26 Jan 2012

Google Above-the-Fold Ad Penalty and How To Avoid It

Google Penalizing Excessive Ads Above the Fold

Google announced an update to their algorithm which penalizes excessive “above-the-fold” advertising on websites. The change is intended to downgrade web pages where the content the user is after is given very low or small placement relative to ad content.

As announced on the Webmaster Central Blog:

Rather than scrolling down the page past a slew of ads, users want to see content right away. So sites that don’t 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 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. Such sites may not rank as highly going forward.

Google assures that the change will affect “less than 1%” of searches, and that websites who use above-the-fold ads “to a normal degree” should not be affected. The ads in question refer to persistent, on-page advertisements, not pop-ups or overlay ads that you can click through to reach the content (although I personally find those far more intrusive).

What Is a Normal Amount of Ads?

Google is characteristically elusive on hard guidelines regarding how much ad real estate is too much. They do, however, point to various screen resolution plugins that let you view sites at varying resolutions to see how the content appears for users. This is useful for gauging where the fold would fall on your website on various displays, from iPads to desktops.

Perhaps more useful is the Google Labs Browser Size tool, which superimposes the varying browser sizes of Google users over your website. This way you can see what percentage of searchers can see a given piece of content when they first hit your site. The fewer visitors that can see a piece of content when a site first loads, the more likely it will be considered below the fold.

For example, taking a page from eHow that came up when I searched for making lampshades:

Page with Low Content Placement

Now here’s how it appears in Browser Size:

Page with Google Labs Browser Size Tool

Based on Google’s superimposed stats, 10% of visitors won’t be able to see much more than the article heading, and 70% of visitors won’t even see the first content paragraph in its entirety. It’s not clear if this example would be egregious enough to suffer the penalty for above-the-fold content from Google. While more clarification may come in the future, Google’s Matt Cutts has suggested that it’s not about the number of above-the-fold ads, but more about the real estate they take up. In a Google Hangout/video chat reported on by WebProNews, Cutts suggest that the size equivalent of two Post-Its grouped atop a 8.5″ x 11″ paper might be considered excessive on a web page.

Some have levied accusations of hypocrisy given Google’s often ad-heavy results pages:

Google Search Result Ad Placement

What’s the End Result?

Google’s personal exceptionalism aside, it’s clear that their emphasis is on usability. Even users who are very understanding of websites monetizing their content don’t want to scroll past a wall of ads to find the nugget of information they were seeking. This is particularly true when the ads themselves may appear like the content you were searching for, or otherwise confuse or obscure content.

Websites that are hit with the layout penalty can reduce their above-the-fold ad load and the search bot will process the changes the next time it crawls the site. However, as Google’s post notes, it may take “several weeks” to see the penalty lifted.

But even for sites that aren’t affected by the penalty this can be a useful reminder that, with ever-increasing smartphone and tablet browsing, your content will not always be served up on a luxurious 21″ monitor. This can help you gauge the visibility and effectiveness of your content, calls to action and, yes, ads.

Is Google improving results for users or hurting monetization for web owners? Share your thoughts below!


  • Krish Jan 26, 2012

    User-friendly approach of Google’s algorithm is always welcome but I don’t understand when Matt says that websites with less content above-the-fold would be affected. My concern is for Artist/Band/Music websites in which larger images and videos are displayed above-the-fold and this is also for better user experience! There is no other way to do this on such websites. Will these sites also be affected by this layout algorithm update? I’ll be glad if Google can answer in this regards and share some tips that can help such websites perform better despite this update.

  • David Gould Jan 26, 2012

    Hi Krish,

    No, images and videos are considered content. The penalty applies specifically to above-the-fold ads, like AdSense.


  • Mendenhall Creative Jan 31, 2012

    Ha! Seeing that Google SERP page made me laugh. It DOES seem hypocritical…big time! Since whenever there’s an ad to display to the user, they do. They also deliver it right at the top of my gmail. It reminds me of the scene from Swing Kids when the Nazi Leader is dining with a family and starts to drink wine. The son in the family who’s been recruited and indoctrinated by the Hitler Youth reminds him that drinking alcohol is taught against. The man shrugs it off in a “well, I am above that now” kinda way. Google’s making strides, but at the end of the day, they want to make a buck like the rest of us. Think of a better way Spam Team. There’s got to be other indicators available.

  • David Gould Feb 02, 2012

    Ha, very interesting comparison. I think the ad weight penalty is a valuable thing to have, but as you say it’s just tough to swallow when Google themselves seem to be among the worst offenders.

  • Amy Feb 15, 2012

    Two words: responsive design. This doesn’t necessarily get rid of the penalty from Google, but it will make it easier for visitors to read your content. And if they love it and link to it, that penalty for too many ads above the fold might not hurt as much as you’d think.

  • David Gould Feb 15, 2012

    Responsive design is a great way to approach the issue to avoid layouts that are unintentionally topheavy with ads at certain resolutions, although Google’s target here is more the people who are very deliberately keeping those ads high and huge.