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Making Strategic Decisions About Core Web Vitals

By Jemal Cole

Category Dev & Web Best Practices

Date Published July 06, 2021

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I just checked my Core Web Vitals and the scores do NOT look good, should I freak out?

Google is changing their ranking algorithm for search results again, and this time they are adding their custom blend of page speed measurements into the mix. If you haven’t been contacted by an SEO vendor yet, you will be soon, and the advice you’ll get will be delivered with absolute certainty, but will leave you with a lot of questions. Your job is to make smart decisions that will keep you from dropping in Google’s results without losing what makes your site special – and without breaking the bank.

What is changing?

Google has always used a large number of factors to determine search ranking, starting with inbound links, keywords, and page authority, but over time grew to include accessibility, SSL, mobile-ready designs, and use of structured data elements. As they add in new factors, the old ones do not go away, but there is always a rush to address the new concerns.

So far Google’s updates have done a lot of good for the web, forcing site owners to improve their sites in ways that significantly improve the experience of their visitors. These are not entirely altruistic: making your site work better for users with disabilities is a great end in itself, but making a site more accessible also makes it easier for Google to parse and evaluate.

In the same way, Google wants you to make your website faster, which is great for your users, but also great for Google. They want to make it so that their users can quickly find what they’re looking for, and slow websites stand in their way. And so, Google is adding another factor to the mix: Core Web Vitals.

What are Core Web Vitals?

Core Web Vitals are Google’s methods of measuring the speed of a web page. For a long time this kind of measurement was as simple as “how long does it take to download the page contents?” and then, as web pages grew more complicated, “how long does it take for the page to show up after everything is downloaded?” Now Google has come up with a series of more granular tasks. Here they are, briefly described:

  • First Contentful Paint - how long does it take for anything to appear in the browser?
  • Speed Index - how quickly do things download overall?
  • Largest Contentful Paint - how long does it take for the largest portion of the page to appear?
  • Time to Interactive - how long does a user have to wait before they can start interacting?
  • Total Blocking Time - how much time elapsed between when something appeared and when you can use the page?
  • Cumulative Layout Shift - to what extent did things move around the page as other content was loaded?

How each of those is measured can be pretty complicated, and while Google is looking for ways to measure how fast a page feels, their metrics are still a little arbitrary.

How can I check my scores?

Google has had a number of methods for checking how fast they think your site is for years, but the current site should very closely match how their actual system will measure your page speed. You can check that out on their web development site.

I just checked my site and the scores do NOT look good, should I freak out?

Probably not!

Why not?

Because not that much has actually changed. As discussed, Core Web Vitals are just one more factor. If you already had a good search ranking because of the hard work you put into making a secure, accessible, mobile-ready website that has good information and well-structured pages, even a terrible speed score is not going to ruin your ranking. But there are a lot of other good reasons to keep calm:

You aren’t competing against the whole world. Your competitors today are the same competitors you had before Google’s change, and that means that you don’t have to worry about competing with Amazon or eBay or some startup for having the fastest site on the internet. Your competitors are probably feeling just as blindsided as you are. Some of them probably have worse scores - and you can check on that with Google’s tools.

You probably measured your worst performing page - and the one that matters least: the home page. Your home page has to do a lot of work. It has all of the same features as every other page (navigation, headers, footers, etc.), but it also has a lot more. It’s probably got big images (and maybe videos) to create an atmosphere. It probably has some custom callouts to drive traffic for particular audiences. It might have custom tools and interactive elements that expose a ton of functionality to new users. But it probably gets the least search traffic for the kind of keyword searches that are helped by page rank. Home pages get most of their traffic organically or through ads, but your internal pages are where the content is. And because they don’t have as much to do as your homepage, they probably perform better.

You can do something about it. Improving these scores can be hard: you can do some easy things to improve (make sure your files are compressed, add caching, try to cut back on external resources), but some of Google’s suggestions can make things worse for your users. Finding out what will improve your site’s speed and make things better for your users can take time, but you can do it.

And we can help. To learn more, visit our Contact section.