MTM#34: Core Web Vitals: The Next Big Google Ranking Factor in 2021

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It’s another episode of “More Than Marketing.” I’m your host, Arsham Mirshah, and we’re talking about a big search algorithm that Google will drop in May 2021 called Core Web Vitals.

It willimpact your SEO, so we’re going to talk about what it is and what to do about it.

I am honored to have two team members with me today, Alex Swope, Senior Strategist at WebMechanix, and Dave Brong, our CTO, Chief Technical Officer.

You could look at this update as a challenge, but you can also look at it as an opportunity for a competitive advantage.

Want more details immediately? Download our Core Web Vitals whitepaper.


– You could look at this as a challenge, but you can also look at it as an opportunity for potentially a competitive advantage. Hey, what’s up everyone. It’s another episode of “More Than Marketing.” I’m your host, Arsham Mirshah, and today we’re talking about a big one that Google dropped on us. It’s called Core Web Vitals. It is going to impact your SEO, your search engine optimization. And so we’re going to talk about what it is, what to do about it. And I am honored, lucky to have two members of my team with me today. Number one is Alex Swope. He’s a Senior Strategist at WebMechanix. He’s a subject matter expert in search engine optimization, SEO, as well as one in conversion rate optimization as well, which ties very heavily to user experience. I also have Dave Brong, our CTO, Chief Technical Officer. He’s the guy who’s going to talk about how the technical aspects of SEO impact Core Web Vitals and what that means to your ranking in Google. Because this Core Web Vitals thing is very much a technical SEO kind of signal, or parameter, or what have you. It’s in that bucket of SEOs. So if you’re familiar with SEO, search engine optimization, there’s stuff you can do onsite, there’s stuff you can do offsite. And then there’s a category which is kind of a sub category of On-Site, which is technical SEO. And that’s kind of what we’re talking about here today as something that Google has told marketers is coming down the pike. When is it, Alex? Let me get you– So that’s going to be going live in March

– May.

– May, sorry.

– Their next Lighthouse update is March which then will dictate how May gets applied.

– All right, so see, this is a moving target, you all. You know, new stuff’s coming out, and new guidance is coming out. New tools are coming out from Google. King Google themselves, or Queen Google themselves, right. They’re putting out new stuff all the time. And so we’ve got our finger on the pulse. Lighthouse is a tool that you use to kind of judge your Core Web Vitals. But, who wants to take this one? What is Core Web Vitals?

– Yeah, so I think that you give a really good introduction to it. I mean, in terms of it’s technical. But it’s really about the user experience, right. So the Core Web Vitals basically bucket a bunch of different things that in the past we might’ve looked at as individual technical specs on the website, like, okay, what’s your time to first bite when your server is responding and things like that, and bucketing them into these three different areas that reflect more closely, like the user’s actual experience of the website, right? So the three things that’s categorizing all of these things under your Largest Contentfull Paint which is a fancy way of saying like, okay, what, when will the user see a screen that looks like some content instead of just like, you know, a white page that’s loading your time to interaction, right? So how soon will your user actually be able to start clicking on things and navigating around? And then your cumulative layout shift, which is a fancy way, the best way to describe it is using an example of, okay, I’m reading a news article, just got to the site. And I start scrolling down past, you know, the header and everything. And then boom, like five seconds after I’m on the site, some banner ad is loading at the top of the page and pushes down all the content I was looking at. I lost my place. And, you know, as it’s loading more and more sidebar ads and things like that, in-line CTAs, I’m just like getting juggled around on this page, right? So that’s a layout shift. And so it’s trying to determine how much level layout shift you getting. So and that’s kind of like the broad buckets that it’s talking about with these things. And I think an important thing to mention is that this is going to be, whether you score well or poorly on these different buckets, is Google has said going to be rolled into their algorithm for SEO rankings. But we don’t necessarily know what the impact is going to be, right?

– How’s heavy? We don’t know how heavy these rankings are going to. They have come out and say that we are going to take these into account when ranking websites. However, we don’t know how heavy of a ranking factor they’re going to be as compared to the other 6, 4, 5 million, 500 really different ones-

– Does it replace what they’ve been doing already with the page speed scoring and all that? Or does it supplement that, does it add to it? Does it remove other pieces of it? We really don’t know.

