our analysis shows that it is not a good search experience and can be frustrating for users because they are expecting to see the content of the web page," Google software engineer Daniel Bathgate wrote in a blog post last month.

Mobile Mandate

Getting on the Mountain View, Calif.-based search giant's mobile unfriendly list is a bad idea. Earlier this year, Google made it clear that sites needed to be mobile friendly to get good search rankings.

"Mobile is a critical element of overall digital experience,” said Pierre DeBois, principal and founder of Gary, Ind.-based Zimana.

(Editor's note: DeBois will talk more about Google analytics at the CMSWire DX Summit Nov. 3 and 4 in Chicago.)

Google wants search experience to be easy, devoid of tricks to lure users into apps without finding what they need. Content hiding behind app install interstitials creates a bad experience, search experts maintain.

In his blog post last month, Google's Bathgate provided a screenshot of a bad mobile search experience (second from left, below) versus a good one (far right, below). The latter, an app install banner, is supported by Safari and Chrome.

"Banners provide a consistent user interface for promoting an app and provide the user with the ability to control their browsing experience," Bathgate wrote. "App install banners are less intrusive. ... Webmasters can also use their own implementations of app install banners as long as they don’t block searchers from viewing the page’s content."

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Why Hide Content?

Google is penalizing enterprises for not being “forward-thinking enough” in their brand outreach, said Stephanie Trunzo, COO and chief digital officer for PointSource, a Raleigh, NC-based company that helps enterprises with their mobile strategy.

“Most digital marketing trends are moving toward less promotional outreach content and are moving toward identifying that moment of need,” Trunzo told CMSWire. “They’re laser-focusing in on when does their audience and consumer need information, and how can you get that content to them at the right time.”

headshot of stephanie trunzo of pointsourceThose still hiding content behind app install interstitials lack an upfront mobile strategy and are “riding the back of the wave.”

Trunzo compares the practice to subliminal advertising, which involves the display of words or images during a commercial or broadcast so briefly that the viewer doesn't consciously notice them. However, they may subconsciously influence the viewer to make a purchase.

While hiding content behind app install interstitials isn't exactly the same thing, "it’s a manipulative form of putting content out in front of people’s eyes when the user is trying to access something. And it’s forcing a behavior rather than doing something more organic with your marketing strategy and figuring out a way to get your messages in an organic way in front of the user when they actually care about it,” Trunzo said.

Rethink Content Strategy

So what should digital marketers still using the questionable strategy do?

Assess how many actual conversions you’re actually getting from your current strategy and figure an option, Trunzo said.

“If you are getting large conversions you’re probably on to something interesting,” Trunzo said. “If you’re content-gating or putting barrier ads up, there’s something behind that barrier that is of value. You need to retarget those things of value in a more organic way. Maybe advocate additional value in the app. That becomes a much more natural way of leading people into an install.”

Put that valuable content out in front and promote the additional value users get in a download. This allows you to still drive people to the app but you’re “doing it in a way that’s more transparent.”

SEO for Mobile

Take advantage of Google’s Mobile Usability Test to inspect and test the quality of the page as it appears in a mobile device, DeBois said. Position text on screen (portrait) and have it as readable as you would any other website element, he added.

“This makes it possible,” DeBois said, “for search engines to assess the site and compare those details. Another way to imagine the value is to think of it as information that appears ‘above the fold’ — in this case, on the screen. Search engines need text to query against, so without overdoing it, enterprises must insert text strategically to connect to the query. It’s SEO, just done for mobile.”

Tempting Tactic

pierre debois headshot

While Google considers app install interstitials unfriendly, the practice is still tempting. Who doesn’t want to deploy a strategy to convert mobile searchers into app downloaders?

“There is a fight to grab customer’s attention through an app,” DeBois told CMSWire. “So using a interstitial can be tempting to have an item that will ‘pop out’ when a customer first sees it in their smartphone.”

Ultimately, though, DeBois compares this strategy to the old flash introductions or pop-up videos that appear on websites.

“Mobile customers want information quickly with information that loads well on the mobile site,” he said, “so there is little time for any digital preamble. Within the context of mobile, the answer that arrives quickly in a customer's query wins.”

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Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  Title image by James Alby.