You would expect Google to reward web pages that provide a better user experience with a ranking advantage. So which parts of user experience are most important?   

In Searchmetrics’ annual study of the characteristics of pages with a high Google ranking and the key factors that correlate with (or are more likely to appear on) these pages, we found that relevant, quality and easy to understand content is now more important than ever.

That is no surprise, and continues a long-term trend. However we also found evidence that factors that enhance the user experience are also playing a role.

These factors are primarily aspects of design and usability and fit somewhere between technical considerations and the content itself.

Essentially, how is content displayed on-page, and how is this optimised for the user and their particular device?

The research highlights a variety of factors that impact the user experience, and therefore seem to be important for ranking higher.

Here are five of the ones we looked at:

Responsive design

With more people now accessing the internet through mobile devices than traditional PCs (and the ranking disadvantage for sites that aren’t mobile friendly after Google’s mobile update), it shouldn’t be a surprise that pages that use responsive design correlate with higher rankings.

On average 30% of sites that appear in the top 30 Google US search results use responsive design. The real percentage may actually be higher because we only studied the most common JavaScript patterns for responsive design, but there are several others.

 

Interactive elements

Higher ranking pages contain a greater proportion of components such as menus, buttons or other interactive elements on the page. These are designed to make the page and the whole site easier to use and more intuitive.

The fact that these elements tend to appear more often on high ranking pages reinforces the importance of structured content. 

Internal links

Compared with 2014, the number of internal links per page in the top 10 and top 30 rankings has increased.

For those in the top 10 rankings, the average has risen 131 to 150, while in the top 30 it has grown from an average of 115 to 132.

This doesn’t mean that marketers should simply add more links to their pages. Far from it.

What counts is not the total number of links, but how they guide people to other useful and related content. So don’t overuse internal links, but provide links to relevant related pages to enhance and improve the user journey.

Images

We all know that pictures can make a story more powerful, and that seems to be borne out when it comes to ranking factors.

Websites that rank in the top 30 use around 25% more images in their landing pages compared to a year ago.

Images add readability, increase the time spent on site and generally enhance the user experience, leading to the correlation with higher rankings.

Some keyword searches even lead to picture galleries ranking highest, as the intent is obviously image-based. For example if you search for ‘hairstyle trends 2015’.

Images also help attract users through Google’s image search function.

Unordered lists/bullet points

Unordered lists, such as bullet point lists help improve the structure of a page, and therefore make it easier to read and absorb the content.

These lists are most useful in the content itself but are also often part of the navigation section, footer or sidebars.

In our analysis around half of all URLs ranked second include unordered lists. Even for pages that rank 30th position in search results, 40% included unordered lists.

(Note: it’s likely that numeric lists also have a similar relationship with high ranking pages, although we didn’t include this area in this study).

 

When it comes to the user experience and rankings, other related and important factors are user signals. These are metrics such as click-through rates from search results, the amount of time spent on a site and bounce rates. 

User signals give Google an insight into whether a site is providing users with meaningful content and a good user experience. Essentially did the site deliver the information that the user was searching for, in the format they found easy to use?

Google has the ability to measure these user signals through its product portfolio.For example the Chrome browser (which has 50% market share), and is likely to be incorporating them into rankings decisions.

The results of the Searchmetrics Ranking Factors study demonstrate that in addition to quality content, a really good user experience is important for high rankings.  So if you want your site to rank well, every part of it has to be designed in a relevant, logical way with the user in mind.

About the data:
The Searchmetrics Search Ranking Factors and Rank Correlations – Google US 2015 study analysed the top 30 search results for 10,000 relevant keywords, which adds up to approximately 300,000 websites appearing on Google.com. The aim of the analysis (which has been carried out every year since 2012) is to identify the key factors that high ranking web pages have in common and provide insights and benchmarks to help marketers, webmasters and SEO professionals.