Google Announces Above-the-Fold Algorithm Change

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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.


Alan Bleiweiss
Alan Bleiweiss is a Forensic SEO audit consultant with audit client sites consisting of upwards of 50 million pages and tens of millions of visitors... Read Full Bio
Alan Bleiweiss
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  • You know, normally I’d be all excited about Google’s devotion to the user experience, but this news raises questions to me. For starters, how many ads are too many? How does Google figure that out? Abandonment can be blamed on all kinds of things that have nothing to do with the ads.

    Yes, user experience is our goal as designers and marketers, but I like to find a happy place where both can live together. We, as users of the Internet, have been bombarded with distractions since the Web began. We were forced to tolerate blinking spinning images, animation everywhere, frames and frames within frames, and all kinds of design yuck. Imagine if Google punished every site using animation and scrolling text?

    It bothers me that a search engine keeps finding new ways to rank pages based on their designs. I’d rather see more emphasis on stupid and blatant SEO moves that force ugly sites to the top or sites that describe one thing and actually produce something very different. That bothers people too. Possibly more than ads.

    The good news on this is that content is still the leading factor of interest here. Both engines and users want and need content and the earlier on the page the better. It just feels odd to me that user feedback on what frustrates and bothers us emotionally in response to a web page is now part of a search algorithm. How does Google know it’s the ads? What about pages with sliders that dominate the upper half of the page and force a scroll to get to the content. How about entertainment and artistic sites, or one-page sites in which the visuals are used to create the experience rather than content?

    Are these next on Google’s list?

    • It’s a good question! How does Google know if it is the ads or the sliders or whatever annoys any visitor? It might be, just as we can ourselves through analytics, make a judgement that high bounce rates, low time on page etc is an indicator of low visitor engagement and there is some evidence already that their algorithm factors in these elements.

      Another question is how does their algorithm know what is actually displayed above the fold as we all know that by the simple use of html coding and css ‘real’ content can be seen to be first in the source code but displayed almost anywhere on a page.

      It may just be an algorithmic assumption that a page with a high number of ‘ads’ in relation to the word count has to be displaying a high volume of them above the fold.

      Unless, of course, their algorithm is smart enough to include some visual display css rendering analysis, or even subject to human interaction which I’m not aware of.

  • Great post!!

    My question is how are they defining ads and content? Are websites with large images going to be impacted? Generally, I think of content as text, but content could include images, videos, etc. Many purchases are made based on images vs. text. I’m curious how Google is determining if something is an “ad”.

  • Great write up, I have been waiting for this ball to drop since the Q-A session in September on 2011

  • So it is safe to say that the big 728 adsense ad on the top of this site will be going away 🙂

    Actually this is a very good thing that Google is trying to do but will anyone listen is the question.

  • Kim I have a conspiracy theory I came up with while contemplating your comment. What if google is attempting to force adsence and other advertisers from being used in the highly prized area in the top of fold. So they still get paid from the advertisers but people are less likely to see or click on the ads that are below the prime real estate. I dont think this is whats happening but I would be shocked if it never came up in conversation when figuring on how to reduce costs in the adsence program.

  • google is very strict about spamming techniques. lots of changes can be seen now in google algorithm. Same as other search engines like Bing and yahoo shows relevant search results. in the same manner google keeps on updating the Algorithm

  • good to know, i know a few of our clients will need to know this valuable information.

  • DJ

    Thanks for the info Alan. It’s too bad Google doesn’t take their own advice when it comes to above the fold and annoyance. You more often than not have to scroll to get to organic results.

  • Wonder how long it’ll be before they practice what they preach. How many ads do you see above the fold on a SERP for… credit cards? 😛

  • I have been afraid of this. I have had bosses tell me this will never happen and I always said, above the fold is the most important part of a page and now I am officially right. Thanks for the update. Cheers.

  • It’s difficult to be objective on this, but I’m trained in both UX and SEO, and strive to achieve a balance between the right to generate revenue and the equally vital desire to help site visitors achieve their goals when they arrive at a web page.

    I believe that site owners should be well informed and have the right to make their own choices about their page real estate and where elements go. UX pro’s can suggest, but it’s always the site owner’s decision. Why Google doesn’t permit this same freedom infuriates me.

  • I think the impact will be huge, even though Google says it’s only valid for 1% of the queries. It will essentially be hard for all those niche-adsense-optimized websites which I think is good, since user experience should always come first and there are way too many “shitty ad-sites” out there. It will be interesting to see how much revenue they’ll loose.

    The question for me remains about what kind of screen resolutions we’re talking about when it’s about “above the fold” or, what “to a normal degree” means: two, three ads ? one? nobody knows yet.

  • I believe the resolutions that were referenced in the article was 550px tall by 1000 wide I would post a link but it gets removed go to my website i posted it in my blog also.

  • User-friendly approach of Google’s algorithm is always welcome but I don’t understand when Matt says that websites with less content above-the-fold will be affected. My concern is for Artist/Band/Music websites in which larger images and videos are displayed above-the-fold and this is also for better user experience! There is no other way to do this on such websites. Will these sites also be affected by this layout algorithm update. I’ll be glad to get an answer from Google in this regards and some tips that can help such websites perform better despite this update.

