Sunday, January 29, 2012

Google Flip-flops Page Layout

Google’s new page layout algorithm update may force many Web workers to reconsider from where exactly they will receive their next check. The change essentially analyzes the layout of a webpage and the amount of content immediately visible to a user. If you’ve been relying on ad revenue from placements that make it harder for users to find content, then you had better pay attention.  The algorithm modification was made to improve the user experience, according to Google. Websites that do not have much content above the fold (what a user sees immediately upon arriving on a site without scrolling) will be affected by the 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.”
Google clearly understands that placing ads in highly visible (above-the-fold) locations is common, namely because the ads tend to perform better in terms of clicks. Just look at the guidance for Adsense Publishers on “Where to place Google Ads on pages”, and you’ll see some conflicting information (see the sidebar for an image). The strongest performing locations – featured in the darkest orange – are exactly the location Google might penalize website owners for displaying ads.

There is clearly a lot of room for interpretation with this change, however. Google has said that the algorithm change will not affect those sites that place ads “to a normal degree,” but the search engine will penalize those that load pages with ads to an “excessive degree” or which “make it hard to find the actual original content on the page.” Google isn’t making it clear, and the only loser will be the website owner.

So what should you do? It's pretty straightforward. If you’ve followed Google’s guidance on ad placement all along – particularly as an Adsense publisher – just continue doing what you’ve been doing. Google is taking a hard line in the enforcement of the very ambiguous optimal user experience, but it doesn’t take a usability expert to know that ad-filled pages that emphasize ad clicks over content do not satisfy.

Should you, in the next few days and week, find that your listings have been lowered and suspect that the page layout you are using might be to blame, know that changes will be automatically reflected once Google re-crawls and processes a sufficient amount of pages to assess the layout change. It may take several weeks, however, to see a noticeable improvement (or decline) based on the size of the site itself as well as how efficiently Googlebot crawls content. Google anticipates that the change will affect less than 1 percent of global searches.

The most proactive exercise you can engage in at the moment is to look at your pages just like a user would. Start with Google’s Browser Size tool, or Ben Beckford’s Resolution Test Chrome extension. Both tools provide Web workers with an understanding of what users are seeing on their pages and if they are indeed providing an optimal user experience or need to switch things up in relation to their layout.

How Google Browser Size Works: Google Browser Size is a visualization of browser window sizes for people who visit Google. For example, the "90%" contour means that 90% of people visiting Google have their browser window open to at least this size or larger. This is useful for ensuring that important parts of a page's user interface are visible by a wide audience. On the example page that you see when you first visit this site, there is a "donate now" button which falls within the 80% contour, meaning that 20% of users cannot see this button when they first visit the page. 20% is a significant number; knowing this fact would encourage the designer to move the button much higher in the page so it can be seen without scrolling. To view your own Web site with this same visualization overlaid on it, simply type its URL into the "Enter URL here" textbox at the top of the window and click Go. 


  • You can change the opacity of the overlay by clicking the gray boxes next to the word "Opacity" at the top of the window.
  • As you move the mouse around the window, you will see a transparent rectangle following the mouse pointer. This feature allows you to interact normally with the page you're examining even though it has a graphical overlay atop it.
  • The sizes represented in this contour are client area sizes, not browser window sizes. This means they represent the size of the browser without the title bar, toolbars, status bars, etc., and thus give a true representation of how much content can be seen by a particular segment of the Web-using population.
  • Browser Size works best on web pages with a fixed layout aligned to the left. If the content reflows as the width is adjusted or it is centered, then the results can be misleading. In this case, you can obtain more accurate results by reducing the browser width to a percentage column, e.g. 90% and seeing what content falls below the 90% horizontal line.
  • We're actively looking to develop and improve the tool. So if you have comments or suggestions, please feel free to contact us at