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In May 2020, Google announced an impending change to its search-ranking algorithm: Coming in 2021, Google will release a page-experience update that includes its Core Web Vitals as a ranking factor for every website.
While Google assures website owners the algorithm updates "will not happen before next year, and we will provide at least 6 months’ notice before they're rolled out," it's never too early to start planning and preparing your website for the inevitable.
The question is, how can you keep your rankings from being negatively affected by the Google page-experience update?
We'll not only cover the specifics of the update, but we'll go over in detail how you can prepare your website and search engine optimization (SEO) strategy to make sure your rankings go unaffected.
Over the past couple of years, Google has added multiple ranking signals into its search algorithm that evaluate the UX, or user experience (mobile-friendliness, for example). This set of signals is called "page experience.”
Here is Google's definition:
Page experience is a set of signals that measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page beyond its pure information value.
Page experience is, in essence, the experience a user has on your page. How fast your page loads, whether it's secure, how it works on mobile and whether you use interstitial pages are all page-experience factors.
When Google's 2021 page-experience update rolls out, Core Web Vitals will be added to the list of factors that affect your site’s search-engine rankings.
There are 3 Core Web Vitals metrics:
Let's go over how to measure them.
There are at least 3 different ways to find the Core Web Vitals metrics for your website.
One way is to use Google Search Console. Google added a new section (appropriately titled "Core Web Vitals") to the reports there. Find it under “Enhancements” in the navigation column on the left when signed into your property.
Once you click on it, you'll see 2 charts that depict pages with issues detected. Once you click on either Mobile or Desktop, you'll be able to see what issues each page has.
Another place to find your Core Web Vitals metrics is within Google's PageSpeed Insights tool. Once you input a URL, you'll be able to see multiple data points:
Finally, you can use Google's Lighthouse tool to run a report on your site's performance. To do that, open Chrome and navigate to your site. Then right-click and choose "Inspect.” Finally, toggle to the "Lighthouse" tab and click the "Generate Report" button:
Now that you've found your Core Web Vitals metrics, let's take a look at each metric and discuss what you can do to improve it before the Google update goes into effect next year.
Obviously, we aren’t talking about the kind of paint you use with a brush. In this case, “paint” really just means what your website user can see on his or her screen.
According to Google Developers:
The Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) metric reports the render time of the largest image or text block visible within the viewport.
This metric breaks down the load time to give us a more specific piece of data to look at, and it's a fairly simple one to understand. "Viewport" just means screen, so it's the load time for whatever takes up the most space on the screen when you open a page on your site.
For instance, many websites have blog posts with hero images (that is, large banner images) at the top. Since that image is what takes up most of the screen when the page is opened, when that loads, there's the LCP metric.
Anything under 2.5 seconds is considered good:
There are multiple steps you can take to improve your site's LCP.
Most (if not all) of the steps require a developer's expertise. We won't go into every detail here, but here are a few LCP improvement basics:
Go further in depth with Google's resource on exactly how to go about improving page load performance: Optimize LCP.
While LCP is focused on what users can see on your site, First Input Delay (FID) is concerned with what users can do on your site. It's just what it sounds like: What's the delay before a user can make their first input?
According to Google Developers:
You've probably come across examples of this one when you use the web for your own purposes. When a page is loading and you see a button or link you want to click on while the page is still loading, does it work when you click it? Or do you have to wait for more of the page to load? The moment when you can successfully make that action is the FID.
This metric isn't measured in seconds. Instead, it's measured in milliseconds.
There are multiple steps you can take to improve your site's FID.
Delve deeper with Google's resource on exactly how to go about improving your FID: Optimize FID.
To many web users, this might be the most annoying issue a website can have. You've experienced it if you've tried to interact with a page that suddenly shifts, causing you to either lose your spot where you're reading or click something you didn't mean to click.
Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) measures how much shifting is happening for users.
According to Google Developers:
CLS measures the sum total of all individual layout shift scores for every unexpected layout shift that occurs during the entire lifespan of the page. A layout shift occurs any time a visible element changes its position from one rendered frame to the next.
We won't go too far into how this one is measured, as it's pretty technical. What you need to know is this: you want a score of .1 or less for your site to be in the "good" range.
There are steps you can take to improve your site's CLS:
Go further in depth with Google's resource on exactly how to go about improving your CLS: Optimize CLS.
We mentioned using Google's PageSpeed Insights tool above to explore your Core Web Vitals metrics, but there are other important data sources within this tool: opportunities and diagnostics.
Below your site's speed results, the tool provides a few custom lists of things you can do to improve your metrics.
Opportunities are suggestions to help your pages load faster. They're conveniently ordered by what's going to help the most.
In the example below, you can see that this site needs to work on their images:
The tool then gives even more data in the diagnostics section. This section goes into more detail about how to improve the performance of your site.
If you've made it this far, you aren’t only convinced that you need to work on improving your Core Web Vitals ahead of Google's 2021 Page Experience update: You understand that you'll need to work with a developer to do it.
Here's how to get the most out of working with a developer:
In short, not really. Any ranking changes that take place during the 2021 page-experience update will be based solely on the performance of your website, not because of anything you're doing (or not doing) SEO-wise. That said, as part of your overall SEO strategy and user experience SEO plan, you probably want to keep an eye on technical SEO aspects, so adding CWV to that regular monitoring is a great idea.
Nope. CWV updates will require help from a developer. Don't be tempted by WordPress plugins (if your site is built on WordPress) - they could actually break your site, make it run much too slowly or even invite hackers. Always consult a developer.
Follow Google's Webmaster Central Blog for any and all Search algorithm announcements.
Truthfully, probably not in a huge way. However, especially when you're close to the top result for a keyword phrase, having all your CWV ducks in a row could bump you up above your competitors. Here's what Google has to say about this:
While page experience is important, Google still seeks to rank pages with the best information overall, even if the page experience is subpar. Great page experience doesn’t override having great page content. However, in cases where there are many pages that may be similar in relevance, page experience can be much more important for visibility in Search.
The page experience update is coming. Whether it's in 6 months or a year, you'll be glad you prepped for it in advance. LCP FID and CLS are all metrics that have the power to improve the functionality and user-friendliness of your website, in addition to helping your search rankings.
Google user experience becomes more and more important as they continue to make improvements to their ranking criteria. Work on it now to stay ahead of your competition.
Here are all the resources you might need, all in one spot:
Introducing Core Web Vitals - Google's blog post introducing their new set of metrics
Evaluating page experience for a better web - Google's blog post announcing that CWV will be added to their Search algorithm
Web Vitals - Google's "home page" for all things CWV
PageSpeed Insights Tool - Gives you your site's CWV numbers and improvement ideas
Google Search Console - Another spot where you can find your CWV performance metrics
Lighthouse - A developer tool where you can find CWV metrics
Largest Contentful Paint - Google's overview of LCP
Optimize LCP - A deep dive for developers about how to optimize LCP
First Input Delay - Google's overview of FID
Optimize FID - A deep dive for developers about how to optimize FID
Cumulative Layout Shift - Google's overview of CLS
Optimize CLS - A deep dive for developers about how to optimize CLS