Google is reworking its ranking algorithm, with a new emphasis on user experience. Why does this matter? Depending on industry, organic traffic, aka SEO, accounts for 30%-55% of all site visitors. In most cases, organic is the number 1 driver of site traffic. And with every site visitor being a potential customer, this makes being discoverable and catering to the needs of individual users more important than ever before.
Currently, Google search algorithms consider over 200 criteria to serve up accurate, relevant results. Search ranking relies on search terms and content quality, ease-of-use, device type, location, page speed, and dozens of other visible and invisible technical factors that determine which results will be served for every search performed.
What has historically been overlooked in this process is user experience, and while it is addressed indirectly through other criteria, this essential site element has yet to be specifically applied to search rankings. Users don’t notice when it’s done right, but they will immediately notice when it’s done wrong — user experience may seem subjective, but it can actually be reliably measured through usability, readability, page speed and stability metrics.
This marks the next phase in the evolution of SEO, as ranking factors continue to move beyond keywords and metadata. Compelling, relevant content is a given when it comes to SEO efforts, but great content is no longer enough. When it comes to long-term SEO prospects, those with the best content + UX will win.
What is Google Page Experience?
The upcoming search update will specifically factor in user experience when serving up search results. Known as Google Page Experience, ranking will soon consider a composite of experience metrics and start favoring pages that are reliably browsable and interactive.
Updates to the Google algorithm are expected sometime in 2021, and Google says that this is a way to make searching more accessible and will ultimately set sites up for success on mobile platforms.
“Page experience is a set of signals that measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with a Web page beyond its pure information value,” according to a developer document. “Page experience will join the hundreds of signals that Google considers when generating Search results.”
While user experience will soon receive more weight than it previously did, Page Experience will not override existing metrics for ranking. Relevant, readable content and applicable information will continue to be the most important ranking factors.
But, in cases where quality information is present on competing pages, i.e. content parity, Page Experience will be a deciding factor for setting your site apart. While user experience will only be one piece in a much larger search visibility puzzle, there is no doubt that it will play an important role in differentiating your page from the competition.
What Accounts For Effective User Experience?
Page Experience is a measurement of how users view and interact with a Web page. It is made up of several signals that track real-world user response. These metrics are outlined by Google, and most of them are testable through online benchmarking tools:
- Core Web Vitals: Quality signals defined by Google related to loading, interactivity, and visual stability. Core Web Vitals are baseline performance considerations that should be present on every page.
- Mobile-Friendly: Whether or not a page is viewable and usable on mobile devices. This can be tested using Google’s mobile-friendly test.
- Safe-Browsing: The page doesn’t contain any malicious or deceptive content or code. This could include the threat of being hacked, malware on the site itself, social engineering that gathers sensitive information, etc. Pages affected by security issues will appear with a warning label in search results, which negatively impacts traffic. Check security using Google’s Security Issues Report.
- HTTPS: Pages should be accessible through a secure, HTTPS connection. This is the prefered protocol for protecting the confidentiality of data between the user’s computer and the site. Google offers guidelines for checking a site’s security.
- No Intrusive Interstitials: An “interstitial” is an obstruction that blocks the main content of the page. This could be a popup, standalone block that must be exited, or an above-the-fold element that delays access to content. Exceptions, such as interstitials obligated for legal purposes, are exempt. Google has a breakdown of interstitials that do and do not negatively affect user experience. This will be a challenge for many brands to address. Too many have fallen back on intrusive pop-overs to collect email addresses and automated live-chat pop-ups that attempt to force user engagement. These practices will inevitably have to change.
With these factors taken into consideration, page experience evaluates the overall user experience holistically — a big picture snapshot of whether or not the page caters to the experience of individual users and delivers an experience in line with emerging best practices.
How This Impacts Site Optimization
It’s common for companies to put all their time and money into the nuts and bolts of a Web page — whether due to budgetary restrictions or a fundamental misunderstanding about how search functions, user experience often takes a backseat. While backend work is important for account features, checkout systems, stability, and other processes, this single-minded approach often comes at the detriment of end-user experience.
If nothing else, these Google updates are proof of one thing: if user experience hasn’t yet been a priority, now is the time to invest.
Optimizing user experience can pay dividends not only in the form of a great site experience and usability, but with the introduction of these search updates, it will now be used as a contributing ranking factor.
A new focus on user experience will change how sites are optimized — especially as far as SEO strategy is concerned. User experience factors such as page speed, mobile-friendly design, navigational structures, etc. have long been taken into consideration for SEO, but changes to the ranking algorithm will inevitably change the way SEO strategies are developed.
“I think this is going to be a really great addition as a ranking factor,” said Gorilla SEO Specialist Abby Fuller. “This will change the structure of our SEO audits and recommendations, as we will want to be playing close attention to all direct ranking factors.”
User experience has always been an important element of site performance, but now with Google taking extra notice, competitive brands will seek experience upgrades to gain an advantage in the search rankings. Whether it’s tweaks to mobile, security, usability (See our post on ADA Accessibility Guidelines), user experience will be one of the primary upgrades for companies this year looking to find, and retain, an audience.
“User Experience isn’t a nice-to-have anymore. In fact, if you are conducting business online, the upcoming change to Google’s algorithm means your site’s UX (or lack thereof) is impacting sales before customers even arrive at your site”, said Matt Collins, Gorilla Group Chief Experience Officer.
“To adapt to this, it will be critical for organizations to work with partners that are equally versed in design and technology–able to not only stand up your chosen platform, but able to design experiences that deliver best-in-class customer experiences that are discoverable, actionable, and repeatable.”