Understanding and Preparing Google’s Core Web Vitals Update

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It’s a rare thing to hear from Google that they are making specific changes to their algorithm. Normally changes are shrouded in secrecy and the powers that be only acknowledge that yes, they do make many changes to their algorithm and what you’re seeing might be an update. 

But, in late May, Google announced that they will be integrating the new Core Web Vitals into their existing page experience ranking signals. Even better, in the announcement Google said that this change won’t occur until 2021 and that they’ll provide a 6-month notice before the change is rolled out. 

This means you have plenty of time to prepare yourself, and your website, for the Core Web Vital ranking signals.

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What are the Core Web Vitals?

There are a number of page experience metrics that Google considers when ranking your site, but this group of three Core Web Vitals has been deemed the most important for a high quality site experience. These are also an expansion on the other considerations Google has already baked into the algorithm, including mobile friendliness, site security, and the presence of intrusive interstitials. 

Google specifies that these Core Web Vitals “represent a distinct facet of the user experience, [are] measurable in the field, and reflect the real-world experience of a user-centric outcome”. 

This set of metrics will not be stagnant and there are plans to evolve this over time with the potential addition of other variables. For the sake of 2020, and the addition of these metrics into the algorithm in 2021, we can focus on the three we know about.  

Largest Contentful Paint

LCP is a measure of the time it takes for a page’s main content to load. This is important because websites don’t load everything at once - your browser makes multiple requests to the website’s server for different assets like images or css files. Once these are delivered to the browser, it can begin assembling the website so you can view and interact with it. 

If too many requests are being made, or files are too large, it will take longer for your browser to assemble all of these pieces so visitors can view your webpage. The point at which all of this content is organized and viewable is the Largest Contentful Paint and the faster this happens the better. 

Google considers a LCP of 2.5 seconds or less to be Good and anything above 4 seconds to be Poor.  

First Input Delay

FID is the elapsed time it takes for your browser to make the initial request to load a page and the first response from your host. If you’ve ever clicked a link, saw your browser make a request, but saw nothing happen for a few moments, you’ve experienced a long first input delay. 

Google recommends this metric be less than 100ms and this correlates with studies that show humans can perceive latency as low as 13ms, but begin to consciously notice it as it approaches 75-100ms. First Input Delay also applies to more than clicking a link to load a new page.

It can also be measured when clicking buttons, entering text or selecting a field, and opening a dropdown. 

One caveat here is that Google can only test this metric if users actually interact with your page. If there is nothing to click or do, then you may have no data showing when you try and run a report to test your site. 

Cumulative Layout Shift

CLS is not a timed metric, but rather one of experience. Cumulative layout shift is a measure of layout stability and the score increases every time a visible element unexpectedly changes its position from one rendered frame to the next. 

This is especially common with data fields that popup or any other visual element that loads late during the page experience and causes other page elements to shift down or some other direction. 

Google is considering this because high CLS scores correlate with a poor experience as page elements are moving as the site visitor is actively trying to engage with them. 

Why is Google Making This Update

Google has always been focused on providing the best answer to the search query being made. Over time, the ‘best’ answer has evolved to mean not only the best answer factually, but also the best experience in getting to that answer. 

With mobile device usage on the rise a few years ago, Google decided to only use their mobile crawler when indexing and reviewing websites. This is because they understood that not only must the search results be relevant to the query, but the results being served must also fit the way searchers are accessing them.

And that way was on smaller screens with potentially slower network speeds. 

The addition of the Core Web Vitals continues this trend of expanding the algorithm to focus on a more complete picture of the search experience. Google calls this the ‘user-centric outcome’ and these new metrics are a deeper look at what happens after a searcher clicks on the blue link in the results page. 

How Can I Test My Site for the Core Web Vitals

Google is making it fairly easy to prepare yourself for addition of the Core Web Vitals and their Page Speed Insights tool has been updated to include the Core Web Vital metrics. SImply enter the URL you want to test and it’ll provide your current status on these metrics and a few others. It also places you on their grading scale so you can see where your site falls and how close you are to what they consider to be ‘Good’. 

Additionally, if you have a Google Search Console account, these metrics are also in a new report within the platform. When you’re logged in, it’s under Enhancements > Core Web Vitals  in the left hand pane. The nice thing about the Search Console report is that it tells you all of the pages that need work. With the Page Speed Insights tool you have to enter a single page at a time. In GSC, you get a list of every page with an issue and a call-out of the specific metric to focus on.  

One other option is to install a browser plugin that provides data on these metrics while you visit each page. This particular plugin has a badge that changes color based on your scores and clicking it reveals the actual numbers themselves. 

Where to Put Your Focus

You’ll eventually have to focus on all of it, but start where it makes sense. Just like financial gurus recommend paying off your smallest debts first, that could be a good place to start. If you’re a few milliseconds off your ideal FID score, see how you can reduce the latency of your bare metal servers. If your CLS scores are on the cusp of being rated as Good, then see what elements are causing that shift and either remove or adjust them. 

Then, once you’ve made some progress, you can get into the deeper issues that might be causing low scores. 

Right now you have plenty of time to test your site, see where you stand, and start to make changes, but don’t save this for a rainy day. Google has been making changes towards including user-experience based signals for quite some time and this is only another step in that process. There’s always more to come from Google, so prepare your site with the tools above while you continue to focus on the other areas of your SEO program.

Matt NeSmith
SEO Expert
Former company
About Author
While creating SEO strategies for businesses of all types, over the course of 9+ years, there isn't a whole lot Matt hasn't seen. The search landscape is always changing and he continues to craft strategies that increase market visibility, drive organic traffic, and create new customers for companies of all sizes. In his previous roles he has also worked with many cross-channel teams, so he has developed an understanding of how different marketing channels work together and how brands can create a marketing mix that best supports their goals. As a bit of a gearhead, Matt loves to get under the hood and see all the moving pieces and this translates into his work where he takes a holistic approach, focusing on on-page, off-page, and technical SEO and all of the nuances of each.
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