What algorithm are we talking about?
As a search engine designed to help people, Google wants to provide the best search results for the best user experience. It does this through an algorithm, a system of finding and ranking relevant search results and rewarding the sites that deliver what users want. If you rank highly, people can find and visit your site, if you don’t, you can expect to struggle online.
As people, behaviours and technology change, Google regularly updates how the algorithm works. In the last few years, more emphasis has been placed on mobile-friendliness as a factor in search rankings. It’s not surprising, with 60% of Google searches now made on mobile devices, that Google wants to help users find content that is easy to access while on the go.
What’s different about the May 2021 changes?
There’s no way of knowing how much of an impact the update will have on search rankings or your website’s traffic, but there are indications that the changes will be significant.
Unusually, Google announced the update a full year in advance, back in May 2020, and made new ‘Core Web Vitals’ trackable, allowing developers to prepare in advance. The company has also hinted that they will be introducing visual signifiers on search engine results that meet their expectations when it comes to page experience. All signs point to user experience gaining more and more significance in search rankings as time goes on.
User experience has been an important part of website optimisation for a while now — if you haven’t yet made sure your site is designed for mobile, you’re already behind the curve.
The page experience update will provide a holistic picture of the quality of your webpage’s user experience using a new signal that combines Core Web Vitals with existing factors. Google plans to add more page experience signals each year as user expectations evolve and the company develops more ways to measure a user’s experience.
If you and your competitor have similar websites with similar content, but yours is more user-friendly, it will rank higher in the results of a Google search.
What is it measuring?
The speed of a web page is a big part of the user experience — you’re not going to stick around on a website that takes two minutes to load, or if you have to wait for a button to appear. Research from Google shows that “as page load time goes from one second to 10 seconds, the probability of a mobile site visitor bouncing increases 123%.”
Core Web Vitals are a set of three metrics to help measure user experience:
- Loading — how quickly a page loads.
- Interactivity — how quickly a user can interact with your page, or how long the browser takes to process the click of a button.
- Visual stability — how quickly the page takes to stabilise and how stable content is as it loads.
Existing metrics which will contribute to the quality of your page experience include mobile friendliness, safe-browsing, HTTPS-security and intrusive interstitial guidelines (things like large pop-up ads).
How do you rank?
If nothing else, let this act as a reminder to regularly check your website optimisation and audit your pages. Have a look through your website from a visitor’s perspective and then see how you can improve.
Free online tools
Google provides a number of free tools you can use to check how your pages rate. Try PageSpeed Insights for metrics of individual pages, or check your whole site’s Core Web Vitals on Search Console. Crucially, there’s also a Mobile-Friendly Test to make sure visitors can easily use your page on their smart phone or tablet.
Full web audit
If this all sounds a bit complex, or you’re not sure what to do once you’ve checked your page stats, you’ll likely need the support of a web developer for a technical SEO audit and to fix any issues found. If it’s been a while since you’ve had someone look over your site, a web audit can identify slow page speeds, missing or broken links, clunky usability on mobile and more.
Optimise your website
Once you’ve taken stock of your site’s strengths and weaknesses, there are a number of things you can do to improve your rankings and how visitors experience your brand.
1. Make it mobile-friendly
This is number one for a reason. Optimise for mobile use with simple and responsive design that’s easy to navigate.
2. Improve page speeds
Are large image files slowing you down or are there too many components on a page?
3. Fix broken pages and missing links
No one wants to see a “page not found” message when they’re browsing.
4. Add alt-text to images
These descriptions describe an image if it doesn’t load, make your page more accessible and help in rankings. Keep tags short, specific and related to your keywords.
5. Reconsider and redesign
Is the layout, design and navigation of your site intuitive? Are there intrusive pop-ups? Does each page have a call to action and a purpose? Are there links where there should be links? Have a trusted friend or family member take a look and get their honest feedback on the experience. Adjust accordingly.
6. Create great content
At the end of the day, content is still king. Google has stated that while page experience is important (and likely increasing in importance), the algorithm still seeks to rank pages with the best information overall. “Great page experience doesn’t override having great page content.” This means posting regular, informative and engaging updates.