Many online businesses monetize their websites by selling ads. In fact, most of the largest online publishers incorporate ads into their websites. It’s a practice that’s been around since 1994 (below is the Internet’s first banner ad, via AT&T).
If you generate enough traffic to a site, why not take advantage and make some money along the way? Seems like a pretty reasonable decision, right?
While that still rings true, you now have more to think about than just placing ads all over your website. If not done properly, sites can suffer substantial negative SEO ramifications in the form of penalties and dramatic ranking declines.
Why Does Google Care If I Put Ads on My Website?
Google is placing a much greater emphasis nowadays on user experience. When a user visits a website, were they able to find what they were looking for? Did they have a positive experience with the site? While ads can generate revenue for a site, they can also detract from the overall experience.
Here is a direct quote from Google back in 2012:
“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. 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.”
This doesn’t mean Google hates ads; it just means ads need to be integrated strategically to not turn off users. Google wants to ensure websites that are rewarded with top rankings provide users the answers or solutions they are seeking because it provides searchers a better outcome. So naturally, they were going to employ tactics to detect user experience signals.
Algorithm Updates/Penalties Targeting Ads
- January 2012 Top Heavy Update: Too many ads above the fold as mentioned in the page layout algorithm update.
- October 2012 Page Layout Update #2: Matt Cutts announced an update to the original page layout algorithm.
- Feb 2014 Page Layout Update #3: Google refreshed the algorithm, again announced by Matt Cutts.
- Phantom/Quality Updates starting in May 2013 and continuing today: Exact specifications were never released but most data suggest that parts of these updates are related to user experience issues.
- Jan 2017 Intrusive Interstitial Penalty: Penalty to punish aggressive interstitials and pop-ups that might damage the mobile user experience.
Most Common Ad Issues on Websites
As an agency, I work with hundreds of websites and see everyday examples of bad practices when it comes to incorporating ads. Some of the most common issues we see affecting SEO rankings are:
- Too many ads above the fold: When the main content of the page is pushed down the page, making a user scroll to the actual subject of the page.
- Forced ad placements: When ads are forced on a page with the sole purpose to make money and no attempt to help users.
- Forced pop-ups and interstitials: Ads that typically float over the content as you scroll down and are difficult to close, or interstitials that redirect the user away from the main content without offering a path back.
- Auto-play video & audio ads: Typically occur when you load a page and a video or audio file automatically starts playing without ever engaging with it. Users find this annoying.
- Deceiving ad styling: When the ad is styled in a way to mislead the user to click on it and not provide anything of value related to the subject matter.
- Excessive pagination to increase ad views: You’ve all seen it; you go to an article and must click through each slide or page to see the full content all while displaying ads in between.
If you were to come to a website with any of the above-mentioned issues, how happy would you be? Not very. This is precisely why Google is continually taking steps to improve users’ happiness. All of the aforementioned examples are also actually listed within Google’s Search Quality Guidelines and dilute the quality of your page.
What to Think About When Incorporating Ads
Unfortunately, there is no special tool you can run your website through to see if it follows best practices. You must take a step back and view your webpage in the eyes of a visitor and use your best judgment. If you believe the page was deliberately created to manipulate users to click on ads rather than help users, you better change some things. Fortunately, Google actually provides questions to ask yourself when considering ad placement on your website:
- What is the user trying to accomplish by visiting my site?
- What do they do when viewing a particular page?
- Where is their attention likely to be focused?
- How can I integrate ads into this area without getting in the users’ way?
- How can I keep the page looking clean, uncluttered and inviting?
Ad Placement Best Practices
- Be strategic on placement: The main reason you are getting traffic to your website is because of the content on the site, so make sure your ads don’t distract from the main focus. This could increase bounce rate if not thought through.
- Go above and to the left: Studies have shown that an ad receives the most views at the top of the page, followed by left, then right placements above the fold. Now I know I mentioned above the fold ads as an issue, but it’s only an issue if it pushes down or distracts from the main contents of the page, providing a poor user experience.
- Make ads look like ads: You want your ads to compliment the styling of your website but you don’t want to mislead users to click on ads specifically to generate clicks. This causes dissatisfaction from a user perspective.
- Less is more: Placing a great deal of ads on a webpage might make the page look cluttered and thus result in an unhappy experience.
Google actually provided the below graphic of a good example versus a bad example to ensure your content is being displayed above the fold.
Ads can still be a great source of revenue. Many websites do a tremendous job of incorporating ads while still providing a positive user experience. The key takeaway is that you must be careful, think about your users, and don’t have the sole focus of your website to be about ad revenue generation. That’s not why users have come to you in the first place.
Are there other best practices that you can add? Let me know on social media.
Featured Image: DepositPhotos.com
First Banner Ad: http://thefirstbannerad.com/
Google Example Ad Layout: https://support.google.com/adsense/answer/1282097?hl=en