Google Page Experience Update – What Does it Mean for Your Website Design?

Google recently announced that it will be introducing an update that will assess the quality of the experience users have on your website – the Page Experience Update.

But what, exactly, does that mean?

Well here are Google’s guidelines, which are typically opaque.

Good website design should be all about delivering a good user experience. But to do that, it’s important to understand how people are using both the Internet, and your website, since the growth of social media – because it’s different from before!

Understanding how people use websites in the social media era, tells you what you need to do in order to deliver a good user experience.

So over the next few sections I’ll cover:

  1. How the Internet is used today
  2. How social media has changed user behaviour
  3. How this new behaviour affects your website design
  4. What’s involved in delivering a good user experience
  5. How to deliver a good user experience

How the Internet is used in 2020

This discussion focuses more on everyday bloggers who are looking to benefit from monetising their sites, rather than news sites (BBC, CNN) or eCommerce sites (Amazon, eBay).

To really understand how you need to be designing your web pages for the best user experience, it’s useful to understand how people actually use the Internet in 2020.

Back in the late noughties and early teens people used to go to blogs and browse. There were WordPress plugins to list related articles, and other methods designed to keep people on your blog, reading as many different articles as possible, for as long as possible.

And when visitors had got their fill of one blog, they headed off to another.

But social media changed all that: now people can get all the information they need, want or like in one place.

There’s no longer any need to go browsing loads of different websites.

Instead, today, people live on their social media sites. If they visit your blog or website, they do so only because a headline or an image that appeared in their news feed grabbed their attention, and they clicked through to see what it was all about.

And once they’ve satisfied their curiosity, they head straight back to their social media account and continue swiping through their news feed.

How social media has changed user behaviour

The way social media curates and presents each individual’s favourite content has led to some new user characteristics.

Today’s internet user:

  1. Has less patience than before
  2. Wants to get the entire story without leaving their social media account
  3. Will Like/Retweet/Share a post often on the basis of the headline alone
  4. Will often Like/Retweet/Share a post if it’s put up by one of their friends, many times without reading it at all
  5. Will hit that back button if the page they click through to does not immediately deliver on the promise in the headline

None of those will come as a surprise to most, and they can be summed up as social media users having a need for speed, looking for convenience and having ever shorter attention spans.

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How does this behaviour pattern affect the design of your website?

People visit your website today for one of four reasons:

  1. Your page popped up in a search result (which is becoming increasingly difficult on Google.)
  2. Your headline caught their attention in their social media news feed
  3. You gave them a link
  4. You paid for an advertisement

In each case, your headline, or the SEO title if the user was searching, made a promise about what they would find on the page.

If that promise is not kept the visitor will immediately hit that back button, and be gone.

So your pages should be simple, have one clear objective, and present what the visitor was looking for quickly and without distractions.

This is what delivering a good user experience is about.

What is involved in delivering a good user experience?

Delivering a good user experience requires putting yourself in the visitor’s shoes.

In most cases it’s their first visit to your site, so they are completely unfamiliar with how it’s set up. You need to make it as easy and as intuitive as possible for them to get what they came for, as quickly and easily as possible.

Don’t make them think, because if you do they will be gone!

Here’s what a good user experience includes:

  1. Your pages must load very quickly
  2. Each page should have just one objective (call to action)
  3. Each page must immediately fulfil the promise (via the headline) made in their social media stream or search result
  4. Your pages must be distraction-free
  5. Your pages must not jump around as they load
  6. Your pages must not present pop-ups before any content can be read
  7. There should be no interstitials presented before the page is loaded
  8. Your pages must be well laid out, with font sizes and spacing structured in line with the Golden Ratio Typography

Basically, you need to get your visitor to the information they were looking for as quickly as possible.

So let’s break those points down into more detail and consider the mechanics of providing a good user experience.

How to deliver a good user experience

Google has set out its view of how to deliver that here.

Here’s my view, which doesn’t differ from Google’s view, and it drives how I design websites for myself and my clients.

1. Fast page-load times

Your pages should completely load in less than 3 seconds and the closer you can get to 1 second the better. The first textual content should be readable, above the fold, after 2 seconds.

