I apologize in advance for the “clickbait” title that doubtless brought you to this page. The fact is that no study has gone and proven that A/B testing has a positive impact on your pages’ ranking in Google results. Nevertheless, A/B testing is the perfect method for validating optimization ideas that more often than not aims to improve users’ experience, encouraging their conversion. Therein lies the link between A/B testing and SEO: the user experience.
For a long time now, people have believed that there exists no correlation between acquiring user traffic (whatever the gauge, including SEO) from the user’s experience and conversion. There is no better evidence for this than how most advertisers organize themselves: different teams manage acquisition, the user experience, and conversion. The job of a Conversion Manager is still not common while many advertisers already have people responsible for acquiring web traffic on their payroll. In the worst cases, there is nobody to manage optimization, or the task falls to the web analyst or the head of web products, neither of whom is 100% committed. At the same time, designers are the only people who manage the user experience part of the website, despite all the impact it has on conversion and the cost-effectiveness of acquisition campaigns.
Interaction between these three stakeholders does not always happen without difficulty. What SEO analyst hasn’t already asked themselves the following question: “We aren’t going to touch this page, because it has a good ranking in search results and making any modifications risks losing that ranking?” Conversely, how many designers have always opposed the recommendations of an SEO analyst who wanted to add more textual content, of which Google is so fond, so as not to impact on the user experience or simply their design? For a long time, UX and SEO have been in opposition, to the point of being considered incompatible.
Today, this is no longer the case, mainly because Google itself has taken user experience criteria into account in its algorithm, requiring webmasters to do the same. Several statements released by the search engine hint at this, starting with their recommendations for webmasters:
“Google’s goal is to provide users with the most relevant results and a great user experience”(Source)
Another statement from a Google spokesperson entirely concurs:
“Because at Google we are aiming to provide a great user experience on any device, we’re making a big push to ensure the search results we deliver reflect this principle. We want users to be able to enjoy the web wherever they are.” (Source)
Over the past few years, several changes or additions to the ranking criteria in the algorithm have reflected Google’s desire to offer users an improved search experience, which depends largely on the quality of the sites displayed in its results. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list.
This update, the first version of which was released in February 2011, makes identifying quality sites automatic thanks to artificial intelligence based on an initially human grading system (the “quality raters” team). Find out more.
Fetch & Render
Google is able to analyze not only the code of a web or mobile page but also its final rendering, which, for example, allows the company to identify sites that aren’t suited for mobile browsing because the text is too small, the links too close together and hard to click on, or because the user needs to scroll sideways or to zoom in to read the contents. Find out more.
This update to the algorithm penalizes sites that display too much advertising at the top of the page, which has a net effect of making some useful content – i.e., content that corresponds to a user’s search, less easily identifiable. Find out more.
The speed at which a page loads is a criterion that is taken into account when a site, its indexing, and its ranking are explored. Though this criterion almost certainly increases the burden on Google’s servers, its impact on the user experience and conversion are no longer in dispute. Find out more.
Given the growing number of searches performed from mobile devices, Google has increased the importance of having a mobile version of your site to offer a user experience worthy of the name on a device with a reduced display and reduced network performance (connection speed…). Find out more.
The HTTPS secure protocol has been officially taken into account by the ranking algorithm since March 2015. Google now grants a very slight bonus to secure sites. This will probably encourage webmasters to offer safer, more secure browsing, which will be of net benefit to the end user. Find out more.
Google takes criteria linked to user engagement into account on sites it offers in its search results. Notably, a study conducted by Searchmetrics emphasizes the fact that the click through rate on the search snippet was the number one ranking criterion on Google.com in 2014. Other criteria, such as the bounce rate on the site or the time spent browsing the site are also taken into account. The notion of Pogo Sticking – clicking on a search result and quickly going back to the Google results page to click on another result or rephrase the search terms – has also been mentioned the past few years. Find out more.
Site Link Search Box
Google is also constantly looking to improve access to relevant content for the user and, by extension, to their search experience. As part of what it calls “navigational queries”, those search queries that aim to find a well-known website (e.g., searching for the name of a brand rather than typing in its URL directly), Google now offers a search field with autocomplete that sends the users directly to search results for the site in question. Find out more.
Quick Answer Box
In the same vein as the Site Link Search Box, Google offers answers to users’ frequently asked questions itself, all part of its aim to make information easier to access. Find out more.
Structured data is taken into account to allow Google to better understand its content. The differentiation of search engine results pages by displaying rich snippets (images, breadcrumbs, notes, and reviews…) that have a strong impact on the click-through rate on search results encourages webmasters to structure their content better to the benefit of the user. Find out more.
The user experience, one of the keys to SEO in 2015
Even if it is difficult to quantify the weighting behind each of these criteria in Google’s ranking algorithm, they are a good illustration that the user experience is a key point addressed by Google to improve its users’ search experience. Some of these criteria, like the click-through rate on search results and the speed at which pages load, have actually been taken into account in the quality score calculation for some time when evaluating the quality of AdWords campaigns. It is no wonder, then, that they have been adopted for natural results.
Optimising the user experience is thus a line of work that should not be overlooked when improving your site’s ranking in search engine results, and will also turn out to be beneficial for your other acquisition sources (sponsored links, affiliation, emails, display, etc.). Increasing your conversion rates means you will increase the cost-effectiveness of your campaigns, which means higher budgets are justifiable.
Among the disciplines that are closely linked to improving the user experience, A/B testing is increasingly favored, and is now the top priority in advertisers’ minds, as this study shows. By helping you to optimize the routes your users take and their browsing experience, A/B testing can therefore potentially increase your natural SEO. What’s more, Google has made its position regarding A/B testing clear in this notice, in which the company makes clear that it has nothing against the practice, and that it does not have a negative impact on your pages’ crawling, indexing or ranking, provided the user agent does not think you are displaying different versions.