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How Google’s New Ranking Factors Will Affect Your Website

Changes in the way consumers behave mean customer experience (CX) is now the major battleground over which businesses compete. While this will affect your company directly, in the sense that you’ll need to improve CX to stay competitive, from May 2021, you’ll also need to improve the CX of your website to rank well with Google. Under pressure to improve their own CX, Google has now decided to add ‘page experience’ as one of its ranking criteria. Here, we’ll look at what this will mean for your website and individual web pages.  

1. Largest Contentful Paint

How will Google measure loading times going forward? One of the main ways will be the ‘Largest Contentful Paint’ metric. Basically, rather than looking at the loading time of a whole page, it will look specifically at the loading time of the largest element of that page, usually the largest block of text or image. With Google expecting these to load in less than 2.5 seconds, it means you will need to optimise images and break large sections of text into smaller chunks.

2. First Input Delay

While Largest Contentful Paint looks at loading times, First Input Delay focuses on response times, in other words, the time it takes your website to respond to any user interaction, such as carrying out a search, clicking a link or inputting information. The response time is a measure of how long it takes the user’s browser to start processing your website’s response to those interactions. With Google expecting this to be less than 100 milliseconds, not only is the speed of your hosting important, so too is the location of your server. To overcome latency, having servers located nearer the user will speed things up. For customers further away, websites might need to make increasing use of content delivery networks (CDNs).

3. Cumulative Layout Shift

As websites load the elements of a page in stages, it can cause the layout to shift slightly. A common problem is when a user sees a menu, goes to click on it and by the time they have done so, the menu has been pushed down by an advert or privacy banner and they click on this by accident.

Cumulative Layout Shift is a metric that measures the visual stability of a page, looking at how it changes layout during loading and how this impacts the experience of a user. In future, website owners will need to minimise this as much as possible, especially in the ‘above the fold’ layout.

4. The mobile experience

The mobile experience is the area where Google has to put most of its effort. Today, we carry out the majority of our internet searches and spend most of our online time on smartphones. The key difference between desktop and mobile for Google is that with a desktop, we predominantly use Google to find things; on mobiles, much more time is spent on apps. Google needs to claw back some of its lost ground by making its mobile search just as smooth and seamless as using an app.

While Google has got things working effectively at its end, the Achille’s heel in its mobile customer experience is the websites it displays in its search results. What’s the point of having the world’s most advanced search engine if half of the websites that users visit don’t work well on mobile devices? The solution is simple, it will stop ranking websites that are not mobile-friendly, at least on searches carried out on mobile devices – which is most of them!

The solution is a mobile-first website design. Instead of creating a website for computers and then using a responsive theme to convert it for mobile devices, work the other way around. Create the site specifically for mobiles first (the biggest audience). This will improve the way a site looks and responds on mobile devices and prevent common issues that can occur with responsive themes such as text being too small and links or buttons being so close together that users frequently tap the wrong one.

Loading speed also has to be improved on mobiles. While laptops generally connect only to broadband, smartphones are taken everywhere, often where connections, both network and wi-fi, vary in strength and stability. Regardless of connection strength, a good website should still load quickly.  

5. SSL, safe browsing and intrusive interstitials

Other key ranking factors to be aware of are the installation of SSL certificates to provide secure HTTPS connections and encrypt the sending and receiving of payment data; ensuring your website is free from malware and links to malicious websites; and the removal of ‘intrusive interstitials’, the jargon term for popups and other intrusions that affect the users’ browsing experience.

Conclusion

From May 2021, Largest Contentful Paint, First Input Delay and Cumulative Layout Shift will become ‘core web vitals’ in Google’s algorithm. At the same time, there will be increased importance on mobile-friendliness and security and far less tolerance of intrusive features, like popups.

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