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 Googles post on its Inside Search blog today:
Weve heard complaints from users that if they
click on a result and its difficult to find the
actual content, they arent happy with the
experience. Rather than scrolling down the page
past a slew of ads, users want to see content right
So sites that dont 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 doesnt have a lot of visible
content above-the-fold or dedicates a large
fraction of the sites initial screen real estate
to ads, thats 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 youve got too many ads
above-the-fold? When I talked with the head of
Googles web spam team, Matt Cutts, he said that
Google wasnt 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
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 pages
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? Thats 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
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, youre in trouble if you have little-to-no
content showing above the fold for commonly-used
screen resolutions. Youll know youre in trouble
shortly, because the change is now going into
effect. If you suddenly see a drop in traffic
today, and youre heavy on the ads, chances are
youve been hit by the new algorithm.
For those ready to panic, Cutts told me the change
will impact less than 1% of Googles searches
globally, which todays post also stresses.
Fixed Your Ads? Penalty Doesnt Immediately Lift
What happens if youre hit? Make changes, then wait
a few weeks.
Similar to how last years Panda Update works,
Google is examining sites it finds and effectively
tagging them as being too ad-heavy or not. If
youre tagged that way, you get a ranking decrease
attached to your entire site (not just particular
pages) as part of todays launch.
If you reduce ads above-the-fold, the penalty
doesnt instantly disappear. Instead, Google will
make note of it when it next visits your site. But
it can take several weeks until Googles 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
Googles 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 Googles good graces.
That process is just as applicable to todays
change, even though Panda itself now has much less
Meanwhile, Google AdSense Pushes Ads
Ironically, on the same day that Googles web
search team announced this change, I received this
message from Googles 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 shouldnt be done.
Still, its not hard to easily find sites using
Googles 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, Im happy with the change. But it
might not be perfect. For example, heres something
I tweeted about last year:
Yes, thats 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. Thats
potentially bad ROI for those advertisers. Heck, as
net-savvy adult, I found it a challenge.
But the problem here wasnt 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 Googles Own Search Results Top Heavy?
Another issue is that ads on Googles own search
results pages push the content the unpaid
editorial listings down toward the bottom of the
page. For example, heres exactly whats visible on
my MacBook Pros 1680×1050 screen:
(Side note, that yellow color around the ads in the
screenshot? Its 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.
Thats 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, theres content visible, with it
making up around half the page or more, if you
include the Related Searches area as content.
My laptops screen resolution is pretty high, of
course. Others would see less (Googles Browser
Size tool doesnt 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
Heres a screenshot that Daniel Weadley shared in
my Google+ post about what he sees on his netbook:
In this example, Googles doing a rare display of
four ads. Thats because its 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 its possible to find a few searches on
Google that trigger many ads, its 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 doesnt imply that
youre affected by this change. Its that excessive
behavior that were 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 engines algorithm
works to rank web pages:
Name The Update & More Info
Todays change is a new, significant ranking factor
for our table, one well 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 years Panda Update was a
classic example of this. But Googles not given one
to this update (I did ask). Its just being called
the page layout algorithm.
Boring. Unhelpful for easy reference. If youd like
to brainstorm a name, visit our posts on Google+
and on Facebook, where were asking for ideas.
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.
Postscript: Some have been asking in the comments
about how Google knows what an ad is. I asked, and
heres what Google said:
We have a variety of signals that
algorithmically determine what type of ad or
content appears above the fold, but no further
details to share. It is completely algorithmic in
its detectionwe dont use any sort of hard-coded
list of ad providers.