The 30-Day Website Interstitial Sign-up Experiment

Email interstitial sign-up eyeroll photoAt the beginning of March 2017, I decided to run an experiment: I would sign up to every single interstital that I encountered for a month. In this post I document this (quite frankly rather bonkers) experiment, and give insights into what I discovered along the way…

What is an interstitial (and do they affect SEO)?

Interstitials are those annoying same-page pop-ups that sometimes appear when you’re browsing a webpage. They appear for different reasons, but usually appear when you’re about to close the browser tab or if you scroll right to the bottom of the page/article. Most of the time (but not always) they’ll ask for your email details, to get you to join the site’s email newsletter.

As a user (and even as a marketer), I am infuriated by interstitials. I often wonder why people implement them, but have never actually gone to the effort of looking into their effectiveness as a sign-up tactic. Part of me just thinks “well, they’ve gotta work – otherwise people wouldn’t do them, right?” But then part of me thinks that I ignore them every time I see one, and I’ve even avoided websites that I know use them to the extreme…

Whatever the case may be, I’m even more curious about interstitials now – given that from mid-January, Google started to penalise them when used on mobile sites. So yes, they may help to get more people subscribed to your newsletter, but are they harming your website’s SEO efforts in the process…? Following on from the penalty rollout, Glenn Gabe (@glenngabe) had been keeping tabs on sites that had been using interstitials, but admitted that he had not [seen] widespread impact” even “a full month into the rollout” (source; original emphasis). Even so, Google have this knack of scaring the crap out of webmasters whenever they pull stunts like this, and although it may be a case of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon in reverse(?), I’m convinced that I’ve seen fewer interstitials on websites since Google first announced and then supposedly implemented the change.

So for various reasons, I was curious: How many did I encounter every day? What form do they take? What kinds of sites do they appear on? I was about to find out…

The 30-day experiment

On 1st March 2017, I set up a spreadsheet to log all the sites where I encountered an interstitial during my usual browsing travels. Whenever I encountered one, I made a note of the page/site, the date & time, how it appeared and whether or not I was able to sign up. I’ve made a couple of changes, but I’ve made the spreadsheet public here if you want to take a look.

Vital Random statistics

In total I encountered 23 interstitials across 22 sites during the month (from 1st to 30th March). I honestly expected to encounter more than that to be completely honest… In fact, the inspiration for this experiment came from the fact that I’d noticeably encountered loads the month before.

20 of them were via desktop – only 1 was on a tablet device (iPad) and 2 happened while browsing a smartphone (iPhone).

The biggest gap I had between interstitial encounters was 8 days. The shortest gap I had was 5 minutes (or 0 minutes, if you count that I had two different kinds on the same site pretty much one after the other). And the most I had in one day was 4.

There’s a bunch of other stuff I discovered, too…

They didn’t always appear when scrolling down or closing the tab

Previously, my experience of interstitials was that they only appeared either when a) you moved the mouse cursor to the Back button of the browser or moved it to close the tab you were on, or b) when you scrolled down part-way down the page or even right to the bottom (e.g. when you reach the conclusion or comments section of an article).

However, I’m sad to say that a few of them (I count 5 out of 23) instead appeared as soon as the page loaded and I hadn’t done anything else – i.e. it was the very first thing I saw on the screen, even before the page/post’s content.

Ack. I find this type of interstitial utterly repulsive… In one instance I’d never been on the site before, and it was immediately asking me to join their mailing list – before even reading a word of their content. How do I know if what you say is even worth subscribing to or not? Get lost…

They don’t always ask you to sign up to a mailing list

Toptal interstitial exampleThis was perhaps the point that surprised me the most… I always considered interstitials as a means to try and get you onto the site’s mailing list. However a few of them didn’t instigate mailing list sign-up – instead, they did one of the following:

  • In one instance, it was trying to get me to register to the site (it was a site for hiring designers),
  • In another instance, it just took me to another article on their site (it was an inbound marketing resource, and it looked as though they were trying to lead me towards one of their ‘flagship’ pieces of content),
  • Another site wanted me to sign up to a free trial (it was an online software tool).

So while the vast majority wanted me to sign up to a mailing list (roughly the remaining 20 or so out of the 23 in total), some of them served other purposes, which was fairly eye-opening.

Even when it was a mailing list sign-up interstitial, it didn’t always ‘work’…

This one also surprised me. I’d sign up with [email protected] and… not all of them sent me the ‘please verify your email’ email or in fact any email at all (i.e. bypassing verification and simply spamming my inbox straight away). Why? No idea. My only theories are: a) they didn’t configure their interstitials to work properly, or b) perhaps they automatically discard email addresses that they suspect to be dodgy… With the latter, it wasn’t until mid-way through the experiment that I realised my throwaway email address of choice contained the word “sex” (interstitialsex[email protected]; and in fact the word “tit” too, come to think of it), which might have been to blame. Whoops. Oh well. Oh and it was a Gmail, and I’ve seen some sites say that you can’t use a ‘free’ email, such as Gmail, Hotmail, etc. Could’ve been that instead.

Sadly I didn’t make an exact note of which ones did/didn’t work when it came to signing me up, but I think that at least 4 or 5 never sent me an email. Baffling. Why even bother…

When you’re used to closing them, it’s hard to reverse the habit…!

Interstitial closing GIFBefore the experiment, I’d gradually trained myself to subconsciously delete any interstitial that graced my screen with unhesitating immediacy. It’d become a habit. …So when it came time to do the experiment, I struggled, haha… There were often times when I closed it without thinking, then swiftly thought “dammit!” and remembered that I was supposed to have signed up to it. Thankfully this only happened a few times, and every time I was able to replicate the interstitial by either going incognito in the browser, trying a different device or trying another day/time. Funny though…

There’s a bunch of other notes I could’ve made (but didn’t)

It was only after-the-fact that I realised I could’ve also made a note of a few other things:

  • The “no thanks” message – Often interstitials will have a “No thanks” option, for people who don’t want to sign up, complete with a really passive-aggressive sentiment seemingly intended to get the visitor to change their mind. My all-time favourite is some wanker designer whose “no thanks” message was “No thanks, I hate creativity” – but sadly I didn’t think to note all these down. Could’ve uncovered another (stupid) gem or two…
  • Whether it was animated – Like an old-school PowerPoint slide transition, some interstitials bounce, fade or even shake onto the screen. Urgh. Get in the sea.

The full list of sites

You can see the full list of sites (and other data I noted) on this public spreadsheet – however if you’re Excel-averse, here’s the full list of domains in classic alphabetical, naming-and-shaming glory:

  9. (don’t ask…)

So what do you reckon? Pointless exercise or eye-opening extravaganza? What would you have done differently, if you ran the experiment yourself? Drop a comment below.

[Image credits – a big thanks to Rachel of Welsh ICE for being my ‘model’ in the main image (your eye-roll game is strong!); animated GIF made using Recordit]

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