Google Continues Taking Steps to Quantitatively Measure UX

Matt Crowley - December 29, 2020

User experience (UX) is a tough thing to measure quantitatively. How would you quantitatively measure the UX of a web page or site? It can be like trying to grade art, wine, or your favorite restaurant. What you might consider to be good or great is not necessarily what others might consider to be good or great.

When it comes to search, many people might consider the ranking of web pages to be subjective. How can anyone determine what the best web page is for a given search query? Can you rank the best web pages from 1 – 100 for every keyword, question, and query on the planet in the blink of an eye? Google can, and they have made it their business to consume the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. In fact, it’s their mission statement.

Over time, they have used signals related to links, keywords, content, and more to determine relevance, but they are now making big strides in measuring user experience (UX) and introducing signals into their algorithms that measure UX.

Measuring Things that are Subjective is in Google’s DNA

If anyone has proven that they are capable of measuring things that people think are subjective, it is Google. Just look at the opening paragraph of the paper on the original PageRank formula by Larry Page and Sergey Brin:

“The importance of a Web page is an inherently subjective matter, which depends on the readers interests, knowledge and attitudes. But there is still much that can be said objectively about the relative importance of Web pages. This paper describes PageRank, a method for rating Web pages objectively and mechanically, effectively measuring the human interest and attention devoted to them.”

So, if anyone has proven their ability to take something subjective and create scalable way to quantitatively measure it, Google is the one.

How Google Has Historically Approached Measuring UX for Organic Rankings

While Google has gotten extremely good at measuring relevancy, UX has always been a work in progress. You have probably encountered many pages in search results that have a poor user experience. You have likely encountered web pages that load slowly and are laden with ads, making the page almost impossible to use. You may have even closed pages with a bad UX in frustration, I know I have.

Google has tried to measure these things over the years, including:

  • Google introduced a Page Layout Algorithm update in 2012 that had a (small) negative impact on pages that emphasized advertisements above the actual content of a page.
  • Google introduced a page speed signal in 2018 that had a (small) negative impact on pages that were very slow to load.

However, these types of UX algorithm updates were often few and far between, and more importantly, the impact they had on actual rankings was very small. Therefore, organizations often did not prioritize these types of efforts when compared to those that would have a bigger impact on moving the needle, like content updates and keyword targeting.

How Google is Beginning to Make Strides in Measuring UX

This brings us to (the end of) 2020 and Google’s announcement about the Page Experience update that will be coming in May 2021. Google will be adding three new signals (called Core Web Vitals) and packaging these up with four existing signals to create one new combined umbrella called “Search signals for page experience.” These metrics will be one component to Google’s continued push to quantitatively measure UX.

Google is arriving at these conclusions about what to measure through machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (ML). They are using ML and AI to measure and predict the outcomes of positive and negative user experiences, and then take those signals and add them to algorithms that determine the organic rankings of web pages.

However, what makes this different than Google’s past efforts like the Page Layout algorithm and page speed updates we mentioned earlier? Well, there are two key differences that standout to me:

  1. Google is now using ML and AI to predict positive and negative outcomes. The use of ML and AI (and the advancements that have come in the fields of ML and AI in recent years) are likely to have a significant impact on how effective these signals are at improving organic rankings. If they are more effective now, Google can trust and rely on them more, allowing them to have a bigger impact on the ranking of search results.
  2. Google is creating umbrellas that they can add additional signals underneath in the future. Rather than creating an algorithm for page layouts, they have created “search signals for page experience.” There are seven signals (in the graphic above) under this umbrella now, but there are likely many more to come. Additionally, even Core Web Vitals is an umbrella where they are taking three metrics (those in green in the graphic above) out of a much larger initiative called Web Vitals. Again, Google is likely to pull additional web vitals metrics into the umbrella and call them “Core Web Vitals” in the future, to be used for their ranking algorithms.

What to Do

Expect this trend to continue into 2021 and beyond, with Google likely to introduce more signals (some they will announce publicly and others they probably will not) that will apply quantitative measurements to UX and use that for rankings. Additionally, expect these updates to grow in importance and their impact on your organic visibility.

Based on all of this, we must ask ourselves, what should we do? If we know that Google is going to continue in this direction, we should place an emphasis on UX. Although that is not groundbreaking, it is still an area that is not emphasized enough by most organizations.

Given the inherent subjective nature of UX (at least historically), many organizations do not improve it, because they do not measure it. Therefore, we recommend:

  1. The first step is collaboration and education. Ensure you are bringing all the right team members, vendors, and stakeholders to the table. UX touches many disciplines from SEO, to Analytics, Design, Development, Copywriting, Testing, Advertising, Merchandising, and many Also, ensure you are keeping up with trends through continuing education across these disciplines related to UX.
  2. The second step is measurement. Improve how you measure UX. There are many tools to do this, including Google Analytics.
  3. Next, identify key areas of the site that can be quantitatively measured and improved (even if by a small amount to start). Over time, expand your measurement sophistication through dashboards and different segments / more granular elements of your website.
  4. Then, begin the process of improving the more obvious areas, and testing the more questionable areas. Consider creating your own testing framework to decide what to test and when to test something.
  5. Lastly, your workflows will evolve over time, but make sure that you continue the collaboration and education as there are sure to be many other announcements and changes coming.

If you have any questions on how we can help you better measure, test, or improve the UX of your website, please reach out to us at [email protected].

© 2021 MoreVisibility. All rights reserved.