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Back in January Google wrote about the importance of the amount of visible content on a page once you click on a search result. Nobody likes having to scroll down just to be able to see the content you visited the page to see.

Google said: “As we’ve mentioned previously, we’ve heard complaints from users that if they click on a result and it’s difficult to find the actual content, they aren’t happy with the experience. Rather than scrolling down the page past a slew of ads, users want to see content right away. So sites that don’t have much content “above-the-fold” can be affected by this 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.”

Hell yeah, we thought. Enough with these sites that bombard visitors with ads and other above the fold rubbish. 

Google added: “Such sites may not rank as highly going forward.”

As such, it is somewhat of an irony to look at Google’s own web pages, specifically those for high value search queries.

Take the following example, for a search on the term ‘credit cards’. 

Let’s firstly look at the breakdown of the page estate. The following screenshot (click to see a full size version) represents a fully expanded browser window on a 1,280 X 1,024 monitor.

Click to see the full version

As you can see, more than 51% of the page is devoted to ads

The top and the left side is devoted to navigation and functionality, representing about 31% of the page. 

And what remains, the natural search results, account for just 17% of the page. 

But that’s if you can see them at all. It turns out that most people can’t see these results without scrolling down.

By pushing this screenshot through Google’s Browser Size tool (perhaps tellingly, it won’t allow me to paste the actual Google URL for this page into the tool!) we can see how many people will – or won’t – see certain parts of the page, based on what kind of device they’re using. UPDATE: I'm inforned that Google is killing this off, so here's an alternative browser sizing tool that you can use. 

Click to see full version 

What you can see in the above screenshot (click on it to expand to full size) is a bunch of contoured areas, which represent different screen resolutions. The percentages are the number of people who can see these parts of the page.

It transpires that only 40% of Google’s visitors will see the title of the very first natural search result for this particular search term. 90% of visitors won't see the third result without scrolling.  

The majority of visitors will only see ads, and navigation… unless they scroll down, which was the thing Google’s page layout algorithm was seeking to banish from the third party sites it indexes.

This isn’t a new trend though, as far as Google is concerned, even though it is something that the firm’s search engineers are trying to dissuade other sites from doing. Universal Search and new product search tools (such as the ‘Compare credit cards’ unit in the above screenshots) have gradually eaten into the page, to the point where six out of ten people need to scroll just to see the number one search result.

Nevertheless, it is a bit of a concern. I’d love to know how this has impacted on CTR for both organic and paid search.

Should SEOs be worried? Will paid search agencies be rubbing their hands? 

Or should Google itself be concerned? You have to wonder how many more levers Google has left to pull, in order to further boost ad revenue (not many). How long before we see bigger fonts and flashing ads?

I jest, kind of. What do you make of it?

Chris Lake

Published 17 July, 2012 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

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Steven Holmes

Basically what we can take from this is that Google are like every bad manager you've ever had - do as they say, not as they do.

about 4 years ago

Kevin Gibbons

Kevin Gibbons, UK Managing Director at BlueGlass

Great analysis Chris, this is quite scary stuff! Although I would have to say from what I've seen in terms of clickthrough rates this doesn't surprise me too much.

One example is we've managed to get a client onto the first page of Google for their industry-leading "money" term - it's one of those terms where you think getting onto page 1 is a game-changer for them and it's worth £xx,000's per month (at least).

Sadly that's not the truth, it's been a bit of an anti-climax and ranking in position 7-10 really doesn't mean much, as there's so much ranking above it these days that no-one actually gets that far down anymore!

about 4 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Thanks Kevin. That sounds like a lot of effort and expenditure for a not too great result. I bet when you started the optimisation the 'compare credit cards' unit wasn't there...!

I'd love to find out more about how CTR has been impacted over the last year or two, and particularly this year, when these new sponsored units have been rolled out.

Also, I used a broad term but you see the same thing happening with three word phrases anchored around 'credit cards'. I'm sure other high end searches will endure a similar fate.

about 4 years ago

Andrew Tonks

Andrew Tonks, Senior SEO Account Manager at Red Blue Blur Ideas

I guess this shows what Google has been pushing us in the industry to do for years now - more and more PPC, which as their main source of income is not surprising.

They are playing a very dangerous balancing act I think between PPC ads and relevant organic results!!

about 4 years ago

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Dave

There are two problems with this.

Firstly, the results page you pushed through is a bit disingenuous. Most terms on Google don't display the comparison or product listing widgets, and this is the most extreme example of ads above the results.

What this means is that for your standard search result, 90-95% of users can see the P1 organic result. Not so shocking now, is it?

