Google Study Says Native Apps Divert Majority of Users

About 69 percent of users leave a Website instead of downloading an app that could improve their online experience, according to the study.

Google, Web search, search engines, Google search, interstitials, banner ads, online advertising, Web browsers

New Google research has found that when mobile users are given the option of downloading a third-party app for a better online experience, they simply halt their activity and go to another site.

That, said Google, is something Website owners don't want to happen. In response to its study, Google has now dropped its own practice of offering so-called interstitial apps, or app download invitations that appear on device screens after a consumer expresses interest in a product or service, because they push consumers away, rather than convince them to make purchases or take advantage of services.

David Morell, a Google+ software engineer, unveiled the new policy in a July 23 post on the Google Webmaster Central Blog: "Many mobile sites use promotional app interstitials to encourage users to download their native mobile apps. For some apps, native can provide richer user experiences, and use features of the device that are currently not easy to access on a browser. Because of this, many app owners believe that they should encourage users to install the native version of their online property or service."

Google decided to test that hypothesis, wrote Morell, by looking at its own use of interstitials. Morell didn't provide specific numbers for how small or large its research pool was, but he wrote that 9 percent of the visits to a test interstitial page resulted in a consumer choosing to download the offered app.

More striking, though, was that 69 percent of the users who received the app offer through the interstitial simply abandoned the page and went somewhere else, which completely disconnected them from their original task, whether it was conducting a search or making a purchase.

"While 9 percent sounds like a great [click-through rate] for any campaign, we were much more focused on the number of users who had abandoned our product due to the friction in their experience," Morell wrote.

Google then tried the experiment again, this time without using an interstitial. "We added a Smart App Banner to continue promoting the native app in a less intrusive way, as recommended in the Avoid common mistakes section of our Mobile SEO Guide," wrote Morell. "The results were surprising," with an immediate 17 percent increase in one-day active users on the test Website, he wrote.

"Based on these results, we decided to permanently retire the interstitial" at Google, he wrote. "We believe that the increase in users on our product makes this a net positive change, and we are sharing this with the hope that you will reconsider the use of promotional interstitials."

In April, Google also took a different step to make shopping and browser use easier on smaller-screen mobile devices by changing its search algorithm to give mobile-friendly Web pages higher rankings in search when users are accessing the information from mobile devices. Under the algorithm changes, Web pages that have not been specifically optimized for viewing on smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices now receive a lower ranking on Google Search.

Several mobile analysts told eWEEK that while the latest interstitial policy at Google may be helpful, users need to remember that the company has a vested interest in ensuring they use Web browsers for their searches so that the search giant can continue to reap the bounty of paid search. When users employ third-party apps, Google isn't getting money from online advertisers and clicks.

"I think Google is actively trying to improve the user experience on its devices and platforms," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "Basically, they want the mobile user experience to be better and they want the mobile user browser experience to be better. You could say they have a big ulterior motive, though, that they want people to look at things through the browser."

Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst for Enderle Group, agreed. "As companies move to apps, they lock Google out of the income stream, so Google is going to war on apps with self-serving studies that [create] FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] over the efforts," wrote Enderle. "However, this doesn't necessarily mean the results are inaccurate, [but it] just suggests a fix [dropping the apps approach] that is contrived."

Instead, wrote Enderle, Website owners "likely can do a better job of enticing the customers to install the apps so the process isn't as annoying and get the benefits without the penalties, but don't expect Google to point that out," he wrote. "They want this practice killed."