– Right, that’s a good point as well. I’m, you know, for the podcast listeners, I’m sharing my screen right now. I’ll talk this out. Because in the past, you know, you, Dave and Alex, you guys are very familiar with this, that in the past Google has come out and said, “Hey, we’re going to start taking mobile friendliness into account when we, you know, rank pages on the search engine result page. We’re going to take into account, you know, if you have a secure site HTTPS versus not. We’re going to take into account, you know, interstitials and popups and stuff like that.” They’ve come out and said we’re using that as ranking factors. So this isn’t something new to us, right? And to webmasters and web marketers out there. Google does this from time to time. They say, “Hey, here’s some new stuff we’re taking into account.” Alex, you said it really well. I like your point. And I’m pointing out that this is really a technical SEO stuff, you know, topic. You’re going to need a developer to fix some of this stuff, audit this stuff, make sure that, you know, you’re, to be able to score well you’re going to need a developer. True or false?

– Well, A true and B it’s got to be somebody that’s familiar with the impact that making changes is going to have and what the scope of some of these changes are.

– Yeah.

– Because, I mean, like there’s some things that are like okay, well, we would have to rebuild the website, or build a completely new website in order to get a perfect score in a particular area. So, okay, what is the level of effort and the return on investment for something like that? And, Dave, I know you’re going to talk about this, but like a lot of the things that can block time to interactivity or cause a slowdown in that first largest Contentfull Paint are things that are really useful to us as marketers, marketing scripts, and tracking scripts. And we don’t want to throw all that stuff out just to get a perfect score, right? So, you need not only a developer, but a developer that can untie all of this nuance, so-

– You really need the entire team behind this because these three different buckets are formulas, if you will, of the entire user experience for your website. So there are decisions from my marker’s perspective, what scripts we’re loading on the background. There are decisions from a creative designer, you know, position as to how big that graphic is that we’re actually trying to load, how high of a resolution graphic do we need. So that all adds together and affects all three of those scores.

– That’s such a good point. You really need the balance of the team, so to speak, right. A developer to say, you know, what, how difficult it’s going to be to make this change to score well on this bucket, you know, the marketer or the, you know, user experience person to say, well, you know, we really have to have this element or this design, or this whatever, to tell our story, or to track our user to be able to, you know, give them the right experience at the right time in the right place. So yeah, it’s definitely a blended approach like that and I’m sure-

– It’s a hard approach, sorry to interrupt you there, because it’s not like any other challenge Google’s thrown out at us as marketers before in the past. We can’t just throw money at this and solve it from a server perspective, or a CDN, or caching, or whatever. This actually requires thought to solve.

– Also a very good point. And I think it’s that balance again, it’s striking that balance with your UX and with your marketers and the developers. That’s the challenge, right? It’s finding that balance, yeah. It’s almost like the age old balance of like design or kind of, not argument, but design in SEO a lot of times kind of go head to head, right. ‘Cause design, doesn’t want a lot of content on the page, I’m generalizing here, whereas SEO wants a lot of content on the page. That’s a very generalization obviously, but yeah. I want to throw one thing out there. It’s, and I want to get your guys’ take on this because I’m trying to guess what the impact is going to be based on all the stuff that we’ve seen from Google thus far. It looks like to me that this is going to be pretty heavy because relative to other things, though I’m not sure because, you know, here’s that, this graphic, I believe this is right from Google’s, you know, blog post, where they’re putting the three buckets that Alex pointed out the largest Contentfull Paint, the interactivity, and the visual stability, the cumulative layout shift to putting that kind of above mobile friendliness, safe browsing, HBS, you know, so it makes me think like this is kind of a kin to, an analogy would be like, you go to the doctor, right? Every time you go to a doctor, what does the doctor do? You know, if you think about Core Web Vitals, what are your core human vitals? It’s like your pulse, your weight, your blood pressure, right? It’s like they always take those three things. Do you have a pulse? Is it, you know, normal? What’s your blood pressure and your weight? You know, what’s your BMI? So I don’t, I think it’s actually going to be kind of a relative big deal, or otherwise at least equal to mobile friendliness and HBS. Where are you guys at this?

– Yeah, well, I think that, okay, so we’re an agency, right? We’re an agency partner, we have many clients. And so what, the way that we’re looking at this in terms of impact is, you know, we genuinely don’t know how big of the impact it’s going to be, right? So there’s some people that are very risk tolerant that are going to say, you know, what? We’re not going to slow down to address this. We’re just going to roll the dice and see what happens in May, and then make the decision we need to, if we see an impact. And then there’s other people that are highly risk averse that are going to want to address this beforehand. But I think that the first step before you do anything is to see whether or not you’re scoring poorly on some of these metrics, and then to get some kind of audit on to whatever the problems are, to see like, okay, what is the level of effort that we could assume to address some of these? And then you can weigh it against, on your risk tolerance, right?

