The May 2021 Page Experience Update is expected to include Core Web Vitals, a metric from Google, as a new ranking factor.
Now, while it doesn’t necessarily mean a sea change in the ranking of different sites based purely on this new measuring stick, it is something to be aware of, so you can make changes to your site to get better scores.
So, let’s dive into this topic in greater depth.
What is Core Web Vitals in Practice?
Core Web Vitals aims to measure three things:
- Loading Time – Largest Content Paint (LCP)
- Interactivity – First Input Delay (FID)
- Visual Stability – Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)
Without getting overly technical, the Largest Content Paint (LCP) reflects the biggest piece of code, image, or other items that are perceived to be a potential bottleneck. The LCP reflects when this largest code block is visible to the visitor.
The second, interactivity (FID), is aimed at getting a better sense of how long site visitors must wait until they can begin accessing the site. It aims to measure the delay between their first interaction and when the site responds to it.
Lastly, visual stability (CLS) looks at whether the columns on the page and elements within them bounce around as they load in. For instance, when there’s an ad slot and it loads larger than expected, the box will expand and force a change to the layout. Similarly, images without the width and height parameters telling the web browser how much space to allocate for them may see layout adjustments to fit them on the page.
A Label in the Search Results?
No one knows exactly how Google will represent the notification to searchers that a site has a good experience score (or a bad one). They have previously added a text notification adjacent to a search result indicating that the page was “mobile-friendly”. This feature was subsequently removed when the majority of sites were already usable on smartphones and the label was redundant.
Sites that score highly on the Core Web Vital metrics may get a positive label to tell searchers all about it. This could encourage more visitors than before, even when the site ranks lower on the first page.
Searchers could give it extra weight because of the label changing how they respond to sites featured in the SERPs, or they could ignore it and it has no effect at all.
A site could be given a negative label to suggest that it offers a poor web experience to visitors. Even if the site holds the same position in the SERPs for now, this could artificially reduce the number of clicks on that search result.
In time, Google may reduce its ranking to reflect the lack of interest from searchers. Ultimately, even without directly lowering ranking but merely adding a label with a negative connotation, Google could indirectly force a lower ranking due to a subsequently reduced click-through rate (and their response to that). Also, as above, many searchers may like the search result and the article excerpt and click-through regardless.
Forced Reduced Ranking aka a Page Experience Penalty
While it may never be referred to officially as a page or site level penalty for a bad Core Web Vitals score that eventually is visible inside the Google Console, it may be just that.
Google could choose to reduce the ranking purely because of a lower score, with or without applying a negative label next to the search result. When the score improves, they may reduce or remove the penalty and the ranking could improve.
Of course, site owners won’t be certain if the site has lost ranking because of a page experience problem or something else in the upcoming May Update that’s affected it. Or if the outcome is for an unrelated reason.
Quality and Relevance Overrides Core Web Vitals?
Google has confirmed through various discussions about the Core Web Vitals that there’s no hard and fast rule on it. It’s not black and white – more like shades of grey.
The search engine gets into a bit of a dilemma when they have a page that’s scored poorly but the content is well received, the click-through rate is high, visitors don’t bounce back, and they spend a good amount of time consuming the content. What’s a search engine to do then?
The answer has already been suggested by staff that they will likely still serve the same result (even if the page experience is poor) when it’s the best answer to the query. This is where appropriate labeling of search results, rather than impacting their ranking position, is more likely to occur.
Are Core Web Vitals a Disaster for Site Owners?
We don’t think so.
What they provide is a useful refocus on the basics.
How fast does the site load? Can it be sped up through a better design, faster hosting, or using a CDN?
Are there overly large elements that create a bottleneck for page loading that can be rectified?
Alternatively, are scripts or other elements affecting the page loading times too significantly and should be reconsidered?
While site owners may wish to put effort into improving their scoring for Core Web Vitals, it’s also not a time to panic. It’s unlikely that most sites will be hugely affected. The reality is that the majority of websites on the internet are small, hosted on shared hosting plans that are inherently slow, and so won’t score well. It’s unlikely that Google will take a broad slice through low-performing sites because, on page load speed alone, that would be a high percentage of live sites on the internet today.
It will quickly become apparent to the search engine that taking a softer approach is going to be necessary to get everyone on board. Otherwise, it will only be the huge corporations that can afford blisteringly fast server hosting that will come out on top. And no one wants to see Google stifle the internet in this manner.