Google’s New Ranking Factor: Page Experience

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A GIF of someone having a positive experience on a webpage

On May 28, 2020, Google announced it would be releasing an update for its ranking system. The new page experience algorithm, launching in 2021, attempts to evaluate user enjoyment of web pages using a collection of site quality signals. It draws on both new and existing ranking factors and bundles them into a composite index to proxy for user delight. Some of these signals (such as loading speed) may already be familiar to you, while others are brand new. Google hopes that the changes will ultimately help foster online business by making transactions slicker.

What is Page Experience?

Google describes its new page experience update in the following way:

The page experience signal measures aspects of how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page. Optimizing for these factors makes the web more delightful for users across all web browsers and surfaces, 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.

Google’s new page experience algorithm is the search giant’s attempt to improve the qualitative feel of web pages. It marks a clear shift away from merely ranking pages in terms of relevance and towards considering their feel and appearance too.

This new approach makes good business sense. While the California search giant still wants to “organize the world’s information,” it understands that user experience is more enveloping than just presenting data. Pages also need to make people feel delighted.

The upcoming 2021 page experience algorithm marks an essential evolution in thinking. History teaches us that keyword matching helps users to a point. But Google knows that web experience doesn’t boil down to a single metric, like relevance. Multiple factors influence the delight users derive from browsing.

Descriptions of updates can sound abstract. For that reason, Google released a video on May 28, 2020, showing the community what it actively doesn’t want:

The fabricated snippet shows a user trying to checkout online, only to be presented with unnecessary delays, unresponsive buttons, and annoying outputs that don’t reflect their inputs. The video example represents precisely the kind of clunky experience that Google wants webmasters to avoid. Poor user interface detracts from delight and makes interacting with the web stressful and unpleasant.

For those interested in understanding why the company is motivated to publish the new 2021 update, the video is enlightening. A site could have keywords and authority backlinks in abundance, but if page elements load poorly, users come away with a negative experience. And that’s precisely what Google wants to avoid.

What are Core Web Vitals?

Core web vitals are metrics used by Google to capture the “real-world” experience of users. They attempt to objectively measure the web page’s qualitative feel to inform the ranking algorithm.

Google breaks core web vitals into three categories: loading speed, interactivity, and visual stability. These terms might appear technical, but once you break them down, they are easy to understand.

Google Core Web Vitals

Source: Google Webmaster Central Blog

Here, we explain each of them in turn, minus the jargon:

Loading: Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)

LCP is a metric that reports how long it takes the largest element on the visible page to load (such as an image). Google defines a good LCP time as under 2.5 seconds and a poor one at more than 4. If LCP is somewhere between the two, then website loading speed “needs improvement.” Ideally, Google wants LCPs under 2.5 seconds.

Interactivity: First Input Delay (FID)

FID is a measure of the time delay between a user interacting with a page and the browser being able to respond. Ideally, sites should respond instantly to clicks on links and buttons, but that doesn’t always happen. Google defines FIDs under 100 ms as “good,” under 300 ms as requiring improvement and above 300 ms as “poor.”

Visual Stability: Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)

CLS is a core web vital that attempts to measure the degree to which page elements move about unexpectedly as the page loads or the view window changes. Google defines a layout shift as occurring whenever a visible element (like a picture) moves from one part of the visible screen to another. Layout shifts are incredibly annoying for users and can often lead to real damage if they click the wrong things. Furthermore, random movement can render interfaces unusable on mobile devices. Google, therefore, wants web hosts to take steps to avoid them. Google calculates the CLS metric (or layout shift score) as the impact fraction multiplied by the distance fraction. In other words, the larger the page element and the further it moves, the worse the score. A score of less than 0.1 is “good,” while one less above 0.25 is “poor.”

Google supplements these core web vitals with other factors to form a set of search signals for page experience. Many of these may already be familiar.

Mobile Experience

In 2015, Google rolled out an update that penalized websites not optimized for mobile content. Since then, webmasters have increasingly adopted a mobile-first strategy, prioritizing the smartphone and tablet experience over the desktop.
Safe browsing. Safe browsing up-ranks sites that are free of malicious software and deception, and down-ranks those that are not. It has long been a staple of Google’s ranking algorithm and received a major update in 2016, punishing repeat offenders.

HTTPS

HTTPS security is important to Google. The company is pushing the technology to improve online safety (particularly for customer transactions) and improve overall web experience.

No Intrusive Interstitials

Finally, Google wants web hosts to stop using intrusive interstitials (pop-ups) that delay access to sites and harm the experience. The company will punish pages that display standalone or pop-up interstitials that users must dismiss before accessing the main content.

The search giant believes these metrics will allow it to proxy the quality of user experience, without having to visit each site manually (either with people or some kind of AI solution). As the diagram shows, the new core web vitals slot alongside its pre-existing page quality metrics. The hope is that these new incentives will lead to more user delight by putting an end to the irritations currently blighting the browsing experience.

When Will This Update Go Live?

Google doesn’t usually provide webmasters with substantial notice before rolling out updates. On September 24, 2019, the company gave web hosts a couple of hours’ notice before rolling out a broad core update to its ranking algorithm. Some sites lost a substantial proportion of their traffic.

The fact that it is talking about this update many months in advance is highly unusual. It appears that the company is offering webmasters some slack in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Google hasn’t yet specified a precise date for when this update will go live. But it does say that the ranking changes will not happen until 2021 and that it will provide six months’ notice before any update goes live.

On top of this, Google is providing users with tools that will allow them to get started now so they can avoid ranking penalties in the future. Partly, this approach is a response to the community which has been demanding advance notice. And partly, it is a way for the search giant to improve user experience before the 2021 patch hits.