    • Alan Bleiweiss

      Deep Breath

      It’s probably too early to tell exactly what impact it will have on such sites. I do assume design-rich sites are factored in and wouldn’t suffer. Of course, assuming such things in this industry is all I can do, until enough data comes in.

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    Thanks to everyone who’s commented – shortly after posting the article, I lost Internet connectivity.

    Here’s one possible way they determined this was an important enough an issue.

    A user Googles a search. They click a link in the SERP. They’re unhappy and click back, then try another SERP.

    This happens on a massive scale. It’s definitely a ranking factor.

    So let’s say then, that they’ve got humans reviewing sites that cause the return back to the SERP. Or even an algorithmic way to categorize the types of sites that people come back from. And maybe (just a maybe) they can categorize X amount of those. Like those due to slow page speed. They go in the page speed bucket. Enough accumulate in that bucket, and suddenly, page speed became an algo factor.

    But lets say they’ve got six hundred categories, and one big “who knows what these all have in common” bucket. Then humans get involved to figure it out. Matt’s team, or the search quality team, or both. And someone says – ya know? 13% or whatever number of all the ones I reviewed, had XY and Z in common – above-the-fold.

    Then another reviewer comes up with similar data. And so forth.

    Next thing you know, they do some tests with a sub-set of results to see if they can reduce the bounce-back, based on those newly discovered common above-the-fold factors, whatever they are. And discover – wow – we’ve seen a reduction in bounce by X percent!

    BINGO – new algo update.

    Bottom line, I don’t think they’re necessarily 100% right about all their changes. Only that they do put in a lot of energy into the process. And it’s GOT to be tied to bounce back. Right?

    Just my thinking on this.

  • well after reading this article I saw another article in searchengineland where they interviewed a “search quality rater” who works for a subcontractor of google and helps them to refine the algorithm, I know i cant post a link here but its in my twitter roll also

    • Thanks Chris. The link you’re referring to is

      • ok adding a link here is a total fail. I thought of all people, I should be able to add a link! Until that IS true, people can go to SearchEngineLand and find it there – it was posted today and its titled “An Interview With A Google Search Quality Rater”

  • Yea I tried everything and thank you for posting more info about it, I thought it was very relevant to the conversation

    • Okay I just updated the article, referring to your comment, added the link, and quoted the relevant portion of the interview I think is tied to my article. Thanks again Chris!

  • I just realized the silver lining in this is that when I make usability/user experience suggestions to a client and they push back, I just need to tell them that sooner or later Google will decide for them 🙂

    • Alan Bleiweiss

      that’s one of my most effective weapons 🙂

  • deep breath yes those website will be affected because they are not really user friendly, or search engine friendly heck most use flash which already cant be seen so they are a lost cause from the jump. Using flash is incredibly non user friendly. sure it sometimes looks cool but beyond that there is little value, same goes for the website with giant images scrolling across the top and no content. I say good riddance to bad designs .

    • Actually Chris, with all due respect, you are making an assumption based on your personal opinion. While those of us in the search industry may have an understanding that certain design-heavy sites are not necessarily SEO friendly, that does not mean that all design-heavy sites should be booted from search results.

      This is especially true given the capabilities of HTML5 – where the presentation layer can be visually powerful, yet allow for much more SEO than Flash.

      It’s quite realistic, and natural, that some sites will be more design-heavy than text-heavy, and I am sure Google understands this.

      Does that mean Google’s going to have an easy time of discerning whether a site is deserving of ranking if it’s design-heavy? No. Only that “Design-heavy” does not automatically equate with “bad designs”.

  • I’m suspecting Google is seeing featured posts sliders as an ad. My main page for a specific keyword dropped from page 3 to page 7 overnight. A blog post, jumped up several spots going from the bottom of page 2 to result #8 on page 1 at the same time. My main page has a slider, the blog post doesn’t.

    I guess it will take a little more time to find out ultimately if that’s the case.

    • Alan Bleiweiss


      That’s a very interesting concept. Something to pay attention to and maybe some testing is needed. Because there are a LOT of sites with sliders. And I wonder if it depends on how the slider is coded. Would appreciate an update if you remove the slider and subsequently see a bounce back.

    • good question. I don’t have sliders on any of my sites but will install one to see if it makes a difference

  • I guess it’s all about the user experience a website has to offer, or what Google thinks about this experience. He tries to transform it into an algorithm, but no algorithm made by human intelligence will be 100% flawless. It’s true that the user must be fed with content, and the content should appear as high as possible on the page, but I’m wondering, as you did, Alan, how does Google algorithmically decide what is “meaningful content” for the user, because sometimes artistic pages have to communicate a state of mind, a color, an emotion, not simply words. Will Google be smart enough not to penalize these pages? I hope so.

    • Alan Bleiweiss

      I hope so too Marjorie – because if they can’t find a way to consider artistic factors, many sites will suffer.