Intrusive ads and the Page Experience update8 min well spent

On Wednesday, JR Oakes noticed that Google prepares a “good page experience” report in Google Search Console that supposedly shows a list of high or sufficient quality pages.

Google also plans to show a badge in Search for sites with good page experience as part of the page experience update. Google is serious about making UX a ranking signal.

Page Experience Update

Making page experience measurable

In May 2020, Google announced that Core Web Vitals would be counted as ranking signals in search. The goal is to measure how fast a page loads, how long it takes to become interactive, and how visually stable it is. Core Web Vitals are the evolution of site speed from an SEO perspective. It started with TTFB (Time to First Byte), evolved into the Speed Index (still measured in Lighthouse), and now into the magic triad. Together with mobile-friendliness, safe browsing, SSL encryption, and intrusive interstitials, Core Web Vitals make Page Experience measurable.

Page speed test
Test run with https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/feature/testmysite/

Quantifying user experience goes beyond adding more numbers. Google uses field data (CRuX):

The Chrome UX Report (CrUX) is a public dataset of real user experience data on millions of websites. It measures field versions of all the Core Web Vitals. Unlike lab data, CrUX data comes from opted-in users in the field. Using this data, developers are able to understand the distribution of real-world user experiences on their own or even competitors’ websites. Even if you don’t have RUM on your site, CrUX can provide a quick and easy way to assess your Core Web Vitals. The CrUX dataset on BigQuery includes fine-grained performance data for all Core Web Vitals and is available in monthly snapshots at the origin-level.

The only way to truly know how your site performs for your users is to actually measure its performance in the field as those users are loading and interacting with it. This type of measurement is commonly referred to as Real User Monitoring—or RUM for short. Even if you don’t have RUM on your site, CrUX can provide a quick and easy way to assess your Core Web Vitals.

Source: https://web.dev/vitals-tools/

The SEO world watches the release of Core Web Vitals into the ranking algorithms with wide-opened eyes. We all want to know how it shakes out. But past rollouts of page experience metrics into ranking algorithm(s) have not resulted in big shake-ups. When SSL encryption became a ranking factor in 2014, Searchmetrics published an impact analysis. At the time, the biggest winner, Apple, saw an increase of +5%. Most domains saw changes in the 1-2% range. In 2018, page speed became a mobile ranking factor. The results? Crickets. No big page speed update loser/winner analysis. In 2017, the interstitials update rolled out. Again, nothing.

Alphabet’s quarterly earnings

Alphabet’s Q4 earnings make one thing clear: Youtube’s contribution to overall revenue. Google made $56.9b in revenue in Q4 2020, which is a +23.7% YoY and +23.1% QoQ increase. The G Wagon is back on the +20% road! However, what’s really astonishing is that Youtube’s revenue jumped from 10.8% in Q3 to 12% of total revenue. Search made up 32%. In other words, Youtube is becoming more important for Alphabet and is already accountable for 1/8th of total revenue.

Alphabet's earnings reports
Data from Alphabet’s earnings reports

There are several reasons for this. Youtube is one of the largest sites and the second largest search engine in the world. Youtube consumption spiked during the pandemic. More video consumption equals more ads. Philipp Schindler, Chief Business Officer at Google, also mentioned that direct response ads saw strong growth on Youtube. All metrics point up and to the right.

But why is ad revenue growing so much stronger on Youtube than Google Search? There is something to be said about the fact that the two platforms aren’t perfectly comparable. One is a search engine intent-driven engagement. Users need to search for something to see organic and paid results, with the exception of Discover, Google’s attempt at driving behavioral engagement. Youtube, on the other hand, offers both: intent and behavioral results. You’re probably familiar with the classic Youtube rabbit hole: you discover a video by accident and find yourself glued to the screen 3h later.

That’s where the video platform shines: stronger engagement leads to more ad revenue. On Google, the journey is over when your “needs are met”. On Youtube, it ends when you pull the plug.

How ironic is it, then, that Youtube’s success is based on what Google punishes: intrusive ads.

What is intrusive?

The interesting part about the Page Experience update is intrusive interstitials. Since 2017, Google ranks pages lower in mobile search if they show intrusive (think: annoying) elements that take users away from the core content. The Cumulative Layout Shift metric in the Core Web Vitals is closely related to this concept.

Google’s guidelines define intrusive as, “Displaying a standalone interstitial that the user has to dismiss before accessing the main content.” You could say the same about Youtube ads: they’re intrusive. They interrupt the user experience and take watchers hostage for at least 5 seconds.

Instagram Stories have a similar type of experience with the difference that you can skip ads without waiting. Both Instagram and Youtube dominate the consumer space with similarly intrusive monetization models. Youtube does try to push users to subscriptions, a model that already proved to be useful for other platforms like Pandora.

What works for popular consumer tech platforms doesn’t work traditional publishers who try to balance ad load with user experience but fail miserably. They’re fighting a losing battle.

Comcast's internet speed test
Comcast’s internet speed test

Despite Google’s attempt to roll UX signals up to ranking algorithms, annoying ads and intrusive interstitials can be found across top-performing sites with soaring organic traffic. It follows, then, that intrusive interstitials are a weak signal with low impact.

Ads and popups on Menshealth
Ads and popups on Menshealth
Menshealth's organic mobile traffic on SEMrush
Menshealth’s organic mobile traffic on SEMrush is going up

It’s likely that Core Web Vitals stray in a similar direction. Their impact probably won’t make or break a site but instead serves as a tuning signal when two results compete for the same spot.

Something that seems to have a much more significant impact is outdated design. In my post about the December 2020 Google Core Update, I described how Gossipcop, one of the biggest winners of the update, saw major traffic gains after a redesign and does better than in the last 6 years.

gossipcop.com on SEMrush
gossipcop.com had a big traffic comeback in December 2020

To provide an inverse example: Webopedia, a tech dictionary, lost 80% of organic traffic since May 2020, likely due to its very outdated design. The site just launched a redesign at the end of December/beginning of January, but you can see the old design from Wayback Machine in the screenshot below.

Webopedia lost a lot of traffic since the May 2020 update
Webopedia lost a lot of traffic since the May 2020 update
The reason for the traffic loss seems to be outdated design
The reason for the traffic loss seems to be outdated design

If my theory holds true, Webopedia should soon see an uptick in organic traffic. Not because of Core Web Vitals, but because of their redesign.

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