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Move over, content – is user experience king?

Katie Thompson

Katie Lingo

PRO

“A great user experience enables us to get more done. In contrast, a bad experience could stand in the way of finding valuable information on a page.”

These wise words from Google signal a forthcoming algorithm shift, with user experience at the helm. This poses the question, then:

Is user experience more important than content?

If there’s one thing 2020 has inspired us all to do, it’s tidy up our digital presence.

According to twentysix’s Optimising for the remainder of 2020 webinar, organic should make up 40 to 50 per cent of our channel mix. Why? As Director of Acquisition Scott Tehrani puts it, organic offers us:

  • stability: algorithm updates are less volatile than cost-per-click advertising. (Panda affected 12 per cent of all queries, while BERT affected 10.)
  • more Search Engine Results Pages (SERP) impressions: we’ve gone far beyond standard text results in search engine results pages. We now have featured snippets, video, local news and more. These are all driven by optimised content
  • longer customer journeys: this is arguably the most important. Informational queries are taking precedence over transactional and navigational. Head of Content and Communications Steph Hodgson notes that more of us are making informational queries during lockdown. Searches like “can I go on holiday in 2020?” are on the up

So, if we can optimise our content to answer those questions, then in theory, we can lead our users to convert.

But why would you spend hours fine-tuning content only to offer a terrible user experience?

Behold: the Google Page Experience update

Set to roll out “sometime” in 2021 (clear as ever, thanks Google), the latest update bundles many smaller ones, following on from the May 2020 Core Update.

“Google is always looking for signals that influence user behaviour,” says Scott. “The Page Experience Update uses algorithmic scores to determine the quality of the user experience.”

How the scores work

You may remember the fabled ‘Mobilegeddon’ back in 2015. You may even recall that, back in 2010, Google announced it would measure site speed to determine rankings.

Page Experience is essentially page speed on steroids. It features Google’s ‘Core Web Vitals’, which are:

  • Largest Contentful Paint (yeah, I’m not a huge fan of the word ‘contentful’ either…)
  • First Input Delay
  • Cumulative Layout Shift

Let’s stop speaking Latin, shall we?

UX guidelines Google

Page Experience – Google Developers’ Guide

Largest Contentful Paint = loading

This is a measure of loading performance – specifically, how long it takes to download the biggest piece of content on a page. Does your gorgeous featured image take more than 2.5 seconds to load? You could be in hot water.

First Input Delay = interactivity

This is the amount of time between the page loading and the user’s ability to interact with it. If you can see everything but you can’t click a button, you’ll likely go elsewhere.

Cumulative Layout Shift = does this bloody thing work?*

*My words, not Google’s. This measures the visual stability of a page – that is, how likely buttons, images and content are to move around.

As such, it’s more important for mobiles. If your site is so poorly designed that users click ‘buy’ instead of ‘cancel’…that’s one bad user experience. Google outlines it beautifully in the GIF below:

Cumulative Layout Shift

In addition to the Core Web Vitals, we also have the user-friendliness basics:

  • mobile-friendliness. Zooming and squinting is so 2014.
  • safe browsing and HTTPS. Google favours secure sites that are free from malware.
  • no intrusive interstitials. In plain English, that means no pop-ups.

What about personalisation?

The very definition of user experience is one for debate here. What of this ‘experience’ – never mind the interstitials, what about how the website makes us feel?

In a second webinar by twentysix, Creating personal experiencesChief Strategy Officer Rich Jones talks us through some damning statistics about customer experiences. According to Salesforce’s State of the Connected Customer report:

  • 84 per cent of B2C audiences say experience is as important as products and services. There go the alarm bells. My product is content writing. Can I get away with bad grammar if my website looks nice?!
  • 73 per cent of B2C audiences say “extraordinary” experiences raise their expectations of other companies. Go on, set the bar with those easy user flows. Make us all look bad
  • 82 per cent of B2B audiences would pay more based on a great experience

OK, fine. Send in the developers.

How do we create this personal experience?

Chris Purcell, Product Strategy Manager at Episerver, tells us it starts with two questions:

  • what content is relevant for this individual?
  • What is the intent of this individual?

Again, we go back to those informational transactions. We can use tools like Google Trends or Keyword Planner to identify user intent, and then tailor our content around it.

For example, we shouldn’t discount ‘archived’ content – pages that perform well historically can be updated with more engaging media, such as video.

Alternatively, we can analyse user flow and identify where users drop off. This may give us insights into our users’ thoughts – if they don’t understand the product, they will leave.

Rich cites a great example from Rockwell Group, who created video content to show their products in action. “It was authentic. They talked about their product very passionately, and they knew what they were doing.”

The campaign resulted in much higher engagement and also cemented one key factor: trust.

The toilet seat debacle

According to Salesforce, 73 per cent of customers feel that trust is more important in 2020. One way we can erode trust is by getting personalisation wrong.

He recounts an unfortunate e-commerce faux pas, in which Amazon tried to retarget a customer after selling them a toilet seat. Well, you can see the results.

And so, we go full-circle – back to content

Certainly, e-commerce marketers can take heed of this, but trust factors put the onus on content creators to prove we’re credible.

Google’s EAT update (Expertise, Authority and Trust) hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s become even more important – taking into consideration ‘Your Money or Your Life’. These sites concern finance and healthcare, and Scott notes that Google has a duty of care to return the right results.

Our content must be trustworthy, not only for rankings but for user experience. We can improve this by:

  • linking externally to well-known sources, such as the World Health Organisation
  • demonstrating clear industry credentials
  • having links from other relevant sources, or ‘social proof’.

Is UX more important than content?

Take it straight from the horse’s mouth:

While all of the components of page experience are important, we will rank pages with the best information overall, even if some aspects of page experience are subpar. A good page experience doesn’t override having great, relevant content.

Google Webmaster Central Blog

There you have it. I still have a job. Huzzah.

Google gives webmasters around six months’ notice before updates kick in. If you want to make the most of your user experience AND your content in this time, try:

Checking your Largest Contentful Paint

Use this LCP tool and consider compressing media, for example, using Smush for images in WordPress.

Checking your First Input Delay

Use this FID tool to check the delay – ideally less than 100 milliseconds. If it’s more than this, consider…

Trimming those interstitials

Some are essential, like the cookie bar, but do you need a newsletter sign-up on every page? How does this render on mobile? Try mobile testing to see if the content’s difficult to navigate. You can check this in the ‘Enhancements’ section of Google Search Console.

Analysing drop-offs to improve the user journey

Got a piece of archived content that’s doing great? Bring it into 2020! Add media, schema tags, more relevant meta descriptions – whatever helps satisfy the user query.

You can also measure exit pages or behaviour flows in Google Analytics. These could provide key insights into user experience issues, so report back to your developers.

And once you’re done tinkering, if you’ve no time left, you know what to do.

Contact Katie Lingo.

First published on Katie Lingo.

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