What we know so far and what you can do to prepare for the Google Page Experience Update (Aka Core Web Vitals)
Does your website offer a great user experience (UX)? Do you make it as quick, helpful and enjoyable as possible for your website visitors to interact with your content?
If you know your site’s user experience (UX) needs improving, now is the time to get to work.
The Google Page Experience Update
Back in May 2020, Google announced its intention to roll out a page experience update designed to indicate in search results which websites offer the best usability for visitors. You might also see people refer to it as the Core Web Vitals update.
In November 2020, the search engine confirmed that the update is planned for May 2021 and will “measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page and contribute to our ongoing work to ensure people get the most helpful and enjoyable experiences from the web”.
Google has said the update aims to “measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page beyond its pure information value”.
So, what does this mean for your website?
What we know about the Google Page Experience update so far
The page experience update could potentially impact all websites, which means that it could turn out to be one of the more significant Google algorithm shifts.
Google wants to know that its customers – i.e. anyone who makes a Google search – are going to have the best possible experience when they visit a website via a search results page.
Pages that have previously performed well may go down in rankings if the page experience is poor. Equally, those pages that offer a great UX may see a boost in their visibility in searches.
Of course, it won’t be completely cut and dried.
If pages offer really fantastic content but the page experience has room for improvement, the chances are they will still rank well. However, it could leave their rankings vulnerable in the longer term to competitors who go a step further and combine great content with a great UX.
The search engine has confirmed this, saying:
“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.”
This means that, all other things being equal, page experience may be the deciding ranking factor.
Google’s Rudy Galfi, the product lead on the Google Search Ecosystem team, told Search Engine Land that page experience scores will “play a vital role in what content shows in Google’s Top Stories section”. So, I think we will start to see the update making a difference.
Knowing this, my advice is that we should all be focusing on how to make page experience better. If nothing else, it will make websites more user friendly, which is only ever a good thing for those all-important ideal customers we want to attract.
A good page experience label in searches
How will you know if your web pages are seen by Google to offer a good page experience?
Well, towards the end of 2020, the search giant tested featuring a page experience icon in search results. This looked like a star within a grey circle.
If this label is rolled out more widely, which is the current plan, it will be an at-a-glance indicator to searchers that they can expect a great UX when they click through to a page – and who doesn’t want that?
This is bound to have a positive impact on clickthrough rates to pages with the page experience icon. And the greater the clickthrough rates, the more likely an up-turn in rankings.
Page experience factors
The Page Experience update will look at different metrics/factors to decide whether a page provides a great UX. This will assess questions such as:
- Does the page load quickly?
- Is it mobile-friendly?
- Does it run on HTTPS and is it safe to browse?
- Are there intrusive pop-ups and ads that stop searchers getting straight to the information they want?
- Does the content jump around as the page loads? (AKA ‘layout shifts’)
Although these have each been ranking signals for some time, the Page Experience update may put more emphasis on these factors or how they’re grouped, as we’ve already outlined above.
Core Web Vitals
We’ll be hearing a lot more about Core Web Vitals this year, as they will also be used as search signals for page experience.
Google has specifically mentioned Core Web Vitals that measure:
- Loading performance
- Visual stability of the page
The core web vital metrics that Google has mentioned in this context are:
(“Why do I see white space where the content should be?”)
This metric measures the speed with which the main content of a web page loads. This could be the biggest section of text or the hero image, for example. To provide a good experience, sites should aim to have the Largest Contentful Paint occur within 2.5 seconds.
Longer LCP load times are frustrating for visitors. Google sees pages with a LCP of 2.5 to 4 seconds as ‘needing improvement’ and those of more than 4 seconds as ‘poor’.
A good LCP doesn’t mean the whole page has to load in under 2.5 seconds. Instead, it focuses on the elements that are immediately in view on the screen, rather than content that can only be accessed by scrolling down the page.
Checking LCP issues on your website:
You can check the LCP score of your web pages in Google Search Console. In the main menu, go to Enhancements>Core Web Vitals and you’ll see an overview of two reports, one for people visiting your site via mobile devices and one for desktop visitors.
Click on OPEN REPORT> to check for any issues.
