Page Experience: a guide on Google’s newest ranking factor
When looking at Google’s vast array of ranking factors, it’s clear to see how most of them relate to a single question: user experience.
The search engine team has been clear on its goal to deliver the best content available to its audience. But it has emphasized, especially over recent years, that where this information is found should receive the same attention.
Page experience matches most modern marketing theories that identify consumer experience as central to a strategy.
In this article, we will analyze this topic in detail. You will understand:
- What is page experience?
- Why should I care about this new ranking factor?
- What changes for the user?
- How does this update affect SEO?
- What are Core Web Vitals?
- What tools can analyze these metrics?
- How to improve my Core Web Vitals?
- What practices contribute to page experience?
Find the answers to these questions below!
What is page experience?
Page experience is a ranking factor that gathers metrics focused on the responsiveness, interactivity, security, and speed of sites.
Its objective is to guarantee users’ satisfaction with web pages, independent of their content.
However, we should not confuse this factor with the “landing page experience”. It’s a metric Google Ads uses to estimate the relevance of pages concerning the sponsored ads created for them.
With this update, Google reaffirms its commitment to improving the web for everyone, avoiding negative situations such as annoying pop-ups or unwanted clicks.
Take a look at the example below where the user wants to click “No, go back”, but ends up accidentally selecting the first option due to an unexpected pop-up that repositions the buttons.
This new factor is scheduled to be introduced in 2021, as companies are currently focusing their efforts on dealing with the impacts of the Coronavirus crisis.
Google has also promised to give at least 6 months’ notice of the specific date on which the update will go into effect.
The update also brings about changes to the Top Stories feature on mobile devices, which will no longer have AMP technology as an eligibility requirement. There will also be news for its suite of Digital Marketing tools.
Why should I care about this new ranking factor?
SEO professionals know that the field gathers a huge amount of official information, but it is also full of hypotheses, hunches, and guesstimates.
For marketing and strategic reasons, Google does not reveal the details of its ranking process, which forces companies and professionals to test their own theories.
Many turn out to be true, but these discoveries pale compared to the speed of search engine updates. For example, in 2018 alone, Google’s algorithm received 3234 updates!
Many changes may lead to a site instantly gaining or losing ranking positions.
However, despite most changes silently going into effect, some updates bring about so many implications for the web that Google is essentially duty-bound to announce them.
This is the case with the mobile-first index and, more recently, page experience.
With the worldwide explosion of mobile devices, the internet has taken on a new format that search engines need to keep in mind.
Smartphones are already the principal method of accessing information. That is why Google considers it so important for sites to be properly prepared to receive this type of traffic.
As the mobile version of sites now has priority in indexing, the attention is all on mobile.
This means that if your site delivers a good desktop experience, the challenge is to deliver the same performance on all other screen formats.
What changes for the user?
Techniques and good UX (User Experience) practices are hardly new for developers. But let’s be honest: most sites don’t mind sacrificing these elements for marketing purposes.
For example, pop-up windows are one of the most hated features in the history of the internet — although their effectiveness in strategies divides opinions.
Their creator, Ethan Zuckerman, has gone so far as to apologize for his invention publicly.
But the frustrations a page can bring about go far beyond:
- elements that suddenly disappear (including text);
- attractive buttons that encourage clicks but don’t link anywhere;
- unsafe navigation alerts;
- pages that simply do not load;
- and various other negative factors.
Considering this, Google’s argument is very simple: what’s the point of having exceptional content if your users can’t enjoy it comfortably?
In this sense, Google’s search engine team clarifies that it is committed to making the web experience more enjoyable for the public.
This doesn’t mean classic advertising actions will cease to exist, but many of them should certainly be revised.
How does this update affect SEO?
In its official announcement, Google makes it clear it seeks to prioritize sites with the best general information, even if the on-page experience is lower.
However, when several sites present similar relevance content, the experience becomes much more important for ranking.
Therefore, we can reference the principles created by Peter Morville, from Semantic Studios (UX Honeycomb). According to him, a well-optimized page should be:
- useful: all information provided must be of some use to the visitor;
- usable: navigation and functionality must be clear;
- desirable: the website must contain visually attractive elements (such as visual identity, images, sounds, and even animations) that encourage user interaction;
- localizable: as the essence of SEO, the page must be present in search platforms;
- accessible: the website must be available to all users, regardless of how they access it;
- valuable: the content must provide users with valuable information, something truly relevant to them;
- reliable: the page must also have authority regarding the topic covered and present elements that convey confidence.
