Google to Penalize For Excessive Above-the-Fold Ads

Every marketer knows that anything “above the fold” will attract the most attention. That’s why many advertising-supported websites put lots of ads near the top of the page. Now these ads are attracting some possibly unwanted attention from Google.

You know that the search giant focuses on getting users to the sites that best answer their queries. If you’ve been trying to rank for a while, you probably also know that Google cares about the user’s experience once they arrive at the site. This fact drives most of their algorithm changes. It’s why Panda devastated content farms; the thin content these sites often provided helped relatively few searchers, and cluttered the search results with low quality pages.

Google’s newest algorithm change also stems from searcher concerns. You can read their blog post covering the issue. But you almost don’t need to read it to understand why they’d do it. Think like a searcher. You’re looking for meaty content. How do you feel when you click a promising link from a search result, hoping to find the answer to your query – only to find what appears to be a page full of ads? Sure, there’s real content on the page, but you can only see about an inch or two of it visible, and you must scroll down to make out the rest.

You can curse Internet-shortened attention spans and laziness all you want, but the fact of the matter is, that’s a frustrating experience. And Google has chosen to do something about it. The search company changed its algorithm to look “at the layout of the webpage and the amount of content you see on the page once you click on the result,” it explained in the blog post. Google has heard complaints from users who click on a result and can’t find the content: “Rather than scrolling down the page past a slew of ads, users want to see the content right away. So sites that don’t have much content ‘above-the-fold’ can be affected by this change…Such sites may not rank as high going forward.”

It’s important to note that Google is singling out sites that place excessive above-the-fold ads; they’re not trying to penalize advertising-supported publishers who use a normal amount of this kind of advertising to help monetize their content. The search giant stated that this change “noticeably affects less than 1% of searches globally.” If you believe your site has been affected, you can try out Google’s Browser Size tool to check the appearance of your site under various different screen resolutions.

Maybe you figure that this change won’t affect you; it’s less than one in a hundred sites, right? As Alan Bleiweiss explains on Search Engine Journal, “that’s a big mistake…With billions upon billions of searches taking place, that’s an awful lot of searches impacted.” Which brings up the following questions: how do you know if your site got dinged by this algorithm change? And what can you do about it?

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Danny Sullivan, writing for Search Engine Land, noted that “Clearly, you’re in trouble if you have little to no content showing above the fold for commonly-used screen resolutions…If you suddenly see a drop in traffic…and you’re heavy on the ads, chances are you’ve been hit by the new algorithm.” If you’re going to be hurt by the change, you’ve seen the drop-off in traffic already. Unfortunately, getting that traffic back won’t happen quite so quickly.

You see, when Google visits your site and notices that you’re ad-heavy above the fold, it decreases the ranking for your entire site – not just the one page. Google will note this for the next time it visits, but, as Sullivan explains, “it can take several weeks until Google’s ‘push’ or ‘update’ until the new changes it has found are integrated into its overall ranking system, effectively removing penalties from sites that have changed and adding them to new ones that have been caught.”

Ouch. Apparently, if you’re stung, there’s no way to get around that wait, although Google notes that how long it takes for updates to get out (and thus any penalty to go away) will vary depending on several factors, such as the size of the site. As Bleiweiss says, if you haven’t considered the user experience on your websites up to now, consider this to be your wake-up call. Google even states in its post that “our advice for publishers continues to be to focus on delivering the best possible user experience on your websites and not to focus on specific algorithm tweaks.”

By the way, if you figure that Google won’t penalize you if you’re using AdSense ads as your abundance of above-the-fold advertising, think again. Matt Cutts, Google’s head of web spam, says that such pages are just as subject to the new algorithm – and potential penalties – as any other web pages. In other words, there’s no way around thinking about the experience of your users if you want to maintain your good standing in Google’s search results.

But you can take some comfort in two small things. First, both Google and a number of the analysts commenting on the algorithm change emphasized that it’s designed to catch sites that are excessively ad-heavy above the fold, not sites that simply show a small ad or two there that doesn’t get in the way of visitors seeing plenty of content without needing to scroll down. Second, even Google needed to adjust to the change, as Sullivan performed several searches on the site that yielded results with lots of ads at the top. In short, in some cases they might not have made muster past their own algorithm tweak. Even then, though, with Google’s maximum of three ads at the top, “there’s content visible, with it making up around half the page or more, if you include the Related Searches area as content,” Sullivan admitted.

But it’s far more often that Google delivers mostly content rather than ads above the fold, and they hope for no less from the sites to which they pass their searchers. As Google explained to Sullivan when he and others pointed out the few ad-heavy pages, “This is a site-based algorithm that looks at all the pages across an entire site in aggregate. Although it’s possible to find a few searches on Google that trigger many ads, it’s vastly more common to have no ads or few ads on a page…Having an ad above-the-fold doesn’t imply that you’re affected by this change. It’s that excessive behavior that we’re working to avoid for our users.”

So take a long, hard look at your website and think about how it measures up. If those ads are getting in the ways of users finding your content, it’s time to rethink your page layout – before Google makes your content even harder to find.

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