The screenshot below shows the report for a website that has a poor LCP score on all of its pages:
Further into this guide, we’ll be taking a look at different ways to ensure that your LCP occurs as quickly as possible.
(“I just clicked on that link/button/element so why hasn’t the page changed or taken me where I wanted to go?”)
Google doesn’t just want to know how quickly a visitor can see the most important elements of a web page. It also wants to know how quickly someone can interact with responsive elements on the page, such as buttons or links.
The FID therefore measures the time it takes from when a user first interacts with a page – e.g. by clicking on a link or tapping a call to action button – to when the browser is able to begin processing the desired outcome of that interaction.
Why might there be a delay?
The FID metric focuses on the responsiveness of a page, looking at so-called ‘discrete’ actions like clicks, taps and key presses, rather than the animation of a page, i.e. how easy it is to scroll or zoom in and out.
Interactivity issues often occur as a page loads, which is why Google sees the FID as an important metric and a sign that there could be problems that damage the UX.
Google defines a good FID as being of less than 100 milliseconds.
An FID of 100-300 milliseconds requires improvement and an FID of 300+ milliseconds is poor.
Some users won’t try to interact with a page when it’s loading
It’s worth remembering that some people won’t try to click on a link or button while a web page is loading, so there won’t be an FID value recorded for their visits. Other people might visit when the browser is busier than usual, which will cause a longer FID. Equally, some visitors will click on links and call to action buttons when the browser is idle, which will speed up the FID.
It’s advised to keep an eye on the FID values to try to build up a broader picture of any interactivity issues across your site.
Again, a poor FID should be flagged up in the Core Web Vitals report in Google Search Console, along with suggestions about ways to improve the score.
(“I was about to click on that but it moved!”)
Have you ever landed on a web page and been reading through an article, only to have the layout jump around, making you lose your place?
Or have you clicked on a link just as the layout shifted, causing you to click on something else entirely (often an ad) and be taken away from the content you wanted to view?
Google knows that this kind of instability is frustrating and kills the UX.
It’s often caused by elements rendering incorrectly, videos or images with unknown dimensions, or third-party ads and widgets that dramatically resize themselves as the page loads.
Often, these problems don’t show up in the development process. Someone creating a third party ad or widget, for example, may believe that it displays perfectly. It’s only when the ad is up and running on a different site that the problems appear.
The CLS metric measures the visual stability of a page for genuine users. It measures every time an unexpected layout shift happens, i.e. any time a visible element changes its position from one rendered frame to the next, and adds up the total.
Google views a good user experience as a CLS score of less than 0.1.
A CLS of 0.1 to 0.25 needs improvement; 0.25+ is poor.
Remember to keep an eye on the Core Web Vitals reports in Google Search Console for CLS issues and ways to resolve them.
Page Experience Factors and Core Web Vitals
As we’ve established, Google’s decision to combine some existing search signals: Mobile-friendliness, Safe browsing, HTTPS security, Intrusive interstitial guidelines together with Core Web Vital metrics: Loading, Interactivity and Visual Stability will see the websites that provide a better user experience across these factors being more likely to rank well when this update rolls out in May 2021.
Let’s take a look at what you can do to improve the user experience on your site.
Steps you can take TODAY to prepare for the Page Experience update
If you’re a small business owner running your own website, you might feel a bit daunted by all of this information above, especially when we talk about the Core Web Vitals metrics.
It’s all very well knowing what LCP, FID or CLS stand for but what can you do about them?!
In this section, I’ve put together some steps that you can take today to prepare for the page experience update, even if you have minimal knowledge of SEO (especially technical SEO).
1. Optimise for mobile
These days, more than 60% of Google searches are made on mobile devices. Your website MUST offer a great mobile experience.
Your first step is to check whether your web pages are mobile-friendly. You can do this using Google’s mobile-friendly test.
Just pop the URL you want to check in the search box and click Test URL.
Hopefully, you’ll see a green notification that the page is mobile-friendly, as in the screenshot below.
(Don’t panic if there’s a small amber warning sign highlighting minor page loading issues (as seen here). Simply click to VIEW DETAILS for advice about how to address any problems.)
