How Too Many Ads Can Negatively Impact Your SEO Landing Pages – A Case Study
TL:DR – Can ads impact SEO performance? Yes they can negatively affect SEO – read the rest of the article to find out how.
Last year we were asked by a new client to cast our eye over some of their incredibly ad-heavy pages, and assess whether this was affecting their website’s SEO performance. Like many publishers, blogs and apps, on-page advertising via one of the many ad networks is a vital income generator for their business.
An internal conversation at the client’s offices had looked into whether specific ad layouts were hindering organic visibility. Entrances had been on a gentle decline since mid 2016, for a variety of reasons, though the client believed that ad usage was a major contributing factor.
Putting the company’s longevity ahead of the short-term revenue gain, the SEO team needed a third party’s advice to convince the ad team that change was needed.
What are the problems with too many ads?
Firstly, if your users land on a page which is very ad-heavy above the fold, with minimal decipherable unique content relating to the listing in the SERPs, the page is likely to be penalised by Google’s Page Layout Algorithm, announced in early 2012.
Secondly, in cases where ad files are blocked from crawlers, Googlebot is unable to see the page in the same way as a user. This can be tested using Search Console’s Fetch and Render feature. In theory, Google should be able to render the same content as shown to a user, and preventing this, results in delays to page load.
Thirdly, poor page speed, caused by excessive server calls to load ad files can impact user experience immensely, especially on mobile devices. In January, Google announced that from July 2018, page speed will become a ranking factor for mobile as well as desktop.
More about Google’s Page layout algorithm
To provide users with a good user experience when clicking through from the SERPs, Google’s page layout algorithm (known to some as the top heavy update) sought to degrade the rankings of web pages that didn’t incorporate visible, unique content above the fold. It was reported to impact fewer than 1% of English language searches.
On the day of its release, Google’s Webmaster Central blog explained “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.”
It was this guidance that resulted in us agreeing with the client that this was an area to give a predominant focus to.
How did we conduct our ad usage analysis?
To see if the client’s ad strategy had been a likely contributor to the SEO performance degradation, we started the analysis by eyeballing the multiple ad layouts across their webpage templates. We looked at both the mobile and desktop versions, though had a larger focus on mobile due to the impending mobile-first index.
It was clear to see that these pages had ad-heavy layouts – in many instances it was difficult, if not impossible to see any of the page content appearing above the fold.
Screen resolution testing
To check how crawlers would see the page’s above the fold area on a mobile browser size, we used a free screen resolution Chrome extension to highlight this important area of the page.
Across the different page templates, we saw that the only unique “non-ad” content tended to be a single heading in a hero image, or templated navigation with one heading.
Their desktop pages actually fared worse than mobile, with wraparound adverts and some videos taking centre stage, diverting the visitor’s eyes from the minimal visible content provided.
We concluded that crawlers would not see much unique value in the above the fold content provided across the website.
Google Fetch and Render (Search Console)
Next we checked what Googlebot was “seeing” on mobile:smartphone and desktop via the Fetch and Render tool within Google Search Console.
True enough, Googlebot was not indexing the page as the user was seeing it. Ad units were not rendering, leaving a lot of white space where the ad should have been. So not only was there little unique content, there was also a vast amount of white space above the fold – not something that Google would deem to be valuable, high-quality content!
Page speed & page load
Both desktop and mobile page speed scores were poor. Google’s Pagespeed Insights (in its pre-January 2018 guise) reported scores as low as 22/100 for desktop pages, and 23/100 for mobile pages.
Our favoured desktop page speed tester GMetrix supported these stats by highlighting slow page speeds, long page load times and a high number of requests required to load the pages on the client website.
Equivalent mobile pages would be nowhere near the idyllic page load goal of less than 3 seconds – a target reported by www.doubleclickbygoogle.com back in September 2016.
With three quarters of the client’s organic entrances arriving via mobile devices, it was clear that their slow website would be frustrating for users, with visits being aborted long before a full page was loaded.
Crawl budgets can be impacted
Another thing we tried to focus the client’s attention to was the issue of crawl budget. Webpages laden with ads aren’t great for refining precious search engine crawl budgets (the number of pages it will crawl on your website during any one visit).
This is a particularly big issue for larger sites containing ads; if a lot of time is spent crawling external resources, less time is devoted to crawling valuable content sitting deeper within the website.
This can result in a few key issues:
- Indexation is affected due to it taking longer for crawlers to find pages
- Any updates you make to the page won’t be seen quickly
- Any Page Layout penalisation can therefore impact the site for longer as the cached versions are still in the old, ad-heavy layout
So were the ads impacting our client’s SEO landing pages?
We strongly believed the top-heavy ad templates had been impacting the SEO performance of the key landing pages on the client’s website, and this was an issue affecting both mobile and desktop pages.
User-engagement has also been negatively impacted as a knock-on effect of slow page speed.
The resolution proposed to fix these site-wide challenges was to fix each problem step by step:
1) Change the ad layouts so more unique publisher content was visible above the fold
2) Unblock resources to allow Google to render the page as the user sees it
3) Address all highlighted page speed issues relating to heavy ad files, along with any other areas delaying page load.
How to recover from the top heavy update
If you are concerned that your website is being impacted in the same way, try to assess your web pages and decipher which are likely to be the offending crawlers and users. Then you can implement more user-friendly ad layouts which prioritise non-ad content above the fold.
Ultimately, users want to quickly see the content that has been promised to them on that page, not be bombarded with ads.
Make an effort to do this, and the next time your site is crawled and Googlebot identifies that a significant percentage of pages have improved in regards to ad layout, rankings should be positively affected.
It’s very difficult to determine how quick this will be as it can depend on a number of factors, such as how often your website is crawled, how easy it is to crawl and discover pages, as well as its size.
It’s important to have a longer term view on monetisation of your website; don’t burn your bridges now and alienate your users by overwhelming them with ad heavy pages, or frustrate them by making your website so slow that its unusable.
Greedy ad formats and layouts are short term strategies resulting in high bounce rates, and among other things are contributing to the rise in ad blocker usage.
Put succinctly, if you revise ad layouts, think of the user, unblock resources and fix page speed issues. Your rankings and user engagement rate should improve. Simple as that!
We’ll be keeping a close eye on the figures for the client over the coming months, including how the changes we proposed impact entrances, indexation, page speed as well as the related user engagement metrics.