Why website user experience is the new Google ranking factor

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is one of those topics that is shrouded in a degree of mystery. In the past, website owners have focused their attention on keyword optimisation, the mobile experience and developing backlinks to rank a page in the search results.

But over the last few years Google has turned its attention to the on-page experience and has recently launched a new set of measurement parameters called Core Web Vitals.

If you haven’t heard about them yet, you soon will as these will become the new set of signals that will become a serious search engine ranking factor. They take into account a website’s page loading speed, responsiveness and something called visual stability.

In November 2020, Google announced a new ranking update in its drive to improve online user experience. It announced that Core Web Vitals were to become ranking signals in the search engine results. Google originally suggested the update would go live in May 2021, but that was pushed back to June, with the full impact of the update not rolling out until August 2021.

Google Core Web Vitals - Twitter

Will this affect my website rankings?

Core Web Vitals will become the one of the key measures that Google uses to rank a particular web page. They are a set of specific factors that Google considers important in a webpage’s overall user experience.

The good news is you may not even have to do anything differently because your website already provides a high-quality user experience for your visitors.

However, the change in algorithm brings fresh opportunities for owners to improve their search engine rankings in Google. A page that offers the best information overall for a given search will still be prioritised by Google, but Core Web Vitals are likely to interplay with other algorithm signals.

You should naturally rank well for your business name as well as your website because they are relevant and usually enjoy good engagement – so are less likely to be affected by the changes. But if your pages are competing for more generic search terms, then a competitor’s page that offers a better user experience may well rank ahead of yours for the same keyword. 

The online experience matters

Core Web Vitals is a new metric that Google will use to focus on the user experience – i.e. what type of experience a user gets when they land on your pages.

So, for example if your checkout page has speed issues and fails to load quick enough to stop someone from leaving, then it could face a Google penalty and be replaced by a website that loads correctly.

This new level of checking that determines the quality of the page experience is in addition to the previous set of factors Google used to measure a page:-

  • Mobile-friendly: the page is optimised for mobile browsing
  • Safe-browsing: the page doesn’t contain any misleading content or malicious software
  • HTTPS: the page being served using HTTPS (secure socket layer)
  • No intrusives: The page doesn’t contain any issues that cover the primary content
  • NEW – Core Web Vitals: The page loads quickly and focuses on elements of interactivity and visual stability

What are Core Web Vitals?

(I apologise in advance that this next bit is quite technical – but I will try and explain the science…)

Core Web Vitals is made up of three key measurement components that relate to Page Experience factors: page loading, page responsiveness, and page visual stability.

Google measures each of these metrics for pages on your website and denotes a status of ‘Poor’, ‘Needs improvement’ or ‘Good’ against each.

Core Web Vitals Scores

1. Loading: Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)

In simple terms, Largest Contentful Paint or LCP measures the perceived loading speed of the largest (or most important) piece of content on your web page that a user views without having to scroll.

For example, it could be the header image on your home page, a block of text or a video on another page.

Google is paying attention to the loading time of the largest content elements visible on the screen because they realise that waiting for content to load often causes people to leave a page.

According to Google’s LCP status…

  • If the largest piece of meaningful content loads within 2.5 seconds it is scored as “Good”.
  • If it takes between 2.5 – 4 seconds it is scored as “Needs improvement”.
  • If it is above 4 seconds, then it is scored as “Poor”.

A simple rule of thumb when viewing your LCP score is a slow LCP = lower rankings and penalties and a fast LCP = higher rankings; it’s as simple as that.

2. Interactivity: First Input Delay (FID)

The First Input Delay or FID measures visual stability, or how often a visitor to your website sees an unexpected layout shift on your page and loses interest.

This metric measures the time between a user’s first interaction with the page and when the browser can respond to that interaction.

For example, the time taken from when a user clicks on your “Book now” button to seeing the check availability form appear. As you can imagine, Google has no time for a slow response here.

This one is essentially a measure of “user frustration” – e.g. how many times have you sat clicking a button waiting for something to happen on a page?

When viewing your FID score…

  • Google measures anything up to 100 milliseconds as ‘Good’.
  • Between 100 – 300 milliseconds: ‘Needs Improvement’.
  • And above 300 milliseconds: ‘Poor’.

3. Visual Stability: Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)

Cumulative Layout Shift measures visual stability, or how often a visitor to your website sees an unexpected layout shift on your page and is distracted.

A good example of this would be a user scrolling through a website, comes across the “Book Now” button, tries to click it, but right at the last second another page element loads, and they end up clicking that instead.

Or it might be a user reading a paragraph of text and adverts or videos keep loading as you’re a reading, pushing the content further down the page, so you have to keep scrolling to read it.

These examples are both signs of a poor on-page experience, and Google is factoring these issues as they strive to provide the best experience for users.

For CLS, the goal is to have a score as close to zero as possible. The less intrusive and frustrating page changes, the better.

Where can I find the ‘core web vitals’ scores for my website?

Google has an online tool at https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/ where you can run a simple page speed test and also see a basic Core Web Vitals score.

As you can see in the screenshot below Google confirms whether your page passes the Core Web Vital assessment.

WDLH pagespeed core web vitals

Google Analytics - Core Web Vitals ScoresFor a more in-depth Core Web Vitals report take a look at your Google Search Console. Core Web Vitals is part  of a new ‘Page Experience’ report within Google Search Console that measures other Web Vitals such as Security, Mobile Usability etc.

Page Experience Reports are there to provide website owners with actionable insights on

a whole range of components including user experience, site security, useability, accessibility and use of ads or pop-ups.

These reports provide a benchmark of how your site scores on the elements that Google’s latest update focuses on and highlight which pages don’t meet the standards.

When you click it, it will bring up a report for mobile and one for desktop. You will see a list of poor URLs, URLs that need improvement, and good URLs.

Remember that Google is factoring in the three things we discussed previously to determine the URL’s quality.

Core Web Vitals - Graph

Clicking each of the Core Web Vital statuses will display individual pages and their corresponding assessments.

What can you do about ‘poor’ scores?

It is important to monitor these new assessments of your web pages on a regular basis. If you are continually seeing “poor” scores across all of the Core Web Vitals, then these should absolutely be investigated before they impact your search rankings.

Poor scores for your URLs generally mean that they are slow to display the most critical content, slow to process actions or the continually offer a poor web experience by shifting layouts when they are used.

  • Addressing your poor LCP scores generally means limiting the amount of content you display at the top of your pages to the most critical information. If that information is not critical for a user to make a decision on, then move it down the page.
  • Improving poor FID scores is likely to include addressing code and speed issues on your pages and reviewing your web server for efficiencies.
  • Improving CLS issues requires paying attention to elements on the page and ensuring there is enough space for them to display and making sure the user doesn’t experience any shift in layout as the page loads.

Core Web Vitals Top Tips

Although quality information and content relevance will still be the number one ranking factor for your SEO, Core Web Vitals is going to play a greater role in how Google measures the overall performance of a web page.

I would advise running your website through Google’s PageSpeed Insights report tool or checking your Search Console results on a regular basis and discussing the scores with your web developer. Being able to address those poor results as quickly as possible will ensure your website stay competitive in the search results.