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Google’s UX Algorithm Update Will Benefit Accessible Websites

May 18, 2021

Google has announced an upcoming "page experience update," along with an accompanying algorithm update to prioritize sites that pass certain user experience (UX) metrics. While initially planned for May, the update will begin affecting search rankings in mid-June; the changes will take full effect some time near the end of August.

Since Google rarely announces algorithm updates, some website owners are anticipating major changes. Fortunately, the search engine has provided extensive details about the new UX requirements, along with a basic idea of how the changes will work in practice.

The good news is that websites that prioritize accessibility will be in a great position to benefit. By understanding the metrics — and how they correspond to the principles of accessibility — designers can prepare for the upcoming rollout.

Understanding the New Ranking Factors in the Google UX Update

To be clear, the upcoming UX update will not directly consider accessibility as a ranking factor. However, according to John Mueller, Google’s Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst, accessibility plays an important role in search.

"... When sites are hard to use, people steer away from them anyway," Mueller wrote on Twitter, "so over time things like recommendations & other signals tend to drop away, resulting in the site being less visible in search too."

Over the next few months, Google’s algorithm will consider three page experience metrics, which webmasters can monitor through the company’s Search Console tool. Google will give a slight advantage to "easy-to-use" sites that receive passing grades. Let’s take a closer look at each signal.

Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)

This metric measures the loading time of a site’s largest visual element. In other words, sites with poorly optimized images will likely have a large LCP, while simple, clean sites are likely to receive a passing grade.

Many factors influence load speeds, including server response times, but excessive use of media is typically the most significant component. Sites built for accessibility are less likely to depend on visual media alone to communicate important information, since Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) success criteria require text alternatives except in limited circumstances. By using appropriate CSS, for example, accessible sites can load quickly without sacrificing aesthetics.

Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)

This criteria addresses unexpected shifts in the layout that occur as a page loads. If you’ve ever clicked on a link, only to have the page move suddenly and send you somewhere you didn’t want to go, you’ve experienced a site with CLS issues.

WCAG doesn’t directly address cumulative layout shift, but clear layout design is a fundamental aspect of the guidelines. A large, complex layout can be difficult or impossible to navigate with screen readers and other assistive technologies, and WCAG contains success criteria for presenting information and interactive elements in a logical way.

First Input Delay (FID)

This criteria measures the time from a user’s first interaction (a tap, click, or JavaScript control) to when their web browser begins responding to that command.

Again, FID isn’t directly addressed in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, but clean page design helps. When developers and programmers prioritize accessibility, they pay closer attention to site resources, often resulting in organic improvements in load times.

These metrics are defined by Google and do not correspond to individual WCAG criteria. Even so, their purpose — and Google’s emphasis on UX — is to make the web more efficient and usable for every individual, regardless of their connection speed, web browser, or other factors.

In other words, every search engine update that puts more emphasis on user experience should benefit accessible websites. As we’ve discussed in other articles, improving accessibility makes a site easier for search engines to interpret, which often results in better search rankings, and that trend will only accelerate as the major search engines pay closer attention to usability metrics.

Search Engines Continue to Prioritize Accessibility

Successful search engines prioritize real-world users, and many accessibility factors make sites easier for search engine spiders to read and interpret.

For example, search engines can easily read the content of a site with clear, descriptive headings, and those headings also make navigation and comprehension people for people. Image alt text improves the on-page experience for both search engine robots and certain users with disabilities.

Likewise, UX improvements can make a website less frustrating for some people with disabilities — and modern search engines recognize that those improvements benefit all users.

With that said, if your site isn’t currently accessible (or if it falls short of Google’s UX metrics) you’ll still have time to make changes. Per Google’s post:

"…while this update is designed to highlight pages that offer great user experiences, page experience remains one of many factors our systems take into account. Given this, sites generally should not expect drastic changes. In addition, because we're doing this as a gradual rollout, we will be able to monitor for any unexpected or unintended issues."

However, webmasters that want to take advantage of the update (and future algorithm changes) should take action. Accessibility isn’t a one-time project; it’s a long-term set of priorities that consider real-world users at every stage of development.

By adopting those priorities, your organization will broaden its audience considerably — and since search engines will continue to consider user experience as a ranking factor, every new algorithm update will help user-friendly websites build traffic.

Accessibility future-proofs your SEO strategy while providing practical improvements, and the earlier you adopt an accessible mindset, the better the benefits.

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