UPDATED 6/1/2021

Since sharing information regarding Google’s Page Experience algorithm update in March 2021, we’ve learned that the launch of this update has been slightly delayed.

Before getting into the nitty gritty of this Google algorithm update (including everything related to the new Core Web Vitals ranking factors), you may want to familiarize yourself with the latest developments.

In mid-April 2021, Google officially announced that its forthcoming Page Experience update -- originally intended to take effect in May -- would begin its gradual rollout in mid-June. Google added that the update won’t be fully launched until August, meaning that we’ll likely be seeing adjustments to site rankings throughout the summer.

Google’s statement explained, in part: “You can think of it as if you're adding a flavoring to a food you're preparing. Rather than add the flavor all at once into the mix, we'll be slowly adding it all over this time period.”

According to Google, this gradual approach will give website owners and developers even more time to implement necessary changes to improve page experience. Google has also made a commitment to answering questions and gathering feedback regarding the update. What’s more, they hope that this new rollout time schedule will alleviate some of the panic that’s often been associated with prior algorithm updates.

“As we have said before, while this update is designed to highlight pages that offer great user experiences, page experience remains one of many factors our systems take into account,” Google stated. “Given this, sites generally should not expect drastic changes. In addition, because we're doing this as a gradual rollout, we will be able to monitor for any unexpected or unintended issues.”

For now, this means site owners aren’t likely to see any major shifts in their rankings. Even when the update begins to roll out in a few weeks, you may not see surprising losses or gains. That said, you’ll still want to properly prepare for what this update has in store for us. Keep reading to learn more about the Core Web Vitals SEO effects and how you can guide your clients to maximize their success.

There’s one thing about the internet that you can always depend on: that change is inevitable. Evolution is really the only thing that’s a given -- and that means that business owners and marketers need to stay on their toes if they want to compete.

Although there are certain aspects of digital marketing that have remained crucial to strategy development over the years, user behavior (and even bad behavior among site owners!) will often drive changes. That’s certainly true of adjustments made to Google’s search algorithm, which is chiefly responsible for how websites are ranked in search engine results pages.

In just a couple of months, Google will release its Page Experience algorithm update. While the thought of an algorithm update may send business owners into a panic at first, it’s important to stay calm and stay the course. Remember that Google isn’t out to get you! And if you learn as much as possible about this upcoming update, you’ll be in great shape when Google launches the Page Experience update in May 2021. Let’s dive in and learn about what to expect with this latest algorithm update.

Why Does Google Change Its Algorithm?

As we mentioned in our recent blog post about the history of Google’s algorithm updates, Google actually makes thousands of changes to its search algorithm each year. Some of these updates are relatively small and may even go unnoticed. Others, including the more infamously-named updates (such as Penguin and Panda), brought about some very powerful changes to how websites are ranked in search engine results pages.

Google’s purpose behind adjusting its algorithm is to better serve web users. Over time, it becomes clear how user behavior has impacted trends or how site owners may be gaming the system in order to receive higher rankings than they really deserve. Ultimately, Google wants to make sure that the needs of searchers are being met. The company adjusts its algorithm all the time to increase the chances that it’ll accomplish that goal.

Of course, Google doesn’t always get it right -- and these changes can sometimes translate to significant consequences for site owners who haven’t necessarily done anything wrong. These changes are meant to improve upon Google’s ability to assign rankings according to the value, relevancy, and authority those sites can offer. It’s certainly not a perfect system, but the fact that Google makes so many adjustments over time means that the team is constantly working to improve those processes.

There’s no doubt that algorithm updates can be a source of frustration for business owners. But these changes really are meant to be in service of the greater good. And as long as you adhere to the best practices known at the time, it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that a single algorithm update will undo all of the hard work you’ve put into your SEO.

What Will Change With the Page Experience Update?

That said, it’s essential that you understand what’s on the horizon. Google has actually released quite a bit of information about its upcoming Page Experience update, which is relatively rare. One of the difficult aspects of algorithm updates is that you may not know they’re coming (or even that they’ve already been released). But with this update, we know a fair amount about what’s going to happen and what’s really going to matter in the eyes of Google.

