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Is Google Pushing Design Back to the Days of Web 1.0?

November 29, 2012
Is Google Pushing Design Back to the Days of Web 1.0?

The web has come a long way from its early days when the http:// protocol was primarily designed to allow users to share hyperlinked, text-based documents.

I still remember when designer friends in the mid-1990s got enthusiastic about the web and started trying to find ways to manipulate very limited HTML structures to make things more "visual".

In the early days we saw a lot of experimentation with what could be done with on-screen layouts. It wasn't unusual to have navigation systems that jumped across long horizontal scrolling designs, "mystery meat" designs so obscure I wonder if even their creators could navigate them, and the early days of "Splash" on screen animations (which was then bought by Macromedia and renamed Flash and eventually acquired by Adobe).

The real issue in the mid 90's and early 2000's was that the web browsers of the day had very little support for visual elements and designers needed to push hard in order to bring their vision of what the web could be to life. We had to fight to trick the browsers into letting us present visuals the way we wanted.

Today the web has experienced a quantum shift in terms of what designers can (and do) present online. Cascading stylesheets (css) now give designers precise – and equally important reliable – control over how the webpages appear to the end-user.

My experience with those new to the industry is that much of what we have worked so hard to gain is taken for granted by younger designers and coders who have a full palette of options available to unleash their creative skills.

Yet the ability to be innovative and design compelling sites now faces an unexpected threat: Google's Page Layout algorithm adjustment.

The primary goal for most websites is to attract visitors and the stark reality is that whether you love them or think they are "evil", Google is the main game in town when it comes to directing traffic to websites.

And Google has signaled that the amount of content "above the fold" (according to a screen resolution of 1024 x 768) is going to be a factor in whether your site ranks at the top, or not.

Google said in its blog that users have complained when they click on a link and have difficulty finding content.

Fair enough.

The problem comes in Google's subsequent conclusion that:

"…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. Such sites may not rank as highly going forward."

That statement is like saying apples + oranges = bananas … so we are going to ban fruit.

There are a lot of low-quality sites that have figured out how to rise in Google and what Google is hearing, in my option, is that users are not impressed when they click on a link that basically leads them to spam.

But to conclude that any site that doesn't put enough "content" (for a search engine content = text) above the fold is therefore a low quality spammer is ridiculous.

It is very important to emphasize that if you look at Google's Browser Size tool (soon to be discontinued), according to Google only 70% of users can see a screen that is 550 pixel tall and 1000 pixels wide.

In other words, if developers and designers want to please Google, we must develop websites that fit into what would be a very small "postage stamp" on most modern screens.

Now as many of you know, we publish a national business magazine, While some of the roughly 700,000 unique visitors to our site last year are using advanced technology, many visitors have often "begged and borrowed" equipment to start their businesses. So based on what Google has said you might think that our audience would be predominantly using screens that would meet Google's 550 x 1000 pixel standard.

Not even close.

We have looked at our log files in detail and less than 16 per cent of our users are on this smaller screen resolution, with the majority having resolutions of 1280px or higher.

 The problem is that ranking is based on a universal algorithm and regardless of actual site traffic is, if a site wants to comply with Google's new Page Layout algorithm, they will need to push text content into the top 550 pixels of their designs.

Ironically, if you look at Facebook's timeline and Linked In's new company page, according to Google's Page Layout algorithm, these designs would "fail" the 550 pixel usability test. Similarly, in a collection of web design templates promoted for their attractive designs and marketing impact, the majority would fail Google's newer Page Layout algorithm requirements.

The obvious problem here is that these designs, which Google is saying create a poor end-user experience, are actually highly visual, engaging and likely to appeal to a real, human user.

Yet a search engine, which has difficulty in distinguishing between spammy graphics and beautifully compelling layouts, does not to have a formula to determine aesthetics.

And since organizations depend on the search engines for traffic, we may see designers stumble backwards looking for designs that can utilize all of the technical advantages of the modern browser, while also complying with Google's newest requirement that lots of "content" (aka "text) appears in the top 550 pixels of the screen.

Welcome to the world of "Web Design -1.0".

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