Google's Revised Mobile Guidelines for Modal Forms

On January 10th, 2017, Google updated its mobile-friendly search algorithm to add smartphone content visibility as a ranking signal. Websites that use pop-up boxes (called Modal Forms in ConvertKit) may find that their website does not perform as strongly as it used to in mobile search.

Note: Google uses the term "interstitial" instead of pop-up or modal. For ConvertKit's purposes, you'll want to use the word "modal" or "slide in".

What's the point of changing things? 

Well, Google’s intent is to ensure that mobile searchers can easily access the content they expect to see when they land on a page from Google’s search results. As announced in the Google Webmaster Central Blog: 

“While the underlying content is present on the page and available to be indexed by Google, content may be visually obscured by [a pop-up form]. This can frustrate users because they are unable to easily access the content that they were expecting when they tapped on the search result.”

What qualifies as an intrusive pop-up by Google’s definition? 

Here are some examples straight from Google:

It's not black and white, but the following criteria may impact the mobile rankings for a page, according to  Google’s Webmaster Central Blog:

  • Showing a pop-up that covers the main content, either immediately after users navigates to a page from the search results, or while they are looking through the page.
  • Displaying a standalone interstitial that the user has to dismiss before accessing the main content.
  • Using a layout where the above-the-fold portion of the page appears similar to a standalone interstitial, but the original content has been inlined underneath the fold.

Keep in mind that your personal opinions of what is and is not intrusive don’t apply here. Google owns the definition and the enforcement of that definition in the search rankings.

What's acceptable?

The Webmaster Central Blog also shows examples of pop-ups that are acceptable and don't affect mobile rankings:

Examples of interstitials that would be acceptable after the january update, and not affect mobile rankings.  </p><p>
		Examples of interstitials that would be acceptable after the January update, and not affect mobile rankings. 
		<em>Source: Google Webmaster Central Blog.</em>
The specifics given on Google’s bog are as follows.</p><ul></p><li>Interstitials that appear to be in response to a legal obligation, such as for cookie usage or for age verification.</li></ul><ul></p><li>Login dialogs on sites where content is not publicly indexable, such as private content like email or unindexable content that is behind a pay wall.</li></ul><ul></p><li>Banners that use a reasonable amount of screen space and are easily dismissible. For example, the app install banners provided by Safari and Chrome are examples of banners that use a reasonable amount of screen space.</li></ul><p>
So will part two be another Mobilegeddon? John Mueller, webmaster trends analyst at Google, explains the update more softly, giving the vague answer of “not really.” He also reminds us, “In general, no single factor will always trump all others for all kinds of queries. It really depends on the combination.”</p><p>
It’s important to remember, though, that the update will impact only a subset of natural search performance. Mobile search rankings worldwide on Google only may be lowered starting in January 2017 based on the accessibility of content to smartphone users, specifically content obscured by intrusive interstitials that aren’t required by law.</p><p>
That means that organic search performance on desktops will not be impacted. If the majority of your natural search traffic comes from desktop users, you may be tempted to brush this update off as unimportant to your business. But remember, poor performance today doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s low potential. It means that you may not be competing effectively for the mobile shoppers seeking your products via the search engines.</p><p>
The update will also not impact sites that avoid large, intrusive interstitials for things like email collection, promotions, app installations, or display advertising.</p><p>
The good news is that the rankings changes from the “mobile-friendly part two” update are executed in real time, meaning that each time Google crawls your site it can re-rank your pages according to new mobile-friendly changes you’ve made. This isn’t always the case; some updates are processed in batches outside of the real-time search results, resulting in periods of months between changes in the rankings.</p><p>
Google developed a tool to help site owners test their sites’ mobile-friendliness. The 
<a href=

Now for the good news: 
There are a few ways around these changes that are already built into ConvertKit:
1) Set the modal or slide in form to desktop only
2) Set the modal to trigger based on a user engagement that indicates intent (for example, add a button to the homepage  like this)
A modal or slide in that occupies the entire screen that is based on an intentional user action and has a way to exit should be fine under these new guidelines.
Things like a welcome mat from AppSumo, a modal, or a slide in that comes up after 5 seconds or 50% scroll (all turned on for mobile) could all impact your mobile search rankings and should be avoided moving forward.

Google offers a mobile friendly test tool to see how your website stacks up to the new rules.  Check it out.