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[Discussion] Prevent SEO decline due to Google "page experience": mid-June 2021
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Description

Background

One year ago, Google introduced Web Vitals, a set of measures of a Web site's usability. In November, 2020, Google announced that Web Vitals would be taken into account in search result rankings as of May 1, 2021, though the change was recently postponed to mid-June, 2021.

Currently, the banner system deployed on all Wikipedias, and nearly all WMF Wikis, impacts negatively on our Web Vitals scores (clearly demonstrated by declines in scores where banner campaigns are active). Banners are added to pages after initial page display, causing content to shift downwards. This affects our score on the Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) metric. Also, another metric that Google is rolling out at the same time, Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) significantly limits our options for switching to a different banner design (such as overlays).

These new metrics measure real problems with Web sites including ours. The content shift due to banner injection (the "banner bump") is a known usability problem, and causes measurable annoyance to people worldwide every day. See T138177: Content jumps after JavaScript is loaded and its subtasks.

While it's not yet known exactly how much our search rankings will decline due to this problem, it is known that they will decline, and the impact will probably be more severe for small language wikis, and in regions where connectivity is worse and people use slower devices. This is exactly where the movement is seeking to grow communities.

Overview of options

Two main sets of options exist for addressing this issue:

  • Change banner designs (for example, to small overlays, sticky headers or footers, or animated nags) so banners don't affect search rankings. Options here are limited, but not non-existent, though most, if not all, have other problems. T280477 explores these options.
  • Change the system that displays banners (CentralNotice) so that banners display right away, rather than after the page loads. This is a challenging engineering problem, because of how we choose which banners to show to users, and how our data centers are set up. However, I believe that a solution is almost certainly possible, at least in the medium term. This would make changing banner designs unnecessary. T283521 and T279034 are about possible technical solutions.

Other courses of action, which do not address the issue in a sustainable way, have also been suggested:

  • Do nothing for now, and just monitor search rankings to see if they really decline.
  • Shut down banners (completely or in part).
  • Show spiders a special version of each page, with no banners. (This wouldn't work, though, since Google will be taking measurements directly from Chrome user data. Also, this is explicitly not allowed, see T252200.)

Combinations of, or temporarily falling back to, multiple options, should probably also be considered.

Areas involved and balancing considerations

This problem cuts across concerns, teams and domains of expertise. It touches design, usability, reading, site reachability, movement growth, community campaigns, fundraising, performance and datacenter architecture.

This makes evaluating costs and benefits of different options difficult. How much engineering effort is it worth to prevent a likely decline in search rankings in places prioritized for movement growth? How much design work is it worth? Or, how much user annoyance (from Google-metric-friendly-but-flashy-and-annoying banners)?

Personally, I strongly favour an engineering solution, that is, fixing the system that displays banners, since that approach (1) solves a real usability problem without creating new ones, and (2) gives us the freedom to design usable, beautiful banners without concern for Google metrics or possible SEO impact.

Thanks!!


Here are some of our current scores for the Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) metric, with and without banners. Data from Google's PageSpeed Insights. The recommended maximum score for CLS is 0.1.

ArticlePlatformCLS no bannerCLS field dataCLS large FRCLS small FRCLS community
Barack ObamaDesktop0.0090.01 ✅0.2840.1710.749
Barack ObamaMobile0.1060.19 ❌1.0220.4970.365

Note 1: I hope this task can provide a space for constructive discussion about an important, complex problem, and I hope this is the right place for it. Thanks so so much in advance for sharing your thoughts.

Note 2: I am working on this on my own time, so, not as part of my work as an FR-Tech engineer. Unless otherwise noted, this task is not included in planned work by FR-Tech.

Thanks again!