First, you’ll want to understand what page experience is and how Google evaluates it. Page experience is, in essence, a subset of overall user experience. Google defines page experience as “a set of signals that measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page beyond its pure information value.” Basically, it’s a way to rate the quality of a user’s experience provided by a specific page on your site. This typically comes down to how easily or quickly a user can interact with the content on the page. However, Google evaluates page experience on a number of specific factors.

If you’ve ever heard of Core Web Vitals ranking factors, this is where they come in. Google’s Core Web Vitals are a group of three metrics that are used (among other things) to determine page experience. These metrics will likely evolve over time, which means that Core Web Vitals SEO implications will probably change even after the algorithm update happens. However, the current Core Web Vitals ranking factors include...

  • Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): This measures loading performance and speed -- specifically, the amount of time it takes for the biggest piece of content on the page to load. To provide the optimal page experience, LCP should occur within the first 2.5 seconds when a given page first starts to load.
  • First Input Delay (FID): This metric pertains to interactivity on a page. It measures how long it takes for a user to have the ability to use interactive features on a page (like typing, scrolling, clicking, etc.). Your page’s FID should be less than 100 milliseconds for best results.
  • Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): Referring to a page’s visual stability, CLS measures how consistent the page’s layout is as it loads. If a page seems to jump around during this process (e.g., if buttons, images, and other content shift around the loading page rather than staying put), you’re seeing a layout shift in action. A page’s CLS should be less than 0.1, according to Google standards.

It’s important to note that these Core Web Vitals ranking factors aren’t the only ones that Google will consider after this algorithm update takes effect. Google will also evaluate page experience based on other search ranking signals, such as mobile-friendly design, HTTPS (SSL certification), safe browsing, and compliance with intrusive interstitial guidelines. Not only do your web pages need to load quickly and consistently, but your site also needs to provide device responsiveness, web security, and unobtrusive design in order to address Google’s chief concerns (and to appeal to human visitors!).

Ultimately, none of these factors are really new. They’ve been around for a long time and have been universally accepted as principles of good site design. However, the Page Experience update clearly tells us that Google will be looking at these features and using them to evaluate site rankings. Before, some of those factors might have merely been assumed or considered common sense; now, they’re laid out in black and white so there’s no confusion about what Google wants to see.

Is Page Experience the Only Thing That Matters?

Sometimes when an algorithm update happens, business owners and even marketing professionals are inclined to believe that it’s the only thing they need to focus on. It’s easy to fall into this trap, especially if you’re worried about your site rankings being affected. In your mind, it might make sense to take an all-hands-on-deck approach and drop everything else -- but it’s important to remember that even with this algorithm update, this isn’t the only thing Google cares about!

Yes, page experience does matter -- and for a good reason. Google wants to provide web visitors with the best possible experience, which means highlighting the websites that follow best practices and remove barriers that could otherwise take away from user interaction with a page. However, this doesn’t mean you can simply focus on your site’s page experience and call it a day. This algorithm update doesn’t render other best practices invalid; it’s simply adding something to them.

In other words, you still need to focus on other areas of your web development and SEO if you expect to make progress with your site ranking. You still need optimized content, a visually appealing website, and authoritative backlinks. Google has said that when it comes down to two similar pages that provide essentially the same value in terms of content, it will use page experience as a way to break the tie. In that sense, page experience can be the thing that separates you from your competition. But it’s also not a substitute for quality content or other important aspects of your digital marketing strategy. It’s just one more thing you need to add into the equation -- but it doesn’t make the other calculations any less important.

What Should I Do to Prepare For the Update?

Now that you know more about what Google expects to see with this update, how can you make sure that Core Web Vitals’ SEO associations are positive ones for your business?

Basically, you need to start preparing now for this update. While we don’t have an exact date for the launch, we have it on good authority that the update will roll out in May 2021. That gives you a little less than two months to get your website ready for what’s to come. Depending on what kind of shape your site is in, you may have a lot of work ahead of you. Here are just a few steps that most experts are recommending you take.

