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User first: How upcoming Google changes could affect your practice’s website

The team behind the Google search engine has taken the unusual step of giving a year’s warning of upcoming changes to its algorithm. That means you should start thinking now about how your firm’s website might need to adapt.

15th Jun 2020
Editor PracticeWeb
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The main thrust of this particular adjustment is the addition of user experience to the long list of ranking factors – those aspects of the design and function of your website that influence how high it appears in Google’s search engine results page (SERP).

What does user experience mean in this context? It’s about how your website makes people feel when they use it. If your website annoys and frustrates people, Google will suppress it in the rankings. And it will instead favour websites that are pleasant to use.

This hasn’t come out of the blue. Google has been trying to filter out irritants for almost a decade.

Back in 2011, it launched an update known as Panda which saw websites with little meaningful content and aggressive advertising lose hard-won rankings overnight.

That was a response to the frustration felt by search engine users who wanted to find quality content but instead kept getting served rubbish – plagiarised, pointless or otherwise of poor quality.

Further updates have targeted churned out ‘How to’ guides, spammy hotel listings and other pollutants that have crowded out the most genuinely useful content.

What’s changing in 2021?

Google already takes into account mobile responsiveness and the security of your website in deciding rankings. Intrusive pop-ups and links to dangerous websites are also likely to drag your rankings down.

Picking up on that theme, the updates on their way sometime next year will also take into account:

  • Load time – how quickly can a user get to the good stuff?

  • Interactivity – does your site respond quickly to clicks, scrolls and button presses?

  • Content stability during page loading – do key elements on the page shift or jump around as the page populates?

If you’ve used a local newspaper site lately, you’ll immediately recognise the behaviours Google is trying to discourage.

You just want to read a 300-word news story about, say, bin collections, but the opening paragraph takes 10 seconds to appear; then it jumps off-screen when a big picture at the top finally loads; then it jumps again when an ad appears in the middle of the text; then it gets covered by a pop-up; then a video flies in from stage right…

Publishers will tell you that, in an age when everyone expects everything free, this is the only way to make any money. But the rise in ad-blockers and the use of offline reading applications shows that users don’t care – they just want to consume content without distractions or annoyances.

And Google is saying, yes, we agree – find another way.

The implications for accountants

It’s unlikely that your practice’s website is using the more egregious techniques that Google is attempting to tackle.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a risk of a drop in rankings, however, and it’s certainly worth reflecting on how your site performs from a user experience (UX) perspective.

Does your website load as quickly as possible? The largest page element should load within 2.5 seconds.

If people click, type or scroll, does the site respond? Aim for a first input delay of less than 100 milliseconds. 

Does your page load cleanly, without jumps and jerks? For the best results, your page should have a cumulative layout shift score of less than 0.1.

These are considered ‘core web vitals’ and can be checked in Google’s  search console, which is free to use and easy to set up.

Another way to address this is to get a friend, relative or colleague to perform a simple task on the website while you silently observe.

You know the website and use it all the time so its quirks and irritations might not be apparent to you. But they soon will be when you’ve spent fifteen minutes listening to Mandy from reception swearing at the PC because the button she wanted to click has jumped three inches to the right.

As always, one of the best ways to score well with Google is to think about what they are trying to achieve – fewer annoyances for users – and address that, rather than second-guessing the algorithm.

Other page experience factors

It is still important to make sure your website is mobile responsive, offers secure browsing via HTTPS and avoids linking to compromised websites through out-of-date links or because it’s been hacked.

Annoying pop-ups, known in Google-speak as ‘intrusive interstitials’, are best avoided. They can be effective in driving newsletter sign-ups but think hard about whether you really want them to cover or block the text. Do you like being forced to dismiss a box before you can read an article? I certainly don’t.

The good news is that Google knows that cookie consent pop-ups are a legal requirement and doesn’t penalise EU-based websites for this.

Content still matters

There’s one final twist in the new announcement: if your website has the best, most relevant content on a given subject, that might outweigh a poor user experience, Google says.

Of course, the best thing is to have both great content and great user experience – then you’ll be unstoppable.

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