UX and SEO: how Google values user experience

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Google

Until 2019, Google’s mission was “to make information universally accessible and useful”. This is an ambitious goal, and Google has invested considerable resources into compiling all information found on the web, even if the search engine often comes across websites that are neither accessible nor adapted to the standardization it promotes. Sundar Pichai, CEO of the company, transformed said mission in 2019, arguing that they had gone from being a Q&A search engine aimed at answering questions to being a whole system aimed at getting things done (“GTD”).

From Q&A to GTD. From buried results to direct response.

Google decided to take a shortcut to its new GTD mission, creating what are known as “zero click searches and going from buried results to direct response. In some searches, results appear directly on results pages (also known as SERPs, for “search engine results pages”), thus avoiding the need to click on and visit third-party websites. We see this in the following example:

Google

This way, information became visible and “responsive” (direct response) directly on the results pages; previously it was a click away, “buried” (hidden result) within different links. This step, implemented progressively over the course of the last few years, has led to the demise of SERPs as we have known them for years, and could be the topic of a whole other article just like this one. 

However, as far as SEO, driving organic traffic and the search experience go, Google modified the user experience on its own results pages with one fell swoop when it turned its mission to GTD. Avoiding subsequent clicks and getting users accustomed to consuming a different type of search result gave it a clear role in its path to a very complete and idyllic SERP, which on top of being fast also answered questions. This new vision for results pages could lead to the search engine losing millions in advertising investments (if users obtain the information on the page they will not click on promoted links). However, this will not be (nor has it been) its only change in favour of a user-centric environment.

The user experience and SEO

Domestika defines the user experience (UX) as “the way in which the user perceives, feels or interacts with a system or service”. Google manages the user experience on its pages for its own benefit, but it also takes user experience elements from different websites into account in order to rank them. 

In addition to being indirectly important on results pages, UX is also directly relevant as a ranking factor in Google’s algorithm. In fact, it has become a positioning factor in and of itself.

After reaching peak traffic and searches from mobile devices, Google made UX even more important. However, the relationship between the search engine and the user experience does not begin here. Over the years there have been new developments – and innovative metrics highly-related to UX – that have had an impact on issues related to the SEO positioning of websites, from the early beginnings through the very new core web vitals, as well as interesting implications when it comes to SEO. Let’s go over them!

To improve page speed

  • Page Speed, Google’s tool for optimizing website performance, goes back to 2010. We have spent 10 years checking its recommendations for reducing load speed. This has not only led to a significant improvement for the user or for the owners of online businesses, but also for Google itself, given what it saves in indexing capabilities (and, therefore, in machines). 
  • In 2015, Google prioritized a new web development framework called AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages), originally oriented to quickly consuming news from mobile devices. The emergence of AMP marked a before and after in how Google dealt with its recommendations for website developers and editors: now, not only did it provide recommendation tools, but it also provided entire environments for programmers to carry out their work.

To prioritize mobile environments

In 2015, Google decided to prioritize mobile-adapted websites in what was known as Mobilegeddon. Following this desktop “blackout”, people in charge of websites and

  • webmasters from around the world began to realize the importance of having a website adapted for mobile devices, or “responsive”. In the same way, Google began to provide tools, such as the mobile-friendly test, for validating whether a website is adapted and friendly for mobile devices
  • In 2018, Google launched the mobile first index. This made it very clear that its priority when it came to indexing content would be the mobile versions of crawled content.  
  • In 2020, Google announced a blackout of desktop website crawling, with mobile taking centre stage. We are currently facing a mobile-only scenario.

To improve usability

Google developed new native UX metrics, which have led to a mini revolution in the SEO world, and are important because they do not stop at recommendations on more technical aspects of UX – such as loading speed – but rather value other factors related with user satisfaction, like UI or design. These indicators, known as Core Web Vitals, measure first page load, interactivity and visual stability of a website: 

  • LCP (Largest Contentful Paint), which measures the loading time of the heaviest content above the fold. How to optimize LCP, according to Google. To be ranked “good”, the LCP should be less than 2.5 seconds.
UX
  • FID (First Input Delay), which measures the time it takes from the moment the user performs an interaction to the moment the navigator responds to that interaction. To be ranked “good”, the FID should be less than 0.1 seconds. 
UX
  • CLS (Cumulative Layout Shift), which measures visual stability. Sometimes a page’s elements can shift locations as the page loads. CLS measures these shifts in terms of frequency and scale, not in terms of time. Here you can consult how Google calculates the CLS and how to optimize CLS. To be ranked “good”, the CLS should be less than 0.1.
UX

Implications for UX and SEO

“What’s good for the user is good for SEO.” This sums up the alignment between the search engine and standard UX parameters so as to achieve full user satisfaction. Some authors go even further and openly explain user satisfaction (not only UX) as a SEO factor that is key for achieving positioning. When it comes to a SEO strategy, the main user satisfaction metrics are: 

  • Technical metrics of good definition and optimal performance related to WPO (web performance optimization), such as page load time for the pages the user visits.
  • Metrics of “happiness” with the results obtained after performing a search: pogo sticking and dwell time, referring to how many times or how long the user takes to hit the back button in their browser after visiting a link from the results page.
  • Metrics of content consumption and quality: the typical Analytics metrics, such as session duration, pages visited per visit, bounce rate, etc.
  • Purely UX metrics, such as the new core web vitals that we have explained: LCP, FID, CLS.

A good UX strategy must always take SEO into account from the very beginning. Important signals such as page load speed, time until the first user interaction, the full adaptation of the website for mobile devices or behaviours regarding search results should begin to be studied in the early phases of conceptualizing a website’s user experience.

SEO and UX, always friends and travel companions for digital success.

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