An old trick in public relations is diversion. You hide uncomfortable news in a big announcement about something else. Google did just that when they announced new ranking factors related to user experience on May 28th.
A new set of ranking factors for SEOs
SEOs always argued UX was a ranking factor but now we finally have a set of hard metrics we can measure beyond page speed.
Google calls this new set of ranking factors “page experience metrics”:
- Intrusive interstitials
- Largest contentful paint (keep it under 2.5 for 75% of page loads: https://blog.chromium.org/2020/05/the-science-behind-web-vitals.html)
- First input delay (keep it under 100 milliseconds for 75% of page loads: https://blog.chromium.org/2020/05/the-science-behind-web-vitals.html)
- Cumulative layout shift (aim for less than 0.1 for 75% of page loads: https://blog.chromium.org/2020/05/the-science-behind-web-vitals.html)
These specific thresholds come from Google data and tons of researched linked at the bottom of the article (source):
"[…] analyzed millions of page impressions to understand how these metrics and thresholds affect users. We found that when a site meets the above thresholds, users are 24% less likely to abandon page loads (by leaving the page before it finishes loading). We also looked specifically at news and shopping sites, sites whose businesses depend on traffic and task completion, and found similar numbers: 22% less abandonment for news sites and 24% less abandonment for shopping sites.”
As you can see, the non-binary metrics (LCP, FIP, CLS) target 75% of the pages on a site. That makes a lot more sense than judging all pages of a domain as performance is relative - even how you measure it. There are a bunch of ways to evaluate UX, from qualitative to quantitative evaluations.
Google provides webmasters new tools amid the announcement:
- A Core Web Vitals browser extension: https://github.com/GoogleChrome/web-vitals-extension/
- Lighthouse 6.0 with Core Web Vitals metrics https://web.dev/lighthouse-whats-new-6.0/
- A Search Console report showing Web Vitals
- More tools: https://web.dev/vitals-tools/
Google also makes very clear that these UX ranking signals will not be stronger than content-related factors and they’re not coming into effect before next year:
"While all of the components of page experience are important, we will prioritize 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. However, in cases where there are multiple pages that have similar content, page experience becomes much more important for visibility in Search.”
The real news
This trend shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. Google has been trying to find reliable UX metrics for a while.
The real news was hidden in the announcement but highlighted by Danny Sullivan.
Just a little paragraph gives it away (emphasis mine):
As part of this update, we'll also incorporate the page experience metrics into our ranking criteria for the Top Stories feature in Search on mobile, and remove the AMP requirement from Top Stories eligibility. Google continues to support AMP, and will continue to link to AMP pages when available. We’ve also updated our developer tools to help site owners optimize their page experience.
AMP is no longer a requirement to appear in Top Stories. It does seem to be required to get into the top stories carousel, according to the News documentation.
So, instead of AMP, Google is now using Page Experience metrics to judge whether a result can appear in Top Stories or not (given the publisher follows the Google News guidelines).
This is, however, one of the first times Google backs off of AMP.
The slow death of AMP
In Google Plus was born to die, I wrote about how the social network was nothing more than a defensive play against Facebook. AMP is the same thing.
From day one, the purpose of AMP was to compete with Facebook’s Instant Pages (which nobody cares about anymore either). Instant Articles launched in May 2015, AMP was announced in October that year. Even Apple News was launched the same year. It was the battle for publishers.
Now, that it’s clear Google won the battle for publishers (see Parsely dashboard below), AMP is not a necessity anymore and can be stowed away.
AMP never really took off and I see three reasons for that.
First, implementation. A study by Unbounce revealed that 64% of respondents either had no developer capacities or a lack of understanding AMP. As a result, 57% of marketers had no plan to implement AMP, even though 54% of them had at least a decent understanding of it. The reality is that if you want to implement AMP well on a large site, it’s really difficult. Google never figured out how to make it easy.
Besides that, the benefits of AMP were never clear. In AMP is a lie, Patrick Stox outlines how AMP is just cached but not a real speed improvement. In this context, it makes sense to not require AMP for top stories.
Second, adoption. AMP started in 2015. In 2017, it was implemented on 4 billion pages. In 2018, 6 billion. Hold that against the 130 trillion URLs Google had indexed by 2016 and you realize that only 0.004% of indexed pages might use AMP.
Even further, RankRanger published an analysis in 2018 showing how only 38% of page 1 SERPS had at least one AMP result. The adoption of AMP was simply underwhelming, in part because of the implementation and monetization issues.
Which brings me to the third point.
Third, monetization. Early on, publishers were frustrated by the friction of implementation and lack of monetization tools.
A study by Chartbeat of 159 publishers found that only one in three publishers see clear benefits from AMP.
The Daily Beast even ran an a/b test and found no clear benefit of using AMP.
It’s a disaster.
AMP isn’t dead, it’s dying
AMP is not a Google product and it has been adopted by many other search engines and platforms. But without Google’s backup, it’s going to suffocate.
Google will rely less and less on it. In a roundup post about technical SEO trends for 2020, some experts called it:
Hamlet sees this trend intensifying: “As Chrome starts shaming slow sites, you can anticipate a great deal of effort in improving site page speed, particularly on mobile.”
Bartosz agrees: “Web performance is becoming more and more a part of Google’s algorithm. If terms like CrUX, User Metrics or Largest Contentful Paint don’t ring a bell for you, it’s time to fix it ASAP.“
For AJ Kohn, the trend goes away from AMP: “I’d be paying close attention to Web Packaging”, and Patrick sees a progression of the HTTP protocol for next year: “HTTP/3 will be a hot topic and probably speed in general.”
You can’t help but feel sorry for the blog post the AMP project published.