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Site Design for SEO – Page Layout, Rankings, and “Above the Fold” Content

Nov 2, 2012

It’s long been known that content “above the fold” is seen as more important to Google than what’s below, but a recent algorithm update has brought back to the forefront the impact that a page’s layout can have on your search rankings. Back in January 2012, Matt Cutts announced that Google had launched an algorithm change aptly named the “page layout algorithm change.” This update was aimed at sites that lack quality content above the fold, specifically those with excessive ads above the fold. On Oct 9, 2012, an update to this change was announced, which Google says only affects “~0.7% of English queries.” Before we get into potential solutions, though, let’s explore what exactly this update means.

What Is Above the Fold?

Remember newspapers? You know, those gray and black things that people used to read at the breakfast table? Well, the term “above the fold” refers to the top half of a newspaper, which is the only visible part of the paper when it’s displayed for sale. The paper’s best chance to catch a potential buyer’s eye is to have compelling content above its middle fold, so this section is a main focus for increasing sales. For websites, “above the fold” means the part of the webpage that is visible without having to scroll, and as with newspapers, it is your best chance to capture the visitor’s interest and keep them on the page.

Screen Resolution

Unlike newspapers, web browsers are not all the same size; the location of the “fold” depends on the user’s screen resolution. The question that arises with regard to the page layout algorithm change is this: How do you know where Google draws the line? The answer right now seems to be that you don’t, but Google does provide tools for measuring where most people see the fold. They currently still support the Browser Size Tool, but your best bet is to use the In-Page Analytics report in Google Analytics to test how your site looks at different resolutions. Both of these tools also allow you to get an idea of how many people are using each resolution, and what parts of the site they can see upon arrival.

What Can You Do?

If your site currently has ads above the fold, don’t panic. A few ads aren’t going to harm you; only the sites with ads dominating the top part of the page seem to be the ones targeted. Now that your heart rate has returned to a normal pace, here are a few things you can do to improve your site’s design with respect to both the recent page layout update and SEO in general:

Keep ads reasonable – Confusingly for many webmasters, Google AdSense actually recommends putting ads above the fold for the greatest return. But, that doesn’t mean you can go crazy. Limit yourself to one or two ad blocks above the fold, make sure the layout is clear to users, and especially make sure that ads are clearly distinguished from other site content.

Reduce your header size (maybe) – Depending on your industry, having a big header that pushes down text content may or may not be a good idea. When designing your site, consider what’s going to catch your client’s eye: images, headlines, or both? For example, a home builder may benefit from having a slideshow with pictures of the company’s work, but someone offering marketing services may be better served with a catchy headline. In the latter case, it would be advisable to make the header of that site small enough to allow the headline and good chunk of text visible above the fold.

Perform Content Experiments – Not sure about a certain change? With Google Analytic’s Content Experiments tool, you can concurrently test user response to up to five different versions of the same page. In addition to testing different layouts, you can try out various headlines, marketing copy, images, and more to see which ones get the best response.

Remember to connect conversions to page layout – If your page isn’t converting as highly as you would like, don’t assume it’s a problem with the page’s content. Check In-Page Analytics and you may find it’s a visibility issue. For example, if only 50% of visitors are able to see the purchase button on a page without scrolling, try moving it into a region which is “above the fold” for a larger percentage of users before you spend time and money reworking the copy.

These are just a few suggestions for improving your site’s design, and there are countless other techniques for improving a site’s layout. Regardless of what you do, incorporating design into your overall SEO strategy can help you not only improve rankings, but also boost your conversion rates and in turn your sales.

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