Is your website ad heavy? You may be in trouble. Google has announced a new algorithm tweak that will lower the rankings of websites that Google determines is providing a bad user experience – a move Google hinted was in the works in November.
Google’s Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts, in a blog post, reported that the “Page Layout algorithmic improvement” will effect 1 percent of searches globally – which is no small number considering Google powers at least 3 billion searches per day globally, according to comScore estimates.
Google’s Page Layout Update
The target is too many ads, which means the area that is visible to users when they first arrive on your site prior to scrolling. Many website overload this area with AdSense ads, among others, to make as much money from advertising as they can – even this page from Google notes that “the eCPM for above the fold units is approximately 80% higher than below the fold units. You'll get the best results by having more ad units above the fold.”
Following the rollout of Google’s Panda update last year, many speculated that ad-heavy sites were targeted, especially after Cutts mentioned that one thing Panda specifically was looking at was whether a website had an excessive number of ads.
Regardless of whether it was part of Panda, it’s definitely confirmed now. On this, Google is clear: “Such sites may not rank as highly going forward.”
“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,” Cutts wrote.
However, what remains unclear is what is a “normal” vs. “excessive” ad ratio. Also, which screen resolution is Google most concerned with? What is the “standard” size, according to Google?
And what is “content” considered in this change? Is “content” a picture? Links? Text? Video? Navigation? Social sharing links? Google doesn’t say.
In the comments of the Google blog post, one commenter points out that it’s unclear how an “ad” is defined by Google. “Does it include only AdSense? Yahoo PPC? Banners and other display advertising? Affiliate links? ‘Ad’ is a pretty broad term.”
Worried your site might be impacted, or perhaps you already have seen a drop in traffic and you suspect it might be due to this update? Google tells publishers to make sure your content isn’t “obscured or otherwise hard for users to discern quickly.”
Here’s what Search Engine Watch’s homepage looks like using this tool.
Because this is an algorithmic penalty, not a manual penalty, changing your page layout is one way to recover rankings. Says Google:
“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.”
Wait, Isn’t Google Just as Guilty of Pushing Ads?
Yes. Yes they are. But guess it's OK since "ads are just answers."
Funny enough, Google doesn’t allow you to view any of their pages or search engine result pages in their own browser size tool, which would likely show that Google pushes down its own content (i.e., search results) in order to make money via advertising – not to mention that, due to Google changing the background color of AdWords ads, it’s much harder to distinguish the difference between paid and organic results on many computers.
For example, on this search for “buy jacket”, above the fold I see two (and a half) organic results, but 9 ads, in addition to Google shopping results, which some might consider a case of Google obscuring content.
Google has already responded to the criticism leveled at them, telling Search Engine Land, “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.”
While the update hasn't received an official name, here's to hoping (as suggested on WebmasterWorld) that this update becomes known as the Google SOPA (Stop Overly Pushy Ads) Update, considering it came out the same week as Google's SOPA protest.