User Experience to Become a Google Ranking Factor
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User Experience to Become a Google Ranking Factor

by Viktor Solovey

Published on June 16, 2021

Start your engines.

A year ago, Google announced that it was going to implement major changes to how it ranks web pages. Twelve months have passed, and the new algorithm will soon go live. For many businesses, the landscape will shift in potentially painful ways, unless they are prepared for what’s coming. A higher page rank translates into clicks, and clicks can become cash.

And a lower page rank? Fewer clicks, less cash. Perish the thought! What follows is our helpful navigation tool to guide you through the perilous waters of Google’s uber-secret and shape-shifting algorithm.

Vital Signs

Fans of hospital dramas know that poor vital signs usually mean the patient is in deep trouble. Google seems to be channeling an inner Grey’s Anatomy by calling the latest edition to its page rank system Core Web Vitals.

The basic premise is that Google wants to include page experience as a metric for its ranking system. For those of us in web design, this emphasis on UX is a welcome change, since we labor to make UX as meaningful and robust as possible. Though it might seem to be difficult to quantify something as nebulous as UX, Google realized that it had to try. “A smooth journey,” one that is “interruption-free,” as the company explained, is the rationale for the roll-out of Core Web Vitals.

Google changes its algorithm all the time–maybe even thousands of times per year–but most of these changes go unnoticed. This update, however, is going to impact search “bigly” (cough, cough) and Google wanted developers and designers to have enough time to enact improvements.

To that end, Core Web Vitals will rely on three separate measurements to assess page experience. We’ll break them down one by one.

Loading Speed

For a decade, loading speed has been a staple of Google’s ranking system, and this update is no different. Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) will measure how long it takes the largest, most important piece of content to become visible to a visitor. The content could be an image, video, or text block–doesn’t matter, it just needs to load within 2.5 seconds.

Less than that, and your page will earn a nifty badge. More than that? It’s time to have a serious talk.

No matter what Google says, YOU want your page to load in under 2.5 seconds because the conversion rate drops precipitously with slower loading speeds. But speed is just one factor in Google’s algorithm. A lightning-fast page with shallow content will not rank higher than an equally fast page with better content. Content is still supreme.

Improving loading speed involves many diverse factors, and we can help you figure out the best way to make Google (and your users) happy.

Load Responsiveness

The second new element in the Core Web Vitals is First Input Delay (FID), which measures how responsive your site is for a user the first time they interact with it. Many have likened this metric to a good first impression, aka “the anchoring effect,” long a staple of behavioral economics. Very often, the first price we see sticks with us well after negotiations have started.

In other words, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. Grandma was right.

For an excellent page experience, Google expects the FID to come in at 100 milliseconds or lower, which is literally faster than the blink of an eye. So when a user first interacts with your site and then has to wait…for…it, Google knows there’s trouble somewhere. It could be the JavaScript coding or the Cascading Style Sheets…something is in the way.

And users will start bouncing and your page rank will sink like a rock in the ocean. But cleaning up code is something we do well, and we’d be glad to help reduce your FID score.

Visual Stability

The final score for Core Web Vitals is based on visual stability or the measurement of how often page elements unexpectedly move when a user is on the page. The Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) relies on a rather complex formula to determine how visually stable a website is, and the expected score for “Good” is .1 or less.

This decimal is a fraction, 1/10, but how did Google arrive at that standard? Simple, it multiplies the “impact fraction” with the “distance fraction” to arrive at the .1 threshold. One way to think about it is that in a perfect world, all websites would be absolutely stable all the time and the CLS would be zero. So getting as close to zero as possible means the elements on your website don’t jump around. Users don’t try to click on a link and then accidentally buy a year’s worth of cat food in an ad when the intended link hops away

The impact and distance fractions are measured as percentages of the total area of a viewport, or what the user sees. Unstable websites might have issues with resources loading asynchronously or with other elements getting added above existing content. If your CLS score is above .1, we can help you figure out what’s going on. You can get a Chrome User Experience Report to find out where you stand.

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