Google’s new page experience metric will shape how your website performs on search engines from February. This means that readers could see more variety in the news brands appearing in Google’s top search results as better content and site performance are recognised by the shift.
For news publishers, whose content-dense websites are among the slowest on the web, this is another yardstick to contend with to make sure their hard-earned audiences are able to find their content.
The page experience update is a measurement of how users interact with a web page, beyond simply ingesting content, to gauge how useful it is.
The tech bit
Three metrics will determine how a webpage feels to read and navigate, from load speed to stability.
The first, snappily named Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) measures how long the largest piece of content takes to load.
It may be a splash on the homepage, an exclusive photograph or a video – usually the main item publishers want users to click. Google believes that if it loads slowly, it may be missed altogether.
The second, First Input Delay (FID), clocks the speed between landing on a page and the first click becoming available. A homepage should shuttle users deeper into the content. But if that first click is slow, attention - and the reader - may be lost.
The third, Cumulative Layout Shift, is the most intangible. It measures that final jiggle of pictures and text when a page finishes loading.
Research from Google showed that the chance of a bounce - when a user leaves a site without continuing to click through to another page - increased by 32 per cent when load times grew from one to three seconds.
By the time a potential reader has waited five seconds for a page to load, there is a 90 per cent chance they will not read a word of the content on it.
Of the ten most popular news sites in the UK, three recorded load times of over three seconds. Not a single home page loaded in under one.
News sites will always be content heavy and optimisation for load times can often fall to the bottom of any to-do list. But as Google rolls out page experience the pressure is shifting.
Media group Global, that owns radio stations like LBC, Heart or Capital, has committed a lot of time and money to help its journalism achieve better Google rankings.
Through a blend of search engine optimisation (SEO) and working towards this new page experience metric, Global’s sites are appearing higher up in search and load times are decreasing – LBC’s home page loads in 533ms for instance.
Steve Wilson-Beales, head of SEO and editorial product for Global, said: "We all jumped on it. We’re engaging much more with our developers to improve [our loading speed].
"It’s just about getting the quality of our journalism out there as fast as possible, and make [our sites] a place where people come back for more.”
Wilson-Beales added that having a clear message that is simple and easy to understand the moment someone lands on your website is one of the most important things. Page experience will not make a huge difference to a journalist’s work, but publishers will see competition among the top rankings from smaller websites that are better serving their audiences.
"Journalists are plugged into their subject matter," Wilson-Beales says. "The best search ranking work I’ve seen is when a journalist takes what has just been announced and predicts what people will be searching for.”
Google has been at pains to outline that a fast site with good ‘page experience’ will not outperform a slow site with rich, meaningful content.
Developer advocate at Google, Martin Splitt said: "A fast website with terrible content is likely not what searchers seek.
"But if you have two good pieces of content and one is going to be frustratingly slow, we might want to give the faster one a better position."
The message is particularly important for mobile websites. According to last year’s figures from Statista, more than two thirds of people in the UK use their phones to access news.
The practical bit
There are many ways for journalists and web publishers to improve their understanding of lightning-quick sites, boosted page experience and SEO.
Wilson-Beales recommends visiting Google Trends and studying search results when researching a story to see what your competitors are writing about and asking the question: "Can I improve upon this or take my own angle?"
Google’s own explainers are a bit technical but have a lot of useful information to digest.
The impact since the rollout on mobile has not been as profound as publishers had feared, Wilson-Beales explained, but should serve as a reminder that the best way to guarantee traffic is making websites destinations in themselves.
If readers can find content that speaks to them such as podcasts, newsletters and exclusives, that is a more powerful tool than a strong SEO ranking.
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