Have The Same Ad-To-Organic Ratio As Google Search? Then You Might Be Safe From The Top Heavy Penalty

matt-cutts-seo-futureAt SMX Advanced tonight, Google’s head of search spam, Matt Cutts explained that if Google’s search results pages were run through the top heavy algorithm it would not be hurt by that algorithm. So if you wanted another guide to whether you’re safe from Top Heavy, perhaps the ratios of ads to content with Google’s pages would be a guide.

Matt Cutts clarified what he meant for me, explaining that in general most of Google’s search results pages do not have ads at all. So when you look at the Google search results as a site, not specific pages, overall, the ad to organic ratio is very low.

In short, if your ad to organic ratio is the same or less than what you see in Google’s search results, you are safe.

This came up durin the Ask The SEO session, where Matt Cutts was encouraged to come up on stage to answer some questions.

One question was around why does Google have so many ads in the organic result. Danny Sullivan joked, would Google penalize Google for top heavy algorithm? Matt responded seriously that even if the search results pages were indexed by Google, the algorithm that determines if a web page should be penalized or impacted negatively by the top heavy update, would not be triggered.

So you can use Google search results pages as a benchmark for not going overboard on the top heavy update.

Postscript: Matt Cutts is now getting questions about my coverage of what he said or I thought he said at SMX on this topic. So Matt clarified on Twitter, saying:

An important point missing from the write-up is looking at all the pages on the site, not just single pages.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | Google: Top Heavy Update | Top News


About The Author: is Search Engine Land's News Editor and owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on very advanced SEM topics. Barry's personal blog is named Cartoon Barry and he can be followed on Twitter here. For more background information on Barry, see his full bio over here.

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  • Peter Daams

    So 50% ads, 50% content then. Got it.

  • http://www.8womendream.com/ Catherine

    I have no idea what this means, but then we gave up trying to please Google when all the Panda hits started happening and went to other traffic sources. We have all original content, but Google has been sending the message to small web owners and small business that they just aren’t interested so neither are we. You don’t need Google to thrive and Pinterest and Facebook can deliver more traffic with less hassle.

  • Filipe Gouveia

    Sometimes it’s 80% ads 20% content. For example, if you search for “Hotels London” you only get 1 organic result above the fold, the rest is all sponsored results and map. Would Google see us doing that with good eyes? I guess not. Matt Cutts’ answer doesn’t seem very clear to me and the interpretation of it can be very tricky.

  • http://www.purposegaming.tv/ Purpose Gaming

    Bullshit. I do not believe you Lord Cutts.

  • http://www.summitweb.net/seo-inverness-scotland.html Martin Oxby

    Well if any penalties are given out based on Ad weighting, then I can so see screenshots measuring ad % on a website and comparing it to Google as a (perfectly valid) justification.

    Funny that Google cannot be penalised for too many ads, completely shocked of course.

  • Robin331

    what about ads above fold? what about adwords links before any useful content? Basically this answer (MC version) tell us what we can move ads to top of site again, but our experience show us different.

  • Robin331

    next time we will listen what if panda and penguin will check google search results, it not will trigger any filters.

  • WillSpencer

    Matt probably isn’t counting YouTube spam in the search results as “ads”. He’s also probably not counting the spam that Google is throwing into most travel searches. Hell, he’s probably not counting the Google Maps spam that Google throws into completely irrelevant search results.

    On a lot of searches in Google, there is only one “organic” result visible above the fold.

  • http://cmsreport.com Bryan Ruby

    In total agreement Catherine. I’ve stopped worrying about how to please Google and SEO, it’s the only way to stay sane and focused on the content. I no longer worry about search engine optimization as much as I do my “social engine optimization”. Panda hit my site hard, I’ve lost more than 75% of people Google sent my way. But you know what, my ad revenue hasn’t changed and the quality of the audience to my site couldn’t be higher.

    Google needs to be careful here. In essence, their ranking policies has made them irrelevant to small niche website owners.

  • daveintheuk

    Um, on what size screen? At 1080×768 the ratio is WAY more than 50/50…

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    I think people have made great points—the percentage of ads in the search results often changes based on the search. So which one is Google going to judge by? My guess is the “standard” approach with the 3 ads on top and the list on the right hand side but who can say for sure.

  • Alan Rabinowitz

    Gotta love ambiguous penalties.

  • Ronnie’s Mustache

    Gotta love Danny; he’s a top notch *&^% stirrer!

  • Durant Imboden

    Depends on what you call “ads,” I suppose. Some people here are under the impression that YouTube results are ads, for example, which is nonsense.

