Page Experience: Google’s New Ranking Factor

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I’m not sure if you’ve heard about the latest update announced by Google. People I’ve spoken to are quite concerned about what it might mean for their rankings because it could be a game changer. It could be the biggest shift we’ve seen for quite some time. But the good news is that they’ve given us time. They’ve told us what will change and what we need to do to mitigate the risks.

Page Experience

On 28th May 2020, Google announced that it would roll out the new ranking system, and it’s all about user experience. Site quality signals have always been important to Google, but it sounds like they’re getting smarter at recognising them. Here’s what Google said: ‘The page experience signal measures aspects of how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page. Optimising for these factors makes the web more delightful for users across all web browsers and services, and helps sites evolve towards user expectations on mobile. We believe this will contribute to business success on the web as users grow more engaged and can transact with less friction.’ 

There are lots of clues in this statement about the direction that Google might take. They are going to weight websites in terms of the search engine results and page experience. Right now, page experience plays a part in how websites rank, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. The main thrust behind search engine optimisation is content. Google wants to match what someone’s searching for with the best possible resource of information. Fresh, unique content usually ranks well in search engines, particularly on Google. But it sounds like they’re going to align with the quality of the website as well, which is really exciting for web designers and developers like me. 

It’s an attempt to improve the quality of websites. It’s not just about the content and relevance any more, although that will continue to be a strong factor. They want to send people to the right place for the right information. In other words, the quality of the website, the look and feel, the way you engage with it, the way it works on a mobile, are going to increase in importance. They’ve mentioned mobiles in that statement, which are important in this day and age. They’re looking to measure and match traffic to the right places. It’s not just about the information any more. It’s about the user experience, and it’s becoming a big deal. And it’s not just about shoving keywords all over the place. They’re getting smarter at understanding quality content, and it’s going to continue moving in this direction. 

Core Web Vitals

These are the metrics that measure the real-world experience of websites, and they’re getting more and more sophisticated. There are three core vital categories. The first is loading speed. That’s always been important. However, it hasn’t had as big an impact on search engine optimisation as some people might tell you. It’s certainly been a factor, and a quality website should be the goal. But regardless of what Google are doing, your website needs to create a great user experience, and if it’s loading fast, it’s going to convert better. 

Then there’s interactivity and visual stability. Again, these are really important. In my view, the core principles that Google is introducing should have been the focus of your website all along.

Loading: The Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)

This is the speed at which the largest and slowest visible element loads. It’s usually a big photograph, particularly if it’s in the background. It’s presumably one of your bigger files and therefore your largest visible element. It could be a video, depending on how that’s served through your website. It could be anything, really. Google are saying that a load time of under 2.5 seconds is great, 4 seconds or more is bad, and 2.5 to 4 needs improvement. As I’ve said, loading speed has been a factor all along, and some people have overstated the degree to which it has an influence, but it sounds like Google is going to turn up the dial, so stay tuned to see the real-world outcome. It’s something to bear in mind, particularly if you’re working on a new website. Weigh in some of these factors. Even if Google doesn’t end up rolling it out to a big degree, it’s going to be a better website and it’ll help your business’s online performance as well.

Interactivity: First Input Delay (FID)

This is the time delay between a user interacting with the page and being able to respond to a certain aspect. Ideally, you should be able to click on a link or button immediately. Sometimes that’s not the case.  Google would like interactivity to happen under 100 milliseconds. That’s pretty much instantaneous. Under 300 milliseconds would need some improvement. When it’s over 300 milliseconds, it’s a poor outcome, so it would need to be rectified. We don’t know how much impact it’s going to have in terms of how well your site will rank on Google, but getting those things right are going to have a good outcome for you.

Visual Stability: Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)

This is a measure of the page elements and when they move unexpectedly. As you can imagine, if a web page is loading and things start jumping around, it’s really frustrating. It’s poor user experience. This happens when a page is loading or something’s changing or something’s moving intentionally. It might push other things around. For example, if you have a slider and the size changed, then other aspects of the web page might jump around, which is not ideal. It’s a layout shift. When an element moves from one part of the screen to another, it’s frowned upon by Google.

Imagine if you were trying to click a button and it started moving, then you end up clicking the wrong button and winding up on the wrong page. That’s really annoying for an end user. It’s more of a problem on mobiles. With websites we’ve reviewed, mobiles are often a bit of an issue. They’ve designed the website for computers and the mobile has been a secondary thought. I’d fix this up even if Google didn’t make the changes. Some sites are unusable on mobile. The distance of how far something moves are aspects of CLS that Google are doing their best to measure, and it will downgrade your site accordingly. If something moves vastly and it’s a huge problem, you’re going to get penalised more heavily than if it was a small shift with little impact on the user. 

