Google’s ever-changing search algorithm has always prioritized high-quality and original content. Now, it’s prioritizing something else—speed.
In its perpetual quest to deliver a high-quality experience to its searchers, Google is setting out to make sure its top-ranking sites are helpful in every way. It’s not just about keywords anymore. Marketers will have to continue to create great content and place that content on a site that meets Google’s specifications, which are known as Core Web Vitals. And if businesses don’t meet these requirements? Someone else will.
What are Core Web Vitals?
As marketers, we’d like to believe that quality content trumps all. If we simply produce something great, Google will find it and rank it favorably in its search engine rankings. That’s how it works on paper, anyway.
In reality? Not so much. A slow-loading webpage can completely undo even the most favorable search engine ranking. More than half of Google users will leave a webpage if it doesn’t load within three seconds. All that work on content optimization and SEO means nothing if it’s not presented in a format that keeps the viewer’s attention.
As businesses lean more heavily than ever on ads and video to captivate website viewers, page loading times are a serious concern for marketers and consumers alike. Therefore, Google has announced plans to incorporate a series of speed-based criteria known as Core Web Vitals into its page ranking algorithm, starting in May of 2021. (As always in this COVID-19 environment, times are subject to change. Needless to say, though, the change is indeed on the way.)
Google’s Core Web Vitals will rank site loading times in the following three areas:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP). LCP measures the time between the start of the page’s loading until its largest asset is fully loaded. This can be found in the Performance section of Chrome DevTools.
- First Input Delay (FID). FID shows the delay between when a user takes an action on a webpage—for example, clicking a link or opening a keyboard—and when that page actually responds. This is also found in Chrome DevTools, in the Main section.
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). CLS quantifies any shift that takes place in the main Web content to load an image or embedded item, such as a video, that might cause the user to click something they didn’t intend to click. Like LCP, CLS is found in the Performance area of DevTools.
Why Do Core Web Vitals Matter?
It’s not hard to see why Google cares so much about these three metrics. FID, CLS and LCP comprise the three biggest annoyances for searchers—long load times, the inability to interact with a page and a page that jumps around and doesn’t work for the user. Solving these three issues results in a more pleasurable experience for the user, one that gives them the information they’re looking for quickly and easily.
Google’s decision to prioritize the user experience in this way might come across as a surprise, but it’s hardly a total shock. After all, Google’s algorithm changes always strive to make sure a searcher gets what they want the first time. And if a user has to wait a long time for a page to load, they won’t be happy—Google’s research shows that bounce rates increase by 106 percent if the page load time increases from one second to six seconds. Clearly, having a fast, clean site is as important to Google as it is to your business.
To that end, Google has rewarded companies that have made strides toward fast browsing. The AMP program, while oft-criticized for monopolistic practices, has featured compliant websites as their top results, particularly news stories. In the future, Google will likely phase out AMP, replacing it with sites that score high in its Core Web Vitals. And it goes without saying that you want to be among that group.
How Can I Excel in Core Web Vitals?
So far, this all sounds great in theory. But how do you actually put this into practice?
Your first step should be to get a baseline for how your site currently performs. You can do this by going into your Search Console. Google will let you know how you currently rank in their Core Web Vitals and give you suggestions for how to improve your site to fit into Google’s parameters.
For now, though, let’s pretend that you have a lot of work to do. Where do you start?
Make Your Site Mobile-Friendly
Most modern sites have mobile versions that are optimized to appear nicely on smartphones. If you don’t have one of these yet, this is definitely the first place to start. That’s because this is already negatively affecting your SEO. Create a mobile version of your website, or better yet, work with someone who’s able to provide what you’re looking for.
If you already have a mobile page, consult the Google Search Console for your Mobile Usability report. This will highlight any issues that might be plaguing your page—and odds are good that you might not even realize these issues are causing problems for viewers.
Google also has a Mobile-Friendly test page that will show how individual pages score for mobile optimization. This is particularly important for your CLS score in Core Web Vitals since a bad template can cause significant shifting when your page loads assets.
Clean Up Your Code
Websites evolve over time. Yesterday’s Web techniques might not be visible to viewers, but they might still be lingering behind the scenes in your Web code. This can cause significant delays to users—the kind of delays that send people rushing back to Google to look for a different site. These delays are also highly detrimental to your FID score. Worse yet, bad code is often what leads users to be redirected towards other sites, particularly malware sites.
Conduct a Content Audit
Along the same lines as potentially extraneous code, you may be hosting assets on your website that aren’t serving their intended purpose. You might have a bunch of pictures that are no-brainers to move; that’s an easy choice. But you may have an important video or infographic on your webpage, and yet, that piece of content is what’s causing your site to load so slowly.
What do you do in this situation? It’s not so cut and dry. If you remove the content, you might improve your LCP score, but also fall short of fully educating your viewers. On the other hand, keeping that content might not score so well with Google, but will help you to achieve your goal of informing the reader.
Ultimately, Google’s search engine algorithms will play a large role in garnering future business for your organization. Therefore, you’ll likely have little choice but to play by their rules. You can always link to that content from your website, or you can even put it behind a call to action, such as an email list registration. With the right blend of creativity and respect for the user experience, you can create a compromise that gives you a fast-loading site and a satisfied customer.
Google’s Core Web Vitals program might be new, but as always, it’s based on factors that businesses should already be incorporating. A site that loads quickly and gives viewers what they want will always be preferable. Think of the Core Web Vitals less as yet another Google requirement, and more of a way to optimize your website for your core audience. The residual benefits of rising Google’s SERP rankings will be the icing on the cake.
For more information and tips about how Commit Agency can help your business improve your site’s core web vitals, reach out today.