The most prominent part of a web page is the area visible when the page first loads. The importance of the “above the fold” (ATF) area influenced web design and conversion rate optimization strategies for many years, but does designing with ATF in mind matter any more? Will users scroll to see content below the fold? Does it make sense to use sliders and carousels to keep content above the fold? Does Google care about the content at the top of web pages?
Newspapers referred to the area of their front page that was immediately visible to readers as “above the fold,” because broadsheet newspapers were folded on newsstands and only half the page was visible. To maximize sales, the above the fold area was used for the most important and attention-grabbing headlines and content. The concept carried over to the web, where “above the fold” referred to the area that appeared in the browser’s window when a page first loaded.
From a design perspective, the AFT area still matters. The web is a scrolling medium and it’s important to make it clear what users can expect when and if they scroll. Prominent headlines, relevant text, and compelling media are important for reducing bounce rates.
But some web designers apply this idea too rigidly, largely based on outdated research that claimed users don’t scroll. Of course, on the modern web, that’s an absurd idea. Users most certainly do scroll, so there’s no real reason to pack every bit of important content at the top of the page — carousels, tabs, sliders, and the like are artifacts of an antiquated design pattern.
Put the most compelling content up-top, but trust users to scroll. Embrace the web as a scrolling medium.
Ensuring that users see content isn’t the only motivation for cramming the ATF area. If it’s the most prominent area, it makes sense to fill it with advertising, calls-to-action, promotions, and other content related to monetization. The result is almost always a bad user experience: content doesn’t have to be crammed into the top of the page, but there should be real content — as opposed to promotional content — visible when the page loads.
Google has used the relative quantity of editorial content and promotional content in the ATF area as a ranking signal for many years. Google doesn’t like to send its users to pages that obscure the content they’re interested in, and that includes obscuring it by pushing it below the visible area of the page.
Google is especially concerned to improve the quality of the experience of its users on mobile. From the beginning of 2017, its mobile search results will reduce the ranking potential of sites that obscure content on the transition from the SERPs. Google is targeting modal popups and interstitial ads in the main, but also makes specific mention of advertising that pushes content below the fold.
Above the fold isn’t dead from a design perspective. Users scroll, so there’s no need to devise unwieldy UI elements to ensure they see the content you want them to see. However, that area should contain prominent indications of what the user can expect when they scroll, and it shouldn’t be stuffed with advertising or other content incidental to the reason the user visited the page in the first place.