These are the basic practices that direct UX, but they also apply to SEO optimizations.
Although they are relatively vague, they give us an initial sense of what Google expects from new web pages.
The page experience factor is based on the union of what is known as Core Web Vitals.
It is a set of metrics that gathers parameters related to speed, interactivity, visual stability, and other indicators to estimate a website’s ability to deliver a good experience.
What are Core Web Vitals?
According to Google, Core Web Vitals are a set of user-centric real-world metrics that quantify key aspects of that experience.
Thus, the new ranking factor will be a combination of several variables. The main metrics are:
- LCP (Largest Contentful Paint): the time needed to render the largest element present on the page, usually an image — this helps to inform the user that the site is being loaded;
- FID (First Input Delay): the interval between the user’s first interaction (touch or click, for example) and the moment when the browser responds to this action — demonstrates that the page is interactive;
- CLS (Cumulative Layout Shift): measures (on a scale of 0 to 1) how much the page layout changes as it loads — the movement of elements can impair user experience.
With an understanding of these metrics, Google establishes the following parameters for a good experience on the page:
- loading: LCP should not be more than 2.5 seconds from the first loading;
- interactivity: FID should be less than 100 milliseconds;
- visual stability: CLS should be less than 0.1.
The search engine evaluation will also cover SEO practices already considered the standard, such as:
- mobile-friendly: the pages, as well as the structure of the site, must be adapted for navigation on mobile devices;
- navigation security: the content must not, under any circumstances, contain malicious or misleading information;
- HTTPS: the page must use the SSL security protocol to ensure that any information exchanged with the site is properly protected;
- absence of intrusive interstitials: navigation must be intuitive and free of pop-ups, ads, and other elements that harm the user experience.
It is worth noting that, concerning intrusive interstitials, essential elements, such as cookie alerts, age checkers, and even promotional banners, will not be penalized, as long as they are used responsibly — minimally impairing the user experience.
With these new requirements, Google aims to help people find and access the information they’re looking for with greater ease. This also helps developers and marketers offer better experiences to their audiences.
What tools can analyze these metrics?
Several tools can help you understand what steps to take for your site to benefit from these updates.
Check out the main platforms available to optimize your site!
When it comes to Core Web Vitals, PageSpeed Insights allows you to analyze page performance according to the main page experience metrics.
Just type in a URL and click on “Analyze” to generate a report based on accurate data that will offer numerous suggestions on how to improve your performance.
At the top of the report, a score between 0 to 100 is assigned to the page based on all of the parameters assessed.
It is strongly recommended that a site aims to score highly on the main metrics adopted by Google, but the objective is not for high scores to become an obsession. Observe that not even Google gets top marks on the service.
The tool works with rough estimates, and, as a result, many variables are not included in this verification, especially at a strategic level. This means that PageSpeed Insights is very useful, but should not be used in isolation.
Google Lighthouse is an automated solution used to enhance web applications.
The similarity of the panels is no coincidence.
PageSpeed Insights takes laboratory data from Lighthouse (tests performed under controlled conditions) and combines it with field data (actual performance information) provided by the Chrome User Experience Report.
However, in the Lighthouse reports, we rely on measurements beyond performance, as all metrics are tested through controlled simulations.
This means that if you want to get a richer assessment of your SEO work integrity, this tool can offer new insights.
Google Search Console
In the “Enhancements” section of Google Search Console, you can find data about the Core Web Vitals on your site and identify the URLs with the best performance and those that need improvement.
Another great use of GSC for page experience optimization is reporting security issues. Through it, you can identify possible flaws that could compromise the integrity of your site.
Mobile-friendly is the term used by Google to define sites that are code-optimized for mobile devices.
Besides responsive layouts that adapt to different screen sizes, the page structure must contain elements that contribute to the user experience on smartphones, tablets, and other devices.
To check your site’s compatibility, Google provides the Mobile-Friendly Test, a tool that also identifies any errors in loading and rendering.
