SEO Alert! Google Downgrades Pages With Too Many Ads

Adverts pay for many of the resources we take for granted on the web. No one begrudges a few ads — you wouldn’t be reading this if you did — but some sites take adverts beyond a reasonable level. Google’s latest search algorithm change attempts to improve user experience by downgrading sites with too many adverts.

According to Google’s Inside Search blog:

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.

The algorithm analyzes adverts in fixed positions; the Pagerank for sites using pop-ups, pop-unders or overlays will not be affected.

Google estimates the change will impact 1% of searches, i.e. you could encounter result reordering for one in every 100 searches. If your site’s affected, they recommend testing it with the Browser Size tool.

Perplexing Prerequisites

As with most search algorithm changes, Google is holding all the cards and gives us little to go on…

  1. What do Google consider to be an advert? They’re not always banners or third-party scripts?
  2. What do Google consider “above-the-fold”? It’s a dubious design term which changes from device to device and has no authoritative specification.
  3. How do Google know whether an advert is above the fold? It’s easy to reposition advert blocks with CSS or JavaScript which wouldn’t necessarily be noticed by the algorithm.
  4. How do they rank pages which use responsive design and reposition or remove adverts according to the screen size?
  5. Google AdWords recommends advert positions above the fold. You may have received messages stating that you’re losing revenue because you’re under-utilizing the maximum number of slots. Could you be penalized for using Google’s own advice?

It’s great Google want to improve the web and search is their core business — they can do what they like and we’re free to use them or not. That said, should a company as powerful as Google be able to dictate something as subjective as design or user experience?

The Apple and Microsoft websites are essentially huge multi-page adverts. Could those sites be downgraded because Google (a major competitor) considers them to offer a bad user experience?

And where could it end? Could Google consider downgrading predominantly red designs because it’s considered a danger color in some cultures? Are they impeding your creative freedom? Is it censorship?

Don’t Panic

The vast majority of site owners need not be alarmed. Google’s announcement sounds more like marketing spin than an advanced new technology which will change the way designers approach pages.

I suspect the algorithm loads each page in a browser engine which emulates a 1024px width screen. CSS and JavaScript effects parsed during the initial page load may be applied but event or timer-driven code wouldn’t run. It then works out the vertical position of the first major content block and if it’s more than, say, 600px down, the Pagerank would be reduced accordingly. The overall impact is likely to be tiny, though. Factors such as keyword relevancy and even page weight will have a bigger effect.

There’s an easy way for site owners to avoid downgrades: simply place all your adverts at the bottom of the page then rearrange the content using CSS3 animations or JavaScript events. I’m no fan of intrusive advertising but that’s a horrible user experience — far worse than a little scrolling. Unfortunately, Google won’t know unless they manually check the site.

Will Google’s new algorithm affect your site? Is the policy at odds with Google’s advertising business? Is Google using it’s power to dictate website design and code quality?

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  • Томица

    What would also be interesting to see is whether Google will treat its own Ad programme as it will others. Also, how will this algorithm treat pop-ups and Image/Flash banners?

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      As mentioned, pop-ups, pop-unders and overlays are not affected. They’re normally triggered by user actions so it’s difficult to detect them.

    • http://www.vermarc-custom.com.au Steven

      Томица, it looks like it will only effect websites who stack ad’s where content should be displayed.

  • Kise S.

    we use about 2-4 300×60 units images to show some of our new additions or new services, even tho the content still visible in the fold, im not sure if we will be punished for showing our users new services or additions

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      It’s impossible to know at this stage. Hopefully, Google will consider those images to be content rather than adverts.

      • Kise S.

        yeah i’ve read the post in Google webmaster blog, and its so unclear that it might be really bad or good after all, they need to define what does “bad” mean exactly right now it could mean anything that appear before text content :S

  • Kise S.

    I think google adsense have the rule that you cant use more then 3 ads units, so i don’t think they will treat it any different from other ads

  • http://www.msdnholidays.com rooniel

    okay, so what you mean by “folds” ? Is there any advantage placing words on folds?

  • http://www.ecourierservice.com Jay Rana

    Is google ban on high page rank site also….????

  • http://www.phillipmobbs.com Phillip Mobbs

    I think this could really improve the search results depending on how its implemented as it may filter out a lot of web pages which are purely built to host ads.

