Is Collecting Emails Worth The Price of Lost Traffic?

So, you finally have a moment away from the chaos. A chance to read an article.

You might be reading an interesting scientific article, a breaking news story, or even some juicy celebrity gossip on your lunch break. Maybe you’re learning some new digital marketing tricks on your commute to the office, or decompressing with a funny Onion article after dinner.

Whatever the case may be, if your time is limited, you’re using your mobile device to read those articles.

But then something unpleasant comes along and interrupts your precious reading time– a popup comes out of nowhere and takes up the entire screen.

You might even see multiple popups, and you may feel like you can’t touch anywhere on your screen without triggering a popup. 

You try to close the popup and accidentally click out of the article entirely, and you’re forced to just give up on the whole thing and find other reading material.

It’s a frustrating experience– and Google seems to agree.

On January 10th, Google announced that it’s rolling out a new kind of penalty. If you’re using screen-blocking popups, or even email signup interstitials, you could lose some serious search rankings.

As digital marketers, we’re more tolerant of popups than the general public because we know how well they work. They capture email signups and direct our readers to our premium, or gated, content.

But, as readers, we should look at those popups from another point of view, as well. We’ve all had trouble with mobile popups. I can’t count how many times I’ve given up on a piece of content just because it’s too hard to close out the interstitial in my face.

So, I’m torn.

I know why Google rolled out the penalty, but I still feel I’m losing out. A couple days ago, I decided to turn off the mobile popup (an email signup interstitial) on this very blog. If I’m losing out on search traffic, I can’t justify using a mobile interstitial.

That’s because mobile traffic is important, and it’s only becoming more important. This year, mobile searches finally overtook desktop searches. Nearly 60% of searches come from mobile devices.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to lose out on 60% of my traffic because of a popup.

But there has to be a middle ground, right?

Surely we can still capture email signups and lead our readers to gated content without losing mobile traffic entirely.

But wait– before we determine which is more important, email signups or search traffic, let’s look at the facts.

The Popup Penalty

So, what kind of popups and interstitials does this new Google penalty affect?

Not all popups and interstitials are penalized, but Google appears to be cracking down pretty hard.

Here’s Google’s official statement:

“Although the majority of pages now have text and content on the page that is readable without zooming, we’ve recently seen many examples where these pages show intrusive interstitials to users. While the underlying content is present on the page and available to be indexed by Google, content may be visually obscured by an interstitial. This can frustrate users because they are unable to easily access the content that they were expecting when they tapped on the search result.

Pages that show intrusive interstitials provide a poorer experience to users than other pages where content is immediately accessible. This can be problematic on mobile devices where screens are often smaller. To improve the mobile search experience, after January 10, 2017, pages where content is not easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search results may not rank as highly.”

Here are the kind of popups and interstitials Google is referring to:

  • Popups that cover the main content on your page, either immediately after a reader langs on the page from the SERPs, or that pop up while they’re reading
  • A popup or interstitial that your reader has to either fill out or dismiss before they can access your content (like the popup I was using until a few days ago)
  • Google’s words: “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.”

So, basically, if a popup dominates your content and makes your reader’s user experience worse, you’re eligible for a penalty.

It’s frustrating to us as digital marketers, but it makes total sense for mobile users. It’s usually much easier to work around popups and interstitials on desktop than it is to bypass them on mobile devices.

But, how much should you worry? Does this penalty have any teeth?

According to a report at Search Engine Roundtable, it definitely does. They linked to Glenn Gabe, who found many pages using interstitials dropped 10 or more ranking positions in the search engine results.

Dropping 10 ranks lower in the SERPs is a HUGE DEAL!

They’ve also found plenty of pages it hasn’t affected, but they suspect the penalty is still rolling out, and some pages have yet to be penalized.

But even Google admits that not all pages that bear interstitials will be wiped off the face of the SERPs.

Here’s how they closed out their official penalty statement:

“Remember, this new signal is just one of hundreds of signals that are used in ranking. The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal, so a page may still rank highly if it has great, relevant content. As always, if you have any questions or feedback, please visit our webmaster forums.”

The Importance of Email Lists

For content creators, marketing service providers, and businesses alike, email marketing is hugely important.

Email allows you to contact your audience directly. You can link them to new content, send product updates, offer discounts, or just keep them engaged with your brand through carefully crafted communication.

A lot of my own blog traffic comes from my email list, and I’m eternally thankful for everyone who’s signed up.

And, you know what?

A lot of people are on my email list because of interstitials.

