A few days ago the “Distinguished Engineer” Matt Cutts wrote about Google's new page layout algorithm improvement on the Official Google Webmaster Blog. In a nutshell, if you are overloading ads above the fold on your niche websites, you could be in trouble. But don't worry – you can change your ad layout and be back in business! Today, I wanted to review some of the points that Matt Cutts made, how this affects niche sites, and how to implement these changes in practice.
First of all, I make no claim of being an expert in this matter. All I can do is try my best to interpret what changes Google has made and give my opinion on how these changes should be implemented in real life. Here is what Matt said:
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.
What Does an “Excessive” Ad Layout Look Like?
So clearly Google is trying to give users a better experience by penalizing sites that essentially are displaying mostly ads above the fold. So if your website looks something like this, then you need to change:
This ad layout is very aggressive and essentially gives no content above the fold. I discussed 5 different Adsense layouts recently and I mentioned that I never use this one, as its a bit aggressive for me. Now, I'm glad I didn't go down that road!
The good news is that this recent algorithm change “noticeably affects less than 1% of searches globally”. I personally have not seen any change in terms of earnings or rankings (as far as I can tell) since this update was implemented. In addition, its important to note that Google is not saying you can never place ads above the fold. Its only those sites that are excessive with ads. Matt says:
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.
“Place Ads Above-the-Fold to a Normal Degree”
So, its okay to place ads above the fold, IF you are doing so to a normal degree. What exactly is a “normal degree”? Ah, now that's a good question. Again, I don't have all the answers. But my assumption is that one regular sized ad unit above the fold is probably normal. Here is an example of what I feel would be ads above the fold to a “normal degree”. This is also very similar to the ad layout of many of my own niche sites:
A searcher will land on your site, and will be able to immediately start reading the content of your page without having to scroll down at all. A significant portion of the content is above the fold in this option, and is a fairly standard layout in my opinion. You could also have the ad unit left justified instead of right justified and still be within the “normal” range in my opinion. Again, at least I have not been affected, and most of my sites employ a similar layout as the above.
Fixing Sites with Too Many Ads Above the Fold
However, what if you believe your site has been affected by this recent Google algorithm update? Well, you can always change the layout of your site, and Google will recrawl your site. Again, referencing the recent Google Webmaster Blog Post:
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.
So, you still have the chance to change the layout of your site, get re-crawled, and hopefully get re-ranked based on the new layout of your site.
Another interesting facet to this update is the fact that Google is many times also guilty of making their own pages VERY top heavy with ads! A review of this by Danny Sullivan over at Search Engine Land did a great job of addressing this issue.
Google Adsense Wants My Site to Put More Ads Above the Fold!
On the EXACT same day that Google announced this change, I got an email from Google Adsense telling me I should place more ad units on my site! Not only that, but they took the time to take a screenshot of my site and highlight the areas I should be placing more ads. Want to know where they suggested? Above the fold, left justified.
That's right Google Adsense wants me to place more ads above the fold!
I would provide you the exact screenshot that Google emailed me, but in order to keep my site private, I have recreated the recommendation that Google Adsense sent me. Here it is:
This is the same layout I was using on my site. Google Adsense had highlighted 50% of the width of the page as I have done above. They were telling me to put an adsense unit here to get the best return. The funniest part is that in the highlighted area, I already had a 300×250 Adsense unit! So, I was already doing exactly what they told – which made the email pretty pointless. However, in light of the recent Google algorithm update, I find it very educational.
Listen to Google Adsense Team or Google Search Team?
At first glance, this email from Google Adsense could mean that the Adsense team doesn't have a clue what the Google search team is doing. (Which may be very possible). On the other hand, Google Adsense may know exactly what's going on and is in essence telling us exactly what proportion of ads we can use above the fold.
In other words, its totally within Adsense's policies for webmasters to place ads in the highlighted section above…above the fold – left justified. However, placing ads above the fold in more than 50% of the content area is probably too much. You need to have at least some of your content start right at the top of the page above the fold.
What This Means for Niche Websites
The bigger question with all the algorithm updates that Google makes is this: Are niche websites still a profitable and reliable business? This is something that anyone in this business should be continually asking themselves. After all, as I have stated over and over again, you are at the whims of Google for the most part in this business. If they change how they rank sites, your business could be gone overnight; that's an inherent risk that I have written about very publicly several times.
My answer to that question is that it depends.
If you think that niche websites will be a “set it and forget it” type business that generates passive income for decades to come, you are very wrong. However, if you are willing to accept the fact that you are going to have to roll with the punches, and make changes when Google makes us aware of changes they are making, then you can still find plenty of money to be made in this business.
Keep a Long Term Focus
Even better yet, if you can focus on a more long-term strategy of producing high quality websites with unique functions or tools – then you will be ahead of the ball game. I have written in depth about what I consider to be Good, Better, and Best Strategies for Niche Websites. I still find that post to be very relevant. You have to adapt, you have to evolve, and you have to focus on meeting the needs of the consumers (searchers).
Overall, this latest change by Google affects less than 1% of all searches, so it will have very little impact on my business I would expect. However, its just another indicator that you have to be aware of what's going on in the industry and be willing to tweak your business as you need to.
Finally, these are some of the latest changes that Google has made and I've offered my opinion on specifically how to implement these changes. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the subject. Do you think these changes will have a major impact on the niche websites business? Have you had any experience with this latest update? What other thoughts do you have to share on the subject?