The second issue (largely philosophical in nature, so YMMV on this one) is that in this case ads aren't actually a problem unless you're an SEO - in fact, they're probably desired by the consumer. And that, really, is what a search engine is actually about.

Ads are ads, and there are people who dislike being advertised to, but someone searching for the term "credit cards" is more likely than not looking to compare or sign up for credit cards. There is a significant pressure on advertisers to make ads relevant and useful, because if they don't, they end up spending more money or losing out to someone who does.

about 4 years ago

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George Mathew - Singapore Company Formation Specialist

Google's take on this is that they do not have any advertisements on the majority of keywords as they are spread thin and have low traffic.

And so as a revenue decision they have to display more ads for certain "hot" keywords like credit cards. Seems they have pushed it too far!

about 4 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Dave - Yep, you're right, though I was only looking at a high value term, as opposed to standard results (the vast majority of which do not have any ads). And it's not particularly long tail.

But, the point is, Google is doing this on high value pages. In time that might become medium value pages. Add those two together and it might represent 80% of Google's ad revenue.

There's nothing wrong as such, it's just that - by Google's own admission - this kind of thing makes for a poor user experience.

Since the ads can be positioned on the basis of who pays the most, they're not influenced by the natural search algorithm. Quality potentially suffers. Google's doomsday scenario is that users stop trusting it to deliver the highest quality results. As such I think this sort of UX pollution is myopic, and dangerous.

about 4 years ago

Toby Kesterton

Toby Kesterton, Head of Digital at Lab Lateral

I agree with Dave and actually going to defend Google on this.
Your example is not representative of 1% of searches let alone the majority.

If you take credit cards as the example then the comparision table could be considered the most high value results - even though they are paid for - as this is what a user is most likely looking for.

about 4 years ago

Paul North

Paul North, Head of Content and Strategy at Mediarun

@Dave and @ Toby, I've got to support Chris on this. He's shown the example for credit cards but we've seen variations of this in many areas. Some are because of an extension in ads, some aren't.

For example, product images are now in ads a lot more than they used to be and when Product Search goes paid, this will see further prominence. They are already attracting clicks away from organic listings.

Local search has expanded its remit by covering more search terms and takes up much more of the page than 18 months ago.

Site ratings are more or less exclusive to ads and pull clicks to them instead of organic.

There are plenty of other examples of organic search losing ground recently. The upshot is that we have clearly seen a drop in CTR for organic search this year, even for keywords that have increased their position. Of course, encrypted search has made gathering this data a royal pain in the nuts.

God, it's hard being an SEO recently.

about 4 years ago

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Dave

> Since the ads can be positioned on the basis of who pays the most, they're not influenced by the natural search algorithm. Quality potentially suffers.

Does it, though?

I mean, the natural search algorithm is notorious for being gameable. That's what SEO is all about, isn't it? Sure, the algorithm is improving, but the fact is that without manipulation of the search results through some method (legitimate or illegitimate), natural inherent "quality" only goes so far.

A similar thing exists in page search: quality score. Just as elusive as the natural search algorithm's ranking signals (only actually testable), it's a quality ranking score that acts as a multiplier auction ranking. If you have a low quality score, you will appear lower for any given amount bid.

Quality score in this case factors in things like CTR and bounce rate - meaning you are forced to run effective and relevant copy and non-spammy ads, and serve customers with good landing pages, or else you end up spending more. And since the auction is relatively pure, the mechanics of the market take care of most of the rest. It's not a viable strategy to be irrelevant to searchers in the long term.

I'd argue that for some searches the ads are more relevant and more useful to the searcher than the organic results. This isn't going to apply to every search, but for most searches where it doesn't apply, you don't get many ads.

about 4 years ago

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Dave

Silly me; that should be: "a similar thing exists in paid search"

about 4 years ago

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Kerry Dye

I having trouble with this one, I seem to be agreeing with oth sides of the argument! This is an extreme example and probably isn't the experience for the the majority of searchers, but on the other hand, it could be indicative of the way things are doing, which would make for a worse ux overall.

It would be interesting to see a comparison for a long tail search result where the organic results are higher.

about 4 years ago

Andrew Nicholson

Andrew Nicholson, Founder at The Guku

Whilst I'm a big fan of Quality Score @Dave, I'm also the first to admit that it's not nearly as unbiased a ranking mechanism as the natural algorithms.

Quality Score can be brought - ie, you pay more for your ad's positioning, and as a result the CTR of your ad goes up. An increase in CTR has a positive influence on your QS, and so by spending more money you've directly influencing your QS.

Originally QS was brought in to level the playing fields between the big boys and small businesses - today it's simply another tool to encourage more spending

about 4 years ago

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Jack Jarvis

Things are about to get worse for SEO's. In August Google is launching Google Shopping as a paid service in the US which will undoubtedly give further preference to this above the fold.

