January 20, 2012, 2:43 PM

A Google search tweak targets the top part of web sites

Google fights what it considers advertising clutter.

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The latest Google tweak to its search ranking formula could have e-retailers reconsidering the content along the top half of their e-commerce sites.

Google this week said that it has tweaked its search algorithm—the mathematics that determine where retailers and everyone else rank in natural search results—to better judge the quality of a site by its layout and top-of-page content.

“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,” writes Google engineer Matt Cutts in a blog post. “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.”

He adds that sites will likely rank lower if they have little visible content above the fold, or devote that valuable real estate to too many advertisements—in large part, a warning to bloggers who can earn money when their readers click on the ads.  “This algorithmic change does not affect sites who place ads above-the-fold to a normal degree, but 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,” Cutts says.

Cutts offered no deeper level of detail about how Google will makes it judgments about above-the-fold content, in line with Google’s usual practice of revealing little about the nuts and bolts of its natural search rankings.

But retailers shouldn’t worry too much: Cutts says the change will affect less than 1% of global searches. That contrasts with one of Google’s major search changes from last year—commonly called Fresh—that emphasized new, original content on web sites, and which Google says will influence 35% of search results.

That said, when it comes to Google’s search rankings, retailers are better playing it safe than finding themselves buried on those results pages, a search expert says.

“We are advising our retail clients to evaluate product categories with limited content appearing above-the-fold,” says Eli Mueller, SEO manager at online marketing firm Covario. “The risk of being penalized by this algorithmic change is relatively low. However, retailers should monitor their rankings and traffic closely, and be prepared to address their Web page layout as search engines increasingly consider usability in ranking calculations.”

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