User perception, organic search, and algorithm updates

UX and design seem to play bigger roles in user perception, which seems to have an impact on organic search performance.

In a recent webmaster hangout, John Muller mentions the relationship between user perception of a site and that site’s SEO performance in the context of algorithm updates.

As reported by SEJ:

Sometimes those small differences do play a role in regards to how people perceive your website. If, for example, you have something that is on a financial topic and people come to you and say ‘well your information is okay but it’s presented in a way that looks very amateurish,’ — then that could reflect how your website is perceived. And in the long run could reflect something that is visible in search as well.

Does that mean design impacts SEO? Kind of. I wouldn’t say it’s “design” per se, but more user perception and design is part of that.

Panda algorithm updates and user perception

This whole idea is not new, as Barry Schwartz would say. Already back in 2011 (!), Google released a set of 23 questions, I call them the “Panda questions”, to help webmasters find the reason why they were affected by algorithm updates. The recently released product review questions are similar, by the way.

In early 2016, Google confirmed Panda to be part of the “core algorithm” (source). Panda release cycles coincided strongly with the occurrence of “Phantom Updates” (source). Later on, we simply dubbed them “core algorithm updates” (yours truly wrote about Phantom II in 2016) and they still come out every few months. My assumption is that it takes time to recompute quality across a large set of sites. That’s also why it takes days, sometimes weeks, to roll such an update out. In the webmaster hangout I referenced above, Mueller points out that “things quite a long time to be reflected in the search results.”

I wrote about the 2020 May Core Update and the implications one month later, for example. When I took a closer look at the 2020 December Core Update, I wrote that “user experience becomes more important”:

One commonality between winners and losers I observed is user experience. What I mean with UX is not Core Web Vitals, even though that’s how Google quantifies user experience with an impact on rank coming next year.

Instead, I look at user experience in this context as design, layout, ad load, and how easy it is for users to get their needs met. I don’t know exactly how Google measures this, but there seems to one or several factors that make an impact.

But user experience isn’t just how a site looks. It’s also how easy it is for users to get their needs met (lingo from the Google quality rater guidelines), and that’s where UX and content overlap.

The differences are often very subtle, which speaks for Google’s ability to detect them.

Not to toot my own horn too much, but that’s exactly what Mueller hints at as well. To put my money where my mouth is, I identified three sites that were slapped by recent core algorithm updates and are recovering after launching a redesign/UX reskin.

3 redesign case studies that led to an algorithm reversal

Let’s look at three sites that lost traffic during core algorithm update launches, overhauled their user experience, and started to see reversals during updates.

Use case 1:

Gossipcop was the biggest “winner” of my December 2020 Core Algorithm analysis. The site gained 154% organic traffic on mobile and +226% on desktop shortly after the update was released.

The keyword and traffic trend shows a clear picture: in May 2020, Google ranked the site lower across the board. In December 2002, it got back on track. Organic traffic seems to grow strong since then.

Let’s compare the site’s look and feel on April 29th, 2020 (right) with December 4th, 2021 (left):

A clear improvement! I would say the site looked spammy before the reskin and much more “legit” after.

To be fair, it does seem like the site added a top navigation that I wasn’t able to spot earlier. So, internal linking might have improved and contributed to the improvement. However, internal linking is typically not rewarded by algorithm updates and rather shows immediate effects.

Use case 2:

The second case study is, which dropped during the December 2020 update and recovered in June 2021.

Let’s compare an article about pet insurance companies from November 17th, 2020 (right) with April 15th, 2021 (left):

A much cleaner look and feel! Looking at the article traffic and rankings, we can clearly see how it lost in December 2020 and regained in June 2021:

Use case 3:

Webopedia, a dictionary site, started to “bleed traffic” in May 2020 and tanked during the December 2020 update. I started to regain traffic in June 2021.

I already called Webopedia’s outdated design out in an article about intrusive ads and page experience:

“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.

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.

Another prediction that might come true. And, another site I wrote about in the context of Panda before (see Searchmetrics article from 2014).

Let’s compare the design from April 24th, 2020 (right) with June 2nd, 2021 (left):

Case closed, your honor.

Perception and trustworthiness

So, what can we say about user perception and SEO? First, it takes time for UX changes to impact SEO but there seem to be strong hints that there is a connection.

Second, it’s unclear how Google measures good vs. bad UX. I assume Page Experience metrics are only half the story. There seems to be a connection between how users perceive a site and maybe their behavior.

Third, perception is an important part of trustworthiness, a concept I wrote about in the demise of amateur content and blockchain, fake news, and E-A-T. Fact is that the concept of trustworthiness is not new. It’s reflected in Google’s Panda questions from 10 years ago! However, the impact seems to grow larger as the internet aims to solve growing mistrust problems. Design, UX, or however you want to call it play an important role in user perception, trustworthiness, and expertise.