Playing the long game of strategic SEO means monitoring not only how your web page is ranking, but how users are experiencing it. One feeds into the other, so the UX (user experience) of your page will directly inform its standing with Google. This means that technical SEO is about much more than making one-off improvements to a page and watching it rise in the rankings – keeping a close eye on real-time UX data gives you the opportunity to constantly optimise and adjust, maintaining and boosting users’ positive perception of your site as well as its position in SERPs.
However, the indispensable value of UX data does not mean that it has always been as useful as it could be, both to Google and to the site owner. In order to increase the direct relevance of UX to its ranking algorithm, and make its data on user-friendliness more user-friendly, Google has announced a new ranking signal called Page Experience. This will soon become a highly important factor in SERP rankings as well as being visible on key page reports and dashboards such as PageSpeed Insights and Lighthouse.
Quality of content remains the top priority for SEO professionals, but the emergence of Page Experience as such a crucial signal indicates a step change for Google that makes UX a much bigger player in achieving visibility in Search. Previously, signals such as load times and mobile friendliness gave Google some indication of what a user experiences on a page, but this shift to a group of holistic measurements is the latest example of the increasingly intelligent and sophisticated ways the Search algorithm can engage with data.
What is Page Experience?
Page Experience combines all of Google’s existing UX ranking signals, plus the new Core Web Vitals which were announced in May 2020, into a single calculation – giving a broader and more accurate portrait of a user’s experience on a page. While it does not surpass the content of the pages themselves in terms of importance, Google has noted that where multiple pages display similar content, Page Experience will be a particularly important factor.
When will Page Experience become an active factor in Search ranking?
Because of the ongoing struggles faced by businesses worldwide as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Page Experience will not become a key ranking factor until 2021 – although despite this delay, the new data is already becoming available to webmasters. This allows plenty of time to prepare for the update, and Google has said that it will provide at least six months’ advance notice of the rollout.
Google has also indicated that other metrics of this nature, which streamline relevant data, are likely to be rolled out over the next few years.
What does Page Experience take into account?
The seven factors that Page Experience combines into a single signal can be divided into two groups – existing ranking signals and Core Web Vitals – as illustrated in the below graphic from Google’s Announcement.
The four existing ranking signals listed should still be approached in much the same way:
- Mobile friendliness rewards pages that deliver a smooth, hassle-free journey for the customer on a mobile device. Since the introduction of the mobile first index in 2018, Google has prioritised mobile devices as these represent the highest proportion of overall searches.
- Safe browsing rewards websites that are free of common security issues such as malware, deceptive pages and harmful downloads. If any are detected, these are itemised in the Security Issues tab on Search Console.
- HTTPS secure encryption is a factor which protects the integrity of your website by preventing any malicious tampering with the communication between site and user, and it is now used by more than half of the world’s top million websites.
- Intrusive interstitials are a common form of pop-up on mobile sites. They cover all or most of a page’s visible content on a page in a way that impedes user experience unnecessarily, and are penalised by Google. Acceptable interstitials include cookie and age verification, or banners which only cover a reasonable proportion of a page.
What are the Core Web Vitals?
The Core Web Vitals are now becoming familiar to SEO professionals and webmasters alike, having been announced and implemented several weeks ago. Google’s John Mueller has stated that they will be added to a wide range of existing tools, and Google has also indicated that a Chrome browser plugin is set to become available soon.
While the Core Web Vitals are already providing a range of useful and actionable data, their incorporation into the Page Experience signal increases the direct impact that they have on SERP ranking. At present, they are divided into three categories:
Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)
This metric measures page load speed from the perception of the user by, as its name indicates, pinpointing the precise moment in the page load process when most of the main content has loaded, demonstrating the page’s usefulness and reliability to the user. Using the largest element above the fold as a benchmark in this way is considered a more accurate method of reading the perceived load time experienced by users.
LCP and the other two Core Web Vitals can be measured with a wide range of tools from Google, including Chrome User Experience Report, PageSpeed Insights, Search Console, Lighthouse, Chrome DevTools and WebPage Test.
While 2-3 seconds has previously been quoted by Google as an acceptable page load time, 2.5 seconds is now considered the lower boundary of a ‘good’ score for LCP. 4 seconds is marked as ‘poor’ and the region between these two is categorised as ‘needs improvement’.
First Input Delay (FID)
There are many ways in which interactivity plays a role in UX, but in measuring interactivity this metric refers specifically to a page’s responsiveness. When a user clicks or taps a button or other interactive element, they expect an acknowledgement of some form – from a small responsive action such as an animation to the appearance of a confirmation message.
The time between user interaction and browser reaction is what FID measures. According to Google, this should ideally be no more than 100 milliseconds, and there are a number of ways to shorten it.
Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)
This metric is concerned with the visual stability of a site – elements and layouts staying in their expected location rather than darting around the screen. There are many reasons that this can cause an inaccurate and frustrating user experience, not least clicking on an unwanted link which has suddenly appeared from nowhere.
Unexpected changes in layout most often occur when elements load out of synchronisation, or appear dynamically above an element such as text or image which the user is trying to interact with. The problem is widespread on mobile devices as users scroll past these elements before they appear.
CLS measures how many times a given item on a page moves from its original position, and the score preferred by Google is no more than 0.1. Among the ways to improve CLS score are ensuring you have size attributes on every image, video or animation, and never adding elements to a page which overlay existing ones.
What do Page Experience and Core Web Vitals mean going forward?
While these two new arrivals signpost a shift towards greater focus on UX from Google’s point of view, it is vital to remember that quality remains king in SEO. Not only do websites now have a greater impetus to improve UX, but Google is continually taking active steps towards making it easier to optimise for.
The delayed release of Page Experience to 2021 means there is now ample time to start optimising pages, and become familiar with the Core Web Vitals. It is also worth noting that where Page Experience will affect SERP rankings, it will also affect Top Stories in mobile, and AMP is no longer required for pages to show in this view.