  1. Use developer tools to check Core Web Vitals ranking factors. Google Search Console and Dev Tools have some features that will allow you to figure out where your site stands. You can essentially run an audit or report on a specific page to assess whether it meets important standards like speed, interactivity, and visual stability. If it doesn’t, you’ll have a better idea of what needs to be changed.
  2. Compress images when necessary: Having compelling graphics is essential for your site, but large images can slow down your site’s loading speed. If you’ve exhausted all other options and your site is still loading slowly when you test it, it may be worth using an image compression tool or a content delivery network to cache the content on the page.
  3. Double-down on security: Site security matters to both Google and web visitors. Be sure to eliminate any malicious scripts, add a firewall, and install an SSL certificate if you haven’t already. Although we don’t know exactly what Google looks for, there’s no such thing as a site that’s too secure. Anything you can do to protect customer data or prevent a hacking attempt will be seen as a plus.
  4. Remove pop-ups that interrupt viewing experience: Pop-ups aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but they do need to be utilized carefully. If you have pop-up ads or windows that appear on your site, you’ll need to make sure they adhere to Google’s best practices. This is especially important for mobile use, as ads that obscure content or create navigation issues can have an adverse effect on bounce rate and overall ranking.

What Happens If I Don’t Make Any Changes?

If you can’t see anything obvious that’s wrong with your site or haven’t heard any complaints from customers, you might be wondering whether it’s really worth it to implement some of these changes. It’s essential to remember that you can’t really be objective here -- and that you may not ever hear a peep from potential customers who abandoned your site due to its poor user experience. In other words, you probably don’t yet have good feedback that can tell you whether your site needs improvement. Until or unless you get that feedback, you’re going to take a big risk by ignoring page experience.

We don’t really know what we’ll see with Core Web Vitals SEO impact. The effect of previous algorithm updates has varied quite a bit; some updates hit the majority of websites, while others were restricted to sites within certain verticals. We have no official word as of yet about what we’ll see with this update. But unless you have a brand new website that was designed with Core Web Vitals ranking factors in mind, chances are good that you’ll have at least some small changes to make.

And if your website does need updating, it’s critical that you take action -- despite the fact that it isn’t clear how these metrics will be weighted in terms of overall site rankings. We do know that Google has said that poor page experience won’t automatically mean that your rankings will take a dive. In fact, Google stated that it will still be possible for sites that have been deemed to have a poor page experience to still rank well in Google search results. However, experts stress that that’s not a risk most businesses should be willing to take.

Failing to adhere to Google’s best practices during or after an algorithm update can have significant consequences. Your site could be penalized or lose a lot of ground in SERPs, which could mean that your site won’t show up as readily when relevant searches are performed. That can ultimately lead to major losses in traffic, sales, and overall brand perception. And even if your rankings aren’t impacted right away, consider that no one really wants to deal with a slow-loading website that doesn’t work well on mobile. Google might not always catch on right away, but web visitors do. They’ll be quick to abandon a site that provides a poor user experience. If you ignore these recommendations and keep your site as-is, it will be more difficult for you to compete -- and you’ll end up driving customers away in the end.

It’s true that page experience isn’t the be-all and end-all of SEO. But when Google gives you so much time to prepare, it’s important to sit up and pay attention. By understanding more about what search engines want to see, you can be proactive in your approach and make changes to your site (or your clients’ sites) to protect the progress that’s already been made through digital marketing.

Core Web Vitals Check-In: 4-Month Review

UPDATED 11/1/21

Google’s Page Experience update came with a lot of fanfare. Unlike many other algorithm updates, we learned many months in advance that this change was on the way. We even got another reprieve when we learned that the update would be delayed.

Many business owners and SEO experts alike were able to rest easy knowing that they’d have time to make necessary changes before the updated algorithm finally launched. But was all of that anxiety surrounding the Core Web Vitals actually warranted?

According to our friends at Search Engine Land, the answer is: maybe not.

For all of the hubbub surrounding this major update, the effects we’ve seen since its rollout have been relatively minor.

Almost across the board, it seems that most industry professionals didn’t see too many massive shifts in rankings following the Page Experience update rollout.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this outcome. Even before the algorithm changes took effect, Google stated: “While this update is designed to highlight pages that offer great user experience, page experience remains one of many factors our systems take into account. Given this, sites generally should not expect any drastic changes.”

