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Google is bringing a big dose of science to web user experience…and it matters to anyone with a website

By John Woods  |  June 9, 2020

Google has announced a new set of standards for measuring “page experience” – that is, whether a particular web page delivers its content in a way that gives a positive experience for the user. These new standards provide a specific, pass or fail benchmark for three aspects of page experience that Google’s research has identified as particularly impactful for users.

Many websites currently fail to meet these new standards. Google is allowing a period of time before enforcement, but site owners are now on notice: they will need to improve their websites to meet these new page experience benchmarks, or face penalties to their SEO rankings.

In this article I’ll give an overview of the new standards, discuss their implications for B2B digital marketers, and highlight some immediate next steps you should be taking to ensure you are not left behind as Google rolls out its implementation of these standards.

Introducing Core Web Vitals

Google is calling the new standards “Core Web Vitals”. You’ll start to see them appear in various Google tools and reports. For example, here’s how they show up in Google Search Console:

A tablet showing a core web vitals report

There are three separate measures in Core Web Vitals:

• Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): a measure of how long the page takes to display, when first loaded

• First Input Delay (FID): measures how quickly the page becomes interactive

• Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): measures what Google calls “visual stability”, in other words how much the page elements flicker and move around during the initial loading process.

Each of these measures has its own specific benchmarks on a traffic light system. For example the LCP needs to be below 2.5s to score as “good”. Between 2.5s and 4.0s LCP means “needs improvement”. And LCP above 4.0s means “poor”.

I’ll drill into these three measurements in a future article. For now, it’s enough to say that they measure separate and largely independent aspects of user experience: so for example a page that scores very highly on LCP could still score badly on FID or CLS. So each measure will need individual attention.

Why Core Web Vitals matter

Page experience has been important for SEO for a long time. Google and other search engines naturally want to feature pages that will provide a positive experience for users. But to date the exact impact of page experience on SEO rankings has been hard to understand.

This is great news for all of us when we use the web: by providing an explicit incentive to avoid poor page experience, Google is helping to encourage higher standards for user experience across the web.

It is also good news for site owners: with Core Web Vitals, Google is making the impact of page experience on SEO much more transparent. A website owner can use the Core Web Vitals benchmarks as a reliable guide to whether their page experience is good enough to avoid SEO penalties, and can target specific improvements if they are needed.

But there is some bad news for site owners: the Core Web Vitals benchmarks are pretty demanding! It is likely that many websites will need to make significant technical changes to meet the new benchmarks and avoid SEO penalties. This is especially true for niche B2B websites which have often been designed and implemented with relatively little concern for page experience.

Although Google haven’t said so explicitly, I predict that page experience will become a much more significant ranking factor for SEO as Google rolls out these standards. So B2B marketers who pay attention to Core Web Vitals and who take action to ensure their websites meet the new benchmarks will be rewarded with higher levels of organic search traffic. And those who do not take action are likely to see their organic traffic decline.

Google’s announcements so far only relate Core Web Vitals to organic search. But I would not be surprised to see Core Web Vitals quickly becoming a factor in quality score for paid search (PPC/SEM). Google Ads already has a component of quality score for “landing page experience”, so it would be entirely logical for Google to take Core Web Vitals into account in the future. If that happens, Core Web Vitals scores will have a direct bearing on PPC costs: because a higher quality score reduces the amount paid for each click, and vice versa.

There’s time, but the clock is ticking

Google acknowledges that website owners will need time to improve their page experience. Their announcement says that the new measures will not be incorporated into SEO rankings until 2021 at the earliest, and that there will be a minimum of 6 months’ notice of the specific date.

Google has introduced similar policies in the past designed to encourage improvements in user experience. In particular, Google encouraged site owners to move from non-secure http: to secure https: connections, and pushed for mobile-friendly page design. Both of these were introduced gently with a small SEO impact at first, increasing over time. I predict we will see the same with Core Web Vitals: a small penalty for sites that don’t meet the benchmarks at first,  but rising to a much more substantial penalty over time – to the point where, like https and mobile-friendliness, it will become inconceivable to attempt any meaningful SEO strategy on a site that does not meet the Core Web Vitals benchmarks.

