Do you shove lots of ads at the top of your web pages? Think again. Tired of doing a Google search and landing on these types of pages? Rejoice. Google has announced that it will penalize sites with pages that are top-heavy with ads.
Top Heavy With Ads? Look Out!
The change — called the “page layout algorithm” — takes direct aim at any site with pages where content is buried under tons of ads.
From Google’s post on its Inside Search blog today:
We’ve heard complaints from users that if they click on a result and it’s difficult to find the actual content, they aren’t happy with the experience. Rather than scrolling down the page past a slew of ads, users want to see content right away.So sites that don’t have much content “above-the-fold” can be affected by this change. If you click on a website and the part of the website you see first either doesn’t have a lot of visible content above-the-fold or dedicates a large fraction of the site’s initial screen real estate to ads, that’s not a very good user experience.
Such sites may not rank as highly going forward.
Google also posted the same information to its Google Webmaster Central blog.
Sites using pop-ups, pop-unders or overlay ads are not impacted by this. It only applies to static ads in fixed positions on pages themselves, Google told me.
How Much Is Too Much?
How can you tell if you’ve got too many ads above-the-fold? When I talked with the head of Google’s web spam team, Matt Cutts, he said that Google wasn’t going to provide any type of official tools similar to how it provides tools to tell if your site is too slow (site speed is another ranking signal).
Instead, Cutts told me that Google is encouraging people to make use of its Google Browser Size tool or similar tools to understand how much of a page’s content (as opposed to ads) is visible at first glance to visitors under various screen resolutions.
But how far down the page is too far? That’s left to the publisher to decide for themselves. However, the blog post stresses the change should only hit pages with an abnormally large number of ads above-the-fold, compared to the web as a whole:
We understand that placing ads above-the-fold is quite common for many websites; these ads often perform well and help publishers monetize online content.This algorithmic change does not affect sites who place ads above-the-fold to a normal degree, but affects sites that go much further to load the top of the page with ads to an excessive degree or that make it hard to find the actual original content on the page.
This new algorithmic improvement tends to impact sites where there is only a small amount of visible content above-the-fold or relevant content is persistently pushed down by large blocks of ads.
Impacts Less Than 1% Of Searches
Clearly, you’re in trouble if you have little-to-no content showing above the fold for commonly-used screen resolutions. You’ll know you’re in trouble shortly, because the change is now going into effect. If you suddenly see a drop in traffic today, and you’re heavy on the ads, chances are you’ve been hit by the new algorithm.
For those ready to panic, Cutts told me the change will impact less than 1% of Google’s searches globally, which today’s post also stresses.
Fixed Your Ads? Penalty Doesn’t Immediately Lift
What happens if you’re hit? Make changes, then wait a few weeks.
Similar to how last year’s Panda Update works, Google is examining sites it finds and effectively tagging them as being too ad-heavy or not. If you’re tagged that way, you get a ranking decrease attached to your entire site (not just particular pages) as part of today’s launch.
If you reduce ads above-the-fold, the penalty doesn’t instantly disappear. Instead, Google will make note of it when it next visits your site. But 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.
Google’s post explains this more:
If you decide to update your page layout, the page layout algorithm will automatically reflect the changes as we re-crawl and process enough pages from your site to assess the changes.How long that takes will depend on several factors, including the number of pages on your site and how efficiently Googlebot can crawl the content.
On a typical website, it can take several weeks for Googlebot to crawl and process enough pages to reflect layout changes on the site.
Our Why Google Panda Is More A Ranking Factor Than Algorithm Update article explains the situation with Panda, and how it took time between when publishers made changes to remove “thin” content to when they were restored to Google’s good graces. That process is just as applicable to today’s change, even though Panda itself now has much less flux.
Meanwhile, Google AdSense Pushes Ads
Ironically, on the same day that Google’s web search team announced this change, I received this message from Google’s AdSense team encouraging me to put more ads on my site:
This was in relation to my personal blog, Daggle. The image in the email suggests that Google thinks content pretty much should be surrounded by ads.
