Your intro to Google’s Core Web Vitals

You and Google want the same thing: to make people happy by making it easy for them to find the exact information they’re looking for.  It’s really important to keep that in mind with any foray into SEO — while...

By Marie King

You and Google want the same thing: to make people happy by making it easy for them to find the exact information they’re looking for. 

It’s really important to keep that in mind with any foray into SEO — while the systems and processes might get a little complicated, the end goal of your work on your website and Google’s work on their algorithms is actually in pursuit of the same thing. A positive user experience. 

It’s not just about delivering information. 

It’s about making the general experience of finding and accessing that information better and better. And that’s where Core Web Vitals come into play. 

Factoring in page experience signals

In May 2020, Google announced the addition of a new category of search ranking signals (factors that convey important information about the quality of sites in a particular search result), called page experience signals

Some of these components have been ranking signals for some time now, like making sure your website is served over HTTPS, and that it’s accessible and easy-to-navigate on mobile devices.

In May 2021, Google is adding new ranking signals, called Core Web Vitals, that go beyond “the pure informational value” of the content on the page and get into the nitty-gritty of the reader experience on the page. 

Core Web Vitals are all about increasing user satisfaction and decreasing interruptions that often occur in the middle of their interaction with a site, before they reach their goal.  

These new signals aren’t part of the algorithm yet, but they will be in May of this year

Page experience signals won’t be more important than the content itself — many SEO experts expect they’ll be used mainly as “tie-breakers” to help Google give readers the absolute best results:

While page experience is important, Google still seeks to rank pages with the best information overall, even if the page experience is subpar. Great page experience doesn’t override having great page content. However, in cases where there are many pages that may be similar in relevance, page experience can be much more important for visibility in Search.

Understanding page experience in Google Search results 

This means giving readers the best result for their search (the great content you are known for) is still the most important thing, but when keyword and ranking competition is fierce, page experience signals become increasingly weighty and it’s important to optimize your site for them.

What makes for a great user experience?

Imagine you are driving to dinner with a friend. 

You’re following the route but you hit every red light on the way, there’s construction that forces you to take a detour, and there are potholes that force you to drive slowly around them. 

These little disruptions interrupt your journey, frustrate you, and prevent you from reaching your appointment in a timely manner. 

When a person is browsing the web looking for something, they too are on a journey. If they’re frequently interrupted and redirected in their effort to get the information they’re seeking, they will get annoyed and potentially give up on visiting certain sites. 

So what types of obstacles do people experience on the web? 

A few examples:

  • Slow page loading
  • Delayed page responsiveness
  • Shifting page elements 
  • Lack of mobile optimization
  • Lack of security
  • Intrusive popups 

Google’s Core Web Vitals attempt to standardize user experience metrics in an effort to combat these various disruptions.

Core Web Vitals 101

Google is looking to website creators to help improve the reader’s journey by incorporating these new page experience signals into the Google search algorithm. Specifically, Google is introducing the three Core Web Vitals to address the most prevalent user experience issues across the web.

You can think of the three core metrics as encompassing:

  1. Loading — how quickly the page shows up for your reader 
  2. Interactivity — how quickly your reader can interact with the page
  3. Visual stability — does the page change frequently while your reader is looking at it? 

Each metric measures a different aspect of user experience: LCP measures perceived load speed and marks the point in the page load timeline when the page’s main content has likely loaded; FID measures responsiveness and quantifies the experience users feel when trying to first interact with the page; and CLS measures visual stability and quantifies the amount of unexpected layout shift of visible page content.

The Science Behind Web Vitals 

1. Loading, as measured by Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)

Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) is the point at which the browser has loaded the page’s largest visible content element (by dimension, not file size). 

This is roughly when your reader feels like the page is useful, so it’s a good way to quantify a good experience.

2. Interactivity, as measured by First Input Delay (FID)

First Input Delay (FID) measures how quickly the browser responds when someone clicks on something on the page. 

Keep in mind, for many content-driven sites, your readers might not be clicking on things right away, but a fast FID helps them feel that the page is responsive if they do immediately want to interact with an element.

3. Visual stability, as measured by Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)

Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) measures how much different elements of the page unexpectedly shift during and after it has loaded.

