Sure – Google has told us for years that they favour websites with a strong user experience; something that loads quickly and allows users to explore and interact effortlessly with your content.

And yes, we know that improving the speed of your website has been on your digital team’s “to-do” list for the last couple of quarters but hey, work gets busy and the list keeps growing longer and longer.  

But, while having a faster and more seamless user experience has previously been a ‘nice-to-have’, Google is doing it’s best to make it a ‘must-have’ with it’s algorithm update planned for May 2021. 

Google announced in November that the Core Web Vitals algorithm update would start to be rolled out in May 2021.

While previous updates have often been shrouded in mystery, the lead up to the Core Web Vitals update has been markedly transparent. Not only has the search-engine giant released countless detailed articles explaining their plans, they’ve also released a brand new tool to help webmasters prepare. 

And still, after hours of reading and testing, even the most tech-apt marketing manager might find themselves stuck in a haze of developer terms and load times. So today, we’re going to break down the ins and outs of Google’s Core Web Vitals update and point you in the right direction for this opportunity. So, let’s start with the basics. 

What Exactly Is the Core Web Vitals Update?

The Core Web Vitals update plans to address User Experience, specifically when it comes to the speed of a website. 

While Google previously looked at Page Experience Ranking Metrics such as Mobile Friendliness, SSL Security, or Intrusive pop-ups, this new update plans to add a whole new set of Core Web Vitals signals to that list. 

These signals fall into three areas

  • Loading Time – This is also known as Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) or, in human speak, the time it takes for content to load on a page (render time of the largest image, video, or text in the viewport). All of this is to say that your page’s largest piece of content should load within 2.5 seconds after a user lands on the page.

If your website is scoring a slow LCP, this could be the result of a slow server response time or resources that are too big or uncompressed.   

Experts say that this is the most important of the three Core Vitals areas. If your team has limited resources to address the update, then we would recommend focusing here.

  • Interactivity – Referred to as First Input Delay (FID), which is the time it takes for a page to become interactive. Basically, a user should have to wait no longer than 100 milliseconds to be able to interact with your page after landing on it.
  • Visual Stability – This is also called the Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS), which looks at how much the layout of a page shifts while it’s loading (for instance, if image size isn’t defined in the HTML). To measure the CLS, Google has introduced the Layout Shift Score calculation, which multiplies the impact fraction (how unstable elements impact the viewport area between to frames) by the distance fraction (the greatest distance any unstable element has moved in a frame – either vertically or horizontally). 

layout shift score = impact fraction * distance fraction

The baseline score to pass the to Visual Stability check is 0.1. 

If some (or all of) of the above has your eyes glazing over, then let us translate. Put simply, the Core Web Vitals update asks this:

Does your site load, become clickable, and not jump around or rearrange itself in users browsers in a timely manner?

Did User Experience Even Matter Before?

Previously, many of these user-experience metrics were said to ‘influence’ ranking indirectly. This meant that Google wouldn’t directly penalize you if your site elements jumped around while the page was loading. However, you would lose ranking if you had unusually high bounce rates because of this loading problem. The difference is that now Google is going to be looking at the source of the problem, not just the consequence. 

That being said, these metrics have always been important to the success of your site. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that a quick site that’s easy to navigate will result in less users abandoning their sessions and actually converting on your site. 

What Does This Mean For My Website?

Google reps have alluded to the fact that while the Core Web Vitals update is going to be big, they’re not going to plummet a website to the bottom of the search ranking if they don’t meet the benchmarks. In fact, Search Engine Journal recently found that less than 15% of sites currently meet the Core Web Vitals benchmarks, meaning that penalizing websites that failed the CWV checks would be nearly impossible. 

What seems more likely is that early-adopters will be rewarded. While some industries may be slow to improve, the CWV update could cause you some issues if you’re in a particularly competitive industry, especially if your competitors have already invested in improving their sites. 

This Update Will Also Mean Big Changes for News Publishers

It’s also important to note, if you’re a news publishing site that wants to appear in Google’s Top Stories, you will be required to have a strong Core Web Vitals score. Previously, having a site that leveraged Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) was a requirement but this will no longer be the case. Now, instead of having specific AMP pages, a site must only have a high Core Web Vitals Score (regardless of the method used to achieve that score). 

There are also some SEO professionals that are predicting that Google will eventually retire AMP (after pushing it for years). This has many of us feeling like Ryan Gosling in the Notebook (although…they’re right. It really isn’t that simple).

Giph from the Notebook where Ryan Gosling is asking Rachel McAdams "What do you want?"

Where Do I Start?

The most important tool to help determine if your site is meeting the Core Web Vital’s benchmarks is by looking in Search Console’s new Core Web Vitals Report. This is where you’ll be able to see how your site is currently scoring, what specific pages are causing problems and some tips on where to get started. You can also check Pageid Speed Insights to diagnose problems or the Chrome Lighthouse Extension. 

However, if you find yourself staring at these reports blankly, you’re not alone – these reports can get really technical. If you want to make sure your site will continue performing well after the update but don’t have the time or interest in learning how to navigate all of this, we can help! Reach out to the Bluetrain team to help analyze your Core Web Vitals Report and help you start fixing these issues before it’s too late. 

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