Other Factors to Consider

These are factors that Google already measures, and they influence the way a site shows up in Google search results. They include mobile experience, SSL security certificates, and no intrusive pop-ups. Let’s look at these in closer detail.

Mobile Experience 

Five or six years ago, Google announced that sites would be penalised if they weren’t mobile-friendly – and it’s certainly been the truth. For some businesses and industries, most of the traffic is on mobiles, and it’s increasing all the time. The number of people who view a website on a mobile is often more than those who visit from a PC. It depends on your industry and visitors, but it does mean that a lot of people have adopted a mobile-first strategy.

The safest thing is to make sure your website works across all devices. Make sure the design is clean and simple so it can respond and adjust and still look great in different sizes. If you’re trying to use too many graphic elements, they can clash and collide on different screen sizes. A clean, simple, sophisticated website design is what you should be aiming for. And that’s what we do for our clients. Content is king, and presenting it in a professional manner is the key.

SSL Security Certificate

You’ll often see the security certificate in the browser near the web address. Next to it you might see a red padlock. A lot of web hosts will provide a free security certificate. You just need to code your websites to make use of it. If your web host doesn’t provide it for free, it’s usually very cheap to buy. This is worth getting because Google is really big on online safety. I suspect they will dial up its importance in user experience. As you can imagine, if someone visits a website and it’s not secure, that scares them. It’s not a good user experience, particularly if you’re asking for personal information. It could be potentially worse for online shopping if someone is using their credit card on a website that is not secure. A security certificate puts people’s minds at ease and creates a great user experience.

No Intrusive Pop-ups

Google is cracking down on anything intrusive. And pop-ups are a big one. Your website might have something fly and slide in, particularly when you’re trying to exit a web page. This is really frustrating for the end user. It’s an intrusive style of marketing that, until now, has helped with conversion rates for enquiries and calls-to-action. But next year, when this gets rolled out, it’s going to weigh you down too much, and the scales are going to tip the other way. If you want to show up on Google, don’t use intrusive pop-ups.

When Will This Update Occur?

Nobody really knows. It’s unusual for Google to give us so much notice. Sometimes they’ll have a significant shift in the way the algorithm works. You might get a couple of hours’ notice in some instances, but they’ve given us at least months. That might mean that it’s a significant change, or it might just be Google being kind and letting the web developers out there know.

If your website doesn’t provide a great user experience, you might want to sharpen up your act. This is a good outcome for everybody. But for search engine optimisation, and those who focus purely on SEO and not web design or development, this update has rung alarm bells. They might not have the skill set to address some of these issues. If they’re purely an SEO company, they might have to hire new resources or create partnerships to continue serving their clients. 

How Much Impact Will It Have?

Nobody knows yet. Even Google may not know how much of an impact it will have. It might make changes that are dialled up or dialled back or shifted along the journey. Like all the changes they’ve made, they’ll roll it out and continue to refine, adjust and fine-tune. They’re continually improving and enhancing their system, and it remains the leading search engine in the world.

Rudy Galfi, the product lead on the Google Search ecosystem, said that the organisation would not be discussing the weighting for each page experience signal. They’re not going to tell us how much of an influence it will have on search engine optimisation. It might be because they don’t know. Or it might be because they don’t want people to cheat their way to the top.

Content is the overriding factor of a website. You might have the most beautiful website that follows best practice, but if the content is rubbish, it won’t serve the needs of the user and it shouldn’t rank well. This will always be true. At this stage, we don’t know the balance of these things or what the outcomes might be. But fresh, unique, well-written content continually added to your website is always going to serve you well. 

What Should I Do Now?

Improve your website and page speed. Make your website responsive and mobile-friendly. Write clear headings and unique content. These things always remain true in search engine optimisation. Use well-designed calls-to-action. Where there’s a button or interactivity of some nature, just make sure they’re easy to click on and that you don’t have to wait around for things to load. Fix any 404 page errors. These things will serve you well, even if Google wasn’t making any changes. Get them sorted out this year so you can start earning credits in the bank with Google. 

Page experience, design and functionality should be high priorities, and they’ll definitely improve your conversion rates. They’ll decrease your bounce rates and help with your retention rate. Your website can be polished or enhanced for whatever you need it to become. If it’s too far gone, it might be better to start with a clean slate. Even if you were to copy across the content that might be still applicable, start with best practice. That’s a good option, but it’s not my only and first option. My recommendation is to ask the question: Can what I’ve already got be improved or enhanced to fulfil the needs I have right now? That’s the first option, because it’s usually a lesser investment and a bigger return on investment potential. It’s a wise choice where it’s appropriate, but it’s not always appropriate. Sometimes it’s just easier and quicker – and you’re going to get a better result ­– from a brand new website. Either way, you could be closer to a great outcome than you think.