Lifting the lid on Google's Core Web Vitals

SEO

After an undeniably disruptive 2020 it seems that, for marketers at least, the hard work is not yet done – with Google now just three months away from rolling out its highly significant ‘Core Web Vitals’ search algorithm update, which will likely deliver rankings benefit for those sites that are optimised against a specific set of performance-based page experience signals.

If your business relies on organic traffic then, what can you do to prepare for this update, and ensure you maintain both your position in the search results and that crucial competitive advantage?

Lifting the lid on Google’s Core Web Vitals

On Thursday 11th February at 9am GMT, we hosted a discussion to explore these questions in more detail, delving into the specifics of the Core Web Vitals update and the technical fixes that will help ensure your website performs against Google’s ranking metrics. Catch up with the recording on demand at https://vimeo.com/boxuk/core-web-vitals.

As we outlined in our recent insight, even if you feel your website is performing well for users this doesn’t mean that it will measure up against the page experience signals Google is prioritising in its Core Web Vitals update – putting you at risk of losing visibility in the search results, and missing out on valuable organic traffic as a result.

And, if your competitors are already taking steps to optimise their sites for the update you may find yourself struggling to play catch-up as they reap the rewards from the change. All of which is to say that this is not an issue you can afford to ignore for long…

Our experts

The session brought together expert professionals from the worlds of SEO, marketing and development to explore Core Web Vitals from every angle, and provide practical tips for organisations looking to protect search traffic for their business:

Lisa James, Head of Marketing at Box UK

Head of Marketing at Box UK, Lisa is a dynamic and performance-driven marketer with over 16 years’ experience. Having spent the past 10 years in the technology space, she is passionate about the use of tech to drive business growth.

Joanna Jeske, Client Account Director at SEO Found

SEO Account Director at multi award-winning digital growth agency, Found, Joanna has over 7 years of experience in driving strategy and growth for her SEO client accounts and coordinates SEO projects for brands operating across international markets on a variety of platforms.

Pete Withers-Jones, Head of Development at Box UK

Pete has been developing software and web projects for over two decades. Having managed the delivery of numerous complex projects over this time, he has first-hand experience of the challenges presented when working with performance issues such as those discussed today.

Key insights include:

PageSpeed really matters

As the session explored, Core Web Vitals look set to play a crucial role in how well your website performs in Google’s search rankings – however, the importance of fast-loading pages goes well beyond this. Joanna explained how, if you’re a marketer, PageSpeed is probably already affecting your campaigns and conversion funnels, and should be treated as a key user experience metric and certainly not just a technical issue for developers to deal with.

To emphasise this point, Joanna referenced several fascinating statistics showing how slow PageSpeed directly impacts bounce rate, sales, conversions and quality scores. One particularly interesting study even found that experiencing mobile delays is comparable in terms of stress levels to watching a horror movie! All of which makes a strong case for investing in improving your loading times, to support all aspects of your business performance.

Core Web Vitals are highly-specific…

Google makes hundreds of changes to their ranking factors each year, but the fact that they announced the Core Web Vitals update twelve months ahead of its rollout shows that they really want website owners to take action. This has led to many organisations grappling with metrics they’ve previously been unaware of, and which may appear highly complex from the outside. Joanna’s summary of the new set of page experience signals that make up the Core Web Vitals update provided some valuable clarity, covering:

 

  • Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): this reports the render time of the largest image or text block visible within the viewport – essentially measuring how long your site takes to load.

    First Input Delay (FID): this measures how quickly your site becomes interactive, by tracking how long it takes for the page to respond to clicks, page scrolls, button taps etc.

    Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): this metric measures how long it takes for your site to become stable, as images and other elements are loaded.

 

You can easily assess how well your site currently performs against these metrics by plugging your URLs into Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool.

… but this means actions for improvement are clear

If your PageSpeed Insights tool results reveal that your site is in the red or amber zone for any of the Core Web Vitals metrics, it’s vital that you take action to improve performance, and put you in the green zone. There are many fixes that can help you achieve this, and Box UK’s Pete Withers-Jones provided a whistle-stop tour of some of the most common approaches.

Changes made at a content, platform and infrastructure level can all support performance improvements, and the approaches Pete covered provide a handy checklist against which to assess your own website. As Pete also pointed out though, every website is different and will require its own combination of fixes to receive a green ranking in Google, requiring an iterative ‘test and learn’ approach based on a detailed understanding of your technology ecosystem.

