Early June, Google made an announcement that is still in the headlines today, mainly because it affects the factors influencing a website ranking: “an upcoming Search ranking change that incorporates these page experience metrics” (source). To sum up, a website user’s experience will have an impact on its rank in SERPs, but included in a larger set of already existing factors. Like all announcements by Google regarding SEO, context and hindsight are required.
Google’s company mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.
Its Search Engine is the main tool of its mission: it gets more precise every day to answer internet users’ queries, by providing them with the best content in the best conditions. The main brick of the engine’s algorithm is content relevance, while user experience is a more recent concern of Google, nonetheless a very strong one in the past years (Google’s mobile index and the AMP, PWA, WEBP technologies…). Webmasters no longer only need to work on the content of their websites, they also have to take care of the conditions in which a user sees it.
Website speed: Google’s current priority
After June of this year, Google reminded us about the Page Experience Update in November, announcing that it will roll out in May 2021. This upcoming update is the continuity of the release of new user experience KPIs. Google’s web developers are heavily involved in the improvements of global web standards, part of them focusing on web performance (page loading speeds) and UX. These new KPIs were released in December of 2019 by Google, merged with existing UX KPIs, and three were showcased as Core Web Vitals:
- LCP – Largest Contentful Paint: how long it takes to display the page’s largest element
- FID – First Input Delay: how long it takes for a page to respond to a user’s input
- CLS – Cumulative Layout Shift: if pages suffer from unexpected movements of its content while loading
They are today additional metrics that web developers & SEOs work on, along with the traditional ones:
- TTFB – Time to First Byte: how long it takes for a web server to respond when asked for a page (or any resource)
- FCP – First Contentful Paint: how long it takes for a page to display its first visual element
- Speed Index: how long a page takes to display above-the-fold elements
And many more that can prove relevant depending on the situation.
Google has gradually integrated these Core Web Vitals this year in its web performance tools:
- The CrUX – Chrome User Experience Report: data collected from users of the Chrome browser, both desktop and mobile
- Google Search Console: Search performance monitoring tool from Google, including a Web Vitals report populated by CrUX data by webpage.
- PageSpeed Insights & Lighthouse: web performance tools from Google, reporting page loading KPIs & possible improvements
Google emphasizes the importance of UX and its upcoming impact on SEO, with both providing us with opportunities (tools & KPIs) and threats (loss on organic traffic).
Loading times don’t and won’t matter much for SEO
Since the day Google made the Page Experience announcement, dozens of blog posts & news articles repeat that a website’s loading times is the utmost priority for SEO as of today. When giving a bit more thought to the topic than just headlines, this is clearly not the case. The Core Web Vitals will be included in 2021 to the Search Signals for Page Experience set of organic ranking factors. These factors include such impacting ones as HTTPS and No intrusive interstitials, both having virtually no influence on rankings. It’s not uncommon to see websites who rank well without a decent mobile experience, abusive interstitials and sometimes even no HTTPS (sometimes even a combination of all three).
The basics of SEO are still the strongest ranking factors, and should be kept as the constant priority. Google has a habit of loudly making webmasters & webmarketers believe that their upcoming updates will be as meaningful as the Panda / Penguin algorithm updates from 5 years ago, even though the “Mobilegeddon” and the Interstitial updates had virtually no impact.
…but already impact a website’s revenue
For those who don’t consider a drop in organic visibility as a likely threat, Google knows what really matters in the end: conversions. To address C-level executives, Google commissioned a study by Deloitte Digital to measure “how improvements in mobile site speed positively affect a brand’s bottom line”. The Milliseconds make Millions report puts forward strong correlations between small improvements in mobile loading times and user engagement (page views, conversion rate & average order value).
Google’s emphasis on website speed is therefore relevant and beneficial to the web as a whole, but needs to be considered as more than just SEO. A website’s purpose isn’t its organic visibility, but brand image and in the end, user conversion (sales, leads, pages/visit). Improving user experience isn’t only a separate expertise, but a global process in which the following steps matter :
- Audit a website’s web performance to identify improvement opportunities
- Improve UX with conversions in mind
- Measure the impact of improvements by monitoring the relevant KPIs