What to do now – find out where you stand

You can see how your web pages score against the Core Web Vitals benchmarks right away. Check your website with Google’s free Pagespeed Insights tool. You’ll see your current scores highlighted with a blue icon, like this example:

A breakdown of site performance on a tablet

Some things to consider when using this tool:

• Each page will have its own scores. You should check more than one page: important pages like the homepage and the “contact us” page, for example, and any pages that you have built specifically to bring in organic traffic.

• Pagespeed Insights ranks mobile and desktop versions of your page separately. Make sure to look at both. Many B2B sites are built primarily for desktop, a great set of Core Web Vitals on desktop won’t help you much if you fail every measure on mobile.

• The report shows both “Field Data” and “Lab Data” – concentrate on Field Data if it is available. If your page has small numbers of visitors (like many niche B2B pages) there may not be enough data for the “Field Data” report to show. In that case you can use the “Lab Data” report as a backup.

What to do next – plan to pass the benchmarks

You may be lucky enough to find that all of your important pages already pass the Core Web Vitals benchmarks. If so, congratulations! You should still remain vigilant, especially if you plan any technical or design changes to your pages, but it’s unlikely you will need to do any major work.

But it is much more likely you will find that your pages fail at least some of the benchmarks. This is especially true for B2B websites, where page performance and user experience are typically not given high priority in the design and implementation stages. In that case you’ll need to plan and budget for technical or design changes, or brace yourself for an eventual SEO penalty and consequent loss of organic traffic – and perhaps other negative implications too.

For some B2B website implementations it may be impractical to meet the Core Web Vitals benchmarks even with very large amounts of work. If your site is one of those, it may be time to consider a redesign or a complete replatform – with compliance with Core Web Vitals benchmarks an explicit goal for the project.

If you’d like help understanding the impact of Core Web Vitals on your B2B digital marketing strategy, or with any other aspect of B2B digital marketing, contact us today for a no-obligation consultation.

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What Google SERPs changes mean for your B2B company

By Jennifer Esty  |  February 27, 2016

The past few days have been busy ones for #serps, with digital marketers and search experts reviewing what is arguably the biggest change to Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) in years.

First, just in case you’ve been too busy to get into the details, a quick summary of the changes:

  • Up to 4 ads will now display at the top of Google search result pages
  • No more text ads on the right-hand column (note that other ad types are unaffected, for example product listings)
  • Up to 3 ads will now be displayed at the bottom of pages
  • The changes only affect desktop and tablet, mobile remains unaffected (for now)

So how these SERPs changes impact your paid ad campaigns?

The truth is no one knows for certain yet (except Google, who most certainly tested these changes to ensure commercial advantage).

A few things we do know:

For organisations bidding on highly competitive keywords, CPC (cost per click) is bound to go up.

That said, one of the reasons Google rolled this out was poor click through rates on right-hand text ads, so it’s likely if your ads were displaying over there, your campaign probably wasn’t optimal anyway.

But if you were previously happy to coast along on the right hand side with fewer click throughs but reasonable conversion, it is now imperative that you review and refine your paid search strategy, and quickly—just because it worked last week doesn’t mean it’s been working this week.

Another impact is that the changes might mean organic results for your keywords are pushed further down with a fourth paid ad appearing above any organic results.

That said, according to a Google spokesperson quoted in The SEM Post, this will only affect a small number of “highly commercial queries”. So for B2B companies with extended and complex sales cycles, this may have very little real impact—if only in the very short term.

So while the critical points for success will remain the same (high quality content, positive user experience, a focus on quality scores, and close monitoring of conversion rates), marketers ignore the changes at their own peril.

If there was ever a time to analyse and improve your paid search strategy, now is it.

Finally, keep an eye on more changes to come as something will no doubt replace the right-hand text only ads.

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Five reasons your B2B paid search campaigns failed

By John Woods  |  May 4, 2015

Paid search – which usually means Google Adwords, sometimes in combination with other search channels like Bing Ads or Baidu – is a key part of most of the B2B marketing projects we work on at Sharp Ahead. We love it because it delivers great results for our clients – both incremental new business leads and increased conversions from leads sourced from other channels. And don’t let the “paid” part put you off. Used well, paid search is amazingly cost effective. Once you account for the time and effort costs of so-called “free” traffic (from SEO, social media and other forms of content marketing), paid search is likely to give the best ROI of all B2B digital marketing channels.

