Written by Ben Morrisroe
13 Jun, 2019
Well then, do display ads really affect your website’s SEO? It's the age-old question for digital publishers.
First, let’s talk about how do you grow your user base and keep them coming back for more while maximising ad revenue at the same time to help understand how ads play into SEO.
A large factor in keeping your audience coming back (or bringing in new traffic) is keeping Google happy, thus making sure you stay at the top of search results. This is no easy task. Google’s omnipresent and mysterious algorithm is a tightly held secret and the best insight we mere mortals can expect to get into how it all works is by…. guessing.
Albeit these are educated guesses undertaken by people who have dedicated their lives to understanding the ways of Google’s search results, better known as SEOs (search engine optimisers). Troves of people are constantly running tests and experiments to try and understand, then document the inner workings of Google’s black box. Google’s search team also leave clues and breadcrumbs in their blogs and webinars which allow SEO enthusiasts to pick up on the trail and form a better understanding of what will bring us up and down the rankings.
Google’s Primary Goal
There is a method to the madness. Google’s overarching goal with its algorithmic complexity is to try and present the most relevant and authoritative content to its curious users every time. Their mission statement, “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful,” reflects this pretty accurately. They want to build the best product they can to answer all of your questions and searches as well as possible so you don't even think about switching to Bing.
How Does Google Rank Me?
It is thought that Google has over 200 ranking factors that go into its algorithm when it crawls your website to help it understand where your content should be placed in the search rankings. Considerations are based on whether your content is useful, user-friendly and well structured amongst other things. This can be boiled down to a slightly simpler equation that works to encompass all of these 200 ranking factors:
Content + SEO friendly code + user experience + backlinks = rankings
Putting it even more simply, Google is looking at authority and relevance. Are you an authority in your space (do people link to your content, do you have high traffic, etc.) and is your content relevant to the search query (can Google crawl your page and find out what it is about?)
Anything we do when building content and websites should consider this equation and it should help to guide your decisions. So getting to the topic at hand (finally!), are the ads on my website negatively impacting my search ranking visibility?
Are The Ads On My Site Hurting My SEO?
Now that we understand how SEO works, there are a number of ways to approach this question which I am going to run through in this article.
- First, we will look at whether Google has actually penalised you for any of your ads, causing you to rank lower.
- Second, we will look into user experience metrics found in Google Analytics to see if our ad density is negatively affecting how readers are able to interact with our page, as this is also something Google measures to determine search satisfaction.
- Finally, we will look at whether the ads on your site are visible to Google and if you are taking up too much of Google’s “Crawl budget”.
Is Google Penalising me for my ads?
One of the factors that Google is taking into account in keyword rankings is ads. Suspicion around heavy SEO penalties has grown in recent years to the point of fever pitch amongst publishers every time Google releases a new algorithm update and a period of volatility ensues.
But there is a little known trick to see if your site really is being penalised for a poor ad experience by Google that I am going to show you below.
Google actually provides an ad experience report within its web tools that allows you to see any penalties you may be receiving for your ad density and ad experience.
How do I access the Ad Experience Report?
- Visit https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/ad-experience-unverified
- In the left-hand panel, under "Ad Experience," select Desktop or Mobile to view the Report for each environment.
- If you have more than one site property verified with Search Console, select the one whose ad experiences you want to view.
You can also access it from your Google Search console by navigating to the “Old version” at the bottom left of the screen and then navigating to “Web Tools.
What is the Ad Experience Report?
The ad experience report is a combination of site layout, behaviour and ads that your users are exposed to. Google analyses your site to see if your ads comply with the Better Ads Standards, a set of ad experiences that the Coalition for Better Ads has set forth which includes things like auto-playing video ads with sound or having more than 30% ad density on your page.
If your status is “failing”, Google will highlight the URL and issue you have and may even provide you with an image or video of the ad experience. Once you have rectified any issues and have your site recrawled, any penalties to your search rankings should be removed.
If your report says “Status: Not reviewed” then Google has not analysed your site and it is very unlikely you are being explicitly penalised for your ads by Google.
Are my Ads Impacting my User Experience, and thus my SEO?
Anything that harms your user experience will have an adverse impact on your SEO. Google works extremely hard to build advanced ways of monitoring the user experience on your website.
If ads are negatively affecting your user experience then it will be factored into your keyword rankings. As I was saying earlier, Google wants to give its users the best browsing experience possible and, if your ads are getting in the way of this, then you're going to suffer as a result.
How do I know?
To understand if your user experience is being impacted by ads on your page you will need to dive into the data. Google Analytics is the place to start. Metrics to look at are:
- Bounce rate
- Average time on page
- Number of page views per visit
These are all found in the behaviour tab of your Google Analytics dashboard. Any significant increases in bounce rates and decreases in time on page and pages visited will likely mean your ads are harming your user experience so your content is no longer the best for Google to display for that keyword.
You can run tests using Google’s Optimise tool which allows you to divert a portion of the traffic going to a specific URL to a different webpage with a different ad layout. This will allow you to test different layouts and find the best balance between user experience and ads on the page.
This should be done by Geography, webpage, and device type. All decisions around how your ads impact user experience should be grounded in this kind of analysis and not on any subjective reasoning. Always trust the data. It may seem counter-intuitive at times, but data is what should drive your decisions around ad revenue, not opinions and hunches.
Google Search Console
Google Search Console is also useful for spotting drops in your keyword rankings and viewability in Google search results. If you are worried you have pages being adversely affected by your ads, you can monitor their performance here. If you start to see any major fluctuations in your rankings for different queries, it may be a good time to start digging into the Analytics data highlighted above to try and uncover the cause.
Page speed is also an important factor in user experience. If your ads are dramatically slowing down your page load times then this will be another factor you will need to look at. Google PageSpeed insights will help you to troubleshoot this. Again, just because the time it takes your page to load has increased, this does not necessarily mean you have significantly impacted user experience enough to start sending users away. All of this should be tested and weighed up against revenue generated.
Google’s Crawl Budget
Google’s crawl budget is the number of pages Google can crawl and index within a given timeframe.
If a page isn't indexed then it is not going to rank for anything. Google is extremely good at ranking sites and your site would have to have thousands of pages for it to cause Google any real issue. Redirects caused by ads can, however, eat up your crawl budget and force Google to move on elsewhere, leaving some of your pages unindexed.
To combat this, Google recommends you improve site speed to increase the crawl rate. Loading pages eat up valuable budget. Using internal links from pages in your site can help Google to better find its way around your site and understand its structure.
It no longer needs to be a secret or guessing game when looking at the impact of ads on your website’s search rankings. If Google has penalised you for having too many ads or a poor ad experience, you can easily view this in the Ad Experience report in your Web tools. If your ads are adversely impacting your user experience you now also have the tools needed to delve further into this and test the optimum ad experience for your website. At the end of the day, all of your decisions should be based around data. Don’t assume anything.