Google today announced that a webpage’s experience will eventually be a ranking factor in Google Search overall and in the Top Stories feature on mobile. Earlier this month, Google unveiled Web Vitals, an initiative to provide web developers and website owners with a unified set of metrics for building websites with user experience and performance in mind. Core Web Vitals, Google’s attempt to spell out the metrics it considers critical for all web experiences, will help determine how the company measures a webpage’s responsiveness and visual stability.

Google promised not to make the ranking change this year and to give six months’ notice before it does. A Google spokesperson confirmed to VentureBeat that the search ranking change would be rolled out in 2021 at the earliest. The company cannot commit to specific timing at this point due to general unpredictability thanks to the coronavirus, the spokesperson added. Indeed, in its announcement, Google noted that “many site owners are rightfully placing their focus on responding to the effects of COVID-19.”

Born online, Google’s revenues are directly tied to the web. The company has a vested interest in improving the web’s user experience. Given Google’s reach, including over 1 billion Chrome users and over 2.5 billion monthly active Android devices, not to mention Google Search, anyone with a website needs to track what Google prioritizes. Web developers and website owners that didn’t pay attention to the original Web Vitals announcement should definitely reconsider now that Google has confirmed Web Vitals will be a search ranking factor.

Page experience ranking

Over the years, Google has tweaked its search ranking based on webpage metrics. In November 2014, Google started labeling sites as “mobile-friendly” to denote pages optimized for phones. The company then experimented with using the label as a ranking factor, ultimately pushing those changes in April 2015 and increasing the effect in May 2016. Google removed the label in August 2016, noting that most pages had become “mobile-friendly.” In 2018, Google Search started ranking faster mobile pages higher.

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Google Core Web Vitals as a search signal for page experience

Now Google is pointing to internal studies and industry research to say that users prefer sites with a great page experience. A new signal that combines Core Web Vitals with Google Search’s existing signals for page experience (mobile-friendliness, safe-browsing, HTTPS, and intrusive interstitial guidelines) will apparently provide “a holistic picture of the quality of a user’s experience on a web page.” Because changes aren’t happening this year, Google says “there is no immediate need to take action.” Think of this more of an early warning of what’s to come.

As its name implies, Google Search’s page experience signal is meant to measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page. Google says optimizing for these factors is supposed to make the web “more delightful” and “contribute to business success” on all types of devices.

Core Web Vitals annual updates

Google plans to update Core Web Vitals annually. That will trickle down to the search ranking. Google will incorporate more page experience signals on a yearly basis to “both further align with evolving user expectations and increase the aspects of user experience that we can measure.”

This year’s Core Web Vitals include loading experience, interactivity, and visual stability of page content. As an example of a webpage it wants to punish, Google showed a user accidentally tapping the wrong button because the page shifted:

Page experience wrong button example

Google says Core Web Vitals capture important user-centric outcomes, are field measurable, and have lab diagnostic metric equivalents. Specifically:

  • Largest Contentful Paint measures perceived load speed and marks the point in the page load timeline when the page’s main content has likely loaded.
  • First Input Delay measures responsiveness and quantifies the experience users feel when trying to first interact with the page.
  • Cumulative Layout Shift measures visual stability and quantifies the amount of unexpected layout shift of visible page content.

Google’s hope is this ranking change will give people better webpage experiences, with valuable information and higher engagement. Page experience will not be the only signal, of course. Google promises to prioritize pages with “the best information overall, even if some aspects of page experience are subpar. A good page experience doesn’t override having great, relevant content. However, in cases where there are multiple pages that have similar content, page experience becomes much more important for visibility in Search.”

Top Stories feature on mobile

This upcoming Google Search update will also incorporate page experience metrics into the ranking criteria for the Top Stories feature on mobile. Google will also remove the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) requirement from Top Stories eligibility. The company emphasized, however, that it will continue to support AMP and link to AMP pages when available.

On the face of it, this seems like an odd change since Top Stories currently emphasizes AMP results, which are all about speed and “a good page experience.” On closer inspection, it looks like Google is removing the AMP eligibility criteria for the Top Stories experience because page experience will become a ranking factor.

Allowing any story that meets the Google News content policies to be featured in Top Stories should make site owners who don’t use AMP quite happy. While Google notes that site owners who publish AMP versions of their pages will see no change in behavior, one has to wonder if Google hopes to phase out AMP altogether one day and rely solely on Core Web Vitals.

In any case, developers should know that Google has updated developer tools such as Lighthouse and PageSpeed Insights to surface Core Web Vitals information and recommendations. Search Console’s Speed Report should also help site owners improve their sites.

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