Google Declares War On App Install Problem It Helped Create

Google will penalize sites that use big ads to convert mobile users to install apps. But the same users finding those ads annoying might have issues with Google's own pushing of apps in search.

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Today, Google announced a change where publishers who aggressively promote their apps to mobile visitors might face a ranking penalty. It’s all about keeping the users happy, Google says. But it’s also a mess that Google has helped cause.

Giant App Ads Now Mean Google Trouble

Beginning today, if you show mobile visitors who come to your site from Google search a big ad promoting that they should try your app, you’ll likely to lose your mobile-friendly status. In turn, you’re less likely to show up in Google’s mobile search results.

Google shared the news in a blog post today, and we have our own write-up at our sister-site Search Engine Land:

From its blog post, here’s an comparison of what’s bad versus what’s good:

App Install Ads

Anything that covers a substantial amount of content to promote installing an app is deemed bad. But have a small banner at the top of a page, and you’re OK.

The Incredible Annoyingness Of App Install Ads

In real life, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. For example, here’s what one of my local TV stations shows me:

app install ad

The ad itself takes up about half the page, but it’s within a container that covers all the content. I can’t get to the content or see it easily. This would seem to qualify as a bad ad, yet Google’s mobile friendly testing tool still shows the page with this ad as OK.

Google wants to penalize pages that are aggressive like this to promote ads because it says that users don’t like such ads. From its post today:

Sometimes a user may tap on a search result on a mobile device and see an app install interstitial that hides a significant amount of content and prompts the user to install an app. Our analysis shows that it is not a good search experience and can be frustrating for users because they are expecting to see the content of the web page.

I agree. I find it super annoying when I’m in my mobile browser and end up at a site that wants to force me into an app to read content that would load perfectly fine in my browser.

And Google has some of the blame in this.

How Google Pushes App Garbage

Consider a search I did today for “denali” on Google using the Android browser. In the results that came back, I got this:


Above, you can see that Google has a special section of its search results called “More content in apps” where it’s pushing me to install apps that I don’t already have.


The content that’s “in” these apps is also available on the mobile web. I could click right to it from my search results and see it without these apps at all. But Google has decided that it makes sense to take up some of its limited and valuable screen real estate to encourage me to install things.

That’s annoying, too. If Google’s concerned about users being put off by app install promotions they see after leaving its search results, perhaps it should be equally concerned about what it does within its own search results.

Here’s another example, in a search for Best Buy:

yp app

In the example above, Google’s provided a direct link to content within the YP app. I don’t have the YP app installed, so this is a giant waste of time. I also don’t need the YP app installed. YP makes this content available on the mobile web. Google does provide a mobile web link as a secondary listing, but should be the primary one to be less annoying.

The Mobile Web Is Actually Pretty Good!

Google’s done other things to encourage brands, publishers or anyone to create apps. For example, the forthcoming Now On Tap is designed to reward those who have apps with more seamless navigation on Android. Don’t have an app? Down the line, maybe mobile web content will also get such preferential treatment. But don’t go waiting for that.

Until recently, I’d say that not everyone needs an app. They can be expensive to build and maintain across two major platforms. If you don’t expect to have a regular recurring visitor base, they might not be worth the trouble.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many excellent reasons publishers should also consider apps, such as an important direct connection with your audience including notifications, the ability to better offer features and all the new rewards that Google, Apple and Microsoft are offering in terms of visibility with app indexing and deep links.

My fear, however, is all the enthusiasm for apps will degrade the mobile web, which has worked well and continues to improve. Major players seek to reinvent the mobile web in the form of apps. Major players seek to reinvent the underlying infrastructure to create how apps can link to each other in the way that web pages already do, efficiently. Major players push incentives at publishers to encourage them to go the app route.

Google’s one of those major players. Given how hard it has pushed on the app revolution, is it any wonder that publishers themselves are pushing for app installs? And isn’t it hypocritical to be dictating an app install ad on a publisher’s site is annoying but not when Google itself does its own unneeded app promotions?

I’d like to see Google reevaluate all the app garbage its tossing out in search results. App integration can be useful. I appreciate if my mobile search takes me to an app I already have. But I don’t need to have app install enticements tossed at me without a very good reason.

These Big Annoying Ads Are OK

Finally, consider this ad on a mobile site which doesn’t violate Google’s new mobile friendly guidelines:

big ad from google

That’s a giant ad at The Atlantic that completely covers reading the content. It almost certainly annoys everyone who sees it. But it’s allowed because it’s not an ad for an app install.

Oh, it’s also an ad by Google.

Why is Google going after annoying giant ads that block mobile content only for app installs and not for other things? It’s a confusing mixed message.

I could maybe see users being more annoyed with app install ads because they don’t want to be prompted to load something they don’t need for the content underneath. If so, then Google shouldn’t be showing all those app install prompts in its mobile search results. The same principle applies.

Discriminating against annoying giant ads only for apps and not for other things potentially will cause Google on trouble on competitive grounds. Last week, in an opinion piece on Search Engine Land, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman anticipated today’s change (as did many; it was pretty expected). He positions it as a move by Google to protect its search business, not users.

I’ve asked Google why only giant app install ads are being targeted. If I hear back, I’ll update.

Overall, I appreciate where Google’s coming from with this move. Giant ads can be annoying, for apps or anything. But if you’re going to discriminate against them, you should be consistent. Go after all giant ads. And don’t yourself push app installs when not necessary.

Postscript: Google sent this statement about why it is targeting large app install ads rather than any large ads:

We’re focused on improving the search experience for our users. In the case of app install interstitials, there are easy alternatives for promoting apps. In particular, there is a commonly accepted browser standard: Smart Banners on Safari (from Apple) and Native App Install Banners on Chrome. We’re encouraging webmasters to adhere to that accepted best practice.

I asked what people should do if they’re having visitors from the Android browser (which is different than Chrome) or from Microsoft’s mobile browser. Google said the recommendation is to shrink the size of the ad, so that it’s similar to a browser size.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Danny Sullivan
Danny Sullivan was a journalist and analyst who covered the digital and search marketing space from 1996 through 2017. He was also a cofounder of Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land, MarTech, and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo and MarTech events. He retired from journalism and Third Door Media in June 2017. You can learn more about him on his personal site & blog He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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