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Google Announces Above-the-Fold Algorithm Change

How many of us have known for how many years that Google cares about user experience (no matter what others might argue the contrary)? Earlier this year, in one of my conference presentations, I put it this way: “SEO is about understanding user experience as seen through search algorithms”.

Well today, Google took yet one more step in this direction.  I caught a tweet this afternoon from Jill Whalen regarding Google’s announcement today that they’ve changed their algorithm specifically targeting above-the-fold user experience issues.

As focused as I’ve been on client work, while simultaneously being distracted by the foot of snow we got dumped in our laps yesterday, and the sad news earlier today that Freestyle ski and Winter X Games champion and role model Sarah Burke passed away this morning at the all too young age of 29, Jill’s tweet immediately caught my attention because “page layout” in the SEO world is everything about UX.  So I knew this was going to be an important change to learn about.

Google’s Algorithm Change in a Nutshell

What Matt Cutts described is essentially this (interpreted through my own understanding):  If you muck up your site above the fold with so much pollution that site visitors have a difficult time getting right to the content that page’s search result refers to, Google’s now going to get even more annoyed.  Because users get annoyed.  And while users get annoyed at an emotional level, Google’s getting annoyed is algorithmic – which means your site will feel Google’s wrath.

The Tiny Fraction Game

As is typical of Google, Matt says in the article that this change is really minor – in that it should only impact about 1 percent of all searches globally.  That of course, leads too many people to think “oh cool – I can ignore this one too…”

Except that’s a big mistake.  All too common in our industry.  With billions upon billions of searches taking place, that’s an aweful lot of searches impacted. Heck, given how the “real” impact of the “not-provided” turned out to be compared to Google’s initial claims, people really need to pay attention here.  Because this one IS something you can respond to and address, a lot more readily than making up for the “not-provided” hit you or your client sites might have taken.

Fix it and Bounce Back (in Several Weeks)

Matt goes on to say that if you fix the issue,

the page layout algorithm will automatically reflect the changes as we re-crawl and process enough pages from your site to assess the changes.

And in true Matt disclaimer fashion, he then informs us:

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.

That’s something else people need to pay attention to.  “several weeks…”   Because not only do you need to potentially GUESS that a drop has occurred due to this (what if your site wasn’t crawled today, and thus doesn’t appear to be hit by this specific change?), but then, if you DO make such changes, you need to sit back and wait.  And hope, as always, in our industry, that the changes you THINK you needed to make, were the RIGHT changes – in terms of appeasing the Google Page Layout algorithm Gods.  🙂

Resistance is Futile

In any regard, what I take away from today’s announcement more than anything else, is this:

If you want to succeed in SEO at the highest levels, and if you haven’t already learned the concepts of UX, or how UX might be interpreted through the lenses of search engine algorithms, this is your wake-up call.

You’d be wise to educate yourself as soon as possible.  If you want to get a jump-start on your UX knowledge, I highly recommend you follow and start reading anything Kim Krause Berg tweets, writes, or otherwise shares – she’s one of the top UX people in our industry.

And for goodness sake people, please get out of your own heads long enough to step into your users (and your client’s users) minds.  And think about how THEY would react when they come to a page on your site or your client’s site.  Everybody will be better for it.

UPDATE January 20th

Chris Astuccio notes in the comment thread that Search Engine Land posted an article by Matt McGee today where he interviewed a Search Quality Rater.  (It’s my view that Raters or Matt’s team, or a combination of them, must have found a specific pattern related to above-the-fold, of sites where someone would search, click, then bounce back to the SERP where that pattern specifically involved above-the-fold common factors, leading to this algo update).

In the interview, they touch on the notion that the rater definitely looks at layout.

When looking at design and layout, do your criteria change based on the type of site you’re looking at? For example, a web page on a big brand site might be expected to have a more professional design than some small business sites.

Like I said before, it’s more about the layout than the actual design. A company with a simple design would be rated just as well as a big company with a professional design as long as the information is clear and presented in a way that is easy to understand. To give you an example, a page where you can tell what the main content is with ads taking second page in the design would get a high rating. A page where the ads are confused with the main content, where you can’t tell the difference between content and ads would get a low rating.

There’s nothing in the interview related to what triggers Google assigning a site to a rater.  However it makes complete sense to me that humans on a large scale were likely involved in deciding what factors go into this latest change.


Category SEO
Alan Bleiweiss Forensic SEO Consultant at Alan Bleiweiss Consulting

Alan Bleiweiss is a Forensic SEO audit consultant with audit client sites from medium scale to world class enterprise. He ...

Google Announces Above-the-Fold Algorithm Change

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