SEO Alert! Google Downgrades Pages With Too Many Ads

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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?

Craig BucklerCraig Buckler
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Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.

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