Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
Google will change how its algorithms rank websites in search results, the company announced today. Starting sometime early next year, if your website has a poor “page experience,” it may show up lower on search results.
“Page experience” is a fuzzy term, of course; Google is using it as shorthand for a set of metrics the company is developing that go beyond how quickly the page loads. Lots of aggravating things on the web aren’t necessarily captured by a simple speed test, like pop-ups, delays in certain content appearing, content jumping around the page, and other annoyances. Google won’t be able to accurately measure all of those things, but it is attempting to quantify some of them.
Changes are also coming to the “Top Stories” feature, which shows news articles at the top of certain searches. Google will drop the requirement that articles be built in the custom AMP format the company has been pushing for some time now. Instead, any article that meets those page experience criteria will be eligible to appear there.
Last month, the Chrome team unveiled a project that’s attempting to quantify some of the common web annoyances: Web Vitals. The first three that it’s tracking — and that Google’s search team will be using in its ranking — sound more technical than they actually are:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) measures how quickly the page’s “main content” loads — the bulk of the text or image the page is serving up
- First Input Delay (FID) measures how quickly the page reacts when you first click on something on the page
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) measures when stuff jumps around on the page — for instance, if ads rearrange the text you’re trying to read
They’re measurable in ways that other page experiences might not be, though Google says it may add more metrics to that list over time. They notably don’t include references to ad tracking, though the Chrome team has recently stepped up its campaign against ads that could drain your battery.
Making the “page experience” on the web better by using the carrot / stick of Google search ranking definitely seems like a good thing, but there are possible risks. I could spin a tale of the Chrome team choosing what metrics matter, the search team using those metrics, and web developers coding just to those standards leading to a downward spiral of the web supporting Chrome above other browsers. That risk seems small now given the metrics the Chrome team is starting with, but it’s something to watch out for.
The metrics will matter for publishers, too. The Top Stories section is hotly contested prime real estate for news sites. Until now, qualifying was a relatively simple matter of supporting Google’s AMP format and adhering to Google’s published News content policies. Now, eligibility for Top Stores on mobile will be determined by whether a given page scores well enough on Google’s page experience metrics.
In a vacuum, the only fallout is how much traffic these sites will get. In the United States of America, Google’s ranking of political news is a magnet for controversy. Whether you think arguments that Google’s ranking are biased are made in good faith (hint: usually not), you have to acknowledge changes are likely to be fodder for more controversy.
However, Google has published objectively false and dangerous content in that Top Stories carousel in the past, so any changes in what’s eligible to appear there merit close attention.
For web developers, the more urgent concern is making sure their site measures up. Google already offers some tools to do this and will be updating them with more capabilities. On a video call yesterday, Google engineers said they don’t expect anybody to rush to make changes to their sites; it’ll be six months before the new metrics apply.
The timeline quite conveniently means that these changes won’t happen until after the upcoming US presidential election. Google says that wasn’t a factor in the timing; instead, it was more focused on giving developers plenty of time to adjust in the midst of the pandemic.
A bad score on these metrics won’t necessarily tank a page’s search ranking on its own, Google says. Instead, they’re just more signals for the algorithm. There’s no way to know whether these new signals will make a significant difference in rankings until Google starts implementing them.
The SEO industry, dedicated to the Kremlinology of sussing out Google’s search algorithm changes, will have to wait until then to know precisely what these metrics will do. In the meantime, the hope is that these metrics, and the incentives behind them, will become another reason to clean up the most egregiously broken parts of the web.