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Friday, October 22, 2021

Your eleventh-hour SEO intel on Google’s Core Web Vital metrics

If you ventured onto the web in the 1990s, you were inundated with content, left to your own methods of finding relevant information — until Google, that is. Back then, the now go-to search engine “began building algorithms that scored the content it was indexing against specific criteria,” and decades later, those criteria are still evolving.

Google is a dominant voice in search and has a unique understanding of what contributes to a good user experience online. The company utilizes real user metrics, lab tests and other research to continually update its ranking signals, of which there are now more than 200. For years, businesses have been building websites and strategizing for on-page SEO, focused on refining site aspects like URL structures, meta descriptions, alt and title tags, target keywords, and keyword density in order to improve their ranking in search results.

While the basics of search engine optimization are still important, never before has Google been so clear in its prioritization of the end-user experience than in 2020, with its announcement of new Core Web Vitals.

Core Web Vitals measure real-world user experiences

The identification of these metrics — Largest Contentful Paint, First Input Delay and Cumulative Layout Shift — remove ambiguity around the impact of web performance on search rankings. Simply put, sites will be rewarded by Google for improving the visual and interactive experience for online users.

Here’s a look at the three metrics with Google’s recommended thresholds for each:

  1. Largest Contentful Paint, or LCP — This metric measures the loading time for a page’s main content, which is oftentimes a hero image or other visual element. Google’s threshold here? Less than 2.5 seconds. It’s important to note that in 2011, Kissmetrics found that 47% of consumers expect a site to load in 2 seconds or less. That was 10 years ago. User expectations have only increased since that time, further emphasizing the need for sites to visually load as fast as possible for an ideal user experience.
  2. First Input Display, or FID — Interactivity is measured with FID, assessing the time it takes for a page to respond to user input, like clicking on a dropdown menu, engaging with a video or filling out a form. A user expects that when a page looks “ready” for them to engage, that it’s actually able to be viewed and interacted with as intended. Google’s threshold for FID is now set at less than or equal to 100 milliseconds.
  3. Cumulative Layout Shift, or CLS — Page stability, especially on mobile devices, is another element of the user experience that can cause someone to bounce from a site. CLS measures any unexpected shift of visual page content as that content “paints” to the screen. The CLS threshold, as determined by Google, is less than or equal to 0.1.

With the algorithm update taking effect next month, adherence to Core Web Vitals will impact how businesses acquire site visitors and, in the case of retailers, B2B businesses or e-commerce brands, convert them to buyers. This explains why Google has observed “a median 70% increase in the number of users engaging with Lighthouse and PageSpeed Insights.” Organizations recognize the real opportunity at hand for improving their Core Web Vital scores for meaningful business benefits.

There are real consequences for those who sleep on the Core Web Vital developments

With these metrics knocking on the door, ready to influence search results, the time is now to take action. If your website falls into the ‘Needs Improvement’ or ‘Poor’ windows of measurement, the effectiveness of your on-page SEO efforts will be diminished. Not only that, you’d be shooting yourself in the foot, investing more in paid search initiatives that your site is actively working against, which ultimately increases your customer acquisition cost.

A good page experience is not going to override having great content on the site, but it does provide a competitive advantage. Page experience, as indicated by Core Web Vitals, is going to become relevant when there are multiple possibilities for a single result.

You don’t have to speculate about the business implications for meeting or falling short of Core Web Vital thresholds: Google points to the evidence. The search engine found that for e-commerce sites that meet all three Core Web Vital metrics, consumers were 24% less likely to abandon the page. Furthermore, if page-load time specifically increased from just one second to three seconds, “the probability that a user would bounce rises by 32%.”

Sites have increasingly more visual media, requiring optimization to reduce LCP

The saying goes, “There’s only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.” With this mindset, let’s focus on the LCP metric and its importance because of the visual economy brands find themselves in today.

HTTP Archive has noted an 85% rise in online page weight over the last few years, finding that for websites in the 90th percentile, three-fourths of that page weight is made up of photos, graphics and video. Visual media is a compelling storyteller, but not if its impact is a deterrent to a great user experience. Media optimization will have a direct impact on load time, and therefore LCP. Remember the recommendation of ≤ 2.5 seconds? Currently 47% of websites have an LCP score of greater than 2.5 seconds. That’s problematic.

Because it’s important, by LCP metric standards, for rich media to load as fast as possible, businesses need to embrace optimization capabilities. When images are optimized, they have to be addressed in a way that doesn’t have a negative impact on the user experience. In essence, you have to find a balance between file size of an image and its visual fidelity.

Consider the following in regard to media optimization to reduce LCP:

  • Compress assets so they take up less bandwidth but still display in high quality. As well, converting images into newer formats (AVIF, JPEG 2000, JPEG XL, WebP) can help to lower LCP.
  • Infuse automation into your image workflow, ensuring that the sweet spot between file size and quality is found. Automation will free up creative teams from time-intensive transformations as well. When they’re not consumed with cropping, resizing, format optimization, quality control and other manual tasks, they can innovate and create next-level user experiences across a company’s website.
  • Google also recommends delivering assets via a Content Delivery Network (CDN). A multi-CDN approach is considered even more reliable and scalable. Furthermore, delivering the largest content elements from the cache rather than the original asset location will also have a significant impact on LCP.

Finally, on the topic of media optimization and lowering an LCP score, having a real-time view of insights via a dashboard will enable a team to quickly assess how media is performing, and where it might inadvertently be hurting web performance.

Take action, and then expect more SEO-impacting recommendations to come

As web influencer Neil Patel says, “Search engines are built to serve people…as our behavior changes, technology evolves to keep up with our wants and needs. So, search engines have to change too.”

While the metaphorical switch will soon be flipped on Google’s side for Core Web Vitals to play a role in SEO, how immediate that impact will be observable is still somewhat unknown. Google will be fine-tuning the metrics more frequently as it collects user data related to Core Web Vitals, and has even hinted at security, privacy and accessibility being taken into consideration for search rankings down the road. And these three Core Web Vitals are not the only Lighthouse metrics to keep in mind — other metrics like Time to First Byte and First Contentful Paint can be used to help diagnose trouble you’re having with core metric scores. For example, Total Blocking Time and Time to Interactive values can be other signals to give you more granular control for improving FID.

If you can build and cultivate your site or app to meet or exceed the Core Web Vital thresholds, you’ll be in a very good place to be found by consumers and delight them as they engage. Find where you can improve, optimize accordingly, and embrace a mindset of learning and iterating as Core Web Vitals become more influential over time.

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