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

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


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!

David Gould

David is the Director of Strategy at Vertical Measures, working with brands to develop successful online marketing programs that pull together business goals with customer needs. His 15 years experience in writing, design and web development have provided a perfect complement of skills for effective content marketing and strategy. +David Gould