Not all fixes are created equal

Your own roadmap to Core Web Vitals success will of course be informed by your initial assessment, enabling you to prioritise those fixes that will have the largest positive impact on your scores. However, it’s also important to understand the effort that will be required to implement these fixes, to get an accurate picture of return on investment and enable you to secure any additional resources you may need prior to implementation.

Fixes can range from optimising image files across your site (something marketers can easily manage), to the installation of content delivery networks, lazy-loading content, and setting the most important content on your pages to load first – all of which require specific development expertise to implement correctly. To help businesses understand the implications of each fix Pete provided helpful summaries of development requirements and general difficulty ratings, as well as supporting plugins where available.

Doing nothing is not an option

Performance can be seen as a more intangible metric when compared to feature development, particularly as we’re looking at specific measured performance rather than what may be felt or perceived. However, both Joanna and Pete made it clear that businesses must take the Core Web Vitals update seriously, taking necessary action and viewing it as a development project like any other. While it may be tempting to look for quick ‘fixes’, if these don’t get you into the green zone then you’re not going to be making the best use of your investment – a situation Joanna likened to having a half-baked cake, that just doesn’t do the job it’s meant to.

Questions from our guests

My website score is pretty good, my mobile score is pretty poor. Should I still be working on improving my core web vitals? 

  •  

Put simply, yes. Google is really prioritising the mobile experience with their mobile-first indexing so if you really want to secure or improve your rankings, you need to look at mobile performance.

What are your favourite tools for measuring Core Web Vitals?

We prefer the Google Lighthouse plugin that you can install in your Chrome browser. Or, as an alternative, the Google PageSpeed Insight tool. The advantage of Lighthouse of course is that it’s so easy to use – you just click on the icon and it generates the report for your page.

Is it enough to only focus on Core Web Vitals going forward? In other words not taking into account the other items reported in Google PageSpeed Insights.

It’s important to say that PageSpeed is already a ranking factor, and so what Google have done now is added a set of metrics related to user experience – looking at how the user experiences the PageSpeed.

So yes, Core Web Vitals are important but if your server isn’t fast enough to respond to the demands of your site, whatever you do around these newer metrics isn’t really going to help, and your site will still be seen as slow. Meaning that it’s important to make sure you look at all the important items flagged in the PageSpeed report and address them.

Of all the items listed today to improve the Core Web Vitals scores, where do I get the biggest bang for my buck?

The thing to take away, if nothing else is, is the whole idea of browser caching and optimising images (and anything else) that are being downloaded. Remember that the less round trips you make to the web servers, and the shorter those trips are, the better your performance will be.

What impact should you expect (SEO and beyond) of say a 10% increase in PageSpeed?

Unfortunately there is no exact number, but what we do know is that there’s a positive correlation between PageSpeed and conversions. But don’t forget to optimise the whole funnel and not just the landing page, or final conversion page!

Is there a good way of measuring the impact of PageSpeed?

Definitely benchmark your performance before you begin and then give things a go, testing all the time. And as you improve the PageSpeed, you monitor your goals, conversions and rankings – building a picture of the impact your changes are having over time.

Is there anything that you shouldn’t be doing?

Don’t do nothing of course, but also don’t just look for the quickest way to fix something. Invest in fixing it properly for the best results, and if that means development work, then it means development work. Plus don’t do it all at once – because making step-by-step improvements will allow you to test how your site reacts to the changes and prevent you from investing lots of time in something that it transpires isn’t really needed.

What’s next?

To understand how well your website is performing in Google’s eyes, head over to their PageSpeed Insights tool (https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/), which will score your site against the various page experience signals. If you’re in the amber or red zone (as we covered in the webinar, pay most attention to your mobile result) it’s important to take action – a challenging task for sure, but not an impossible one.

At Box UK we’ve seen the impact performance improvements can have on the success of our clients’ websites and businesses, and with experience meeting the specific demands of Google’s page experience signals – as well as a long history of optimising digital platforms against a wide range of criteria – we’re extremely well-placed to help you on your Core Web Vitals journey. Visit https://www.boxuk.com/our-work/ to find out more about the work we’ve done previously, or contact us now at info@boxuk.com to discuss your specific questions and goals with a member of our team.