– Yeah, yeah, that’s good. So you’re saying it’s good to prepare here. Yeah, you don’t have to go jump off the diving board and start redesigning your site and rebuilding it from scratch, you know, today in anticipation for May, but you probably don’t want to do nothing either. You at least want to know where you stand. And some kind of audit-

– Definitely want to know where you stand and diving board and water. Think of this as ocean waves. And the first couple of waves that are going to come are going to be the smaller waves. And then you’re going to get the larger ones in the set that are coming. But the key there is they’re going to continue to come and there’re going to continue to be adjustments there. Because it’s not really Google versus your website, it’s also your competitors versus you, versus Google also. So going back to what SEO is in general there, and what your competitor does, is it more than what you’re doing right now? You want to stay on top of that just to not have your results even adjusted. You want to stay where you’re at. You want to,

– Yeah-

– Yeah, it’s a good point. ‘Cause all things equal, you know, if you’re equal to your competitors from like a content and a backlinks perspective, but then they have a faster site or a site that doesn’t, you know, how content shifts and what have you then-

– Right, that’s part of the secondary piece of this challenge too. Because all these new Core Web Vitals and the old Page Speed Insights, they look at it on a mobile device and also a desktop device. So you’re scored twice in the same context and given different performance scores there.

– Yeah.

– And in general, the mobile scores are always a lot lower than your desktop scores, you know? And I think Google also said that only about 15 or 20% of sites that are testing nowadays, like right now in January, are actually passing these performance scores for the Core Web Vitals side of things. So it’s a huge shift that the industry is going to go through.

– I think that, that’s an important statistic because okay, you could look at this as a challenge. Okay, great, Google’s throwing a monkey wrench into my performance and I got to jump through all these hoops, but you can also look at it as an opportunity for potentially a competitive advantage, right? If you do address it then it might be something that puts you up and above and makes you more competitive in rankings.

– Also a very good point. You know, look at it as an opportunity not a not issue. So let’s actually go into what is, maybe not the opportunity, but okay I’m a marketer, I’m a webmaster, I’m a CMO, whatever, what do I do about it? You know what can we do about it today?

– Yeah, that’s a great question. That’s the million dollar question right now. That’s the question I get on a daily basis. Where do we start? And I’m telling everybody to start from what I think is probably the easiest perspective. Go through and do a little house cleaning. Look at your tag manager, look at your scripts that are being loaded, and really figure out if you need to run those anymore. Are you running a split test campaign that is paused and you haven’t actually done anything on your homepage in a year. You still need to run that script on your homepage. You know, just run those scripts on the pages you actually need them. That’s a great first step.

– Yeah, I agree with that. I would maybe the step before that, Dave, is to jump into Google’s tools themselves to see, like, if you even have an issue, where you have your scoring, right. They gave us tools for this.

– So that’s a great point because going to Search Console you can see how you actually score. You can’t see how you score in Search Console, but you can see how your results around Core Web Vitals are performing in the sense of your site pages. So the Page Speed Insights or the Core Web Vital aspect behind it falls into field data, lab data, Chrome’s user experience report, which is like people actually using Chrome browsers and visiting your site, all reporting back to Google on how you’re doing there. So this is the source of the Chrome UX report, which is kind of the visitors coming to your website over 28 day averaged out period to show how you’re doing there. So like on desktop, 168 POR URL. So this is not a, my homepage only kind of perspective or my main page of the website. You have 168 different URLs to fix.

– Yeah, this is interesting. So where I’m showing now on my screen, the search, Google Search Console, if you’re not familiar with it, google Google Search Console, right. And in it, there’s a report called Core Web Vitals on the left navigation. And, you know, I’m showing our site. It’s funny because earlier you said mobile is typically going to have more scores. We don’t have any bad URLs on our mobile.

– That’s because we don’t have enough mobile traffic to show up in the Chrome UX report for their field data. It’s very misleading. So you run the Page Speed Insights, the next thing there is origin data or lab data. That’s you actually running a test against it in a one-to-one test environment.

– Where do you run that test? Is that Lighthouse?

– Lighthouse or Page Speed Insights. The old Google tried and true Page Speed Insights, accommodates Lighthouse. So Lighthouse is a performance scoring mechanism, if you will, that is tied into Page Speed Insights.

– Right, so if you just google the words, Google page speed, that’s the number one result You click on that and then you put your site in and they’ll give you a score for both your mobile and your desktop experience, incorporating some Core Web Vitals that will show you kind of where to start, you know, will start ranking the different factors that are impacting your score.

