Google Page Layout Algorithm Update Should Be Easier To Recover From

    October 15, 2012
    Chris Crum

Remember the days when you could design your site any way you wanted to, and not have to worry about whether or not it would affect the chances of people actually finding your content in the first place? Those days are over. Design matters. More specifically, if you don’t have a substantial amount of content “above the fold” there’s a chance this will keep you from ranking in search results compared to your competitors who went out with a more Google-approved layout.

On Tuesday, Google’s Matt Cutts announced that Google has launched an update to its Page Layout algorithm. The algorithm was initially announced back in January, and essentially aims to surface relevant pages that have a substantial amount of content “above the fold”.

Has this algorithm update affected you at all since it was originally launched in January? Did this most recent launch have an impact? Let us know in the comments.

Basically, Google doesn’t want to point users towards content that they have to scroll down to find. They want you to get to what you’re looking for as quickly as possible. If you and a competitor both have equally relevant content, but your competitor has it closer to the top of the page, and the user has to scroll down on yours to find it, chances are Google will give the edge to your competitor. That is if the Page Layout algorithm is doing its job. Of course, there are still over 200 signals that Google is taking into account, so it’s entirely possible that you’re doing enough other things better than your competitor that your page could still rank higher. But we don’t know how much weight this particular signal gets in the algorithm.

Google talked about the general philosophy behind the page layout algorithm back in November of last year. “If you have ads obscuring your content, you might want to think about it,” Cutts is quoted as saying at Pubcon at the time. “Do they see content or something else that’s distracting or annoying?”

Then in January, the actual update announcement came.

“As we’ve mentioned previously, we’ve heard complaints from users that if they click on a result and it’s difficult to find the actual content, they aren’t happy with the experience,” Cutts wrote. “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.”

“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,” he continued. “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.”

Of course Google does not specify any numbers or limits, and ads can vary greatly in design. Some designs can pull off a substantial number of ads above the fold while not managing to distract too much from the content. This is subjective, and one has to wonder if Google’s algorithm can make the right call on something like design, which is really about perspective from the human eye.

Initially, according to Cutts, the algorithm update from January affected less than 1% of searches globally. “That means that in less than one in 100 searches, a typical user might notice a reordering of results on the search page,” he said at the time. “If you believe that your website has been affected by the page layout algorithm change, consider how your web pages use the area above-the-fold and whether the content on the page is obscured or otherwise hard for users to discern quickly.”

The most recent update to the page layout algorithm affected about 0.7% of English queries.

An update like this was kind of hinted at, back in the early days of Panda. If you’ll recall that famous list of questions Google thinks you should ask yourself when assessing quality, one fo the bullet points was, “Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?”

That didn’t say “above the fold,” but it’s along these lines.

If you were hit by this update, it should be easier to recover from than some other Google updates (like Penguin, for example). That is, in theory. This particular algorithm takes into account your pages’ layout every time it crawls the page, so you don’t have to wait six months for Google to launch another refresh, for Google to see any changes you’ve made.

Cutts explains in the original January 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.”

Even if it takes weeks, that’s still a great deal shorter than the length of time webmasters and SEOs have had to wait for the latest Penguin refresh.

If you want to see how viewers can view your page layout on different browser sizes, Google has a tool for that at Just enter the URL, and you can see what percentage of users will see different portions of your page. While it is still available, the tool at this URL is actually going away, because Google has simply added it to Google Analytics.

To use it from Google Analytics, navigate to the Content section, and click In-Page Analytics. From there, click “Browser Size”. This will shade portions of the page that are “below the fold”. You can also click anywhere on the screen to see what percentage of visitors can see it, or you can control the threshold percentage by using the slider.

Is Google doing a good job of delivering results in which there is substantial content above the fold? Let us know what you think.