As the Page Experience Update comes into the open, what do you need to know?

Michael Hewitt 5 months ago

Google’s much-discussed Page Experience Update is slowly being released into the wild (and slowly really does seem to be the operative word), with the update that was originally slated for Spring of this year now expected to be fully live by late summer.

On Tuesday 15 June, Google Search Central made the announcement about the new schedule, revealing that the update started rolling out globally “in mid-June” and that the update will be completely live by August 2021. ‘Core updates’, which are separate to the Page Experience updates, will continue to run.

So with the update now rolling out across the web over the course of the next two months, just what does this update mean for our brands and our place in the search results?

Page Experience and Core Web Vitals: A Recap

In November 2020, Google announced the latest update to in its drive to improve online user experience, announcing that Core Web Vitals were to become ranking signals in the search engine results. Originally slated to go live in May 2021, the update has since been pushed back to June, with the full impact of the update not rolling out until August 2021.

Core Web Vitals are a set of specific factors that Google considers important in a webpage’s overall user experience. Core Web Vitals are made up of three specific page speed and user interaction measurements: largest contentful paint first input delay and cumulative layout shift.

Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)

Largest Contentful Paint measures the perceived load speed because it marks the point in the page load timeline when the page’s main content has likely loaded—a fast LCP reassures the user that the page is useful.

The metric only counts the loading time of what is relevant to the user experience, including images, image tags, video thumbnails, background images with CSS and text-heavy block level elements, such as paragraphs, headings or lists.

LCP is measured in seconds and is measured and benchmarked using Chrome User Experience to understand the LCP for each URL. Speeds are benchmarked against a traffic light (red, amber and green) system.

First Input Delay (FID)

FID is the delay, measured in milliseconds, between when user first interacts with a web page after entering it, to the time when the browser can start processing that interaction.

In simple terms, FID measures the delay between when you click or tap on something like a link or a button and the time that it takes for the browser to respond to your action and start processing it.

A long FID, perhaps because the page is loading large, bandwidth-heavy elements, can have a detrimental impact on user experience.

Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)

CLS measures the layout stability of a webpage, to ensure that user experience runs smoothly and interactions flow as naturally as possible. A layout shift is extremely frustrating and happens when elements move about before a page is fully loaded (for example, when a link button moves just as a user goes to click on that link due to another element loading).

Some of the most common causes for poor CLS are:

  • Images with poor or no dimensions.
  • Wrong use of fonts causing FOIT (flash of invisible text) or FOUT (flash of unstyled text).
  • Embeds, ads, and iframes with no dimensions.
  • Actions designed to update only when there is a network response.
  • Content that was injected dynamically.

Cumulative Layout Shift is measured by 0 – 1 score.

What can we expect from the new update?

With Core Web Vitals very much coming to the fore of the Google ranking algorithm, just what impact can we expect on the search results – and how should your search marketing strategy evolve?

Don’t expect sudden changes in the search results

More veteran SEO’s will remember the carnage that often used to follow Google updates of old and, whilst more recent updates have resulted in relatively small tremors, rather than more seismic shifts in rankings, much-hyped updates such as the page experience update do raise questions over just what impact we’re likely to wake up to on the go-live day.

When asked about the impact of the update once it does launch, Google’s John Mueller suggested that you’re website owners weren’t going to see big and sudden drops in organic rankings.

This is, according to Mueller, due to the slow roll-out of the update. By rolling out the changes over a period of two months, website owners still have time to respond and implement the best practices that Google is looking for and, equally, Google has an opportunity to judge whether the update is having the desired effect when it is out in the real world.

But other factors also lend support to the idea that this update’s impact need not be so dramatic. Firstly, core web vitals are a reflection not of a new policy of standard that Google wants to push, but of what is already largely accepted as good web page experience. We have had updates in the past to encourage brands to improve user experience elements such as page speed and accessibility – Core Web Vitals simply, makes those elements a clear part of the core algorithm.

Secondly, Core Web Vitals aren’t a binary measure that you need to agonise over. There is an almost “spirit of the rule” sentiment around this update whereby, as long as sites and pages broadly meet the threshold for good page experience, minor improvements beyond that are likely to have minimal difference (although that isn’t to say that the thresholds won’t change in the future)

In an ‘Ask me anything’ session in May, Mueller said:

“Once you have reached kind of that good threshold, then that for us is kind of like a pretty high bar, and you are kind of at that stable point. And at that point, like, micro optimizing things like extra milliseconds here and there, that's not going to do your site in ranking anything specific. It might have an effect on what users see and with that you might have other positive effects, but at least when it comes to search ranking, that's not going to be something where you are going to see improvement. If you are like five milliseconds faster than the next one.”

Google’s Peter Walton backed-up that sentiment, saying:

“You will get a ranking boost for reaching the good threshold for all pages but beyond that point, you don't get additional boost for reaching it even better. Like if you have your LCP at two seconds and you get it down to one second, we have publicly stated that that will not increase your ranking. However, if you have a slow page, you improve to ten seconds, that could potentially boost your ranking.”

And thirdly, Google is providing website owners with a lot of insight about the update. As well as the announcements detailing the changes, we also have access to a new Page Experience report in Google Search Console.

See how your site stacks up with Page Experience Reports

Page Experience Reports are there to provide website owners with actionable insights on how their sites stack up against not only existing Core Web Vitals, but with other experience components including site security, useability, accessibility and use of ads or pop-ups.

These provide us with a benchmark of how our sites score on the elements that Google’s latest update will judge us, and highlight which pages don’t meet the standards.

Get your report, spot where your site isn’t performing against those standards, and action the changes needed.

What else can you do right now?

Your Search Console Page Experience reports are a good starting point, but think more broadly about the user experience your site and pages are delivering.

The Core Web Vitals lean towards very technical aspects of page experience – issues like load speed and accessibility for example – so consider benchmarking these against the competition using the Page Speed tool or Mobile Friendliness tool.

Additionally, focus on the common causes of poor load speed and accessibility issues. Excessively large images and video content are a prime culprit, as are redundant and/or out-of-date site and CMS plugins. Reduce the size of your site and remove needless elements where you can.

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