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Google's Webmaster Central blog today announced changes in the way it ranks smartphone search results, with a focus on eliminating flaws which affect the user experience. 

One of the usability issues highlghted is those pesky interstitials which prompt visitors to download mobile apps, while other issues include faulty redirects and unplayable videos. 

This seems to be a positive move from Google, and one which should help to eliminate the usability problems which detract from mobile browsing. 

Here are some of the issues to avoid... 

Faulty redirects 

A faulty redirect is when a desktop URL sends users to the incorrect or irrelevant page on the mobile site, often the homepage when users are actually looking for a product or some other page.

Here's an example from NBC (via WTFmobile web):

Google's diagram shows the red arrows as faulty redirects: 

 

This is an interruption to the user journey, it's irritating to the user and may cause them to abandon the site. Therefore, it benefits site owner and user to avoid this error. 

There's also mobile search rankings to consider, as Google points out:

These faulty redirects frustrate users whether they're looking for a webpage, video, or something else, and our ranking changes will affect many types of searches.

To avoid these redirects, Google says sites should:

...redirect smartphone users from a desktop page to its equivalent smartphone-optimized page. If the content doesn't exist in a smartphone-friendly format, showing the desktop content is better than redirecting to an irrelevant page.

Smartphone-only errors

According to Google, some sites serve content to desktop users accessing a URL, but show an error to smartphone users accessing the same page.

This is a no-no, and Google recommends serving the desktop page to mobile users instead. 

Interstitials

Let's face it, interstitials are rubbish. I even hate typing the word.

It's annoying enough when sites like Forbes.com serve these before you can read an article, but it's ten times worse on a small screen, as hunting for and clicking on the 'x' or skip ad' link is a real pain.

A recent unwelcome trend is for mobile sites to promote their apps vis pop-ups and interstitials as soon as you arrive. Fair enough, sites want to promote their apps, but there are better ways to do this than annoying your visitors.  

Here are two such heinous examples from Expedia and Gumtree: 

       

You could at least argue that the 'no, thanks' link is clear on these sites, despite their user experience crimes, but Rightmove is even worse. That 'no, thanks' link is way too small:

Google says: 

Many webmasters promote their site's apps to their web visitors. There are many implementations to do this, some of which may cause indexing issues of smartphone-optimized content and others that may be too disruptive to the visitor's usage of the site.

Based on these various considerations, we recommend using a simple banner to promote your app inline with the page's content or an HTML image, similar to a typical small advert, that links to the correct app store for download.

Hear, hear. People hate these ads and, as the Twitter reaction shows, this will be a popular move from Google: 

Unplayable videos

Several sites embed video, using Flash for instance, in a way that makes them unplayable on mobile. Here's an example from the BBC:

This is frustrating for the user, so Google recommends using HTML5 standard tags to include videos and to avoid content in formats, such as Flash, that are not supported by all mobile devices.

Slow mobile sites

As on desktop, speed matters for mobile sites, especially given the variable nature of some 3G connections. As on desktop, Google will use page speed as a ranking factor.

Though sites can't help the quality of mobile internet connections, they can do as much as possible to improve page load times. 

After all, users hate seeing that spinning wheel: 

                     

In summary

I welcome any move that promises to improve the user experience on mobile and, as mobile search becomes ever more popular, the best way for Google to do this is to use the threat of lowering rankings. 

The threat to the rankings of sites using interstitials is particularly welcome, but all are welcome. 

In fact, our own David Moth wrote just last week about usability flaws that threaten to spoil the mobile web. Three of those have been highlighted by Google, but there are others...

Graham Charlton

Published 12 June, 2013 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (8)

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James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Graham,

Thanks for sharing.

Take a peek at Pinterest for an example of how to promote the app via the mobile site. They use a subtle banner at the top without the need for the interruption of the pesky interstitial.

Thanks
james

over 3 years ago

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Mhairi Bell, Director at Gecko Digital

Is it just me, or is sending a visitor who's browsing your mobile site off to your desktop site if an equivalent page doesn't exist a bit of a user experience no-no?

over 3 years ago

Chris Knowles

Chris Knowles, Web Designer at The Data Octopus

Typical, I've only just discovered the word interstitial in this article and Google have already made it redundant.

over 3 years ago

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Dan Whiley

A lot of these recommendations are really sensible approaches to ensure that the user experience of mobile web is as seamless as that of a (good) desktop page or mobile app.

Just wondering, though - given that it's much harder (impossible?) for Google to index apps, is it also in their interest to encourage the take-up of mobile web and reduce the importance of apps?

over 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Mhairi that's a good point, though it could be argued that this is preferable to an error page.

@Chris Head for Forbes.com and you'll see one ;)

over 3 years ago

Andy Harding

Andy Harding, Executive Director, Multi Channel at House of Fraser

Hi Graham

Thanks for the article - really interesting.

How do you think Google will look upon pop ups requesting customers to complete surveys - such as are used by ForeSee and Edigital?

Are these likely to advesely affect rankings based on usability in the same way as an app download pop up?

Thanks
Andy

over 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Hi Andy

Who knows what Google is thinking? From a user perspective, the 'download app' pop-ups are the first thing you are hit with on some sites, and they are annoying.

I'd say a (well-designed) survey pop-up once the visitor has used the site or been through checkout is nowhere near as bad.

over 3 years ago

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Rob Howells

Hi Graham,

Interesting article - thanks for posting.

One could argue that Google's very own Maps for iPhone mobile site is a particularly bad interstitial offender!

Whenever I click through to an address using Chrome I'm taken to holding page where I'm asked to download Google Maps (which I already have), or directed to the mobile site (via a tiny link).

To be fair this only happens if I've recently cleared with cache, but its still pretty annoying.

Thanks,
Rob

over 3 years ago

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