Google recently announced that its Page Experience ranking update, which uses Core Web Vitals along with a number of other metrics to assess user experience quality, will be rolling out in May 2021. How can marketers best use the time between now and May to prepare for the change?
Back in May, Google officially announced that a new ranking signal would be coming to search: drawing on a variety of metrics, Google would begin to take the user experience of a webpage into account in search rankings.
Dubbed ‘Page Experience’, Google stated that the new signal would “provide a holistic picture of the quality of a user’s experience on a web page”, using a set of metrics known as Core Web Vitals along with some other measures of user experience. At the time, with many business owners still struggling to cope with the way that the Covid-19 pandemic had upended their normal operations, Google promised that the ranking change would not roll out until at least 2021, and that it would provide at least six months’ notice before the rollout.
That time has now come, with Google confirming that its page experience update will roll out in May 2021, and will gauge page experience based on the following metrics: Core Web Vitals, mobile friendliness, HTTPS security, safety of browsing experience, and whether the page in question features intrusive interstitial pop-ups. The announcement also revealed that Google will be testing a “visual indicator” that highlights which search results meet all of its criteria, with more information on this to be released in the coming months.
Google’s confirmation will no doubt have sent many website owners, developers and marketers into a frenzy of assessing their page experience and trying to determine how best to optimise for the new ranking signal. Between now and May, where should businesses be focusing their efforts? What should they prioritise, and what pitfalls should they beware of?
We spoke to four experts in marketing and SEO to get their tips and advice on how marketers and the teams they work with can best prepare for the ranking change.
Uniting stakeholders and teams
It will be immediately obvious to marketers investigating how best to optimise for Page Experience that many of the necessary changes and steps involved in ensuring your site is up to standard are technical ones.
Therefore, as a marketer or SEO initiating or overseeing the work of optimising for Page Experience, it is important to unite teams and stakeholders across functions and ensure they are aligned on what needs to be done. Jérôme Salomon, Customer Success Manager at technical SEO platform OnCrawl, emphasises the importance of bringing stakeholders together:
“It might seem obvious, but the first step to get ready for this rollout is to understand its new signals including LCP (Largest Contentful Paint), CLS (Cumulative Layout Shift) and FID (First Input Delay). Google provides useful documentation with some best practices that you should read. Then, make sure to audit your website and to make a full inventory. Finally, you should reunite all the stakeholders who will work on this project to ensure that you are all aligned: SEO, UX Design and IT teams.”
Judith Lewis, digital marketing consultant and author of Econsultancy’s SEO Best Practice Guide report series, adds that heads of marketing should audit their site speed and work with developers or outside agencies to achieve improvements.
“With the new icon for page experience going into the SERPs, it is genuinely more important than ever to get server speed optimised, minimise time to largest contentful paint, minimise that juddering shifting of cumulative layout shift in loading a website (so make sure those images have sizes defined), and make sure that as the page loads, it is interactive (you can scroll or interact some other way with content) very quickly. If these things aren’t addressed, the site will fail any checks and might get a bad UX icon in the search result.
“Heads of marketing can use Google’s PageSpeed Insights to check their own site speed and if too slow, either push speed in their own developer meetings, or engage with the outside agency to get these elements priority fixes/enhancements.”
Björn Darko, VP of Product at digital marketing analytics platform Searchmetrics, believes that the new Page Experience ranking signal will have a lasting impact on the role of the SEO as more elements of website functionality and experience are brought under their purview. “For Google, the page experience-related ranking factors are about managing all the aspects of how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page,” he says. “This not only impacts how SEOs think and work, but will increase their responsibility and role in the organisation.
“Now, everything that constitutes a great website – great content and link quality, through to optimal UX, security, technical functionality, mobile usability, etc. – needs to be discussed with and in some cases overseen by an SEO. It will require fundamental changes in SEOs’ job requirements in current and future roles.”
Tips for optimising your site for Page Experience
Our expert interviewees were full of practical tips and advice on what exactly marketing, development and UX teams should be doing in order to make sure their site meets Google’s standards for Page Experience. Here are their recommendations on how to assess your site and how to optimise for each of Google’s new Core Web Vitals metrics.
Auditing your site
“The best way to ensure that your website is meeting Google’s standards for site quality is to measure your performance using Web Vitals tools,” says OnCrawl’s Jérôme Salomon. “These include Search Console, PageSpeed Insights, Lighthouse, Chrome DevTools, Chrome UX report and the new Web Vitals Chrome extension.”
Dan Nutter, Head of Technical SEO at performance marketing agency Journey Further, emphasises monitoring site speed as a starting point for optimisation. “The priority for any marketer prior to the incorporation of Core Web Vitals in the Page Experience-related ranking signals is to understand where to focus their optimisation efforts, and this starts with monitoring the speed of your site,” he says.
“As the Page Experience metrics were created to improve the customer experience, it is critical to use real customer data to inform your optimisation efforts. The most widely available source of customer data is the Core Web Vitals report in Google Search Console (Google Analytics Web Vitals tracking is also recommended).”
Nutter also recommends Google Lighthouse as the most effective site speed testing tool, “as it allows you to test on both your live and staging sites. Additionally, it provides specific guidance for common Content Management Systems such as WordPress and Magento.”
