Google recently announced that in May of 2021, search rankings will begin to incorporate new “Page Experience” ranking signals, including “Core Web Vitals” that measure a website’s ability to satisfy users by offering optimal loading speed, responsiveness, and visual stability for web users on connected devices. Websites must be technically optimized to support the best possible user experience in order to achieve top organic rankings and win prominent positioning in features like Top Stories within Google search results.
Google’s announcement is just the latest example of recent search marketing trends that have shifted focus away from traditional on-page SEO strategies, such as using the right number and variety of keywords, in favor of more advanced technical SEO strategies that improve a website’s performance in search engines by prioritizing the improvement of the user experience, particularly on mobile devices, through code-level enhancements and best practices that typically require web development expertise for implementation.
How do website owners achieve the best Page Experience so their Google Search rankings are as high as possible moving forward? That requires a deeper understanding of how Google views and measures the quality of a web page’s user experience. Here is how Page Experience works, and how you can measure your site’s page performance, according to Google:
About Page Experience and Google SEO
Page Experience is a Google search ranking factor that involves every facet of a website’s user experience, including its mobile-friendliness (which would typically include responsive design, accessibility, and more), how quickly the page loads (even over a bad internet connection), and how well the page renders in web browsers based on performance metrics Google calls Core Web Vitals.
The reward for websites that satisfy users through an exceptional Page Experience is prime real estate in search results. Why? For one, it’s in Google’s best interests to elevate only the best-performing websites because that earns more trust from users in the quality of Google’s search results. Furthermore, with so many sites competing to offer high quality content optimized for search, Google has to rank pages using differentiators beyond the content that is on pages.
Even before mobile traffic overtook desktop traffic on the web, Google’s algorithm focused on elevating unique and high-quality content that demonstrates expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness on a given topic—what the SEO community refers to as “E-A-T” (for Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness). When websites with E-A-T content earn more links from prominent external websites, it further builds their authority and credibility and improves their page rankings.
While the SEO value of unique content that meets E-A-T criteria hasn’t changed, Google’s latest announcement regarding Page Experience indicates their focus on E-A-T has expanded to include how well sites perform on mobile devices. The quality of a website page’s mobile performance and user experience can be summarized into these main factors:
Page Loading Speed
This page performance factor centers on a pretty simple question: How fast does a web page load? Page speed includes both the time it takes to load initial content, such as text and buttons, as well as the time needed to load heavier page elements such as images, animations, or videos, as users begin scrolling through the page.
Interruptions or Interstitials
Have you ever been interrupted by pop-ups or interstitials when browsing a website? They typically advertise a deal or prompt you to sign up for a newsletter, and almost always interrupt your browsing experience. Google is in agreement with most users that these kinds of interruptions lower the quality of our experience when we browse websites—that’s why their algorithm is trained to detect and identify these instances, so Google can penalize website pages in search when they display this kind of unpredictable and user-hostile behavior.
While there are many factors that make a website page more “usable” on a mobile device, Google believes Mobile Usability is achieved by adhering to three principles: using modern and broadly-available technologies; accounting for varying device screen sizes with responsive design; and formatting text and visual elements so that users can easily read and interact with content.
For Google, “user experience” includes all users, which is why Google considers website accessibility a best practice for search optimization. Accessible websites have a number of technical advantages that help improve their search rankings, such as descriptive links, alt text in images, and audio or video transcriptions that include keywords.
The global pandemic has intensified the demand for accessible websites to become legal obligations for businesses. In a socially distanced world, more people than ever before are relying on digital services, and many realizing that the vast majority of websites have not been built with web accessibility, despite the fast-rising number of ADA lawsuits being filed against companies with inaccessible websites in recent years.
Understanding Core Web Vitals
Google’s Page Experience search ranking signal is a combination of three performance-oriented metrics called Core Web Vitals. These metrics are Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS), and First Input Delay (FID). Here is a simplified explanation of each metric, and how they are measured by Google:
What is LCP (Largest Contentful Paint)?
Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) is considered a more accurate way of measuring when the main content on a web page is loaded, rendered, and visible to users.
For example: If you were browsing a news website on your mobile device and opened an article, the LCP for that page would likely occur when the main featured image of the article was loaded, because the text and other lightweight page elements are typically loaded first.