This means:

  • Minimising the use of scripts (no sliders!)
  • No ads positioned above the content
  • No huge hero images
  • The headline and first line or two of your content should be immediately visible above the fold
  • Featured images (in WordPress terms) should be fully optimised
  • Your site should be hosted on top quality hosting (the biggest factor affecting page-load speed)
  • Your theme must be free of code bloat (the second biggest factor affecting page-load speed)
  • You should consider the use of effective caching or a CDN

There are more details on how to improve your website’s page-load speeds here.

If you’re resisting the idea of dropping sliders and big hero images remember, that in order to keep those social media visitors from hitting that back button, your page must immediately deliver on the promise made by the headline.

Both sliders and big hero images get in the way of that. Your visitors want what was promised in the headline, not to look at your slider or hero image.

2. No distractions

Your pages should be distraction-free. This means:

  • No popups should be presented before the content can be read
  • No interstitials should be used
  • Ads should be placed discreetly (within content is OK, but not before content)
  • Only minimal animations should be used, and only if they draw attention to important information.
  • No parallax effects should be used (these usually make me feel nauseous!)

The job of your web page is to get your site visitors to take the action you want, so it must be crystal clear and provide only one call to action. That also equals a good user experience, because everything is simple and clear.

3. Smooth loading

This means that the page should not jump up and down as the different elements load. It drives me mad when I land on a site and this happens, and I usually leave immediately.

If you have ads or other elements that take a long time to load, the divs in which they are contained should have their heights defined in your CSS.

For example: I have an image at the top of the front page on this site that is 276px high. In order to avoid elements below that image jumping around as the page loads, I have defined the height of the div that contains it as 276px.

This causes the space to be ‘reserved’ for the image before it loads, which stops the page from jumping when it eventually does load.

Then, at the screen-width break-point where the width of the image starts to become affected as the screen width narrows, I change the height definition to ‘auto’.

This causes the image to shrink correctly on smaller screens by retaining its aspect ratio.

4. Responsive design for good presentation on both desktop and mobile devices

Excellent news here: AMP will no longer be a required format for pages to compete for the top stories section on mobile.

I have never been a fan of AMP. I know its purpose was to improve page-load speeds on mobile, which it does do, but it came with a lot of drawbacks.

Apart from that, mobile responsive design has been around for years. Whenever I come across a site that is not responsive in design I’m immediately distrustful – it implies that the site has not been properly attended to for at least 5 years!

Quite apart from that, it delivers an appalling user experience on mobile, forcing visitors to pinch, expand or drag the page around in order to view the content.

All text (headlines and content) must be spaced to be as comfortable to read as possible – in line with the Golden Ratio Typography. This will greatly enhance the reading experience on both desktop and mobile screens.

As long as your site’s page load speeds are within the parameters I set out earlier (and the faster the better), and it’s responsive in design, then it will do fine in mobile searches – especially when AMP is no longer a required format to compete for the top stories position.

5. The site is running on HTTPS

This is another item that’s been around as a ranking factor for years, and which provides reassurance to site visitors that any data they enter is safe.

I still come across sites that are running on HTTP, and my first thought is that the owner doesn’t care about their site visitors – especially if they are expecting their visitors to input any personally identifiable information.

I don’t immediately leave an HTTP site, but I certainly don’t enter any personal data.

Apart from anything else, moving a site to HTTPS will improve its page-load speed because of the newer technology that underpins HTTPS.

Overall conclusion

So let’s just recap the areas to focus on:

  1. Fast page-load times
  2. No distractions
  3. Smooth loading
  4. Responsive design
  5. HTTPS

As far as I’m concerned, I cannot wait for this Google update. Unfortunately, though, it’s not scheduled to happen until sometime in 2021..!

That does, at least, give webmasters plenty of time to upgrade the design of their web pages and it will, undoubtedly, deliver a better user experience more consistently across the web.

You can read another analysis of the implications of this coming change in Barry Schwartz’ article on Search Engine Land – I recommend it.

What do you think about this coming update?


Martin Malden

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