SEO Best Practice: Benchmarking and Auditing
Keeping tabs on the competition
It isn’t just your own web presence that you should be auditing. Salomon and Nutter both emphasise the importance of paying attention to what competitors are doing, with Salomon recommending that marketers audit the websites of any direct competitors between now and May. Nutter adds, “Site speed ranking signals have always and will continue to be ‘deal breaker’ metrics. Meaning that should all other signals be equal, the page experience metrics will determine whether you rank ahead of your competitors.
“You may have made your pages faster than they were, but that doesn’t mean they are faster than your competitors’. Therefore, you should always benchmark against competitor pages to ensure the changes you are making will have a real world commercial impact.”
Optimising for Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)
“Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) measures the time it takes for the main content of a page to load,” says Searchmetrics’ Björn Darko. “As a starting point, use the Developer Console or Google Lighthouse or the Google PageSpeed Tool to find large page elements, such as images which can slow down page loading and resize them (or remove them if you can).”
Darko’s other recommendations for optimising for LCP are:
- Investigate if you should change your hosting company with the aim of speeding up your loading times. Your web hosting company and plan can have a big impact on page load. For example, if you use a shared hosting plan which means you are sharing resources such as bandwidth and RAM with other websites, this can slow everything down.
- Use ‘Lazy Loading’ for images. With this technique, images only load when they come into view as visitors scroll down your page. If a visitor doesn’t scroll all the way down, images placed at the bottom won’t even be loaded, meaning they won’t unnecessarily impact speed.
- Audit your website for unnecessary third-party scripts – ad server, social media or tracking scripts, for example – which you don’t necessarily need anymore. These scripts can impact loading and you want to clear them once they’re no longer useful.
- Caching and preloading parts of the page that don’t change – such as images and fonts – on the visitor’s browser is another way of helping to speed up the loading to improve Largest Contentful Paint.
JourneyFurther’s Dan Nutter also recommends exploring “next-gen image formats such as WebP now it’s supported in Safari. Note: older devices will still need a fallback image format so tread carefully here, as you could significantly increase your development efforts.”
Optimising for Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)
Björn Darko: “Cumulative Layout Shift is about controlling unexpected layout changes that take place while the user is interacting with a website, for example, when the position of a button changes suddenly and without scrolling.
“Especially for ad-heavy websites (news sites for example), make sure ads have a dedicated space, so that the browser software does not have to find the appropriate place to render the ads while the page is loading.
“Make sure you also add width and height attributes for media such as images and videos so that the browser knows when rendering the page how much space that element needs on that page. This stops the browser having to calculate this information while rendering the page.”
Dan Nutter also recommends ensuring that “the image dimensions do not exceed the maximum display size on your site,” which improves both CLS and LCP optimisation. In addition, “Using font-display: swap to speed up the loading of text while your web font is loading helps to improve CLS and LCP.”
Optimising for First Input Delay (FID)
Implementing browser caching is again important here: “it helps to deliver content to the user much faster by pre-loading unchanging elements of the page on the visitor’s browser. This is really easy to set up.”
Some additional tips from Dan Nutter, which contribute towards both FID and LCP optimisation:
- Utilise the HTTP/2 protocol on your servers
- Ensure text compression (gzip or Brotli) is used on all resources
SEO Best Practice: Technical SEO
Final advice and things to watch out for
Some last thoughts from our expert commentators, including pitfalls that marketers optimising for Page Experience should be sure to avoid:
Jérôme Salomon: identify quick wins – and don’t neglect your SEO roadmap
“Between now and May, it’s important to identify any quick wins: need for assets bundling, minimisation and compression of some resources, adding cache servers for slow infrastructures, etc.,” says Salomon.
“I’d recommend not forgetting about your initial SEO roadmap and not stopping work on the optimisation of other signals. If you are doing a great job optimising your SEO basics, optimising your Page Experience shouldn’t make a big difference. Then, don’t consider Page Experience only as an SEO matter. It has to be part of a global reflection on your website UX; it’s all about the user.”
Dan Nutter: get buy-in from key stakeholders, and don’t ignore complex fixes
“It is important to achieve buy-in from key stakeholders, as site speed optimisation is a long process,” Nutter advises. “Therefore, you need to ensure that changes are necessary before engaging the development team in work that doesn’t have an impact against your direct competitors.
Björn Darko: don’t compromise on ads and third-party tracking scripts
“Especially for ad heavy websites such as news sites, don’t ignore the impact third party scripts or tracking can have on your website,” says Darko. “Don’t be okay with, “we can’t do anything about it because of our advertising partners”. You should negotiate with those partners either to speed up the delivery of the ads or load ads only after the other elements which are important to visitors are fully loaded.”
Judith Lewis: be aware of Page Experience when hunting for the source of a ranking drop
“Page experience is something SEOs need to be aware of because it is an enhancement of the crude “page speed” metric we’ve been talking about which can be a factor in deciding on which pages should rank where,” says Judith Lewis. “If two are equal, speed is the deciding factor – but really slow speed can end up being a negative user experience, leading to lowered click-through rate (CTR) leading to a lowered ranking.
“So, if SEOs are trying to ‘debug’ a ranking drop or similar, this is one of the things they need to be aware of and look at because it will now play a more significant role.”
Don’t miss Econsultancy’s comprehensive SEO Best Practice Guide series of reports for a wealth of other insights and practical tips on search optimisation.