If there are major issues in the mobile-friendliness of a web page, the test will flag this up (see screenshot below).
As we can see from this example, it’s clear that the content is not resizing to fit the screen and that the clickable elements are too close together. The person managing this website would need to click on ‘Find out how to fix these errors’ for a walkthrough about what action to take.
The best starting point is to review the main URLs on your website using this tool and to follow the advice given by Google about resolving the issues specific to your site.
2. Improve page load speeds
Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool is a free tool that can give you valuable insights into how your web pages load for mobile and desktop visitors.
Each report is colour-coded and includes the key metrics that the page experience update will focus on, such as Largest Contentful Paint and Cumulative Layout Shift.
Here’s an example report for desktop visitors to the SEO+ site:
More information about these stats and what can be done to improve them, where appropriate, is available further down the screen. To the top left of the report, just below the Google search bar, there’s the option to click and view the stats for mobile visitors instead.
As you scroll down the page for each report, Google will highlight ‘Opportunities’ for improvement. This is where you can find detailed advice about how to resolve any problems.
Note: For those of you with WordPress websites, there’s the added bonus that Google now links to the top-rated plugins you can install to help you deal with a highlighted issue.
For example, if you need to ‘eliminate render-blocking resources’, Google links to plugins designed to help you ‘inline critical resources’.
Do remember that the optimisations provided by some plugins can affect how a WordPress theme looks or behaves. It’s worth addressing one issue at a time on the PageSpeed Insights report, especially when installing new plugins, so you can pinpoint the cause of any problems.
3. Optimise your images for the web
There are many factors that can slow down your page load speeds (e.g. the software/CMS your site is built with, the hosting server’s response time, coding, etc.)
For some of the more technical issues, you may want to reach out to a web developer for their help to streamline your site.
However, some things are in your control. One of those is whether or not the images on your website have been properly optimised. The article I’ve linked to here walks you through different steps you can take to optimise your images for the web and, subsequently, increase your page load speeds.
While you’re in the process of optimising the size and quality of the images on your site, this is also the perfect opportunity to optimise the ‘behind-the-scenes’ elements such as the alt text you use for each image.
4. Check for safe browsing
It’s important for visitors to know that their details are secure from harm when they visit your website. This is why Google plans to look at security issues as part of the Page Experience update.
Common security problems on a site tend to be:
- Hacked content – this is any content that has been placed on your site without your permission using security loopholes or vulnerabilities on your site.
- Malware and unwanted software – malware is software that is designed to harm a device or its users. The software might engage in deceptive or unexpected practices, and can either be installed by a hacker or, usually unintentionally, by the site owner.
- Social engineering – this is content that tricks visitors into doing something dangerous such as disclosing confidential information (e.g. passwords, credit card details, identifying information) or downloading harmful software.
If you’re not sure whether your website has any security issues, the best starting point is the Security Issues report in Google Search Console. You can run this report via this link or pop into Google Search Console and click on Security & Manual Actions>Security Issues in the main menu.
If there are security issues that will impact on how safely people can browse your site, this report will highlight what they are and explain what steps you need to take to address them.
Got a WordPress site? There are a number of excellent security plugins that can help to protect your site from malware, data breaches and other attacks.
5. Ensure your site’s connection is secure
Google wants to take its customers to websites that are secure. One way to establish this is for its algorithms to look for sites that use HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) rather than HTTP.
When you go to your website, does the address in the search bar display either a little padlock or HTTPS at the start of the address?
This tells us that the site uses HTTPS to protect the integrity and confidentiality of data between a visitor’s computer and your site.
If this padlock is missing or the address begins with HTTP, it means your site isn’t secure.
Google has actually been flagging up non-secure sites to visitors since 2018 but, as we’ve seen, this signal will now feed into the Page Experience label.
6. Review any pop-ups on your site
Google has confirmed that the Page Experience update will look for ‘intrusive interstitials’ that damage the UX.
An intrusive interstitial is essentially some form of pop-up that:
- Covers the main content, either immediately someone lands on a page from the search results or as they’re scrolling through the page.