Event Timeline

awight renamed this task from Overview and general discussion: Strategies to prevent search ranking decline due to banners and Google metrics coming into effect May 1, 2021 to [Discussion] Prevent SEO decline due to Google "page experience": May-June 2021.Apr 22 2021, 10:47 PM
awight triaged this task as High priority.
awight added a project: WMDE-Fundraising-Tech.
awight updated the task description. (Show Details)

I made some tiny changes to the task description and tagged WMDE-Fundraising-Tech who among others might already be tracking the risks posed by this "page experience" rollout.

DStrine lowered the priority of this task from High to Lowest.Apr 22 2021, 11:26 PM
AndyRussG raised the priority of this task from Lowest to High.Apr 22 2021, 11:26 PM
AndyRussG updated the task description. (Show Details)

PMs and managers have meetings in place to monitor SEO. This task isn't needed.

AndyRussG lowered the priority of this task from High to Lowest.EditedApr 22 2021, 11:31 PM

AndyRussG raised the priority of this task from Lowest to High.

Oops it was not my intention to change the priority on this task, that was either a mis-click or a Phab error, not sure which.

PMs and managers have meetings in place to monitor SEO. This task isn't needed.

I would like to suggest that even with PMs and managers discussing options, this topic still needs open discussion in a space like this, please. Thanks so much.

AndyRussG renamed this task from [Discussion] Prevent SEO decline due to Google "page experience": May-June 2021 to [Discussion] Prevent SEO decline due to Google "page experience": mid-June 2021.Apr 23 2021, 12:49 AM
AndyRussG updated the task description. (Show Details)

Just another quick thought... if there are concerns that the banner bump is somehow needed to get users' attention, and that's causing people to worry about an engineering solution... there would be a way to achieve a similar "bump" effect without impacting SEO.

As pointed out by @Gilles in T279034#7012796, after users start interacting with the page, further changes are not taken into account by the LCP metric. So, any time after users start scrolling, overlay animations of any size are fine. For example, immediately after scrolling starts, or potentially on a delay if desired, banners could get bigger, overlaying some content, to get the user's attention. And many other sorts of attention-getting animation, besides increasing banner size, would also be fine at that time, from an SEO perspective.

Hope this is helpful!! :) Thanks so much!

Thank you, @AndyRussG this information is very helpful. For the desktop banners of WMDE we have a static 7-second delay before bumping the page content down. I can propose adding an interaction check before displaying point to this discussion. The decision will be made by other people in WMDE.
If CentralNotice would provide such an interaction check that would be nice, if it doesn't I think we can come up with something.

Thank you, @AndyRussG this information is very helpful. For the desktop banners of WMDE we have a static 7-second delay before bumping the page content down. I can propose adding an interaction check before displaying point to this discussion. The decision will be made by other people in WMDE.

Hi @gabriel-wmde! Right... Ah, many apologies, I think I wasn't clear... What I was referring to with "a way to achieve a similar bump effect", above, unfortunately doesn't include anything that bumps the content down, but rather other kinds of animation, like overlays. That's because the two metrics involved work a bit differently.

So, it's only in the case of the LCP metric that changes are not taken into account after users start interacting with the page: "The browser will stop reporting new entries as soon as the user interacts with the page (via a tap, scroll, or keypress) [...]" This is the metric that can cause problems for overlays. So, once interactions start, overlays are OK, as regards SEO metrics.

On the other hand, the CLS metric, which measures layout shift, will continue to report entries. Certain kinds of user interactions, like clicks or taps, will prevent a layout shift from being reported, but only if the shift occurs within 500 ms of the interaction. "Layout shifts that occur within 500 milliseconds of user input will have the hadRecentInput flag set, so they can be excluded from calculations." So, if a click or a tap causes a layout shift, it's OK, but otherwise, it's not.