Time to get your wallets out because for the next 3-5 years nothing will change.

Its going to take a newcomer to come in freshen things up but also for Google to get some kind of legal break up (which again would go on for years) before we see any change.

about 4 years ago

Kevin Taylor

Kevin Taylor, CEO at GravytrainSmall Business Multi-user

Thanks for a great blog post Chris, it's certainly sparked much debate! Google are no different than other companies in their desire to grow revenues and be as clever as they can doing so. If the intent of the consumer here is to find a great credit card deal then their BTQ tool is likely to help them do that. Is it right that Google push their own products in this way? Is that ethical? Are they evil? That's a whole separate debate! The fact remains that as SEO's competition for page real estate is getting tougher, whether it's Google's own products or paid search, Google need to keep growing their revenues!

about 4 years ago

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Jack Jarvis

The one thing generally over looked on these type of website is that the 'general public' do not care.

As we work in the online industry we scrutinise every little thing - yet you ask someone just looking for something and they either don't care opr don't even know what they are clicking on. To them they searched a term and got lots of results.

The online working community is desperate for change, but its the end user that matters to Google and they are being well serviced.

about 4 years ago

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meka

very good article
i think they already took the point into consideration when they updated their algorithm
sites with ads above the fold no longer rank better

about 4 years ago

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Dave Trolle, Head of Performance Marketing at Summit MediaEnterprise

This is a great article. This along with encrypted searches have to be two of the biggest challenges in SEO at present in understanding your natural search performance. Like in paid search, we know that Google like to test and innovate how they display their search results. Unfortunately no two keywords are the same so modelling performance when universal search listings are in the mix is tough. At Summit we are however seeing that the penetration of universal search results are significantly lower than traditional listings for our retail clients.

It will interesting to see how US search landscape will change once Google Shopping has moved to a paid inclusion model.

about 4 years ago

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Alex Bennett

This is a great case study and very compelling information when looked at on face value.

I have to agree with Dave here and defend Google as when digging a little further its an extreme example showing a conclusion based on a search which, in total volume terms, is negligible when taken as part of the universe of searches.

Also, if a consumer is searching for 'Credit Card' then what better to appear than a non-bias comparison engine based on product offering rather than bounty to help then with their purchase decision?

about 4 years ago

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Saumil Patel

@steven holmes -- it's even worse, if you do what they do, they penalize you!!

about 4 years ago

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Dave

Andrew, I'm afraid you're wrong to say that quality score is based on position.

CTR's contribution to Quality Score is weighted given a typical CTR for the ad's position, thus cancelling out the increased CTRs you'd see in higher positions - Google aren't that stupid, and it's not that simple to buy quality score.

about 4 years ago

Sean Fullerton

Sean Fullerton, SEO Consultant at Local SEO Ireland

Good post Chris, it's the same old adage "do as I say...not what I do". I read over on searchengineland this morning that over 64% of searchers for keywords with "high commercial intent" are now clicking on paid ads and it's not surprising considering that they now dwarf the organic listings for many of these terms as regards first page real estate. By lightening the shade of the red that once was so obviously separating the paid and organic results it is now a lot more difficult for the user to even tell the difference and this would seem to back that theory up. Are people losing faith in organic search results?, Gaining trust for paid ads?, not as sure of the divide between the two?, or a mixture of all three? I'm not sure to be honest but it certainly proves that it's not a great idea for any marketer to have all their eggs in one basket.

Excellent article and some very interesting points on both sides of the debate. Thanks, Sean

Here's the article... http://searchengineland.com/clicks-on-ads-127844
and the related (excellent) infographic study by wordstream.... http://www.wordstream.com/articles/google-ads.

about 4 years ago

Andrew Nicholson

Andrew Nicholson, Founder at The Guku

@Dave I'd love to be proven wrong on this - I'm a bit of a Googlephile so keen to see them in a rosy light. Are you able to verify your source on quality score weighting, it could prove a valuable resource?

about 4 years ago

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Steven Lockey

Think that overlay is a bit out of date.

From looking at the analytics on our sites, 90%+ of the users are on at least 1280x1024 now, most of the rest are on only very slightly smaller resolutions.

Thats discounting mobile users of course.

about 4 years ago

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Dave

> Are you able to verify your source

I did have a quick look through the Help pages to source it, but since they got revamped I can't find and reference to the detailed QS mechanics any more. It would suck if they'd removed it as a factor, so I'll try to chase up confirmation tomorrow.

about 4 years ago

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EVE Milano

a bad future for SEOs and a nice one for SEMs :)

about 4 years ago

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Osorio

I am sure this paragraph has touched all the internet users, its really really nice article on building up new website.

about 4 years ago

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Mary Kay Lofurno

I do understand the point you are trying to make and your gist, and agree with it somewhat.