    But that really is beside the point. Google’s ads are pretty distinct from its organic or editorial results (except on screens that have trouble displaying the ads’ background tint, like my laptop), and in any case, I’d rather see Google’s ads above the fold than interleaved with the organic/editorial content like the ads on so many Web sites.

    IMHO, instead of getting worked up over a casual remark by Matt Cutts, Web publishers should use common sense. If you slap borderless AdSense ads in the left margin where users would expect to find navigation links and place a monster ad unit at the top of the page, you’re providing users with a poor experience, regardless of what Google may or may not do with the layout of its search-results pages.

    Finally, it’s worth remembering that the people who write Google’s search algorithms aren’t the same people who design Google’s user interface, any more than they’re the same people who encourage publishers to maximize their use of AdSense ads. In the end, you–not Google’s UI team–are responsible for your editorial and design decisions. If you’ve got a beef with Google’s SERP layout, you’re free to complain to Google–but don’t use Google’s design sins (if that’s what they are) to justify your own bad judgment.

  • Dr. Pete

    I could produce 50 screenshots where tops ads + side ads + paid inclusion take up the majority of the content space of a Google SERP. I’m not sure how to say this nicely, and I’m not trying to attack Matt personally, but this seems like terribly misleading advice.

  • Dan Shure

    Personally I think looking at a simple percentage is a little more simplistic than how it really works – and thus Matt cleverly completely dodged actually giving a real answer.

    I think the “top heavy” is actually not the best name, as it implies “ratio” or “ads above the fold”.

    Yet, when you go back and read the original post from Google about it, it’s really about;

    - placement of where the ads are (do they distract from the content)

    - and making it clear your ads ARE ads. ie: would a random sample of users, if asked in a test, be able to easily tell you what are ads and what aren’t.


    Google said:

    “affects sites that go much further to load the top of the page with ads to an excessive degree or that make it hard to find the actual original content on the page.”

    “…hard to find the actual content”.

    Google’s search results do show the user fairly clearly IMO what are ads and what aren’t buy using the word “ads” as a label, or with the green background. I believe it to be these elements, in conjunction with possibly ratio, that make Google “not able to be penalized with top heavy”.

    I think it’s a mistake to just boil it down to ratio or “above the fold”. You have to look at the layout/design of the page and if the user would confise the ads for actual content.

  • Pat Grady

    You left off “scraped”.

  • Ruud

    I agree with Dan, the Page Lay-out algo sais 30% above the fold AND more
    or equal to the unique content, space for navigation and images excluded .. nevertheless there are some Google Serps reaching almost 100% ads above the fold, Google Shopping included

  • Peter Daams

    Yeah, you’re right actually. I was overly generous with the 50/50 ratio. Particularly if you’re looking above the “fold”, it’s pretty much always 80% ads.

    Of course, the sad thing is that even though Google gives this advice, it’s not like you can take it to them and say “hey, you said it was ok”. And you also don’t get a notification saying that your penalty was in fact for this problem. So it’s all still total guesswork.

  • Ronnie’s Mustache

    Just do fifty random searches.

    7:1, 8:1…even 9:1 are the standard ratio on an iPad in landscape.

  • Durant Imboden

    Just now, I found a TripAdvisor page on the first page of a Google SERP that was nearly 100% ads. I also found an eBay page on the first page of a Google SERP that consisted entirely of ads. So maybe Matt’s advice is right on the mark.

  • Nebosh Course in UAE

    Great list buddy………It will surely help me. thanks

  • Dr. Pete

    Apparently, if I over-simplify the long Twitter convo with Matt last night, it seems like his main conceptual point is that Top Heavy looks across the entire site, and, while Google has pages that are very ad heavy, those pages are still the exception to the rule.

    I think that’s a bit tricky for webmasters, if only because so many sites have fairly uniform advertising (ad blocks are always a certain size and count, throughout the site). Google’s situation is much more dynamic. I still feel that those exceptions create a bad user experience and are relevant (and Matt seems sensitive to that point, to be fair), but it sounds like Top Heavy doesn’t go after individual pages with heavy ad density.

  • Dan Shure

    That was my takeway. BTW, the chat is Storified here if anyone’s interested: http://storify.com/dan_shure/google-top-heavy-discussion/

  • http://www.infogurushop.com/ Infogurushop

    When will the online world of business finally realize the “game” of Google cutts is to bolster PPC revenue. So like a barber or barb-wire the G cutts or fence will be erected annually until PPC rules so you all pay. #lol

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