It’s the end of search as we know it, (and I feel fine)

This May a fundamental change in search is coming, and it’s like no other we’ve seen before. For the first time, Google is dedicating a major algorithm update to user experience. It marks a significant change in Google’s approach, no longer content with just providing results, but including how a page performs when people engage with it as well.

Until now, the search giant has focussed its efforts on picking out sites with quality content that have real people engaging with them, rather than low-quality pages made to appear popular by people skilled in its search algorithm.

It has undoubtedly made search more effective in connecting people with relevant, quality sites and so now the focus is turning to what happens when they open a web page. Is it easy to use or does an intrusive pop-up appear before the content? Does content on the page shift around as it loads, prompting accidental misclicks?

These are some of the page issues Google will be looking to steer searchers away from and instead direct them to sites that offer the best experience. It could mean if two publishers provide equally authoritative content, the one which provides the best user experience will be ranked above the other in the search results.

For those offering a great user experience, this is good news and it’s also going to be positive for web users. Those who have yet to prepare need to do so as soon as possible. Not only will it impact a company’s organic results, those who offer a slick user experience will find they are likely to get better performance from other marketing channels as a result, compared to those who have yet to adapt.

Beyond speed to experience 

Google has yet to give May’s update one of its famously catchy names. In the past, Panda improved its scrutiny of page content and Penguin cleaned up how companies attract users to their sites through search marketing. Although it is commonly being referred to as the not-so-catchy Core Web Vitals update, yet that doesn’t mean it’s any less fundamental. 

Speed is already a factor in Google search because its research suggests if page download speed increases from 1 to 3 seconds, the bounce rate – people navigating away – increases by 32 percent. That rate of putting off visitors to a site doubles if the pages speed is slowed down from 1 second to 6 seconds.

This has been particularly important with the rise of the mobile web. Now though, Google is going beyond just speed as an indicator of a good page experience, it’s to examine how the page downloads. There are three metrics it uses for this, collectively called Core Web Vitals.

Core web vitals – Three key metrics to watch  

1 Prioritising the main content with LCP

The Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) is a measure of how quickly the main piece of content on a page takes to load. This is the focus of a page, so it’s typically likely to be the image at the top of the screen and the accompanying text immediately below. Extra elements to the sides and below the fold are not so important here.

This is effectively how quickly a page cuts to the chase and shows the content someone is looking for. Google is clearly looking to improve the experience of internet users who see everything else load on a page, particularly ads, before they get to the main content. 

2 Avoiding delayed clicks with FDL

First Input Delay (FDL) is a very useful metric because it goes beyond measuring how responsive a site is to how quickly it responds before the entire page is downloaded.

As such, it’s not the speed of clicking from one page to another on a site. It’s actually the speed it takes to react to a click while the page is still being downloaded and then serve the user that page, even if the original page is not yet fully displayed on screen.

We have all had that annoying moment of clicking on a link and then finding nothing happens until the rest of the page is fully downloaded. It means a user needs to wait for other information to appear on the screen, even though they have already made it clear to the site they don’t want to view it. 

Google is clearly seeking to reward companies who make their pages more responsive and adapt as they download to what the user wants to see next.

3 Avoiding shifting content with CLS 

It’s with cumulative layout shift (CLS) that users come across some of the most annoying web experiences, particularly on mobile. It’s a measure of whether aspects of a page shift position as it downloads. It deals with that really frustrating experience where you click on a page and then things shift so you end up selecting something random, completely by accident. 

Sometimes this is simply annoying and you have clicked to go to an advertiser’s site, but it can be quite harmful. Google openly references, for example, real life case of people selecting ‘go back’ or ‘cancel’ and instead end up selecting ‘submit order’. 

What can companies do? 

The one thing a site owner cannot do is ignore this. It’s not going away. 

Fortunately, there is a Core Web Vitals report service offered by Google which is free to use, as are a choice of tools that can correct any issues identified.

Help is always available from a search marketing agency that can run a report and make the necessary corrections to ensure a site is not penalized once the page experience becomes a ranking factor.

The decision to devote some time and effort, and possibly budget, to this is the ultimate no-brainer. Not only is it going to ensure a site performs well for Google on both organic and paid search, it will make sure consumers get the best possible experience when accessing a company’s information. 

At some time in May, the sites which are annoying to use won’t do as well in search as those which prioritize user experience. It is a massive shift that’s likely to carry on evolving and so now is the time for forward-thinking site owners to align with Google’s drive to a faster, better web. Those who fail to embrace this opportunity to make their sites prioritize user experience will be left behind by those who do.

Joe Comotto, Director of Search Experience, Incubeta

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