Let’s be clear. I personally believe that the concept of ‘above the fold’ is not a valid design constraint for first-party content. ‘Above the fold’ may have held validity for digital mediums when the modern Internet first went mainstream… but that was twenty-five years ago.
What is ‘Above the Fold’?
The concept of “above the fold” originated with mass print advertising in the pre-Internet era. Printed newspapers were the most commonly commercialized method of news dissemination in the second half of the twentieth century. If you wanted to find out what happened in the world the day before, you went to a vending machine and bought a newspaper. These vending machines typically had a clear front door, so you could read the headline story of the newspaper. If you were interested in the headline story, you were more likely to buy the newspaper. Since newspapers were stacked in these vending machines folded in half, the term ‘above the fold’ became a common phrase to describe that you had to put your most interesting content above this half-fold, so that more people would buy the newspaper. What many people don’t consider when transplanting this phenomenon to digital content is that the importance of ‘above the fold’ was created by an artificial barrier. As a consumer, you simply couldn’t see what was in the rest of the paper without buying a copy.
This artificial barrier doesn’t typically exist in digital. You don’t have to pay a dollar to read past the first paragraph of content (unless you’re on the WSJ or Financial Times’ websites).
Issues in ‘Above the Fold’ for Digital
Problem 1: ‘Above the fold’ in digital is based on the assumption that a similar artificial barrier commonly exists. This premise suggests that people who are viewing the content either don’t know how to scroll down, or are too lazy to do so. Though I’ve never come across a study confirming it, common sense tells me that most people know how to scroll. And that twenty-five years after the mainstream adoption of the modern Internet, user interfaces are efficient enough that most people aren’t too lazy to use them in order to navigate content.
Problem 2: If a digital equivalent of ‘above the fold’ exists, where exactly is the fold? Wikipedia lists 86 common display resolutions for PC and Mac. That doesn’t include many popular smartphone, tablet, or embedded display form factors (like smart watches). The ‘fold’ will be in a different place for each distinct resolution. So, how can you guarantee that everything you wanted crammed ‘above the fold’ is actually above the fold in all these use cases? Factor pixel density into screen resolutions (which definitely would change the location of ‘the fold’) and it becomes a practical impossibility to keep important content ‘above the fold’ on every device for every piece of content. Trying to do so requires a significant investment of time with no concrete guarantee of the return needed to justify that time.
Guaranteed Viewability and ‘Above the Fold’
Advertisers have been beating the war drum about viewability this year. Digital ads that are bought on a CPM basis have traditionally been counted as an impression once they’re loaded from an ad server. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that an actual person looked at them, as the ad placement might be located further down the page… below ‘the fold.’ Even so, having an ad placement in view on the screen is no guarantee that the person looked at it. Short of mounting eye-tracking units to everyone who uses the Internet, we’re unlikely to get a more precise measure of a view anytime soon.
<tangent>At least, until immersive VR technology becomes mainstream enough that the advertising industry connects existing exchanges to VR platforms. Then we’d have a more precise measure of a view, as eye-tracking technology will likely be used in future user interfaces for VR. The way the industry landscape looks right now, Facebook is the closest to making this paradigm a reality. Facebook now owns Oculus Rift, and its 2013 acquisition of Atlas Solutions from Microsoft gave it access to a mature ad network with the capability to serve ads beyond Facebook’s own ecosystem.</tangent>
But that’s a conversation for another day. The current campaign calling on publishers to allow viewability verification has led to substantial policy and technology changes on the properties in Google’s GDN, YouTube, and Facebook. Google recently announced that it will be making vCPM bidding the default on its display network as it rolls out enhanced viewable impression technology. Facebook is taking a slightly different approach, announcing the availability of In-View ads (which offer guaranteed viewability) and 3rd-party verification of some types of ad units (for now, just video). In June, Yahoo! announced that it was building third party verification of viewability into its standard ad platform.
How does this relate to ‘above the fold’?
The most common technical method for measuring viewability in an open, programmatic ad network is to check whether the ad placement unit has scrolled into view on a user’s screen. If the ad unit is in view, the ad is considered ‘viewable’ to the user and can be counted as a viewable impression. Smart publishers, large and small, will adjust by placing their ad units in areas that are likely to generate the most viewable impressions most frequently. In most use cases, on most devices, this means that placements will move higher up in content pages. Really smart publishers will also evaluate their analytics capabilities and begin to experiment with ad unit locations by measuring dwell time with an ad unit in view. I wouldn’t be surprised if Google rolls out the capability to measure the dwell time or viewability of on-site GDN ad placements through Google Analytics sometime in the next year. Having this capability makes Google’s integrated suite of applications that much more sticky for content publishers.