Since the Mobile-First update, Google gives priority to mobile versions when indexing search engine pages. Thus, your website must be optimized for this new search reality.
Crazy Egg is a web analytics tool that makes use of heat maps to assess users’ behavior.
Monitoring is performed by scripts inserted in the body of the page and can analyze several factors:
- heatmaps: provides a visualization of which elements receive the greatest number of clicks;
- scroll maps: reveals where people are scrolling and where they leave the page;
- overlay tool: displays the number of clicks on each element of the page;
- confetti: allows you to segment the clicks received from their origin or user profile.
This tool is very interesting for testing design elements and analyzing the user experience on web pages.
It is widely used to increase conversions on landing pages, but its reports are valuable for optimizing any type of content.
How to improve my Core Web Vitals?
Considering the weighty impact Core Web Vitals will have on Google’s new ranking factor, it’s critical to take steps to improve them. Check out a few recommendations below.
How to improve LCP?
LCP is a metric that considers what the user sees when opening a page on the web. Your site needs to have a good score in this regard.
However, keep in mind that content featuring several high-resolution images (tutorials, for example) will naturally have lower scores.
If it’s not possible to remove some images, you can make other adjustments to improve the LCP, including:
- removing unnecessary scripts: monitoring your site is essential, but keep in mind that these features come at a price when loading your page;
- remove heavy elements: in addition to images and codes, menus and widgets can also compromise loading.
How to improve FID?
The relevance of FID varies according to the type of content. For example, on a blog post, the only expected interaction is “scrolling” or “enlarging the text”.
On the other hand, conversions through a login section or landing page may be significantly affected by this metric.
In all cases, to benefit interactions on your pages, you can:
- remove non-essential scripts: the same as LCP;
- use cache plugins: caching reduces the effort of browsers to load pages.
How to improve CLS?
If your page elements are rearranged during loading, the user needs to reassess where they are and may still be subject to unwanted clicks.
In most cases, a low CLS score relates to resizing issues. So:
- precisely scale images, GIFs, and other content on your site so that browsers know exactly how much space they occupy;
- reserve fixed spaces for additional elements (such as banners and forms) or insert them in the background so that other items on the page are not rearranged while loading.
What practices contribute to page experience?
Besides bearing in mind Core Web Vitals, some practices can also contribute to page experience.
To conclude this article, we bring some relevant suggestions to improve your site’s performance in search.
Improve hosting speed
Your users, as well as Google, value a solid page experience. Poor hosting service can severely affect the stability, security, and, above all, the speed of your website.
Hire a plan consistent with your project’s demand and prefer trusted companies with quality customer service.
Speed up your CMS
Your CMS must also be correctly configured to allow your pages to perform at a high level. In WordPress, several steps can be taken to improve loading and make navigation more fluid.
- disabling unnecessary plugins: the huge variety of solutions that a CMS offer causes many webmasters to accumulate unnecessary applications that consume resources;
- compressing your files and codes: use plugins to reduce the size of images and codes on the site and make pages lighter;
- creating dynamic displays: if your site has long pages or lots of files, it’s interesting to use gradually loading topics or plugins;
- use high-performance themes: choose fast interfaces with good usability and never use pirated themes.
Any marketer knows that they can learn a lot by “spying” on their competitors’ practices, and this case is no different.
However, companies generally tend to pursue brands that are references in their market, which is not a bad practice.
Large companies, such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google, tend to run exhaustive tests to ensure the maximum effectiveness of their services.
Think of your user
Finally, we have to mention the main focus of any optimization: user satisfaction. Although Google’s general parameters are quite effective, you must also consider your audience’s particularities.
In fact, a marketing team may come across situations in which search engine recommendations do not correspond with visitors’ needs, making it necessary to weigh the pros and cons of each path.
It is important to highlight that Google will continuously work to identify and measure the indicators that make up page experience, even stating that new variables will be added annually.
As Google’s webmaster team makes clear, user behavior, and, as a consequence, SEO is constantly evolving. Therefore, steps must constantly be taken towards improvements.
Beyond graphs and performance reports, page experience illustrates a new phase of the digital market in which companies and users build a new internet together.
Now you know about how website speed influences SEO. How about learning how to reach a high score on PageSpeed Insights?