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July 22, 2013

Google’s Algorithm Evolution Drives Smarter User Experience

Thought by Jim Doria, Information Architect

Recently at FFW we’ve seen a significant increase in our User Experience (UX) related engagements, either as a stand-alone project or as part of a larger Drupal site re-design effort. I think part of the uptick in interest in user experience is coming from Google. Clients are finding that user experience and usability issues that used to be given a pass by the Googlebots are now being detected, and their search rankings are telling the tale.

Google’s ranking algorithms have evolved over time. It used to be that Google's robots were not smart enough to understand the user experience elements of how a site was structured. But Google undertook a massive effort over the last two years to improve their rankings in this area. They created a separate machine-learning algorithm called Panda, and then had human auditors rate thousands of sites on a variety of factors related to site quality and usability. The results were fed into the algorithm, which is now part of the program used to determine priority in the results Google returns.

A later update, called Penguin, took further steps to rank sites based on Google’s Webmaster guidelines, which include prescriptions for building sites that are well-structured and easy to navigate. Google also scores sites based on quality of user experience when computing advertising rates.

Google really gets the value of user experience. They thrive by serving the best sites first, and the best sites are those that tailor the design and performance of the site around the real people who will ultimately be visiting. And it's not just improved search rankings - site designs that put the user first deliver better on conversion, task completion, or any other business goal you care to measure.

That’s why I'm always excited to field these kinds of inquiries, because UX has become so much more agile over the last few years, with new tools and technologies that let us very quickly gather both hard data and individual user insights (quantitative and qualitative measurements) to inform our design efforts. Next time, I’ll share some of the cool toys we have at our disposal to measure and refine user experience so that visitors - and Google - are happy with what they find.