Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a vital piece of every school or district’s website strategy. The more often you show up in search results, the easier it is to build brand awareness, connect with your community, and potentially enroll new families.
But what do you think of when you think, “SEO?”
You probably think of keywords, or the terms you strategically include on your website to reach relevant audiences who are searching those same terms. And you’re not wrong; keyword choice greatly affects your performance in organic search. However, other factors behind-the-scenes — from secure website hosting to mobile-friendliness — can also determine the likelihood that your school or district’s website will show up on the first page of search results.
These factors come together to gauge user experience, and Google just announced an upcoming algorithm update that will take this into greater consideration, once again changing the way we think about SEO and web design.
What is Google’s Page Experience Update?
Google often goes through algorithm updates, but this particular one is important to pay attention to, as virtual experiences are at the center of school or district’s Digital Campus.
Think of it this way: How disappointing is it to search for something, click on a first-page result, and land on a website that is slow to load and difficult to interact with?
Similar to how Facebook gives precedence in the News Feed to content that its algorithm predicts you’ll be more likely to engage with, Google is aiming to provide both relevant and user-friendly websites with its page experience update.
In light of COVID-19, this update will not take place until 2021, and Google has agreed to send notice at least six months in advance of the rollout date. This means that schools and districts have time — and should take the time — to think about potential web updates to adjust for user experience.
To get you started, here is a high-level breakdown of everything that this update will take into consideration:
Safe Browsing, Security, and Mobile-Friendliness
Safety, security, and mobile-friendliness are the base user experience metrics that Google already considers as part of its search algorithm. These metrics are important to keep in mind now as you make updates to improve overall page experience.
Safe Browsing: This tests that the website doesn’t contain any malicious code (malware, phishing, deceptive content).
Security: Is the webpage served over HTTPS? This ensures a secure connection, and it tells Google that it’s a safe website to offer to users. You can check if your website is secure by following these steps.
Mobile-Friendliness: Is your website optimized for mobile devices? This is an increasingly important issue, as more and more users prefer mobile over desktop. Responsive design and easily accessible content all come into play when gauging mobile-friendliness.
(If you’re a Finalsite client, rest easy knowing that our team and platform check all three of these boxes for you automatically.)
Core Web Vitals
This is the newest piece of Google’s search ranking changes that have not yet gone into effect.
Coupled with the user experience metrics that are already taken into consideration, Core Web Vitals will help Google determine what web pages should be ranked higher in search results based on the expected on-page experience.
While the metric names that form Core Web Vitals may look intimidating, don’t let them overwhelm you! I’ll break them down for you:
Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): This is essentially site speed, or page loading performance. The LCP marks the moment when the main content on a page has likely loaded. In Google’s eyes, this should happen within 2.5 seconds when the page starts to load. Think back to my example at the beginning of this blog — it’s frustrating to click a link and wait for the page to load, right? This page experience update will help reduce the chances of getting those results!
First-Input Delay (FID): This gets deeper into the interactivity piece of user experience. FID measures the time between a user interacting with an element, like a button, and the time it takes for the website to respond to that action. Google suggests aiming for an FID of less than 100 milliseconds.
Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): If you’ve ever visited a website on your phone and went to tap a button, only to have that button shift down at the last minute, causing your finger to tap the wrong link — you just experienced an (annoying) cumulative layout shift. CLS measures visual stability, including any element that unexpectedly moves interrupts the page experience. The lower the CLS, the better!
What does this mean for my school or district’s website?
Now that we’re through all of the technical terms, you may be wondering what this means for your own school or district website. While user experience has always mattered, it matters even more now that it can potentially be the barrier that keeps your website from showing up in search results over another site. And while there are numerous factors that are going into Google’s page experience update, we can feasibly break them down into these checkpoints:
- Site Speed
- Page Design
First, is your website designed with a mobile-first mindset?
If you’re not sure if your school or district website is designed for mobile, one of the easiest tests is to simply visit the site on a mobile device. Does it look different from the desktop experience? On mobile, the navigation should respond in an expandable menu, and the text will ideally appear larger, as shown here.
And if you’re looking to get some data-driven feedback, Google offers its own mobile-friendly test through Search Console. Here, you can simply input your school or district’s web address, and Google will do its magic to test whether or not you have some work to do on the mobile front.
If your school or district’s website is not optimized for mobile devices, it may be time for a redesign. Mobile-first users are increasing in high numbers, and it’s important to ensure you’re reaching all audiences! Finalsite also offers a free website report card to offer personalized recommendations to optimize your experience.
Next, what does your site speed look like?
The first step you can take is to visit your website with an objective eye and judge whether or not it takes longer than what would be ideal to load.
Your website content, design, and hosting can all play a role in site speed. Let’s take a quick look at each.
Content is totally in your control — so if your site loads slower than you’d like, a first step is to cut down on image and video sizes. There are a few easy ways to do so:
- Use Finalsite’s Resources module: The Finalsite Platform’s Resources module will automatically compress your images for you based on which device website visitors are coming from to enhance site speed.
- Create templates and compress images: Tools like Canva and ImageOptim provide pre-sized templates and compress your images for you to keep images small to begin with.
- Upload images as jpegs with 72dpi: One quick way to ensure your images are taking up the smallest amount of bandwidth required is to ensure all images (excluding logos and decorative elements) are uploaded as jpegs — which are inherently smaller than PNG files. Additionally, resize images to be 72dpi if they are 300dpi. While 300dpi is necessary for print, it is not needed for a high resolution image on the web.
- Try to keep your videos short in length and downsample them.
Where and how your website is hosted will affect the load time of your website.
If you’re a Finalsite client, your site is hosted with Google Cloud hosting — the fastest website hosting available. With this fast and secure hosting, your website is served in a location closer to where your school actually is, speeding up the website experience even more. Plus, Finalsite uses Cloudflare as our content delivery network (CDN), which offers access to over 200 geographic locations that serve content based on users’ locations, reducing data load times!
If you’d like to get a deeper understanding of your site speed, there are a number of free tests available where you can test your URL and get real results with recommendations about what you can do to cut down your load speed.
Last, take a look at your overall web design.
The First Input Delay and Cumulative Layout Shift metrics — the Core Web Vitals that measure how quickly buttons respond and if elements move around the screen — may be difficult to determine on your own. These are largely attributed to the overall design of your website, and they may require a deeper dive to estimate how they may affect your school or district’s search rankings.
So before Google’s page experience update rolls out in 2021, I would ask you to answer one question: Has your website’s design been updated in the last 3 years?
While this information may feel overwhelming, SEO and user experience are more important now than ever before. And if your website hasn’t been updated in the last 3 years, it’s recommended to think about a redesign. Starting fresh will ensure the best foot forward not only in anticipation of this upcoming algorithm shift, but also in relation to your Digital Campus.
While Google has always taken into consideration some elements of user experience for its search rankings, its 2021 page experience update will start to change the way we think about SEO. In addition to offering helpful and engaging content for your community, your school or district will be challenged with ensuring the best-possible website experience as well. We’re shifting to a virtual-first mindset, so if you’re not sure where your website stands, ask Finalsite how we can help!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
In her position as Inbound Marketing Manager, Kristen provides the strategy and creation of content across email, website and social media communications at Finalsite. With over five years of experience in content strategy and digital marketing, Kristen has worked with clients around the country to develop their branding, SEM, SEO, social media, and inbound efforts. She holds and maintains a number of certifications from Google, Hubspot, and Hootsuite