Here are some quick stats on email marketing, aggregated by Skyword:

  • Email marketing can yield up to a 4,300% return on investment for US-based businesses
  • Companies that nurture leads through email can generate 50% more sales ready leads at a 33% lower cost
  • 49% of marketers claim email is directly linked to their primary business revenue source
  • Email marketing is up to 40 times more effective than Facebook or Twitter marketing
  • 55% of email is read on mobile devices
  • 64% of business decision makers read email on their mobile devices

If you’re engaged in any kind of digital marketing, you’re missing out on a ton of readers, leads, and customers by ignoring email marketing. It’s the easiest, most reliable way to promote your content, services, and products to people who’ve engaged with you in the past.

It’s also cheap, easy, and takes up very little time.

There’s no doubt that email marketing is one of the strongest weapons in any digital marketer’s arsenal.

But if we can’t capture email leads with those effective-yet-annoying popups because we’ll lose mobile search rankings, what are we to do? Should we just give up on capturing emails and rely on search traffic alone?

What if No One Can Find You?

If no one can find your website, does it even exist?

Think about it this way: Imagine you run the world’s best theme park. You have a dozen great rollercoasters, attractions based on hit TV shows and movies, top quality restaurants, celebrity appearances and live music.

Everyone who’s ever been to your theme park loves it. But you don’t get too many people through the gates because your theme park is buried in the backroads. It’s hard to find and there are no signs pointing the way. Few people have ever even heard of your theme park because it’s so out-of-the-way and hard to find.

The world’s best roller coaster doesn’t mean much if no one’s riding them. Despite all the work you put into making a world class attraction, it’s going to fail because no one really knows that it exists.

Now, apply that to your website. You could have the best content in the world, but if no one can find it, what’s the point?

That’s why SEO and link building are so important.

Search engine visibility helps new readers and potential customers find your website. There are millions of websites out there, but you’ll never see most of them.

That’s because only a handful of websites (in the grand scheme of things, at least) focus on creating great content, hone their on page SEO, and build high-quality, relevant links. The web is competitive for sure, no matter what your niche is, but using solid SEO practices and building links gives you a real fighting chance.

So, let’s say you were getting 1000 visitors a month, and you captured 10 email addresses per month with an email signup interstitial. Not bad at all for any small website. It’s realistic to do much better than that.

But, with Google’s new mobile penalty, your traffic goes down to 300 visitors a month and you capture 2 or 3 email addresses.

What do you choose– the search traffic or the email signups?

Personally, I’d choose the search traffic every time.

As a link builder, I might be biased– but my loyalties lie with search engine visibility.

Differing Opinions

Now, not everyone agrees with me. And many of them have some good points.

One of the basic fundamentals of marketing is this– don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If you’re relying only on search engine traffic, you’re going to be devastated when Google inevitably changes its search algorithm.

You have to use a variety of marketing channels to promote your website, simply because the digital landscape is always changing. Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and any other platform you don’t own can change at any time. You’re completely at their mercy.

You have to use a diverse array of marketing channels. But still, search traffic is a main priority for me.

But others have different priorities.

SumoMe recently wrote an excellent article on the new Google penalty. Since they specialize in effective email-capture interstitials, they obviously had quite a bit to say on the matter.

Here’s Sean Bestor’s take:

“But email? You control email no matter what. No one can take your email list away from you, and you can send mail to your audience whenever you want.

You need email capture tools to consistently build that email list. When you shut off your tools, you shut off control of your marketing…

… For how innovative Google is, 89% of their business still relies on you spending money to advertise on their sites.

Here’s the sad truth. This SEO change by Google will scare some people into deleting their list building tools. Once you cut off your email list, you become more and more reliant on the traffic from Google’s paid solutions.

That’s great for Google…but bad for you. Instead of sending free traffic to your site, you have to pay Google and hope this mysterious audience visits your site. Google will undoubtedly make money from this change.”

Sean isn’t wrong at all.

Many algorithm changes Google makes probably have one underlying goal beyond improving user experience– Google wants you to buy pay per click ads. It’s how they make most of their money.  

With search traffic, you’re completely at Google’s mercy, even if you follow every SEO best practice under the sun. Even if you build 20 high quality links per month, Google could theoretically pull the rug out from under you at any time.

But email?

You control that entirely. If you have a list, you can contact the people on that list at any time.

So, which do you choose? Email or search traffic?

If you already have a robust email list that provides you with a great conversion rate, you may choose to keep your mobile interstitial to capture more email signups. After all, email is your bread and butter. Search traffic is secondary for some people.