You can check the scores generated by banners (in lab conditions) with PageSpeed Insights. For example, a typical WMF mobile Fundraising banner causes a CLS score of 0.916, which is only... 9 times higher than the recommended maximum score of 0.1:

Screenshot_2021-04-28 PageSpeed Insights.png (544×1 px, 106 KB)

Since the WMDE banners push content down on a delay, I think, unfortunately, they'll have to change, even if we get an engineering solution to the current JS/background-loading banner bump. I couldn't get an actual score result with that tool for a WMDE banner, probably because the delay was too long. But you could make a test banner with a shorter delay to verify what score it would get. In the end, I think the most similar option for this type of banner would indeed be a small overlay or other animation of some sort after the user starts scrolling. In that case, an engineering solution to the CentralNotice banner bump would still be helpful (assuming you wish to show at least some banner content as soon as the page loads, in case the user navigates away without scrolling or interacting at all).

Another option (one that doesn't depend on a fix for the banner bump) could be to show no banner content initially, and then always show a small overlay banner on a delay, using JavaScript to measure the viewport and ensure the banner is small enough that it doesn't impact the LCP metric.

See also T280477: Study options and designs for banner formats to prevent search ranking decline for more notes on possible banner formats and Google's new metrics.

I hope this is useful! :)

If CentralNotice would provide such an interaction check that would be nice, if it doesn't I think we can come up with something.

Yeah, great idea, thanks so much!!!

Great to hear that discussions are happening—it would be nice if anyone could link to meeting minutes or other outcomes, since the mid-June deadline is approaching quickly and it still looks like a technical solution is required. It's worth noting that a quarterly planning cycle will be too slow in this case, no resources are dedicated at the moment and two weeks is too little time for development.

Meanwhile, it seems like next steps could be the investigations in T280477: Study options and designs for banner formats to prevent search ranking decline and subtasks, to determine:

  • How CentralNotice banners affect LCP and CLS metrics. This can already be measured directly.
  • How the metrics decline will affect our search ranking. Estimate how this will impact readership.

Maybe the results of that investigation will inform the various stakeholders and will give us a more accurate sense of urgency.

I missed your comment when writing, sorry! Of course you're already making the exact measurements of how we're impacting metrics... That's a scary initial finding that our CLS is 9x the recommended maximum. If you find the time, could you also show us how big of a jump this is over the baseline, a wiki page with no banners displayed?

I also started wondering whether our variable treatment of different visitors will be detected as "cloaking"? In other words, if the spider doesn't support cookies so we suppress banners automatically, while delivering banners to nearly 100% of Chrome users... we are de facto cloaking.

I also started wondering whether our variable treatment of different visitors will be detected as "cloaking"? In other words, if the spider doesn't support cookies so we suppress banners automatically, while delivering banners to nearly 100% of Chrome users... we are de facto cloaking.

The Core Web Vitals scores are not measured by a spider/googlebot, but are based on data collected from Chrome users visiting the pages https://support.google.com/webmasters/thread/104436075

Regarding cloaking,

The Core Web Vitals scores are not measured by a spider/googlebot, but are based on data collected from Chrome users visiting the pages https://support.google.com/webmasters/thread/104436075

I think we're on the same page—the new metrics are a separate issue, but I confused things by mentioning Chrome users. The reason I bring it up in this context is that, as we consider potential alternatives to improve MediaWiki it's important for SEO that we don't accidentally build a system which serves banners to normal browsers, but no banners to spiders because they're rejecting cookies for example. I think we might already have a bit of this going on, and I wonder if we have a secret "exception" hardcoded by Google, etc. The nondetermistic banner choice already brings up interesting questions about how cloaking is detected.

Just want to share that we have dashboards for the Google Web Vitals:
https://grafana.wikimedia.org/d/t_bhsNGMk/chrome-user-experience-report

Just want to share that we have dashboards for the Google Web Vitals:
https://grafana.wikimedia.org/d/t_bhsNGMk/chrome-user-experience-report

Fantastic, thanks! Just to call out one detail from these graphs, the Cumulative Layout Shift has been getting steadily worse, the "poor" rated pageviews have tripled from roughly 5% to 15% in the last two weeks. Could this be related to a fundraising campaign? Do we understand why the downward trend is moving so linearly, is there some type of moving window average disguising a step change?