Anecdotally, however, certain professionals are pointing out that the frenzy surrounding the update has impacted site owners in a negative way. Some marketers and web developers have actually found that the sites that needed the most improvements (and actually made them) aren’t even seeing progress in their rankings.

In other words, despite taking action and following Google’s guidance in the lead-up to the update, these site owners aren’t yet seeing their efforts pay off. For all that talk about the Core Web Vitals and other aspects of the Page Experience update, any positive adjustments seem to have very little effect on how sites are being ranked after the rollout.

It is worth noting, of course, that the Page Experience update wasn’t the only algorithm adjustment to take place within a short period of time. Google also rolled out a core update in July, two spam updates, and several other yet-to-be-confirmed updates to its algorithm between June and September.

That means that isolating the impact of the Page Experience update is difficult, at best. It’s nearly impossible to say which update might have caused a change in rankings – or if one update might have canceled out or amplified another’s effects. In addition, websites with better content may also happen to provide a better user experience.

Still, the takeaway on the whole is that the Page Experience update probably wasn’t as big a deal as many made it out to be at first.

A Semrush preliminary study “[hadn’t] spotted any significant changes in rankings” when mobile search results were analyzed back in July 2021.

Semrush’s VP of Marketing, Aoife McIlraith, further explained: “So far, we haven’t spotted any significant changes in rankings or managed to link them to [Core Web Vitals] factors, so it’s hard to pinpoint any systematic patterns at this point. But some initial analysis may imply that there is a general improvement trend in regard to CWV.”

To put it another way, Semrush didn’t identify any dramatic changes in post-Page Experience update data between June and July. But the general number of URLs that were given all “good” ratings for the three Core Web Vitals did increase for both mobile and desktop sites.

The study also reveals that Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) seemed to present the most difficulty for site owners in terms of possible improvements. First Input Delay (FID), which Semrush substituted for Total Blocking Time (TBT) in its data, also showed some inconsistencies, particularly for mobile analysis.

This isn’t to say that Google’s Core Web Vitals have next to no impact on rankings. In fact, not meeting Google’s criteria for these ranking factors can definitely hurt your position in SERPs. But if you do follow Google’s recommendations for CWV, it won’t necessarily mean you’ll beat out the competition by a long shot.

According to an evaluation by SISTRIX, an SEO software company, there’s a considerable difference in the effect the Core Web Vitals update had on “good” versus “bad” domains – the sites that met all three CWV criteria versus those that didn’t meet at least one of the criteria for the Core Web Vitals.

Johannes Beus, CEO and founder of SISTRIX, explained: “Based on the Visibility Index, we saw that pages that meet all of Google’s requirements rank one percentage point better than the average.”

On the other end of the spectrum, pages that failed at least one of the CWV metrics were rated as 3.7% lower on the company’s index.

It stands to reason that if you don’t take care to fix at least one of the lacking Core Web Vital areas on your site, your rankings could take a hit. But if your site was already rated decently well in all three areas (or even a couple of the CWVs), trying to perfect these components might not result in any real rankings improvement in the end.

That said, we’re only a few months past the rollout at this point. And while this particular update might not have made as big an impact as many were expecting in terms of search rankings, it’s important to remember that your position in SERPs isn’t always the number one priority.

Many experts pointed out that by making improvements related to the Core Web Vitals, they saw a major boost in clicks, conversions, and cost savings. Even if Google didn’t reward you handsomely for making those improvements, you might have made your customers a whole lot happier.

And when you think about it, Google’s goal is to provide the best possible results for web users. As a business owner, that should ultimately be your goal, as well. You may have initially been motivated by the potential for improved rankings, but these changes may have convinced visitors to make a purchase or helped to build trust in your brand.

All in all, you should think of the Core Web Vitals (and the Page Experience update as a whole) as a means to an end. Both Google and your business should want to provide the best possible solutions to customer problems.

Even if your rankings didn’t skyrocket following this update, despite your best efforts, remember that your return on investment comes from more than just your position in SERPs. If the site adjustments you made are putting your customers first and are having a noticeable impact on the quality of their visitor experience, then you should still consider that to be a win.