Google has updated its page layout algorithm, and web designers should take note. Over the last week site owners have been speculating about mysterious drops in traffic; in many cases the reason could be that Google has penalized them for what it sees as too much top-heavy advertising.
While previous versions of the page layout algorithm have reduced sites’ ranking if they have too many ads, this one is more concerned with where ads are placed and whether they interfere with user access to content; in this case, Google may decide that the real purpose of the site is advertising rather than producing the quality content it favors. According to Google's Matt Cutts, the company’s focus is on user experience and his team does not want to see ads get in the way of this. Google will also be penalizing sites whose ads take up too much space, even if there are not very many of them.
Google claims that applying the new algorithm has only affected 1% of sites across the world and that it will not affect all sites with advertising at the top. A good rule seems to be that if at least two-thirds of above the line space – what average computer users can see without scrolling – is content, the site will be safe; therefore, it still possible to use traditional banner ads. Google’s browser size tool is handy for getting an idea of just what the average user’s experience is. It is a useful tool to apply in web design more generally to make sure that what the designer sees corresponds with how the site actually affects the people it is aimed at.
The update is also expected to negatively affect sites that feature lengthy blocks of text or pictures, meaning that users have to do a lot of scrolling to access it all. This could be particularly problematic for publishers and for businesses with long illustrated product lists. The solution would seem to be to split articles into short chapters, each on a separate page, and to break down product lists into tighter categories. Illustration space can be saved by using clear thumbnails that can be clicked to bring up pop-ups so that users do not have to leave a product list to take a closer look at an individual item.
As with earlier Google algorithms, it will probably take some time for the full impact of this one to become clear; however, early action by designers on likely risks could give their sites a chance to get ahead.