Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Website Overlays Pose Technical Challenges for Marketers

Overlays, also known as interstitials or lightboxes, are pages that appear before or over an expected content page of a website.

They are often used as marketing “pop ups” that look better than the old pop up windows of yesteryears. At first, they were commonly used for serving ads while the main page loaded underneath. Nowadays, you'll see them used for all sorts of reasons:

Special promotional offers when users first visit a site
Age verification prior to site entry
Newsletter or email sign-ups
Solicit users for site survey
All of these use cases are intended to “interrupt” the normal user experience to get the user’s attention for a brief moment, but is not intended to prevent the user from easily continuing on his/her merry way to the intended content page. In theory, a simple Close [X] click is all that is required (with the exception of the age verification use case).

Lately, I have noticed some sites use full-page overlays as part of the core site experience with the belief that it creates a better user experience. In these cases, a content page that would normally be a “regular” HTML page with a unique page URL is instead an overlay without a URL.

Full-page overlay example
While it may be a better UX, here are some challenges I have come across with overlays as "real" content pages.
  1. Not great for SEO - Search engine spiders are not able to index these overlays. 
  2. Without a URL, you can’t drive traffic to the page via paid media to use as a destination landing page. Users also can't share the overlay since there is no URL, severely limiting social sharing and viral marketing. 
  3. Tracking, specifically web analytics tools like Omniture and Google Analytics, will not include basic metrics like page views from the standard configuration. A workaround like virtual page views can help address the tracking issues, but it does require custom coding from a developer who knows what s/he is doing. 
  4. Sometimes if not done well, the responsive design layout can lead to an awkward user experience. My pet peeve: a small [X] to close the overlay or the [X] is off the screen on my mobile device and you have to try to expand the screen or swipe to get to the [X]! 
Viant overlay ad is too wide on this MediaPost mobile page

So while overlays may be nice for special marketing offers or confirmations that do not contain critical content you want indexed, web developers should be careful using it for content-rich pages to avoid a #FAIL.


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