But there’s a paradox. With many of our new clients we find ourselves having a conversation like this:

Sharp Ahead: “We’re going to be using paid search as a key part of our lead generation strategy.”

Client: “Really? We tried paid search a while back and it didn’t work for us. We wasted a lot of money and gave up on it.”

We hear this story of “we tried paid search and it didn’t work so we gave up” again and again, but the contrast with our own work couldn’t be more stark. Done well, paid search delivers excellent results for almost every B2B digital marketing challenge. So why this difference in experience?

Paid search is complex and there are a lot of ways to get it wrong without even knowing it. Here are some of the key reasons why your previous paid search campaigns might have failed:

1. Not niche = not nice

It’s easy to set up a paid search campaign based on too broad a set of keywords. You’ll get lots of impressions and lots of clicks – and inevitably spend lots of money. But your B2B marketing proposition is specialist, so you should be focusing on long-tail keywords and highly specific search terms. If your keywords are too broad, most of the people who see your search ads won’t be good buyers. You’ll spend a lot of money on worthless clicks and your campaign will give poor value. A campaign that converts needs to target niche keywords.

2. Geographic gotchas

It’s likely that there will be some important geographic factors around your B2B proposition. Perhaps you only sell in particular regions, or you have a different story to tell depending on where the prospective customer is based. One of the most powerful things about paid search is the very fine and subtle control it gives you over geography. You can run ads only within very specific geographic regions, or exclude geographies that are not of interest, and show different ads to people in different geographic regions.  If you run a campaign without using these geographic controls, most of your ads will show to the wrong people and the consequences are the same as if you chose keywords that are too broad – wasted spend and poor results.

3. Poor persuaders

Ad copy really matters in paid search, and it’s a tricky art. It might seem easy – after all, there are just a few characters to play with – but crafting good search ad copy is a real skill. If your ad isn’t well written, it won’t get clicks from quality prospects and your campaign won’t deliver a return. This isn’t just about mass appeal: you need to craft an ad that attracts the attention of the niche market segments that are the potential buyers of your B2B proposition. And, of course, you need your ad copy to align with your brand positioning.  Remember, your ad needs to compete for attention with both your competitors’ ads and the natural search listings on the results page, so it has to get its message across effectively in order to get results.

4. Landing is lacking

So you choose good keywords, pick the right geographic options and write great ad copy. You get some great clicks. And you send them to your HOME PAGE? D’oh.  A great paid search campaigns needs great landing pages, with information that both clearly defines your business proposition and that is relevant to your advert copy – all within the first click. You won’t sell to anyone unless your landing pages give your potential customers the information, the persuasion and the opportunity for them to take action.

5. Measurement muddles

The last reason for campaign failure sounds crazy, but it’s a real issue: your campaign DID work and you just didn’t know it! How could that happen? Several ways, but one of the most common in B2B lead generation is that people see your paid search ad and it drives them to pick up the phone. (Seriously-engaged B2B buyers like the phone; it’s a time-efficient way to communicate and it lets them judge your company via a real human interaction.) It’s likely that you get inbound phone enquiries all the time from all sorts of sources, so unless you’ve taken special steps to keep track of paid search enquiries (like showing a unique phone number with paid search ads), you won’t be able to attribute results to your campaigns. In a recent campaign we found 80% of paid search enquiries came via inbound phone calls, with only 20% filling in the contact form on the landing page. Without sophisticated tracking and analysis tools in place, it would have been easy to misjudge the results and mistake a winning campaign for a failure.

Did you make any of those mistakes in a previous failed paid search campaign? If so, perhaps you should give paid search another try.

Ready to find out more? Please call on 0118 322 4395.

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Google is now your homepage

By John Woods  |  March 10, 2015

Have you done a search for your brand name on Google recently? If not, you might be surprised. Give it a try right now if you like–I’ll wait. (Pro tip: open an incognito window in your browser first, so you don’t get personalised search results.)

Since I don’t know your brand name, anonymous reader (I’m good at personalisation but not THAT good!), I will use the accountancy firm PwC as an example.