But for most of us, search traffic is just as, if not more, important than email marketing.

Without traffic who is signing up for your email list anyway?

We have to roll with the punches every time Google updates its search algorithm, and that can be a huge pain. But a good flow of search traffic is worth all the hassle.

But you might not have to choose one over the other. After all, you should never put all your eggs in one basket.

Alternatives to Popups

Fortunately, there are quite a few ways to capture email signups without using an interstitial that takes over your reader’s entire mobile device screen.

Those full screen popups are effective, but they’re far from ideal for mobile users. Google is focused on improving user experience (and focused on making that sweet AdWords money), so they’re always going to crack down on anything that frustrates users.

So we have to adapt and make sure we’re not frustrating mobile users with our opt-ins and email captures.

Here are a few ideas, a few of which I’ve taken from the previously linked SumoMe article. If you want a more in-depth explainer on many of these tactics, head over to that post.

A few ideas:

  • Focus on Desktop Email Signups – Email signup interstitials are easier to dismiss on desktop, so they’re not penalized in desktop search results. You can simply turn off your mobile interstitials and keep your mobile search traffic, while taking a hit to your overall email signup numbers.
  • Content Upgrades – The concept of content upgrades is a simple one. You write a great, educational piece of content that leaves your reader wanting even more. And you can give them more, in the form of a swipe file, video, podcast, eBook, guide, or any other type of content. They just need to exchange their email address for the really juicy stuff. You can read more on content upgrades here. Trust me– they work.
  • Click Triggers – A click trigger is a popup that only appears when a reader taps a certain link. SumoMe has had great success with Click Triggers, and you can read more about them here.
  • Embedded Email Signups – An embedded signup looks like a popup, but it’s a stationary item on the page. It doesn’t move or obscure the content, it just exists on the page like an image or an embedded video. If you place one of these boxes thoughtfully and carefully (such as a few pages into your content, when the reader becomes really engaged), they can be pretty successful. There’s more info on this method at the SumoMe post linked at the beginning of this section.
  • Email Capture Bars – An email capture bar, such as Hello Bar or Peanut Butter Bar, is just a little bar that stays on your header or footer. The bar has a simple call to action (like “sign up!) and a blank field for the reader’s email address. The email capture bar doesn’t take up much on screen real estate, but it can blink, shake, or otherwise visually get the reader’s attention at any time. They’re a great, non-intrusive way to capture email addresses.

Let’s be honest– none of these methods are as in-your-face as a full screen interstitial, so they probably won’t be as easy and brutally effective as a popup.

I think sacrificing a little ease-of-use is worth it to retain your search rankings. If you use a combination of these alternative email capture methods, you could realistically earn just as many email signups as you did with a full screen interstitial.

That creates more work for you, and it gives you more things to keep track of. But, with Google, that’s the nature of the beast. We have to keep up with their algorithm changes, and that almost always makes more work for us.

In the world of digital marketing, nothing is ever both simple and effective– at least not for very long. But that’s why marketing is a job and not a leisure activity. Most of us are okay with putting in the work.


In the end, I do think you should take Google’s new penalty seriously. People who use interstitials are already reporting drastic drops in their mobile search rankings. Mobile search traffic is important now, and it’s going to be even more important in 2018– and even more important in 2020.

People who use interstitials are already reporting drastic drops in their mobile search rankings. Mobile search traffic is important now, and it’s going to be even more important in 2018– and even more important in 2020.

But email marketing is effective, simple, and a great use of any marketer’s time.

Don’t abandon it!

Keep capturing emails, just use a few different email signup methods instead of using one big popup. There could be a positive side effect to all of this, as well. We’ll frustrate our mobile readers less and, in turn, they’ll be more willing to come back for more.

Personally, I’m happy to see the demise of annoying popups.

  1. Great article, David! Email pop ups and interstitials can be dealt with just like you shared here. Funny thing though, AdSense itself has interstitials and pop ups that they push really hard for you to add to your site (in the case of Publisher’s, that is) I find them annoying (even though I am a marketer/SEO) Do youthink they will penalize those sites that use them as well?

  2. Thanks for another piece of really great and highly useful content, David! I signed up for your news a long time ago and enjoy getting the news letters from you, which wouldn’t have been the case if you had thrown one of these all-over-the-screen-popups at me 😉
    I think a lot of great content might be wasted because of the (mis)use of popups or interstitials that the reader has to fill out or dismiss before they can access the content. Thanks for not doing that – thanks for valuable updates and great content!

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