I think that you did not clearly define what a "high value" natural search results are. Generally, we break search phrases into informational, navigational or transactional queries.

Your results vary depending the type of query you are performing.

That is my two cents. Best Regards, Mary Kay Lofurno

about 4 years ago

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Dave

For the record, I can't find a source which definitively backs my claim (though I will continue to stand by it). Calls with my Adwords rep, the old version of the help, and experience are my personal sources.

Also this thread continues that line of discussion, I don't know if it's of interest to anyone:
http://www.webmasterworld.com/forum81/300.htm

about 4 years ago

Andrew Nicholson

Andrew Nicholson, Founder at The Guku

Thanks @Dave - a very interesting thread. If I were a cynic, I would suggest that Google may have started off by weighting the CTR against position, but have moved towards a generic strategy in order to generate increased revenues. That's what I'd have done if I were them ;)

about 4 years ago

Andy Headington

Andy Headington, CEO at Adido LimitedSmall Business

Just to answer one of your points Chris, as to whether anyone has seen organic CTR/clicks drop because of more ads & Google 'evolution', the answer is yes.

We had a client which had been getting 30-40 organic clicks in second/third place on one particular phrase roughly a year ago. After dropping to bottom of page one, about 8 months later, we managed to get back to second/third position for a few weeks and clicks were down to 8-12 per day with little change to meta desc. but more prominence of PPC ads.

After working so hard to get rankings, it was very disheartening to see such little return. We're now advising this client to reduce SEO spend dramatically as it doesn't make much commerical sense for them to chase top rankings anymore.

I wonder how many other agencies are going to face this dilemma in the coming year?

about 4 years ago

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Industrial Photographer

Yes, it is a good reading material. The point to be considered is that most of the people using Google search will have to scroll down to get the organic results. this is a cause of concern for the SEO experts.

about 4 years ago

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Pete Kici

I don't want to start out here by defending Google but the are in the advertising business and they do make money selling ad space?
Having said that they could at least try and act like they practice what they preach, but when your the house and you own all the chips it's their game and they play anyway they want...

The big take away is not to do what they do but do what they say to do,eliminates confusion since your able to document the conversation and possibly eliminate mistakes,things change by the minute and counting on Google alone for traffic is a scary proposition,a necessary evil sometimes but not the only traffic source just the biggest search company in the world.

about 4 years ago

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John

To add to this "irony", google adsense sends me an email telling me that I'm not running enough ad units.

"We've noticed that you're running less than three ad units on [your pages] ... By taking advantage of all three available units per page, you could place at least 99 additional ad units on the pages we reviewed."

Then they include a screenshot of my site...

"Not convinced yet? Included below is a screenshot of a high-opportunity page from [your site] where we highlighted the area we think a new unit would have the greatest return. "

The screenshot tells me to target the top half of my page above the fold with a 336x280 ad unit!

Hypocrisy?

about 4 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Chris,

And with the update to the knowledge graph for English language domains recently announced, this is going to push standard organic results even further down the page.

Video on Search Engine Land giving some more insight:
http://searchengineland.com/googles-knowledge-graph-now-worldwide-129948

So if you add the knowledge graph to paid inclusion, you've got a rapidly dwindling above fold impact of organic search. The time to worry is when and if this translates, as expected, into lower click throughs and conversion carnage.

One concern is that it could lead to a whole new wave of gaming as it becomes more important than ever to be in the top few positions, not just page 1 in general. Black hat techniques for short term gain might suddenly seem desirable again to some web owners.

Thanks
james

about 4 years ago

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Dave

Google's greed and hypocrisy is disgusting.

Go back 5 years and Google were a force for good on the internet, helping people find great content; providing great tools and generally making the internet a better place. Today, they are greedy, leaches taking everything they can from the internet - stealing content, profiting from pirated content (YouTube) and forcing their way into every profitable niche whilst putting established, passionate and genuine publishers out of business with their lazy "content".

5 years ago we looked up to Google and Googlers; now we look down on them - just another greedy corporation, slave to their shareholders and markets. Ignore their PR and "mission statements" - judge them on their self-serving actions.

about 4 years ago

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Ian Davis

Does the name AOL ring a bell?

about 4 years ago

Adil Badshah

Adil Badshah, director at Incirclemedia

Exactly Industrial Photographer, most of people what the organic search results when they are searching any query. And to increase organic result is the main role of SEO.

almost 3 years ago

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