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Top Heavy Refresh and Still No Real Guidelines Provided

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On January 19th, Google rolled out their Page Layout Algorithm. Yes, they told us that they were doing so. But no, they didn’t give much detail as to who would be hit and who wouldn’t. The purpose was simple – give better search rankings to those who make it easy for the user to find the actual content they were looking for and drop sites in rankings that used too many advertisements.

Actually, it was to make sure sites ranking high didn’t make the user scroll endlessly down and have to hunt for the content through all the ads hovering around the top. But the question of how many ads are too many, well… they didn’t give any details on that. They also said they would not give webmasters any kind of tool to rate their site like they did for site performance/speed testing.

The only advice for ‘testing’ your site was to use their Browser Size Analysis in Google Analytics. This tool will let you get an idea of what users see when they first land on your page. There’s also the Browser Size tool, but it will be going away soon.

That’s it. That’s pretty much all the guidance you get from Google to figure out if your site could be hit with what we call the Top Heavy Update. Matt Cutts said that they’re targeting sites with a crazy amount of ads above the fold. They supposedly aren’t trying to penalize a site for having ads above the fold period, as he says they know many sites depend on ads for income from the site.

The original Top Heavy Update was to affect less than one percent of sites.

New Top Heavy Refresh

Sites that were hit back in January finally were given another chance on October 9th. This is when Google rolled out a refresh of the update to look at sites that were tagged as being top heavy previously. The refresh was said to only affect 0.7 percent of searches in English.

If your site got hit for the first time on the refresh, there are some things you should know.

The Entire Site Suffers

If you only have certain pages that you fear may come under fire, you should realize your whole site could be affected; not just those pages. If those pages get tagged as top heavy, your entire site could lose rankings.

Fix it? Time to Wait…

If you get hit then there’s no telling how long you’ll have to wait to get your rankings back. Of course, you will have to get rid of some of the ads and make sure you have plenty of good content above the fold that visitors see when they first land on your site. Then you get to play the waiting game. You get to wait until Google rolls out another refresh and looks at your site again.

Google’s Double Standard

Adsense publishers have long known that Google provides a heat map for suggested ad placements. And guess what? Many of the suggestions would make for a good amount of top-lying ads. Yes, they say that you should think about your users first. But often, if you don’t have the maximum of three Adsense units on your pages, they’ll send you emails advising you to add more. Matt Cutts says that sites running Adsense are not exempt, and are held to the same standard as sites that use a different form or ads.

Some sites seem to get some extreme favortism, too. Take EHow for example. I did some random searches and they came up in quite a few on the first page. But just look at the horrendous amount of ads above the fold! In addition to the six blatant advertisements, if you accidentally click anywhere in orange on the sides, you are taken to an advertiser’s page (And I cropped it down. The amount of orange on sides is actually wider).

An example site with tons of ads above the fold ranking on first page


Possible Concerns Other Than Ads?

Google says that the update is for ads. But they also say that it’s for the user experience, to ensure users don’t have to spend time and effort trying to find the content on the site they visit. So that has led some to wonder…

What about all those sites where you have to scroll down below the fold to find the real content due to huge headers or the ever-popular sliders found at the top of many sites? Could they be affected in any way?

What about optin boxes, subscription forms and newsletter sign ups that sit above the fold? Will this be held against a site even though it isn’t exactly advertising?

Google’s Double Standard

I understand that Google wants the users to have a good experience. I understand they don’t want users to get frustrated trying to find what they’re looking for. But Google seems to be playing “Do as I say, Not what I do”.

When you search for something on Google, how many ads do you have to bypass to get to the real search results? There are a ton, especially if you’re searching for a product you’re considering buying. Google seems to be becoming more commercial than ever, but we’ll save that for a post coming up next week.


The Top Heavy Update is just one of many to have webmasters scrambling and back to the drawing board. What’s most frustrating?

That mom who spent the past two years writing top-notch posts, engaging with her readers, building a community of like-minded moms and receiving a decent income from her blog. She isn’t some SEO professional or anything and bam, all of a sudden traffic drops. Income pretty much comes to a stop or trickles in.

The roof repair guy who had a site ranking high and most of his customers came from his website. Then his tanks because of (possibly) the big header and optin box too prominent above the fold or hit with Panda, Penguin or one of the other recent updates. Now his income is cut to a fraction and he can’t even afford to hire someone to help him dig his way out.

Don’t get caught in Google’s whirlwind. If you have a site, then there’s no way around it – you have to pay attention to what Google comes out with next and stay ahead of the game. If you need help, we’re here. Contact us and let us ensure your site doesn’t disappear overnight.

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Veronica has been writing online since 2007. She enjoys helping clients with copywriting and content needs, as well helping with SEO campaigns. Her experience ranges from helping small websites succeed with SEO and internet marketing campaigns to writing for Planet Green (Discovery Channel).

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