Google has announced a significant update to its search ranking algorithm that will target additional user experience measurements including how long content takes to load and how stable the layout of a page is.

Known as ‘Core Web Vitals’, the new checks will be added to Google’s existing set of user experience requirements; mobile-friendliness, safe-browsing, HTTPS-security and avoidance of intrusive interstitial features.

The algorithm update won’t roll out immediately, with the search giant saying that the change won’t come into force until at least 2021, with webmasters being given a minimum of six months notice prior to the change coming into effect.

The introduction of Core Web Vitals

The announcement made by Google centres on its introduction of a set of checks it has called ‘Core Web Vitals’. The checks refer to three specific requirements, the first of which focusses on content loading time, measuring the amount of time it takes for the main content of a page to load after it is requested. Google has suggested that in order to be considered suitable, a page’s content should load and become available within 2.5 seconds.

The second element of Core Web Vitals refers to how quickly a page becomes interactive after it starts to load. Here, Google suggests that websites should take no more than 100 milliseconds to become interactive to the user.

The final element of Core Web Vitals focusses on the stability of the content of a page. Stability refers to how stable the layout of a page remains after it has loaded, therefore meaning that the user shouldn’t be caught out by content moving in unexpected ways. Google has provided a visual example of how a page may be unstable, resulting in a user selecting the incorrect option:

Speaking on the announcement via its Webmaster Central Blog, the search engine said, “great page experiences enable people to get more done and engage more deeply; in contrast, a bad page experience could stand in the way of a person being able to find the valuable information on a page.”

The cliché still stands; content remains king

Despite the increased focus on technical user experience, Google has said it will maintain its focus on content as the primary signifier of quality when it comes to ranking websites.

“…we will 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.”

In addition to its introduction of Core Web Vitals, Google will also be downgrading its focus on AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages), its framework for delivering fast mobile content.

At present, in order to appear in the ‘Top Stories’ feature in mobile search, websites are required to serve content using the AMP framework. Google has said that with the introduction of the Core Web Vitals algorithm update, AMP will no longer be a pre-requisite of appearing in the ‘Top Stories’ feature.

Analysis – it’s all about the experience

There are two important points to take from this announcement:

  • The technical and content experience delivered by a website will increasingly define how successful it is in search
  • This is an advance significant enough to announce before a launch date is even in place

In its announcement, Google acknowledges that many businesses will still be in the trenches responding to the Coronavirus pandemic and the challenges that has thrust upon them, however, the search provider obviously sees this algorithm update as landmark-worthy enough to announce it well ahead of launch.

User experience is increasingly becoming the focus for search engines and businesses alike. Google is doubling down on its message that in order to perform, websites must provide visitors with the information they need and must do so without distracting them with a poor experience, be that slow-to-load pages or pages cluttered with popups and layout adjusting blips.

According to Google Trends, ‘user experience’ is a subject that is more in-demand than it has ever been online and that trend looks set to continue. Smart businesses will take heed of Google’s latest announcement and should invest, at a minimum, in fixing anything that slows their websites down and makes the content harder to consume.

This change to the algorithm won’t be made live for quite some time but Google sees it as critical enough to announce long in advance, the winners may well be those who act sooner rather than later.