How Big Will This Update Be?

Currently, we don’t know how big this update will be. And Google probably doesn’t know either. According to its Webmaster Central Blog, “Because [Google continues] to work on identifying and measuring aspects of experience, [it plans] to incorporate more page experience signals on a yearly basis.” Therefore, any upcoming changes are likely subject to revision as we move through the coming months.

When probed, product lead on Google’s ecosystem team, Rudy Galfi, said that the organization would not be discussing the weighting of each page experience signal. He did, however, confirm that the quality of content will continue to be the overriding factor. Original and informative articles will still rank highly, even if page experience is poor.

We can get a sense of how large this update might be by looking at the company’s previous updates. Data suggest that Google’s January 2011 update, Panda, affected 12 percent of US results. Similarly, the company’s October BERT update impacted around one in ten queries.

These updates, however, primarily targeted specific problems with the search ecosystem. Panda, for instance, rooted out “thin” content that didn’t add genuine value to users. And BERT was a machine learning update that helped Google better understand human language to forward them to more relevant results. Intuitively, this 2021 update appears broader than either of these previous updates. Because it seeks to identify page experience characteristics of all websites, it could potentially affect anyone.

Quick Page Experience Wins

The current advice is for webmasters to get on with improving their sites now instead of waiting for the update to hit and their rankings to tank. Remember, the changes you make today aren’t solely for the benefit of Google; they help improve your site’s ability to convert.

Here at FATJOE, we’ve put together our five quick tips to improve your page experience instantly. Here’s what to do:

Optimise Page Speed

Page loading speed is an essential factor that contributes to user delight. Getting all your elements to load fast, though, is a technical challenge.

First, follow this link to Google’s PageInsights tool and check your current page speed. (You can learn more about how Google classifies the output of the reported here.)

You’ll receive a report that looks something like this:

Page Speed

If you’re in the “poor” or “needs improvement” category, you’ll need to take additional steps.

How you do this depends heavily on your specific needs. In general, there are several techniques that you can use to improve page experience:

  • Optimize your images by putting them in the right format (PNG for vector graphics, JPEG for photographs)
  • Use content distribution networks – networks of servers that independently serve users elements of your pages simultaneously, thereby reducing server lag
  • Leverage browser caching so that when visitors return to your site, data-heavy factors, such as images, load quickly
  • Minify CSS, HTML and Javascript by optimizing your code, removing unnecessary characters, including spaces and commas
  • Enabling compression to reduce the size of CSS, HTML and Javascript files
  • Improve server response time by looking for bottlenecks in your web server (if you have access to it), such as lack of memory or low-read and writing-time storage

Make Website Responsive & Mobile Friendly

FATJOE.com Mobile Responsive Test

Responsive websites use design to ensure that they display content beautifully and coherently, both on desktop and mobile.

Creating a responsive website requires the following:

  • Ensuring that your typeface or font is readable on both desktop and mobile devices
  • Ensuring that your embedded videos and images are responsive
  • Adding media queries to your layout
  • Adding HTML document meta tags

You can check just how responsive your website is and whether you have any mobile responsive issues using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test website here.

Write Clear Headings

Google uses the header tag system to determine which pieces of text on your website are headings. HTML headers have six different heading tags, running from h1 to h2 all the way to h6, with h6 being the least important. When you assign an h1 label, you’re telling Google that this is the title of your page.

Headings are vital because they tell users whether the content is relevant to their needs. Sometimes making a single-word change to an h1 title can double or triple your traffic.

Write clear, unambiguous headings that precisely describe the content of the page below. Generally, you should stick to one h1. Pages with a single title tend to perform best.

Use Well Designed Calls To Action

FATJOE Call To Action

The purpose of the vast majority of websites is to get users to take immediate action, whether it is to sign up for a newsletter, start a free trial, or buy a product.

Well-designed calls to action are website buttons, expertly placed, that encourage visitors to take the next step toward conversion. The best performing examples are typically large, bright, and offer a clear value proposition such as “get more clients today. “

Start your call-to-action with a strong verb, such as “shop,” “get,” “order,” or “start.”

Then look for words that promote enthusiasm or interest. For instance, you could write, “Order your dream car now,” or “Get 50 percent off today!!

Next, try to include a reason why your audience should click to the next step. Getting money off or something for free is always a strong incentive.

Where appropriate, you also want to give users a sense that time is of the essence, and they should act now to take advantage of deals. Phrases like “while stocks last” and “time-limited offer” can help encourage immediate action.

Finally, you should consider the appearance of your calls to action across all devices. You might want to include different types of CTAs for users on the move than those sitting at their desktop PCs at home.

Fix 404 Pages

404 errors occur when users request pages that the server cannot find. Usually, browsers display these errors when you take down old pages.

Google doesn’t like search errors and can penalize websites if they have them. It is essential, therefore, to get rid of them if you can.

Fortunately, the company provides a helpful tool called Google Search Console that helps you root out any 404 errors and get rid of them.

Google Search Console

Just log into your Google search console account and then click crawl errors under diagnostics. Click the “not found” tab under the “desktop,” “smartphone,” or “feature phone” tab to see all of the links to your pages that result in a 404 error. Once you know the pages at the source of these errors, you can manually edit them, thus eliminating the problem.

Conclusion

Page experience should always be a hugely important factor for your website. Not only does it directly relate to things like conversions and user bounce rate and retention but now it prove to be a hugely important ranking factor at some point in 2021. Make sure you are prepared.

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