This May Google will be releasing an update to introduce a new ranking signal for Search in an effort to put user experience at the forefront of its algorithm. The update will combine new Core Web Vitals metrics with existing user experience-related signals to ensure that the websites with the highest quality page experience will rank higher in Google’s search results.
It’s no secret that users prefer websites that have a great page experience. But with this imminent algorithm update, it’s never been more critical for site owners to understand the new page experience metrics Google will be evaluating them on, and learn how to optimize their site to perform highly in each score. In this blog post, I’ll unpack what these new ranking signals are and share some tips to help you improve your Core Web Vitals scores so your website is set up for SEO success in May.
What Are Core Web Vitals?
Core Web Vitals are a combination of metrics that measure the speed, responsiveness and visual stability of a page as it loads for users. Specifically, these metrics include:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) – Largest contentful paint assesses how long it takes for a page’s main content to load. An ideal LCP measurement is 2.5 seconds or faster.
- First Input Delay (FID) – First input delay measures the time it takes for a page to become responsive and ready for users to interact with it. An ideal FID measurement is less than 100 milliseconds.
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) – Cumulative layout shift evaluates the stability of a page and measures how often users experience an unexpected movement of visual page element. An ideal CLS measurement is less than 0.1 shifts, with a score of 0 being a fully static page.
Although these three Core Web Vitals had previously existed as part of Google Lighthouse Scores, the search engine now weighs them more strongly as essential “page experience” signals, which provide a holistic assessment for a site’s user experience. The complete “page experience” signal combines the above Core Web Vitals with the following existing UX qualities:
- Mobile-Friendliness – Mobile-Friendliness considers how easily a user can navigate and interact with a website on a variety of mobile devices. This includes responsive design for screen size, the readability of page content and whether on-page elements are easily accessible on mobile.
- Safe-Browsing – Safe-Browsing assesses whether a website contains malicious or deceptive content to ensure users can browse safely without malware or phishing attacks. This can include known security vulnerabilities of a site’s codebase.
- HTTPS – HTTPS determines whether the website is served over HTTPS, as recommended by Google, and whether the website’s connection is secure.
- Non-Intrusive Interstitials – Non-Intrusive Interstitials are essentially popup ads, or barriers that block a page’s content. This measures whether the on-page content is easily accessible and free from obstructions as users are browsing.
Using Google’s Tools to Measure Your Site’s Core Web Vitals
According to a study published by Screaming Frog in August 2020, less than 15% of websites were optimized well enough to pass a Core Vitals assessment. That means right now, sites that haven’t been updated or redesigned within the last couple years potentially wouldn’t pass a Core Vitals assessment without optimization.
With the algorithm update quickly approaching, many site owners are taking advantage of Google’s set of tools to identify opportunities for improvement and prepare their websites for the new “page experience” signals. Here are the tools Google currently offers that you can use to measure your site’s Core Web Vitals and uncover insights on how to optimize page experience:
- Search Console – Google Search Console now provides a dedicated Core Web Vitals report to help site owners quickly identify opportunities for improvement.
- Lighthouse – Google Lighthouse was recently upgraded to version 6.0 to include LCP and CLS audits, and incorporate Core Web Vitals in the overall performance score. Lighthouse also includes a Total Blocking Time (TBT) audit, which correlates with the FID Core Web Vitals metric. Lighthouse is already built into and can be found via Chrome DevTools.
- Chrome DevTools – Chrome DevTools is a set of web developer tools built directly into Google Chrome, and has been updated to help site owners identify and fix visual instability issues that can affect its Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) score. It also measures TBT, which can be helpful for improving the FID Core Web Vitals score.
- PageSpeed Insights – Google PageSpeed Insights has been upgraded to use Lighthouse 6.0, which means it now provides Core Web Vitals information and recommendations in both the lab and field sections of the report.
- Chrome User Experience Report – The Chrome UX Report provides user experience metrics and can be used to quickly assess the performance of all three Core Web Vital signals.
- Web Vitals Chrome Extension – This new Chrome extension captures all three Core Web Vital signals and displays a badge that indicates whether a URL passes the Core Web Vital thresholds as a user navigates the web.
While all these methods should theoretically provide the same information from Google, I recommend using DevTools to assess your Core Web Vitals as you can sometimes find discrepancies between Lighthouse and PageSpeed Insights, which can make it harder to determine the actual source of truth. Although you’d have to use a Chrome Browser, ideally with no add-ons or better yet in Incognito Mode, the ability to do page assessments is already built into the browser, and it provides detailed explanations for how various scores are assessed.
Tips for Optimizing Your Site’s Core Web Vitals
Incorporating page experience optimization into your web and SEO strategy can help improve your site’s page experience signals and future-proof your website’s performance, leading to stronger SEO and higher traffic in the long term. Page experience optimization is especially important for marketing websites intended to generate leads and conversions, as leads and conversion rates that traditionally come in via Search will likely drop if these Core Web Vital signals aren’t addressed. In some cases, web developers might even need to reconsider their user journeys and reposition forms or CTAs to ensure the website still performs well in Search, while maintaining a clear path to conversion.
To help optimize your website before the upcoming algorithm change, here are some tactical tips for improving your Core Web Vital scores.
Improving Your Site’s Largest Contentful Paint
Improving your largest contentful paint score might require optimizing images or videos on your homepage, or updating plugins that slow down load times. With that in mind, here are a few things you can do to improve your site’s LCP score:
- Upgrade your web host to improve faster overall load times.
- Preload your page’s main on-page element to speed up the visual load time, or remove any large page elements that might be slowing down your LCP.
- Remove any unnecessary plugins that are slowing down your load time.
- Optimize images to be less than 1 MB.
Improving Your Site’s First Input Delay
Your first input delay score is crucial for reducing waiting times between user interactions and browser responses, especially for a log-in or sign-up page where users need to quickly click on something. Here are a few tips to help optimize your FID score:
- Compress or remove unused CSS code on CSS heavy pages.
- Remove any third-party scripts impacting interaction latency.
Improving Your Site’s Cumulative Layout Shift
If the elements on your page unexpectedly move around as the page loads, there’s likely a large opportunity to improve your CLS score. Below are a few tips that might help:
- Reserve space in the page’s layout structure for embeds or ads to load into so they don’t push around content or suddenly appear on the page.
- Preload or locally host your fonts to avoid them causing layout shifts throughout the website.
- Insert dynamic content, like newsletter sign-up forms or banners, below existing content so it doesn’t push the expected content down.
Optimizing your site for a quality user experience will be the key to both long-term SEO success, and, ultimately, bottom-line business success as users become more engaged and enjoy a seamless experience with your brand online. Feeling overwhelmed by the upcoming algorithm update? Walker Sands can help. Get in touch to see how our web team can help set your website up for success.