Google wants your website’s LCP to occur within the first 2.5 seconds of the page loading. Anything above that, but below 4 seconds, and Google simply advises you that the page needs to be improved. Pages with an LCP above 4 seconds are viewed as Poor.
What is CLS (Cumulative Layout Shift)?
Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) measures the visual stability of web pages by quantifying the frequency of unexpected layout shifts that occur when users browse the page. If you’ve ever been frustrated when trying to read an article or tap a button, only to have the page move unexpectedly and force you to lose your place or tap the wrong button, then you’ve been a victim of bad CLS.
Typical causes of CLS on a web page include an image or video with unknown dimensions, a font that renders larger or smaller than it should, or a third-party ad or widget that dynamically resizes itself and shifts the elements around it.
Explaining how Google calculates a Cumulative Layout Shift Score in detail would require a bunch of equations, but simply put: CLS combines the relative size of a shifting page element with the distance it moves or shifts on the screen. Websites with a CLS score under 0.1 are considered Good. Any CLS score beyond 0.1 needs improvement—especially scores above 0.25, which are considered Poor.
What is FID (First Input Delay)?
First Input Delay (FID) measures how long it takes for a web page to respond to the first user interaction, such as clicking or tapping a link or button. During the FID, a page has rendered some of its content but isn’t yet reliably interactive because the browser is busy with other “main-thread” tasks that must be completed before the page responds to any user input.
Google wants websites to become interactive and responsive as quickly as possible once they are opened by users, so they have set the threshold for a web page’s FID at <100 ms—that’s a tenth of a second, really the blink of an eye. This makes sense—the moment a user is ready to act, the site needs to be ready to respond, otherwise a sale, transaction, or other successful conversion could be missed. Beyond that threshold, an FID between 100 ms and 300 ms means the page needs improvement, and an FID above 300 ms is considered a poor experience.
Free Google Tools for Monitoring Page Experience
Unfortunately, maintaining Page Experience on your website pages is not a “set-it-and-forget-it” task. It requires ongoing check-ins and remediation as benchmarks change for search performance and new metrics or algorithm updates are introduced by Google. It’s also important to make sure all new pages or content published to your website are optimized to meet these standards.
Google Search Console
For website owners, Google Search Console provides a simple and easy way to measure the organic search performance of your site. This includes data on the website’s search rankings within Google’s organic search results, as well as Core Web Vital scores for all of its indexed pages, including a list of any pages flagged as having poor Page Experience and further instructions on how to fix or improve their scores.
Google provides its PageSpeed Insights tool so that website owners can measure the performance of individual pages and receive calculated scores and suggestions from Google developers on how to improve their website performance based on their results. Those who would like an assessment of more than just the performance data can run a full Lighthouse audit scan.
For a quick and informative scan of any website’s core performance metrics, Google provides the Lighthouse audit tool, which is easily accessible from any page in the Chrome browser through its DevTools panel. Chrome users can choose among several Lighthouse audits to run on their pages, including scans for Accessibility, SEO, Best Practices, and Progressive Web Apps.
How You Can Improve Page Experience
Google’s expectations for Page Experience will challenge many website owners who lack the technical expertise needed to implement the necessary remediations for improvement. Implementing certain strategies will improve your site’s Core Web Vitals and help your pages meet Google’s new search performance benchmarks.
Achieving top rankings in Google search results today requires a technical SEO strategy that goes beyond keyword optimization and link building. Instead, technical search optimization focuses on code enhancements that help search engines understand your site’s content better, including best practices such as web accessibility. This includes the strategic implementation of structured data like Schema markup, which is key to winning featured snippets and optimizing for voice search rankings.
Progressive Web Apps (PWA)
Websites that are built as progressive web apps (PWAs) enjoy many benefits over traditional websites. In addition to elevated search performance and optimized user experience, a PWA also provides unique features for websites, such as push notifications and the ability to function without an internet connection.
Get Help from a Digital Agency
There are very few search marketing experts who also possess development expertise, and vice versa. That’s why getting this unique combination of experts to help with your site typically requires hiring a digital agency that specializes in both website development and search engine optimization.
At DBS, we have 20 years of experience implementing technical web and SEO strategies that dramatically improve lead generation and user experience for company websites. If you need help, simply contact us for a free consultation.