A marketer’s guide to Core Web Vitals and page experience

30-second summary:

  • Google has always placed its emphasis on the user experience
  • Core web vitals (CWV) and the Page Experience Update are part of that evolution
  • Sites that already recognize the importance of fast loading times and exceptional UX are best positioned to benefit
  • The prospect of having searchers warned off from clicking on your organic listings is real

Optimizing user experience makes for a more delightful web experience for all. Back in May 2020, Google announced a major Page Experience Update was on the horizon, based on information taken from internal studies and industry research that demonstrates how users prefer sites with a great page experience.

This new set of search ranking signals incorporates user experience metrics including mobile-friendliness, safe browsing, SSL certification, and intrusive interstitials, as well as Core Web Vitals. Page Experience is not a requirement, and there are no penalties for not focusing here. However, the additional ranking boost could just be the factor that moves your site ahead of competitors.

In this column, you’ll learn what Core Web Vitals and Page Experience are, why they matter and what you can do to get ready for the upcoming change.

What are page experience signals?

If you take a step back and look at some of the areas where Google has placed its emphasis on the user and their experience, you can see why the new signals are so important and the bigger picture.

Source: BrightEdge, Preparing for the Page Experience Update

Google has recommended that websites implement SSL and considered it a ranking factor since 2014. Three years later, the search giant added a visible marker in search results to indicate whether or not the site was HTTPS-compliant. This suddenly became a priority for marketers, as at the time just 65% of sites ranking for high volume keywords had SSL in place.

Mobile optimization was a priority even before Mobilegeddon back in 2016, and today is just best practice. It’s so important to Google that they have given webmasters a free mobile-friendliness test to ensure compliance.

Google has been penalizing sites for having annoying interstitials at least since 2016, and actively warns searchers if they’re about to visit a site deemed unsafe for browsing.

What are Core Web Vitals?

Said to be happening sometime in May 2021, the introduction of Core Web Vitals (CWV) as a ranking factor represents a significant change to the way that websites are currently ranked, shining a spotlight on more of the technical aspects that contribute to overall UX.

CWVs are real-world, user-centered measurements that help us to understand more about how users may perceive the experience of interacting with web pages. They do this by quantifying three key aspects:

  • Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) refers to the time until the page’s main content has loaded and specifies that this should be below 2.5 seconds.
  • First Input Delay (FID) looks at interactivity – namely, the time between when the user tries to engage with the page and when the browser can actually respond. This should occur within 100 milliseconds.
  • Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) considers visual stability and how content still being loaded to a page impacts the existing content. For instance, images and ads that push content down or to the side and widgets that do the same lead to a negative CLS score.

Websites that offer great UX will also be highlighted in search results. Google hopes that this visual indicator, coupled with existing text snippets and image previews, will direct users to sites that provide them with precisely what they need.

All of the above sounds like best practice that we should already have implemented, so what’s new?

The Page Experience Update isn’t a set of new signals, but a reminder of Google’s unwavering commitment to putting the searcher first.

What user experience actually means to Google and why it’s important

Google’s latest planned update only serves to underscore what many website developers and digital marketers have known for some time now – UX matters.

Slow loading times and frustrating interactions with websites can undermine a customer’s whole perspective of a company or brand. In contrast, positive experiences are more likely to keep them coming back for more.

Google explains,

“Optimizing for these factors makes the web more delightful for users across all web browsers and surfaces, and helps sites evolve towards user expectations on mobile. We believe this will contribute to business success on the web as users grow more engaged and can transact with less friction.”

By providing an exact roadmap for change, alongside useful tools for evaluating and altering sites, Google is getting better at giving business owners and SEOs the opportunity to remedy the technical shortcomings of their sites that impact user UX to make the internet a better place for everyone.

What Google’s intense prioritization of page experience means for marketers

Google announcing the upcoming release of this new update, something it rarely does, suggests that it will have a significant impact on many. However, we shouldn’t allow this shift in focus to detract from what’s really important – quality content. As Google puts it,

“While all of the components of page experience are important, we will prioritize pages with the best information overall, even if some aspects of page experience are subpar. A good page experience doesn’t override having great, relevant content.”

Individual sites that already recognize the importance of fast loading times and exceptional UX are best positioned to take advantage of the extra boost in rankings this update promises.

The thing is, despite Google giving us all of these great clues about how to deliver a better user experience, too many marketers and webmasters are still dropping the ball.

How to prepare for Google’s Page Experience Update

Evaluating your site’s Core Web Vitals is the necessary first step to identifying areas in need of optimization. Even if you think they are up to scratch, it’s certainly worth checking.

You’ll find a list of elements to prepare for and fixes here.

For marketers the big question has become this:

If none of this is really anything new and there is no penalty associated with not meeting the page experience standards, how can we convince the C-suite or our clients to invest in optimizing for them?

In a recent Google Search Central ‘SEO Office Hours’ video, John Mueller revealed that marketers expecting incremental benefits for partial compliance may be disappointed:

“The general guideline is we would also like to use this criteria to show a badge in search results, which I think there have been some experiments happening around that. And for that, we really need to know that all of the factors are compliant. So if it’s not on HTTPS then essentially even if the rest is OK then that wouldn’t be enough,”

John said.

Displaying to searchers ahead of the click whether a site measures up to CWVs put this update right up there with safe browsing in importance.

It is important that decision-makers in your organization understand that even though there is no manual or algorithmic penalty associated with the Page Experience Update, the prospect of having searchers warned off from clicking on your organic listings is real.

What’s more, not being penalized is not a win. Although the index can always be expanded, for every position a site rises in the rankings, another is left in its wake.

Google is willing to reward sites that share and demonstrate its priorities. If not yours, then whose?

Jim Yu is the founder and CEO of BrightEdge, the leading enterprise SEO and content performance platform.

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