Of course, if you watch the video that Google refers me (and others) to in the email, it promotes careful placement, that user experience be considered and, at one point, shows a page top-heavy with ads as something that shouldn’t be done.
Still, it’s not hard to easily find sites using Google’s own AdSense ads that are definitely pushing content down as far down on their pages as they can or trying to hide it. Those pages, AdSense or not, are subject to the new rules, Cutts said.
Pages Ad-Heavy, But Not Top-Heavy With Ads, May Escape
As a searcher, I’m happy with the change. But it might not be perfect. For example, here’s something I tweeted about last year:
Yes, that’s my finger being used as an arrow. I was annoyed that to find the actual download link I was after was surrounded by AdSense-powered ads telling me to download other stuff.
This particular site was heavily used by kids who might easily click on an ad by mistake. That’s potentially bad ROI for those advertisers. Heck, as net-savvy adult, I found it a challenge.
But the problem here wasn’t that the content was pushed “below the fold” by ads. It was that the ratio of ads was so high in relation to the content (a single link), plus the misleading nature of the ads around the content.
Are Google’s Own Search Results Top Heavy?
Another issue is that ads on Google’s own search results pages push the “content” — the unpaid editorial listings — down toward the bottom of the page. For example, here’s exactly what’s visible on my MacBook Pro’s 1680×1050 screen:
(Side note, that yellow color around the ads in the screenshot? It’s much darker in the screenshot than what I see with my eyes. In reality, the color is so washed-out that it might as well be invisible. That’s something some have felt has been deliberately engineered by Google to make ads less noticeable as ads).
The blue box surrounds the content, the search listings that lead you to actual merchants selling trash cans, in this example. Some may argue that the Google shopping results box is further pushing down the “real content” of listings that lead out of Google. But the shopping results themselves do lead you to external merchants, so I consider them to be content.
The example above is pretty extreme, showing the maximum of three ads that Google will ever show above its search results (with a key exception, below). Even then, there’s content visible, with it making up around half the page or more, if you include the Related Searches area as content.
My laptop’s screen resolution is pretty high, of course. Others would see less (Google’s Browser Size tool doesn’t work to measure its own search results pages). But you can expect Google will take “do as I say, not as I do” criticism on this issue.
Indeed, I shared this story initially with the main details, then started working on this section. After that was done, I could see this type of criticism already happening, both in the comments or over on my Google+ post and Facebook post about the change.
Here’s a screenshot that Daniel Weadley shared in my Google+ post about what he sees on his netbook:
In this example, Google’s doing a rare display of four ads. That’s because it’s showing the maximum of three regular ads it will show with a special Comparison Ads unit on top of those. And that will just add fuel to criticisms that if Google is taking aim at pages top-heavy with ads, it might need to also look closer to home.
NOTE: About three hours after I wrote this, Google clearly saw the criticisms about ads on its own search results pages and sent this statement:
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.Again, this algorithm change is designed to demote sites that make it difficult for a user to get to the content and offer a bad user experience.
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.
Does all this talk about ranking signals and algorithms have you confused? Our video below explains briefly how a search engine’s algorithm works to rank web pages:
Also see our Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors, which explains some of the other ranking signals that Google uses in its algorithm:
Name The Update & More Info
Today’s change is a new, significant ranking factor for our table, one we’ll add in a future update, probably as Va, for “Violation, Ad-Heavy site.”
Often when Google rolls out new algorithms, it gives them names. Last year’s Panda Update was a classic example of this. But Google’s not given one to this update (I did ask). It’s just being called the “page layout algorithm.”
Now for the self-interested closing. You can bet this will be a big topic of discussion at our upcoming SMX West search marketing conference at the end of next month, especially on the Ask The Search Engines panel. So check out our full agenda and consider attending.