Google Thinks You’re Downloading Too Many Apps

Google policy on app install interstitial ads

Source: Google Webmaster Central

When browsing the web, it’s likely that you’ve more than once encountered an “app install interstitial,” the kind of ad that completely, if temporarily, covers up the content you were hoping to see with an ad asking you to install the advertiser’s app. The messages are small and easy to tap away, but as Conor Dougherty reports for The New York Times, they’re at the center of a growing battle over the algorithms behind Google’s search engine and the latest of the search engine giant’s efforts to clean up the mobile web.

This started with a post on Google’s Webmaster Central Blog, where Google Search engineer Daniel Bathgate announced that Google will deem sites less mobile-friendly if they use app install interstitials that obscure their content. The designation that a site is not mobile-friendly will have the consequence of lowering the site’s ranking on Google’s mobile search engine. Bathgate writes that app install interstials are “not a good search experience and can be frustrating for users because they are expecting to see the content of the web page,” then explains the company’s new policy on the ads:

After November 1, mobile web pages that show an app install interstitial that hides a significant amount of content on the transition from the search result page will no longer be considered mobile-friendly. This does not affect other types of interstitials. As an alternative to app install interstitials, browsers provide ways to promote an app that are more user-friendly.

Bathgate notes that those alternatives include a less-intrusive method advertising called app install banners, which are supported by Safari in the form of “Smart Banners” and in Chrome as “Native App Install Banners.” Banners, unlike app install interstitials, enable app publishers to promote their apps without disrupting users’ ability to control the web browsing experience. They simultaneously allow the user to see the content of the page that they’re loading, while inviting them to install the app if they’d like to.

Dougherty notes that there’s no doubt that many users find app install interstitials annoying, but “where Google describes a policy change that will make life more pleasant for users, others see an attempt to defend the web — where Google makes much of its money — from the armies of apps that mobile users favor.” Many users depend on Google to navigate the web, and Dougherty notes that Google makes billions of dollars guiding them. But when they leave the Internet to go to an app, they leave Google and its ad business behind.

For many apps, interstitial ads are a way to build a loyal user base, and Yelp founder and chief executive Jeremy Stoppelman recently wrote for Search Engine Land that “The rewards for getting a new app user are huge, as these users end up being much more engaged.” In the same post, Stoppelman pointed to a Google study on app install interstitials, recently published on the same Webmaster Central Blog where Bathgate’s post appeared, and correctly predicted that Google would soon hit sites employing these pop-ups with a search ranking penalty. He posited that such a penalty will “slow users’ natural migration away from web search towards apps” and noted the hypocrisy of the study given the fact that Google uses the same strategy to promote many of its own apps, like Gmail and Google Docs.

Other critics have noted that the policy won’t penalize sites for using other types of pop-up ads, just those that ask users to install a mobile app, which they interpret as clear evidence that Google’s new policy is self-serving, and takes aim specifically at companies who want to steer users toward apps and away from the mobile web.

Mark Bergen reports for Re/Code, however, that chatter within Google centers less on crippling apps than on imagining a world beyond them. Conversations with current and recently-departed employees of Google reveal that the company is “spending considerable attention on what comes after mobile apps, and how Google can usher that era in.” Google’s strategy for doing so is leveraging app indexing and deep linking, which tie content within and between apps, in concert with search and artificial intelligence.

“They feel pretty comfortable that in the next few years they’ll be able to index all apps and the mobile Web,” a former Google employee working in the mobile industry told Bergen. “The app thing is just going to go away.” Bergen notes that Google has undertaken a two-year-long push to index app content, and in 2013 rolled out app indexing, which enables its search engine to surface apps for users to download, or to link directly to relevant pages within them. The idea isn’t Google’s alone, and Google’s rivals, as well as app publishers and ad sellers, interpreted Google’s algorithm change as hostile.

And Google may not just have rivals to contend with, as Bergen points out that it needs the buy-in from app makers to succeed in reaching the world beyond apps. It may also have to fight off regulators, like competition authorities in the European Union, who say that they are open to extending their case against Google for its comparison shopping tool to other services, as well.

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