Google’s Algorithm Testing Raises Questions About “Above the Fold”

    November 10, 2011
    Chris Crum

At PubCon in Las Vegas, Google’s Matt Cutts and Amit Singhal held a webmaster Q&A session with attendees, and referenced (among many other things) some algorithm testing that they’re doing, which we may see the results of in 2012. This involves Google’s algorithm examining what appears “above the fold” on a content page, and more specifically, what appears in the way of ads.

What is acceptable to have above content on a page? Tell us what you think.

As we discuss this, it’s important to keep in mind that as of right now, this is something Google is testing. There hasn’t actually been an update roll-out of this nature to my knowledge, so the effects would not necessarily have been felt by “infringing” sites yet, but from the sound of it, it’s coming.

As far as what actually happens in terms of fallout, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but this is still something site owners and webmasters should be thinking about and possibly preparing for.

Now, this concept of ad-to-content ratio is not new, and it has in fact been a topic of discussion surrounding the controversial Panda update (which Google calls “a positive change across all of its known measurements,” by the way). In fact, following the Panda update, Google (Singhal himself actually) came out with a list of questions that “step into Google’s mindset,” as to how they’re looking at the issue of quality.

On that list is: “Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?”

At PubCon, Cutts is quoted as saying, “If you have ads obscuring your content, you might want to think about it…Do they see content or something else that’s distracting or annoying?” and that they’re testing algorithms that determine ”what are the things that really matter, how much content is above the fold.”

Now that part about “what are the things that really matter” could certainly apply to things beyond ads, and this in itself raises a lot of questions.

Here are some questions the whole discussion raises. Some of the answers may become clearer in time, and others webmasters will no doubt be left to speculate upon (feel free to contribute your thoughts in the comments).


– Is “above the fold” determined solely by sizes elements of the design?

Screen size has an influence on this. Google did say that mobile (along with social) is the future. It’s certainly going to be a good idea (as it already is) to keep the small screen in mind.

– Is Google going to specifically look at the size of ads above the fold?

Look at EzineArticles, for example (one of the sites negatively impacted by the Panda update – granted, they’ve taken numerous steps to improve as a result). This article page has 7 ads above the actual content (the body). The top ones are very small in terms of space – just a few pieces of text. Even the ones that appear below the title aren’t enormous by ad standards, and technically are smaller than the 750-wide ad standard, but are they distracting to the content?

EzineArticles ads

eHow is probably in better shape on the ad side of things (Demand Media also noted in on their earnings call the other day, by the way, that they were not impacted by Google’s recent “Freshness” update).

eHow Design

– Is Google looking at things like spacing above the fold?

If not, AdSense ads could be most heavily impacted by this, because of the small formats.

– If this is taken into account, how will it be impacted by mouseover pull-downs and things of this nature?

– Will Google run into false positives based on pull down menus and things (javascript, ajax, etc.) – on the page, counted as content above the fold?

Granted, Google says it is getting smarter at understanding the content on the page in this regard. But how smart?

– Will large images above the text hurt you, or is this counted as the content?

For example, many of our article pages will use a relevant image above the article. It’s just one of our templates that we’ve worked into our design:

Picture above the article

– In a case like this, do headlines need to appear above the image?

– Will all of this effectively enable Google to really determine webmasters’ sites’ designs to some extent?

It can be very hard for a business to thrive online and not be visible in Google, so businesses will (and already do sometimes, for that matter) feel obligated to make sure their design is pleasing enough to Google to avoid being lost in the search results.

– Will webmasters bow down to everything google ever says?

Please feel free to weigh in on any of these, and share what you think of the direction Google is headed in, in the comments section.

Top image credit: Mike Souza (via Flickr).


Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.