Episode 16 – User Friendly Browsing



September 10, 2016

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Front End Center!

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You’re looking for some information, or just noticed a recent headline. You click on one of the top results and the page loads in. There’s a little bit of jumping around as various elements get settled, but… thanks to your ad-blocker, it’s nowhere near as bad as it could be.

You start to scroll downwards, and can see the content come into view, when suddenly… your scroll catches. Just for a moment. Brace for impact, cause… here’s a giant, animated demand to join a newsletter if you want to keep seeing your content! Bonus points if you’re on your phone and the mobile browser locked up for a good 2-5 extra seconds trying to position the offending elements for maximum content-denial.

These assaults on a user’s browser experience are known as interstitial ads. They take a wide range of forms. Some are triggered based on your scroll position. Others wait for your mouse to leave the browser window before springing to life and begging you to stay. Others just insert themselves unexpectedly and without context inside content sections.

The good news is that they may already be on the verge of becoming and endangered species. Google publically announced that they’d be taking action against these interstitial ads, and wouldn’t be stingy in what they classified as an offender.

Like popups before them, interstitial ads have become a serious detriment to user experiences around the world. At BEST, they’re incredibly annoying and often cumbersome to close out, thanks to a deliberately poor closing mechanism. At worst, they’ll delay browsing or even entirely derail a user by blocking content outright or crashing less powerful mobile browsers.

Ad blockers have limited success against these ads and internal-popups because of how they’re included in sites and what they’re made to do.

Most ads blocked today are prevented because big ad networks are easy to identify and selectively NOT allow requests from. See a known offending URL asking to plaster your page with images, unsecured JavaScript and more? Your blocker won’t let it even try, unless you give it the manual okay.

Interstitial ads, on the other hand, are often directly coded into the site in question. They’ll include signups for newsletters, questionnaires for content preferences, demands for memberships, or just plead with you to ‘Like’ and ‘ReTweet’ their latest Top Ten list-icle.

When a blocker can’t easily identify an interstitial through external requests, it’s fairly limited in what it can do to prevent them from interrupting users. Some major sites might be manually prevented via blockers, but then it’s just as simple for them to subtly change a class name or other identifier by a single letter and undo the block effect entirely.

Google is swinging its considerable clout as the public’s de-facto internet trend-setter and heading off interstitials another way. They certainly can’t stop you from using them directly! But they can be very clear that all the interstitials in the world will do you absolutely NO good when you’re languishing at the bottom of page 50 on a search result.

Google is paying particular attention to the mobile experience of users, which is most damaged by careless interstitials. They have a specific set of guidelines for what they consider allowable (and even recommended!) use of interstitials instead of current practices. These mostly focus on legal issues, such as a pop-up requesting age verification or an EU notice about browser cookie use. They also explicitly state that reasonably sized banner-style interstitials will still be allowed, assuming they take up a reasonable small amount of space, and do not attempt to fade or otherwise obscure the content beneath. Think a banner at the top of the page that floats down with you, until you manually close it.

While vast sums of Google’s revenue do come from ads and similar enterprises, their commitment to maintaining relevant web content is what helps keep them in such a dominant position. Disregarding all the spin-off endeavors now under their parent company Alphabet, Google thrives on lots of people searching for LOTS of things. They are at their happiest when there are many competing information sources that all provide relevant and interesting information.

If the majority of results on a Google search become interstitial grave-yards that give the user nothing to read or do, then there’s significantly less reason to use Google. If the users dry up, no one will be paying Google to gain access to the world’s attention span, and the whole model goes down the drains.

While they don’t always predict what the “next big thing” is going to be, Google has done a pretty good job of fending off some of the more heinous trends in design and development. Sometimes their personal interests show through rather… overtly, but rarely is the end user of their service poorer for their changes.

One part of caring about a user’s experience is making sure you don’t overload the amount of data they have to load in the first place! With three weeks left, I still encourage everyone to go check out the 10K Apart challenge. It’s all about putting together an impactful web experience in 10 kb or less. Make an SVG animation, do something fancy with JavaScript. Or just get inspiration from those creative minds who have already entered the contest!

Until next week, thanks for listening. This has been Chris Landtiser and Front End Center.

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