Finally, an acronym we can all agree with: Google’s SOPA (Stop Overly Push Ads!)

On January 19th, Google publicly announced another change to their algorithm on their Webmaster Central Blog. It is the first of over 500 changes expected to go into effect during 2012 and is part of Google’s “ongoing effort to help you find more high-quality websites in search results.”

This change to the algorithm focuses on the ratio of ads to content, but only in the top area of the page, or “above-the-fold,” which is what you see when a result is clicked and before scrolling down. Google's distinguished engineer, Matt Cutts, explains best, saying:

“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.”

For those who have been keeping tabs on Google's updates (particularly the major Panda update of last October), this new algorithm isn't a big shock. Google has and will continue to gear their focus towards giving a boost to user-friendly, not crawler-friendly, websites. As these kinds of algorithms continue evolving, we can expect that more websites will need to step up to the plate and take accountability for their users' experience on their websites if they want to get found in the search engines.

Ask yourself: When you visit a website, what type of experience do you expect or appreciate? If you’re shopping for that perfect pair of “affordable leather boots,” you’d expect the website you searched for and clicked on to show you all of your purchase options at great deals, not rows of flashing, annoying, and even irrelevant ads. No one likes to waste time on a website trying to find what they Google-searched for in the first place. And no one likes to be bombarded by ads they didn't ask for during a specific Google search.

Well, the good news is that Google is on the side of the consumer, and if their users don't like the ads, then neither do they. So they're penalizing for it, separating the wheat from the chaff.

The Bad News:

Cutts’ statement on the algorithmic change gives no specific information to site owners on how many ads is too many or the percentage of above-the-fold space that ads can take up without being docked points in the search engines. Cutts’ wording is ambiguous. What counts as a “large fraction” and what counts as “a lot of visible content”? The statement also doesn't address differences in screen resolutions, since the space of a landing page can change based on the kind of device it is viewed on.

As usual, Google gives little notice about the changes they make. Many website owners who might have revised their pages had no time to change them before getting hit. If this applies to you, your site has probably experienced a decrease in traffic and conversion. It may take several weeks for Google to re-index after you've changed the layout on your page, but the effects are fortunately not permanent.

The Good News:

If you know where Google has been, it makes it easier to predict where they might go.  Like a famous car driver once said, “You can keep looking in the rear-view mirror and complaining, or you can learn and remember how to steer clear of the next pothole.” Here's a checklist of things you can do, whether you were hit or not, to protect yourself and optimize both for Google and your customers:

  1. Revisit the layout of your sites to see if any headers can be reduced to bring more content above the fold.
  2. Embed your ads into content below the fold. Always make sure your content is relevant. Remember, Google is not necessarily punishing for heavily advertising, but for top-heavy advertising. They understand that ads are an important factor in the monetization of a website; after all, they came up with adsense!
  3. Perform your own easy research. Since the algorithm has already launched, do a few searches and check out the links on the first SERPs (search engine results pages). See what they look like and use them as examples of what Google now considers acceptable.
  4. Take the opportunity to pretend you are a customer. Pretend you are seeing this site for the first time as a visitor or prospective customer. Look at your site as though you were visiting it for the first time. What do you expect/want to see first? What would you change? Is the information presented engaging and interesting? Is it easy to navigate and are links and click-through paths easily accessible? Based on your answers, make the necessary changes to your website.

Thinking about your website in this way (as a customer does) will help you to keep your ranking up not just in the engines, but in the opinion of your prospective customers.

Just Remember This:

Google wants us to keep coming back to them as our primary search engine. To do this, they want us to be satisfied with the search results we are getting and to easily find what we're looking for, so they are constantly look for ways to keep improving and deliver what we want. These changes are made to sort out the wheat from the chaff, so we don't have to spend time doing it ourselves!

Stay tuned for more news on Google’s changes and the tips to keep your website performing with their algorithms.