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Page Experience: Google's Major New Ranking Factor for 2021

Justin McKinney Head of SEO

Paul Teddy and Hubert Chang contributed to the writing of this article.

Google will be updating their core ranking algorithm in a major way in 2021, and most businesses have no idea this is coming. The new ranking factor is called page experience, and is “a set of signals that measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page beyond its pure information value.” 

Following Google’s announcement of the update in May 2019, the keywords ‘page experience’ and ‘core web vitals’ (more on that in a bit) received approximately 2,500 searches combined in June, compared to an average of 90 searches per month for page experience. While UX factors like pagespeed average 4,400 searches per month, page experience is a relative unknown.

Search volume for ‘page experience’ and ‘core web vitals’ from Google Keyword Planner

Search volume for ‘page experience’ and ‘core web vitals’ from Google Keyword Planner

It’s clear that businesses that are in the know and ready to act on this knowledge as soon as possible will be able to secure a decisive first-mover advantage when page experience is rolled out next year, and potentially see significant boosts in organic site traffic, leads, and revenue.

What is page experience?

The new page experience ranking factor will evaluate websites and pages on a set of both new and existing metrics:

  • Core Web Vitals
    • Loading
    • Interactivity
    • Visual Stability
  • Mobile Friendly
  • Safe Browsing
  • HTTPS
  • No Intrusive Interstitials
Visual showing signals included in Page Experience ranking factor

Signals included in page experience ranking factor

In the following sections we’ll review each of these signals, but first we should answer an important question: why should we care?

Why is page experience important?

Obviously, Google’s announcement that this could impact your rankings is reason enough to pay attention to page experience, but it also should matter to your business because of its outsized impact on the customer experience.

Google has stated that “in cases where there are multiple pages that have similar content, page experience becomes much more important for visibility in Search.”

If your business is looking to grow your digital presence, improving your page experience means you’ll be playing both offense and defense when it comes to your SEO strategy. You’ll be capturing visibility from your competitors whose content is strong but page experience is weak, and you’ll be preventing competitors from doing the same to you for the keywords you’re already ranking for.

Depending on the keywords you’re targeting, you could dramatically increase your organic visibility by ensuring that you have not only the best content, but the best page experience as well.

Even if we take off our SEO hats for a second, investing in a better page experience will pay dividends across your entire marketing strategy. Better page experience means stronger landing pages for your paid media campaigns (and thus, lower CPCs & higher Ad positions), higher conversion rates across all acquisition channels, and a better customer experience for your web users.

Additionally, Google announced that the Top Stories carousel in mobile Search will be opening up to all pages when the algorithm update occurs, not just those using the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) framework. Page experience will be a ranking factor for Top Stories as well, so your business could gain even more traffic by being featured on Top Stories.

Now that you’re familiar with what page experience is and why it matters, let’s break down all of the different signals.

What are the page experience signals?

Core Web Vitals

The biggest new change is the Core Web Vitals, which are a set of metrics that Google unveiled in May 2020, and will be used to help determine if pages are providing a great user experience. 

In some ways, Core Web Vitals is an evolution of the algorithm update Google made in 2018 (known as the Speed Update), that penalized the slowest mobile and desktop pages if their relevance to the search query wasn’t significantly better than the competition. 

Below are the metrics that make up Core Web Vitals:

Loading, identified by Largest Contentful Paint (LCP). This measures perceived load speed and marks the point in the page load timeline when the page’s main content has likely loaded. Pages should target an LCP of under 2.5 seconds.

👆Interactivity, identified by First Input Delay (FID). This measures responsiveness and quantifies the experience users feel when trying to first interact with the page. Pages should target an FID under 100ms.

🥶 Visual Stability, identified by Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). This measures visual stability and quantifies the amount of unexpected layout shift of visible page content. Pages should target a CLS of under 0.1.

Google's core web vitals

Benchmark Scores for LCP, FID, and CLS

When it comes to optimizing for PageSpeed and/or the new Core Web Vitals, prioritize changes with the highest potential load time improvement and lowest level of effort first.

Optimizing your images with a WordPress plugin might be quick, but if your images already have small file sizes, you won’t see much improvement. Conversely, render-blocking Javascript might be your biggest bottleneck, but if it’s going to take your Dev team several months to work on that, you’re better off looking for more modest, quicker wins.

Speaking more technically, your developers should first approach changes from a Critical Path Rendering perspective, and always prioritize the above-the-fold content. Making these kinds of fixes will most likely have the largest impact on your traditional PageSpeed & Lighthouse scores, as well as Largest Contentful Paint & First Input Delay.

Cumulative Layout Shift isn’t actually a measurement of PageSpeed in the traditional sense, so you’ll need to look at your pages through an entirely different lens. The goal of CLS is to reduce the amount of unexpected layout shifts that happen on a page; a significant number of shifts can lead your customers to clicking (or not clicking) on the things you want them to be clicking on, as the object moves once new page features are loaded in.