- Displays as standalone content that has to be dismissed before the visitor can view the content for which they clicked through to the web page.
- Forces the main content of the page below the fold, so the visitor has to scroll down before they can see what they were expecting to see.
Google has said there are certain pop-ups that it the Page Experience Update will overlook. These include:
- Pop-ups that are there because of a legal obligation, such as Cookie Usage or verifying the age of the visitor.
- Login pop-ups where the content is behind a paywall, e.g. membership sites or news subscription sites.
- Closeable banner ads at the top of the page that can be easily dismissed and do not obscure too much of the content.
Does this mean that we should all be abandoning pop-ups on our websites altogether?
Well, in some cases, pop-ups work well and can enhance the user experience. Most often, this depends on when they appear and why. I found a useful article from 30 Degrees North that takes a deeper look at using pop-ups sparingly but effectively on your site.
The key advice is to:
- Time your pop-ups so they’re helpful
- Keep your pop-ups simple
- Spread out when pop-ups appear
- Give visitors a chance to read the content first, even when opening a live chat pop-up
- Choose your pop-up placement carefully
- Review how your pop-ups convert and amend them accordingly
Other steps you can take to prepare for the Page Experience update
In addition to the points above, these steps may also help you to improve the Page Experiences throughout your website:
- Check each call to action – Is it compelling? Is it well positioned, e.g. big enough and not too close to other clickable elements on the page? How quickly are you taken through to the destination of a call to action button? Does the call to action button display properly and resize on different devices?
- Reduce 400 errors throughout your site and make sure 301 redirects take visitors to the right place.
- Load thumbnail previews of videos rather than entire videos.
Tools to help you prepare for the Page Experience Update
Throughout this article, I’ve tried to mention any reports and tools that will help you to improve the page experiences offered by your website.
Here they all are in one place (and some extras):
- The Core Web Vitals Report in Google Search Console should be your go-to source of information when it comes to improving the LCP, FID and CLS metrics for your site.
- Use Google’s mobile-friendly test as a starting point to improve your mobile optimisation.
- Focus on the Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool to discover how you can make pages on your website load faster.
- Go to Lighthouse/web.dev for an audit of your site’s performance covering areas such as its Performance, Accessibility, Best Practice and SEO. This report takes an issue at a time, along with its potential impact and ways to resolve the problem.
- Install the Web Vitals Extension for Chrome to study and analyse the Core Web Vitals of any web page you visit (a great way to see how your competitors’ sites perform).
- Check out HubSpot’s Website Grader using the 14-day free trial. This tool is powered by Google Lighthouse so it presents the information from the Lighthouse/web.dev site, as above. However, the advice is clear and well laid out.
- Try the Web Page Test to assess your website’s performance across three test runs to work out the median load speeds and other metrics. This can help you to spot whether a problem is ongoing or just a glitch due to unusually slow server response times, for example.
Your opportunity to get ahead of your competitors
An article by Search Engine Journal in August 2020 referenced a recent study by Screaming Frog that found fewer than 15% of websites passed the Core Web Vitals assessment within PageSpeed Insights.
The study also found that web pages already ranking in position one in searches are 10% more likely to pass the Core Web Vital thresholds we mentioned earlier on in this article for LCP, FID and CLS.
This isn’t really a surprise. We already know that faster page load speeds are a ranking factor and the Core Web Vitals are a way of measuring this.
However, it’s a timely reminder that faster loading web pages perform better in searches.
One thing the Screaming Frog study does show is that the majority of websites have work to do when it comes to providing the best possible Page Experience. The fact that you’re reading this article gives you the opportunity to get ahead of your competitors.
Spend some time looking at the reports and tools that I’ve mentioned. Read their recommendations and action what you can.
Ask some trusted contacts to browse your website.
Does anything take a long time to load? Are the call to action buttons big enough? Do some pictures take ages to display or go off the edge of the screen? Do you have design elements on the page that just aren’t necessary?
Getting insights about the UX from real people is pure gold.
Armed with this information, I hope you can use this guide to improve the UX on your website and, in turn, reap the rewards with higher rankings and happier visitors.
If you found this article helpful, I’d love it if you could share it – thank you.