By now, it should be no secret that website user experience (UX) ultimately determines whether a website sinks, floats or takes off. A Google algorithm update is in the process of rolling out, projected to be complete by May, which is introducing new ranking signals specifically relating to UX.

The Immediacy Of User Experience 

There are many pieces to UX — pleasing design, engaging and varied content, seamless navigation and overall efficiency and functionality. When it’s right, people know it. When it’s wrong, people know it, too. In fact, they make that assessment within the first 10 to 15 seconds. In short, it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) take a background in web development to understand what a good user experience is because it’s intuitive.

But there’s a lot going on beneath the surface that makes quality website UX a reality. And Google, in its mission to continuously serve its users the most useful and usable results, is as invested in determining and measuring those details as we are. The new Google algorithm update supplements last year’s establishment of Core Web Vitals, which measure page speed and responsiveness in those crucial first 10 to 15 seconds.

What Will Likely Be Different

Within the next few months, non-AMP content will be eligible for inclusion in the “Top Stories” carousel at the top of mobile search results. AMP stands for Accelerated Mobile Pages, Google’s open-source HTML framework geared toward near-instantaneous loading of rich content on mobile devices. After the May update, “great user experience” will take precedence over AMP, so long as the page meets Google News content policies. 

Google has also teased a new “visual indicator” that will distinguish search results with exceptional UX, although what exactly that will entail has yet to be announced.

Search Ranking Signals

Here are some of the search ranking signals to keep in mind.

• Core Web Vitals. Google Core Web Vitals are a series of metrics focusing on site speed. They are:

1. Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), or how quickly your largest page element renders

2. First Input Delay (FID), or the time between a discrete user input and when a browser responds to that input

3. Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS), a measure of how much page elements unexpectedly shift around the page 

To see where you stand and where you can improve in these metrics, use the Search Console report for Core Web Vitals and PageSpeed Insights and Google Lighthouse to measure your progress as you make changes.

• Mobile-Friendliness. Over 60% of Google searches are made on mobile devices, so mobile website UX should be your top priority. Using AMP pages can significantly improve loading times on mobile devices with cache-optimized results. Google recommends the AMP Page Experience Guide as a way for AMP developers to analyze and improve mobile page performance.

• Safe Browsing. Web pages that feel spammy, choppy or unresponsive are likely to cause users to turn the other way and never look back. Be vigilant for any malware, spyware or malicious scripts that may be running on your site. Watch for any ads or content that may deceive or mislead users toward harmful sites. 

• HTTPS. Data encryption is critical to today’s website user experience. A massive amount of sensitive identifying and payment information is exchanged between web users and web servers every second. A Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate scrambles this data during transit so hackers cannot intercept it. Sites with an SSL certificate begin with https:// (as opposed to http://), with the “s” standing for “secure.” Google already flags sites without an SSL, so if you have not purchased one for your site, make sure you do so immediately.

• Nonintrusive Interstitials. Pop-ups are rarely a welcome sight. The more that the content a user wants to consume is obstructed and/or disrupted, the more annoyed and turned off that user becomes. If you must use interstitials, take care to make them as minimally intrusive to the user’s experience as possible. 

Examples of interstitials you won’t be penalized for include disclaimers, cookie usage info, sensitive content warnings, login dialogs and those that are responsibly proportioned (i.e., do not block all or most of the screen).

Preparing For The Page Experience Update

While the new Google ranking signals we’ve identified are important, there is plenty more you can do to create a superlative website UX, including:

• Upgrading your hosting service

• Compressing/resizing images

• Redirecting broken links/pages

• Observing user behavior via a heat-mapping tool for cues on how to improve user flow and navigation

As Google continues to refine its ranking signals and further flesh out its Core Web Vitals, UX is only going to become more crucial to search engine optimization (SEO). Take the time to look critically at yourself and your competitors — it promises to pay off handsomely in the end.