Here’s a general checklist to optimize your site for each Core Web Vital metric:

  • Largest Contentful Paint
    • Optimize your server
    • Route users to a nearby CDN
    • Cache assets
    • Serve HTML pages cache-first
    • Establish third-party connections early
  • First Input Delay
    • Reduce JavaScript execution time
    • Defer unused JavaScript
    • Minimize unused polyfills
  • Cumulative Layout Shift
    • Add dimensions to images
    • Add dimensions to ads, embeds, and iframes
    • Avoid or set placeholders for dynamically injected content
    • Reduce FOIT/FOUT when loading Web Fonts. You can use “display: swap” when adding a font-family in your CSS.
    • Optimize actions waiting for a network response before updating DOM

Mobile-Friendliness

Mobile-friendliness assesses whether or not a page provides users with a great experience when they access it on mobile devices. It became a larger ranking factor back in 2015, and Google is still in the process of switching over all websites to mobile-first indexing

There are 2 primary ways of ensuring your website is mobile-friendly; Google’s Mobile Friendly Test, and Google Search Console’s Mobile Usability Report

You can use the Mobile Friendly Test to evaluate a specific page; the test generates a pass/fail result, and if the page fails, you’ll get a list of mobile usability issues to look into. The main advantage of the Mobile Friendly Test is that you can get up-to-date results in real time.

Google's Mobile Friendly Test

The Mobile Usability Report is similar to the Mobile Friendly Test, but analyzes your entire website. This report is great, but Google controls the rate at which it evaluates your website and finds new issues. Additionally, there can sometimes be false positives listed in the report, so I recommend you review each page using the Mobile Friendly Test if you’re skeptical about what the Report shows.

Google Search Console mobile usability report

Safe-Browsing

Safe-browsing is a Google initiative that notifies users and webmasters about security issues on websites. Security issues include malware, deceptive pages, harmful downloads and uncommon downloads.

If Google detects a security issue on your site, they will display a “This site may harm your computer” notification to anyone trying to access your website, making it very difficult for anyone to actually reach the site. 

For webmasters, if your website is registered with Google Search Console (and it definitely should be, for a whole host of reasons), you will receive a notification and guidance in the Security Issues Report.

If you have any issues, it is imperative that you fix them as soon as possible; every day the issue is live, your customers will lose trust in your brand and your traffic will slow down to a trickle.

Google security issues report

HTTPS

HTTPS stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure, and is protocol “that protects the integrity and confidentiality of data between the user’s computer and the site.” HTTPS became a small ranking factor back in 2014, but it may become more important to strong rankings now that it’s being folded into the page experience ranking factor. 

You can quickly check if your website is using HTTPS by looking at any URL on the website and seeing if it begins with HTTP or HTTPS. If you’re still using HTTP, you’ll need to acquire an SSL certificate and install it on your web server. 

To ensure your HTTPS configuration is set up properly, you can use this free tool from Qualys to analyze your website.

SSL report from qualys

Intrusive Interstitials

In January 2017, Google rolled out an algorithm change that penalized websites that used intrusive interstitials when users tried to access the sites on mobile devices.

The goal was to prevent websites from ranking highly based solely on the quality of their content and/or the authority of their domain, and then immediately shoving pop-ups or other interstitials at users once they’ve clicked through to the site. 

Per Google, here are examples of intrusive interstitials:

  • “Showing a popup that covers the main content, either immediately after the user navigates to a page from the search results, or while they are looking through the page.
  • Displaying a standalone interstitial that the user has to dismiss before accessing the main content.
  • Using a layout where the above-the-fold portion of the page appears similar to a standalone interstitial, but the original content has been inlined underneath the fold.”

Intrusive interstitials

There are no tools or reports to check if your website is using interstitials, or if they qualify as intrusive. You can talk to your dev and marketing teams to see what they know, or use an Incognito window to access different pages on your website for the first time and see if an interstitial appears. 

Generally, we recommend erring on the side of caution with intrusive interstitials; there are plenty of ways of drawing users into your marketing funnel without risking your search traffic.

Besides, interstitials are annoying! Don’t frustrate your potential customers as soon as they reach your website.

Now What?

Now that you know everything you need to know about Google’s upcoming page experience algorithm change, we strongly recommend you start looking into your own website’s page experience and putting together a plan of action.

What you need to do will depend on your unique situation; perhaps your site loads blazingly fast, but you haven’t adopted HTTPS yet, or there are issues with images loading on your homepage on mobile.

Many of these initiatives can take a significant amount of time and expertise to accomplish, so it’s in your best interest to get started as soon as possible to secure your first-mover advantage. Good luck, and happy optimizing!

Need help getting your page experience up to par in advance of the Google algorithm update? Get in touch with our SEO and UX experts to make sure you’re fully prepared to take advantage of the change.

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