If you’ve ever loaded a website and clicked on an element, only to have things shift and find out you clicked on the wrong thing, you’ve experienced a layout shift. Cumulative Layout Shift is the measure of all of those pesky movements added up. 

Low CLS means the page is very stable and provides a good user experience. 

Core Web Vitals thresholds provide goalposts for performance

Each Core Web Vitals metric has associated thresholds — the point at which the performance rating changes from “good” to “needs improvement” to “poor”:

There are two ways to measure these metrics: “in the field” and “in the lab”.

Field data is collected from actual users and is closest to the data that Google uses to inform search rankings.  

Lab data is collected by tools directly from a page, so it’s useful for testing things as you are optimizing. 

Lab tools provide insight into how a potential user will likely experience your website and offer reproducible results for debugging. Field tools provide insight into how your real users are experiencing your website; this type of measurement is often called Real User Monitoring (RUM). Each lab or field tool offers distinct value for optimizing your user experience. 

It’s important to understand the difference between field data and lab data, because they’re used in different tools and each have areas where they’re most useful. For example, you can’t measure First Input Delay with lab data as there is no ‘user’ to provide the input, so lab testing substitutes a similar metric that measures page responsiveness, Total Blocking Time (TBT).

All the juicy details on field data vs. lab data

Read more about how to measure Core Web Vitals on your site and how to use field and lab data to help optimize for reader experience right here

What does this Core Web Vitals update mean for publishers? 

Now that you’re armed with the information about Core Web Vitals and know what scores to aim for, the next step is to make improvements. 

But, trying to achieve a particular numeric score may not be asking the right questions.

It’s critical to look at the data through the lens of user experience. Ultimately, not only does a good user experience have potential search ranking benefits, but it’s a great thing in and of itself. 

Web Vitals standardize and reframe user experience metrics

Let’s face it — site optimization efforts can get pretty frustrating. 

There are a lot of different tools available to help quantify site performance, but nothing that tells you exactly how much weight Google gives to each metric for search ranking. And within various tools, the way scores are calculated can shift over time

Google’s new Web Vitals attempt to standardize many different user experience metrics and the approach across tools, giving you a clear understanding of the most important things to optimize on your site. 

We love this effort to align the conversation around your reader’s experience and narrow the focus to a handful of metrics that truly matter! 

We think this will ultimately be a positive step for the entire web ecosystem.

What you can do to improve your Core Web Vitals: 6 best practices

1. Quality hosting is essential. A good hosting provider and service plan can make a huge difference to your site’s user experience and Web Vitals health. Make sure to review your hosting package to confirm that it includes things like image optimization, page caching, and JavaScript and CSS minification.

2. Make sure you’re looking at mobile first. Mobile tends to perform worse on the Core Web Vitals metrics. With Google’s emphasis on mobile (think mobile-first indexing), it’s essential to prioritize your mobile optimization while also making sure you’re thinking about the other platforms your site will be consumed on. 

3. Large and heavy images are a huge culprit for loading speeds, LCP, and CLS. Make sure you optimize every image you upload to your site. According to one study, serving images in next-generation formats, such as WebP or SVG, came up as the top fix for performance improvement in PageSpeed Insights for nearly 30% of websites (desktop and mobile) and can massively increase image compression. 

4. Make sure you’re using a CDN. A Content Delivery Network can help streamline your site to provide an optimal user experience. Cloudflare is a great, FREE option!

5. Lazy load non-critical and below-the-fold elements . By lazy loading, you essentially tell a resource to wait until it’s needed before loading. This can help boost load times so your reader can get to your content even faster.

6. Less is more. Look for opportunities to clean up your site’s code, remove unused JavaScript, and delete unnecessary plugins and widgets. This can really help speed up your page and ensure an excellent user experience. 

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be continuing to share resources and guides with more information on these optimization best practices, so keep your eye on this space! 

What CafeMedia is doing to help…  

Core Web Vitals are a priority for us at CafeMedia and we’ve been hard at work to make sure our publishers are set up for success. Some of the things we’re working on: 

  • Partnering with experts and consultants in the industry to gather best practices and helpful insights for you 
  • Packaging up Core Web Vitals resources for you
  • Making technical improvements to CafeMedia ads to help with ad-related CLS issues

Stay tuned for more news!