2021 will be a very important year for website developers, and change brings opportunity. There is a lot of research to show that users prefer websites that are quick to load and which deliver a good experience. There’s a reason why Google’s search site looks so simple and loads so quickly. For a company worth over $600 billion, Google certainly has the budget to throw every fancy gizmo and website design fad into its search page but, wisely, it does not do that. It is guided by facts and real user data.
I’ve noticed that most people looking for a new website seem far more concerned that their site looks ‘whizzy’ rather than focusing on a site that is quick to load and delivers high conversion rates. Surprisingly, site performance has not been a critical factor used by Google to rank websites up to now. This is about to change, thankfully. As someone who has focused on website experience and speed, I’ve been waiting for this moment for many years!
In May 2020, Google announced that user experience will become an important Google ranking factor, measured by a new set of metrics called ‘Core Web Vitals’. These measure loading performance (‘Largest Contentful Paint’), responsiveness (‘First Input Delay’) and visual stability (‘Cumulative Layout Shift’). Google has provided its online PageSpeed Insights tool so that website owners are able to evaluate the performance of their site(s):
Google later announced that user experience would begin to affect its search ranking results from May 2021. While I think that the new signals will start off at relatively modest levels while Google gains confidence in its results, their importance is likely to increase over time. Obviously, it’s important to point out that quality of content is expected to remain an important ranking aspect too, as it should.
Over the last few months, I have been updating my portfolio of websites to ensure that they continue to perform optimally, for both desktop devices and mobile phones. I have found that the following have been critical to achieving excellent customer experience levels:
- dedicated, underutilised servers (rather than shared, overloaded servers)
- premium lightweight WordPress themes, designed for speed and usability
- image optimisation
- mobile experience optimisation (as mobile phones now account for the majority of visitors to many websites)
- the avoidance of external font libraries (e.g. the now-ubiquitous Google Fonts)
- a ‘keep it simple, stupid’ approach.
Here are screenshots from Google’s PageSpeed Insight tool for this website – first desktop performance and then mobile performance.
For a bit of fun, I ran the tool for some of the most popular websites in the UK, with interesting results. For the all-important mobile performance results, the BBC’s website (which is the world’s most visited news site) scored only 15%. Amazon.co.uk scored a respectable 66%. While the ‘big players’ have sizeable development budgets to improve their scores over time, we think smaller organisations have the opportunity to deliver superior user experiences, particularly as the large players may have major challenges evolving their legacy systems and processes.
Over the coming months, I think there’s going to be much more attention focused on user experience among website developers and site owners. The great news is that end users will be the beneficiaries of this focus. For those looking for a new website, I urge you not to compare sites on the basis of how ‘whizzy’ they look and focus on user experience and website conversion maximisation.