Roll forward nearly twenty years, and whilst some may accuse Google of reneging on its clean UX (hello Universal Search, AdWords and The Knowledge Graph etc), the evidence clearly shows that Google favours a positive user experience from websites, and will offer rewards by way of an improved search performance. This is, of course, highly significant if SEO, content, design or UX is on your radar.
So, what factors support Google’s obsession with UX? Let’s take a look.
1. Google Instant and Autocomplete
When Google Instant launched a few years ago, it was sold on the basis of instant results (as you type, Google refreshes the results), smarter predictions via autocomplete, and, overall, a saving (according to Google) of 2-5 seconds per search. Its entire existence was about improving customer UX.
Since then, Google Instant has also been rolled out to mobile devices, which works well, providing your connection speed will support it.
Whilst Google Instant doesn’t directly impact rankings, it is one of the strongest indicators that Google cares deeply about UX. Its raison d’etre is on delivering results quickly, and aims to quickly pair search queries to the most relevant landing pages.
Speed and relevance are most definitely factors Google cares deeply about when it comes to website content, and these will be discussed in more depth shortly.
2. Google Webmaster Tools Search Query Data
For a number of years, Google has provided search query data via Google Webmaster Tools. This has become increasingly popular since Google Analytics’ “not provided” changes back in 2011.
In search query reports, Google publishes impressions, clicks and click-through data by search query and landing page. Data can also be filtered by country and Google index (such as image or video search) enabling better segmentation and data analysis. This speaks volumes about Google’s desire to promote good UX.
SEOs or marketers can use these metrics to measure the effect metadata rewriting or microdata implementations have on CTR in search engine result pages. And the change data Google provides (see above), enables benchmarking over time.
It is well known that ad CTR is the biggest contributor to Google Quality Score in AdWords, and in organic search, clicks (and CTR) are also an important metric to monitor and improve.
3. Page Speed
Google has been very transparent about its attitude to page speed. It has stated on quite a few occasions that page speed signals are included in its search algorithm, which means that speed improvements can pay dividends when it comes to rank.
Both Google Analytics and PageSpeed Insights provide clear data on page speed performance.
Or, for an alternative tool, check out the excellent GTmetrix which combines Google’s PageSpeed and Yahoo’s YSlow speed data.
Page speed is so important for UX (and SEO), it’s definitely worth actioning improvements. Check out various ways you can improve your page speed for better UX and SEO.
4. Mobile UX
With mobile search now dominating desktop search in many sectors, Google has made very explicit that it values mobile optimised sites and content.
Its PageSpeed Insights tool not only publishes mobile speed results, but also makes recommendations on how to improve mobile UX such as font sizes and tap target sizes.
Furthermore, the fact that it now publishes “mobile-friendly” labels in mobile SERPs, is a strong hint that mobile optimisation will not only aid UX but search performance too.
5. Hidden Content – Tabs and Expandable Content
Last year, John Mueller of Google, dropped a bit of a bombshell in a live Hangout, when he announced that content within tabs, or “click-to-expand” menus may be “discounted”, as in effect it is hidden from users. As a result, Google may not rank the page for the content within those sections, because they aren’t the default content.
This may well be perceived as rather harsh, as many well designed sites deploy these, or similar tactics. However, Google’s argument is understandable: if the user struggles to see the relationship between their search query and the resulting landing page, then he/she may well bounce back to the SERP, which equates to a poor user experience.
My recommendation is not to panic if you have existing tabbed or click-to-expand content, but nonetheless to consider the findability of SEO focussed content on current and future landing pages.
6. Google’s ‘Top heavy’ Update
Do you have lots of ads above the fold? If so, read on.
In early 2012, Google announced the page-layout algorithm update also known as the “top heavy” update. Google said:
we’ve heard complaints from users that if they click on a result and it’s difficult to find the actual content, they aren’t happy with the experience. Rather than scrolling down the page past a slew of ads, users want to see content right away. So sites that don’t have much content “above-the-fold” can be affected by this change. If you click on a website and the part of the website you see first either doesn’t have a lot of visible content above-the-fold or dedicates a large fraction of the site’s initial screen real estate to ads, that’s not a very good user experience. Such sites may not rank as highly going forward.
So there you have it from the horse’s mouth. Not a lot to add other than to strongly consider your ads to content ratio particularly above the fold. The question is where is the fold? 🙂
7. Rich Snippets
Rich snippets in search results provide users with additional data about the content of a landing page, as well as the brand itself. By displaying additional information such as customer ratings or event lists (both examples below), the user can make an informed decision whether or not he/she is interested enough to click.
Implementation can be carried out in two ways, as follows:
- Adding microdata within the page HTML code
- Using the structured data markup tool in webmaster tools (better for those who would prefer not to edit HTML code)
Adoption of microdata is very low among brands, so this clearly represents an opportunity to stand out in SERPs, improve UX and click-throughs.
8. The Knowledge Graph & ‘Hummingbird’ Update
Google’s Knowledge Graph and Hummingbird update represent a move into semantic and entity search. In order to provide the best experience, Google has shifted away from publishing results only based on keyword/page pairings, to semantically driven results (implicit entities) that directly meet the needs of users.
As an example, if I’m searching for Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings, an image carousel is more likely to engage me than websites that solely focus on keyword based content.
The challenge for marketers, SEOs and content strategists, is to embed a “things not strings” philosophy, by considering the full breadth of rich topically strong content you can offer around a theme. Other factors, such as implementing microdata will also indicate to Google the type of content available on a page.
9. Changes to Google SERPs
Google’s obsession with UX continues to evolve. More recently you may well have noticed answer boxes appearing to common questions. Answer boxes enable users to find relevant information quickly without having to dig around websites.
We’re also seeing more sitelink search boxes that use autocomplete within a brand’s website, to aid findability of deep content directly from Google search results. This can be implemented using structured data, but will only work if you have in-site search on your website.
It’s certainly worth monitoring user behaviour metrics and conversion rates before and after implementation, to measure the effectiveness of sitelink search boxes.
A final change to mention is, the demise of authorship in Google SERPs. This was described by Google as a way of unifying mobile and desktop UX. SEOs raised an eyebrow about this announcement, questioning if it was more related to ‘internal issues’ with Google+. Whatever the explanation, it demonstrates the need to keep abreast of the changing landscape and opportunities within search, in order to maximise UX and SEO performance.
So there you have it. Feel free to offer any additional suggestions or points of view.