I am old enough to remember the Jurassic era of the internet. Way back then, a Google search result was just a hyperlinked heading and a snippet of summary text, much like this:

Blekko Search Result

 

PwC Google

But now the inhabitants of the internet have invented stone tools, tamed fire and developed the X Factor, Google has moved on:

PwC Google SERP

Now my example PwC is a BIG company with many, many locations. Let’s see what happens if we give Google a tiny extra hint:

PwC London Google SERP

Think for a moment about some of the things I can do from these two Google results pages:

• I can see a phone number for a nearby PwC office – so I don’t have to visit the homepage and find the “contact us” page

• I can see the address of a nearby PwC office, and a clickable map – so I don’t have to visit the homepage and find the “our office locations” page on the website

• I can use a dedicated search box to search the PwC website – so I don’t have to visit the homepage and find the site search engine

• I can go directly to the PwC Twitter, Google+ and YouTube accounts – so I don’t have to visit the homepage and find the “follow us on social media” functions.

• I can see navigation links (Google calls them “sitelinks”) that will take me direct to six different sections of the website – so I don’t have to visit the homepage and find the careers link, the graduate careers link and so on. (It’s interesting to speculate why Google has chosen these particular links.)

• I can see company information and news – so I don’t have to visit the homepage and find “about us” or “news” if I just want some basic info.

• And if all else fails – I can click on the top link and visit the homepage!

Spot the common theme here? Google has provided many ways that I can bypass the homepage and get straight to the information I want.

If I had been logged in to Google when I ran this search, I might have seen different results personalised for me; for instance I might have seen more sitelinks slanted for B2B decision makers rather than job seekers. These could have replaced even more homepage functions. But in my anonymous state, Google has realised I’m searching from the UK and has personalised the search results to have a UK slant (showing the PwC UK website, not pwc.com). Very useful. If instead I’d just typed “pwc.com” in the browser, I’d end up on the PwC global website not the UK site:

PwC Website

…and then I have to find the “international PwC sites” link and navigate to the UK site before I get anything specific to the UK.

Let’s think about this from a user’s perspective:

• The Google results page is offering me a better user experience than the PwC home page for a large number of common use cases–like finding a phone number, or seeing info from the UK site instead of the global site. The information I want is right there on the Google search engine results page (SERP).

• The Google results page is offering me a more consistent user experience. If I search for a different brand I’ll see much the same functionality presented in much the same way, whereas if I visit two brand homepages I’ll see big differences in layout.

Over time, this combination of a better and a more consistent user experience is going to drive Google’s users to rely less and less on homepage navigation and more and more on brand search results.

So, Google has become your brand’s homepage, or at least it has mirrored and in most cases refined many of the functions that your homepage is designed to perform. And over time, it’s likely that Google will take over more and more of your homepage’s functions. Whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing is irrelevant–Google has the initiative and there’s no going back.

This has some important consequences for B2B digital marketers:

• We need to stop thinking of the homepage as the first page in a user journey. For many, if not most users, the Google results page for your brand term is the first page of the user journey. Be familiar with that page and think of it as a key brand asset.

• Make sure your SEO team are aware of the things they can do to influence your brand results page, for instance providing location information via Google My Business.

• Natural search sitelinks are particularly important. They have a prominent position on the brand results page and they can be used to service important use cases like providing careers information for job seekers. Your SEO team can’t fully control these natural sitelinks, but they can influence them (using Google Webmaster Tools, for example).

• Paid search on brand terms is a way to take some control of the brand results page. Done well it can complement natural search and allow you to handle use cases for particular target segments.

Here’s an example of using paid brand search to complement natural search. See how the sitelinks in the paid ad for Expedia feature deals and city breaks, whereas the natural search links are mostly about flights and hotels. Combined, they provide better navigation options:

Expedia Google SERP

 

If Expedia’s brand ad wasn’t present on that results page, “Top City Breaks” would barely feature anywhere. A person looking for a city break might even give up at that point and search for a different brand name supplier.

So to recap: Google has now become your brand homepage. Internet users are learning that the Google results page for a brand term is the best place to find navigation links and other important functions, like site search and contact details. You can take advantage of this to offer a better user experience (and so better achieve your marketing objectives) by thinking of your brand search results page as the first page in the user journey, and by making full use of the various SEO and PPC tactics available to enable you to influence that page.

If nothing else: check your brand search results page regularly. Your prospective customers do.

Ready to find out more? Please call on 0118 9485 766.