It’s taken Google over a decade to create a search algorithm that can take into account a user’s experience on the site. It was 2010 when Google revealed their mobile-first strategy, indicating a wider paradigm shift. Users were in a transition from more desktop viewing to mostly mobile. Responsive Web Design began to gain traction sometime between 2011 and 2013. Then in 2016, Google began rolling out their mobile-first index, which meant that they would now look to the mobile versions of a site first, and desktop versions second.
The Page Experience Algorithm
As companies shifted their focus to mobile design, they began to consider the elements that would make the user’s experience better. Tactics like a slightly larger font, more padding between lines, larger navigation buttons and responsive images have become more and more prevent. Why? Because data shows that users engage longer with a mobile page when it’s easier for them to see the words and move seamlessly from one page to the next. Google enhanced their Search Console tool to show errors when these elements were not user friendly in hopes of encouraging webmasters to make changes. Speed has been another large focus in recent years, with Google going so far as to create their own set of code for publishers to use if they couldn’t solve for speed on their own, Accelerated Mobile Pages.
All of these things and more have led us to Google’s May announcement that a new ranking signal will be added to the algorithm in 2021.
“We will introduce a new signal that combines Core Web Vitals with our existing signals for page experience to provide a holistic picture of the quality of a user’s experience on a web page.”
What Google seems to say is that there are already signals built into the algorithm to measure for page experience. Those signals are likely reliant on user engagement metrics like how frequent users go back to the search result listings after they click through to a result, pages per session, time on site, and bounce rate.
Web Core Vitals (WCV)
Prior to the announcement of Web Core Vitals, there wasn’t clear direction on which page speed metrics Google was focusing on most when it came to speed. Using tools like GTMetrix or PageSpeed Insights return a multitude of technical information that can be a challenge to parse through.
Here are the metrics you should care about:
1. Largest Contentful Paint – This measures loading performance, specifically how long it takes for the page’s main content to load. Prior to Google releasing the information around WCV, we were using a metric called First Contentful Paint to gauge performance but this measures only the time it takes for the first part of the content to load.
Per Google, sites should aim to have LPC occur in the first 2.5 seconds a site is loading.
2. First Input Delay – This measure the time it takes for a user to be able to engage with a page. Whether this means responsiveness to a link being clicked, a comment box becoming available or a working email subscribe box, it’s measuring the user experience specific to when they’re first trying to interact with the page.
Per Google, sites should aim to have a FID of less than 100 milliseconds.
3. Cumulative Layout Shift – This metric is measuring visual stability. You know when you’re scrolling through an article on your phone and all of a sudden the screen shifts? You lose your place in the text or click on something accidentally? As we all know, this makes for a terrible user experience.
Per Google, sites should strive for a CLS score of less than .1
We’ve been using this Web Core Vitals Chrome extension when we work with our publishing partners to optimize their site speed.
Google provides data analysis for these metrics now in Google Search Console. There is now a section dedicated to these where you can see if your site is passing or failing on these speed metrics. Even though these are three new metrics that Google is focusing on in their new search algorithm, there are other signals already being used. Google checks that a site is using HTTPS (secure server) and not using pop-up interstitials.
In the months leading into 2021, publishers need to be preparing for the new algorithm. Understand how your user feels as they navigate your site and make it as fast and seamless as possible.
As Google releases more information on their Page Experience Algorithm we will keep this page updated!