Tue, 24 Jan 2012
Pages With Too Many Ads Above The Fold Now Penalized By Googles Page Layout Algorithm
Jan 19, 2012 at 6:00pm ET by Danny Sullivan
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 away.
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 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 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 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, 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 caught.
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 flux.
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 the change.
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.
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