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NP Digital, SEO Nov 11, 2020

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Core Web Vitals 101: What Every SEO Should Know About Google’s Page Experience Update

Just as SEOs have emerged, for better or worse, from doing battle with Google’s May 2020 update, the search engine giant announced yet another major update brewing. The Page Experience Update will introduce new targeted metrics aimed to ensure that web pages meet an even higher benchmark for user experience than ever before.

These new metrics will be in play before you know it—but is your site ready for all that the Core Web Vitals will entail? Here’s what every SEO needs to know about Google’s latest push for an exceptional user experience.

Screenshot of Core Web Vitals dashboard

What Is the Google Page Experience Update?

In line with previous named core updates, Google’s Page Experience Update is an enhancement of its ranking algorithm. In this update, a user’s experience with and/or perception of your pages will now be a major determining factor in where they fall within the SERPs.

Google’s algorithm already measures targeted signals of page experience on your site to determine its value outside of just the information it provides. These signals include search-specific factors that it has employed for some time, such as:

  • HTTPS: The page is served via a secure HTTPS protocol, ensuring a safer online environment.
  • Mobile-friendly: The page is easily readable and immediately usable on a mobile device without users having to pinch or zoom.
  • Safe-browsing: There are no threatening, deceptive, or malicious elements within the page, such as malware, phishing, or other social engineering attacks.
  • Intrusive ad interstitials: The page doesn’t contain ad elements that make it difficult to access, such as pop-ups or standalone ads that force user interaction before full access to the page content.

Now, in addition to these mainstays, the Page Experience Update will introduce a trio of new quality-focused factors that Google is calling the Core Web Vitals.

What Are the Core Web Vitals?

The Core Web Vitals are a new suite of “real-world, user-centered” factors that will assess how a user experiences your site in more depth—specifically, its page loading process. Each metric identifies a specific, measurable area of the page load process that reflects real-world usage and interaction with your pages.

The Core Web Vitals’ three aspects of the page load experience each associate to a corresponding metric:

  • Rendering—Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)
  • Interactivity—First Input Delay (FID)
  • Visual stability—Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)

Google will incorporate these metrics along with its search-specific signals to determine your overall page experience ranking, with thresholds ranging from “good” to “needs improvement” to “poor.” For a “good” user experience, you’ll want to fall within at least the 75th percentile of page loads. That said, page experience as a whole does not carry its own cumulative score; rather, Google will weight and rank each metric within its overall site ranking algorithm.

So how does Google measure each of these factors, and what should SEOs aim for to achieve a good user experience within each category? Let’s take a closer look.

What Is Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)?

The Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) metric assesses your page’s perceived load speed. Specifically, LCP measures how long it takes, in seconds, for your page’s largest element—be it an image or text block—to load. To achieve a good user experience, the page’s LCP should happen within 2.5 seconds.

LCP builds upon page rendering metrics already in use within tools like Lighthouse or Page Speed Insights. These existing metrics include First Contentful Paint (FCP), which measures the time it takes from page load start to when the screen renders any aspect of the page; and First Meaningful Paint (FMP), which measures the time from initial page load to when its primary content is visible on screen. LCP, then, is a progression of these measurements.

Largest Contentful Paint is important because the faster the main content of your page loads, the quicker you’re able to reassure the user that your page is useful.

What Is First Input Delay (FID)?

The First Input Delay (FID) metric is an assessment of your site’s interactivity—specifically, it looks at a user’s first impression of how responsive your site is. FID measures the delay, in milliseconds, between a user first interacting with your page to when the site processes a response to that action.

First inputs include events like key presses, clicks, and taps. Actions like scrolling or zooming are evaluated separately. A good FID score falls under 100 milliseconds. It’s important to note that FID only measures the first input processing delay, and not the entire processing time itself, nor how long the browser takes to continue to update the user interface.

Why is FID important for user experience? Like in life, a user’s first impression of your pages lasts far beyond those initial moments. In addition to your site’s look and feel, its speed and responsiveness have a deep influence on a user’s satisfaction—treating them to the dreaded buffering wheel only serves frustration, lowering your chances of them perceiving your pages as inherently usable.

What Is Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)?

The Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) is an assessment of a page’s visual stability. Specifically, CLS looks at how far and how often a page’s elements—its images, buttons, copy, etc.—jump or shift around upon loading. Each movement is aptly labeled a “layout shift,” and every unexpected layout shift receives a score; the CLS is the sum total of those individual layout shift scores.

Ideally, a page should stay solid and stable throughout the page load process. A good CLS score for optimal user experience is less than 0.1.

Aside from being visually jarring (and all-around annoying), unexpected movements on a page can have serious negative consequences for the user—for example, if a jumping button on a payment page causes them to complete rather than cancel a purchase. Therefore, CLS will become an important metric in determining good page experience.

What Aren’t the Core Web Vitals?

Most SEOs will find these new Core Web Vitals intuitive and easy to understand. But while the Core Web Vitals are aimed to be important benchmarks for good page load experience, they’re not the be-all and end-all metrics—they simply help point you in the right direction when diagnosing issues with load performance. Use the Core Web Values in tandem with other important site performance metrics, or Web Vitals, that you must continue to track to assess both the loading and interactivity experience on your page. These include:

  • Time to First Byte (TTFB): The amount of time that it takes for a user’s browser to receive the first byte of content on the page – in other words, how fast your server responds to a request.
  • Time to Interactive (TTI): The amount of time between the page’s initial load to its ability to fully and quickly respond to user input.
  • Total Blocking Time (TBT): The sum of time a page is blocked from responding to user input between First Contentful Paint (FCP, described above) and Time to Interactive (TTI).

By implementing a holistic approach and utilizing all the tools at your disposal, you’ll be better able to understand which areas of your page load experience are lacking—and, in turn, target your strategy and resources toward specific, tangible solutions.

When Are Core Web Vitals Becoming an SEO Ranking Factor?

According to Google, the Core Web Vitals will not go into effect until sometime in 2021. This is no small part due to the company’s recognition that site owners are currently grappling with responding to the ever-changing landscape caused by COVID-19. To that end, Google also promises at least six months’ notice before rolling out these new metrics.

Why Do Core Web Vitals Matter for SEO?

Though Google will continue to prioritize pages with the overall most useful information, page experience ranking will become a significant factor between pages that offer similar content to on another. Having excellent page load speed and responsiveness could be the difference between your page appearing high on Page 1 of the SERPs or your competitor taking that spot.

The metrics defined by the Core Web Vitals serve as a solid gut check on how users experience your site’s full page load process and interactivity. By using these as consistent benchmarks, you can more accurately identify and quickly act upon improvement opportunities, such as hastening your server response time or optimizing how your images load on your site.

Summary

Google continues its efforts to push SEOs toward deeper valuation of the user’s real-world page experience, and they’re right: site owners of all skill levels should have an easy and straightforward way to gauge the various load characteristics of their website. The addition of the Core Web Vitals via the Page Experience Update provides SEOs with yet another way to tangibly measure, track, and iterate upon your site processes and performance, thereby bringing more understanding to the world of website performance optimization as a whole.

If you haven’t already started testing your core pages for how they perform in these key areas, the time to do so is now. Come 2021, it could have a major impact on how well you rank for your target non-branded keywords and beyond.

Travis Tonsbeek
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