    As i get annoyed with the amount of times i try to Google something and find half the 1st page results don’t actually offer what i want but have just targeted the keywords to display a page of ads

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      Possibly, but first you should question why an advert-only web page is ranking so highly for specific terms. That seems to be a relevancy issue. Besides, Google’s done a lot to reduce those results in the past year or two.

  • http://www.autoleak.com Chuck Hunter

    Thanks for the article. Being one of the 1% sites my web pages have dropped into unknown positions in the search rankings – did locate a position 9 page at 125 and a top page went from 1 to 2.
    To counter, I have removed content images at the top of content on pages where they did not have image maps so that my content starts with text. Moved the code for 3 of my 6 adverts to appear after the main content when viewing in source (maybe I should have moved all 6 to be like that) and made sure those same 3 adverts are below the fold. Will see what happens. Difficult to tell if the algorithm gives different weight to size of adverts and position. Concern is that the 3 remaining adverts are in prime positions of top and top left so Google may still hit me for that. The adverts I moved, did not really interfere with viewing content since two were on the far right and one was just one line link advert in the content.

  • http://hometipster.com Hometipster.com

    A perfect example of how Google fails. We ranked pretty well for DIY but that’s been slipping of later. One thing we did notice in Google.co.uk search was that Focus (a major brand that went bust) is very high up on Page 1. It’s site is now just a page stuffed full of Affiliate links. According to Google’s Panda it shouldn’t be there and if this so called new algorithm is in effect why does it remain there?

    As a one-man-band I’m finding I’m having to spend more time messing around with the site to appease Google than actually writing content for my visitors.

  • http://www.incion.com john

    Hello , yes this is very true SEO Alert! Google Downgrades Pages With Too Many Ads
    what we found better is to use google adwards and adsense
    and our website is doing pretty well.

  • http://www.SirBudProductions.com/ Mike Becvar

    I understand that ads help websites provide content to users for free. I guess we must have a love/hate relationship with ads. I tolerate ads with websites that I choose to visit on a regular basis… or when their ads become too much, I stop visiting them.

    I think the primary purpose of a website should be to provide the visitors with information. It is unfortunate, that there are many more websites that are designed to make the owners money from ads. Content is secondary, and it doesn’t really matter to them if it is correct. Beyond hiring humans to visit websites, I don’t know how they can totally fix their search to put the websites that deliver content above the websites that deliver ads. I suppose there could be a magic text to link ratio that tells google if the website has more content than links, but not all links are ad related.

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      I think many business owners would argue that the primary purpose of their site is to make money. They may do that by providing free information but, without money, that content would not exist.

      I agree that some sites go over the top but, if you don’t like obtrusive advertising, you won’t visit that site or click any adverts. It’s therefore cost them money without any benefit.

      My main concern, however, is that Google are beginning to stipulate how a page should look and feel. That’s a large step beyond search indexing.

      • http://www.SirBudProductions.com/ Mike Becvar

        Would you say that the purpose of a shoe store was to sell shoes or to make money? The owner of the shoe store wants to make money by selling shoes, therefore selling shoes is the main priority. The purpose of a website should be to provide the customer with the information they are looking for and doing that should make the company money.

        Actually, I don’t think that many business websites need ads. The purpose of a dental office website should be to attract customers, provide office hours and directions, and tell which insurance plans they offer. It should not be concerned about making money from the ads. The same would be true for just about any small business.

        Do you write a blog to have a place to put ads or to show your readers that you have a knowledge they need? The readers of a blog should like the business more and want to spend their money there or come back on a regular basis to read articles. Sure, SitePoint wants to make money, but its primary focus should be to provide developers with a quality resource. If you buy a domain name that is closely linked to a celebrity or product with hopes getting rich of selling ads shown to unsuspecting visitors, then I think it is great that Google will lower you page ranking.

      • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

        Whether providing shoes/content or making money is your primary focus, you’ll find it difficult to do the former without the latter.

        As you point out, websites can make money directly (from ads or selling products and services) or indirectly (by promoting products or services). So are you happy that Google might downgrade your dental website because content falls “below the fold”? You may not use banner ads, but your website is one big advert for your services. Google should penalize it accordingly.

  • Roman

    “What do Google consider…”

    The correct way to say this would be this: “What does Google consider…” A name of a company is a singular noun regardless of how many people work for the company.