– It doesn’t tell you all those factors though, because, you know, as we know, you know, we’re right now in the Baltimore region, East coast, you know, we might have visitors searching Google in California, but our server is in Michigan or wherever it turns out to be, you know? So page speed really comes down to how far you are to the website you’re trying to load and everything in between it there. So there’s a lot of other misleading factors that go in here. If you run Page Speed Insights, it doesn’t tell you where it actually tests from, okay. But if you use other tools, GTmetrix,, all of those. You can pick a server. And you can see how your actual performance scores vary. And sometimes those changes are very drastic. Like your largest Contentful Paint, you know, say you could have three seconds from Dallas, Texas, but you could have six seconds from Vancouver, huge difference there. And it all comes back down to that visitor, where the visitor’s coming from or searching from specifically too.

– Yeah, so now you need to know your user which Google Analytics can tell you a lot about that, about where they are geographically. And then you can use that data to inform where you’re going to run your page speed test from, right.

– Yep, but ultimately Search Console is a good starting point, too, just to see what pages you have to address. You can look at your highest traffic pages, the highest search pages, hit those up first. A lot of that’s going to cascade back to templates. So you fixed it from a template perspective or a Tag Manager perspective. And then it’s going to update. Those updates could take hours, days, weeks, months with Google. You never know when their Search Console updates will show your results back to you. So you still want to run your tests manually.

– Yep, and what are some like common things that, you know, kind of any website out there or website runner out there, will likely run into, as it pertains to, you know, that’s going to give them scores, negative scores in Core Web Vitals. I’m thinking things like scripts and their server, right?

– Yeah, so we talked about scripts in the context of Tag Manager, that’s the tool we use to load all these scripts and manage them there.

– Right.

– Other common ones are just going to be images. You know, I don’t know how many times I run across someone’s website that has a little testimonial logo, 200 pixels wide or whatever, but it’s an 11 megabyte image.

– Yeah.

– So that’s just wrong in itself. Solving that stuff will solve the Core Web Vitals performance scores.

– And that goes back to your housekeeping point, because, you know, we do see this often where us as an agency, for instance, we’ll do a website redesign, we’ll hand it over to a client, and, you know, God bless a client, no judgment, but they, you know, they’re not-

– Yeah, 24 hours something’s changed.

– Yeah.

– It affects your performance score.

– But they don’t have Photoshop, right.

– It’s the nature of websites.

– What do they do? They go out into the field and they take a photo with their iPhone, and they upload it to the WordPress. And since then you got a four or five, six megabyte thing loading, yeah.

– And that’s usually the case. And from a website perspective, when you make a website, you can’t always solve for those cases there. You can’t automatically say, okay, every image you upload, I’m going to resize, and compress, and crop, and do whatever I want with because you don’t really know the result there. You still have to put it on the user side to solve there. So it’s the housekeeping, it’s your processes.

– Yeah, so that’s scripts. We got images, any other kind of common?

– Server. So we skipped over server. So one of those things in there, the first input delay or the Time to Interactive, that’s a lot of the server processing, WordPress ecosystem is one of the largest ones out there. And the growing piece of that is Page Builders lately that make it easy to add new pages and change all your design layouts and perspectives there. What the average person doesn’t know is behind the scenes that takes an enormous amount of processing power. So your server is slow, you know, and that usually when you use a page builder, you’re already scoring on a fresh install. Install that page builder, don’t do anything on it, you’re already outside of performance thresholds that Core Web Vitals wants because it takes more than a second and a half to actually process that. So cascade that with visitors actually coming to your website. So if you have 20 concurrent visitors coming to your website, your server can’t keep up with that. So your performance scores suffer greatly. So smarter decisions on how your websites are built. And, you know, smarter decisions, but also there’s trade-offs, it’s the balance there, you know. From a marketing agency, we see all the time where a client just wants to make their changes themselves. They can’t wait for a vendor to do it for them. And it makes total sense, you know, going in and just adding a blog post, they should be able to do that themselves in all cases there.

– This is that balance we were talking about earlier, right? You got to balance the three different kind of, use the stories, so to speak. And your prospect or your web visitor is one of those stories, right. You know, you’re, so you got the person who’s managing the site, you got the person building the site, and then you have the person visiting the site. And all of those have, you know, a good experience. And, but at the same time, satisfy Google. But I think the point that Alex would make is it’s not about satisfying Google, necessarily. They give you the tools and the score and all that. But if you satisfy the user, it will in turn satisfy Google. And I think that’s one of our principles for sure.

– Alex, do you agree with that or do you want to?

– No, I totally, I mean, look, I’m not going to lie and say like, if a Google algorithm update rolls out that’s good for the user, but bad for my client. I’m not happy about it. But in general, yeah, you are going to be successful if you keep that user in mind, because at the end of the day, you know, we talk about this all the time here at WebMechanix. But it’s like, what’s Google trying to do? Something like 90% of their revenue, right, comes from ads on the search engine. So if they are producing a really, really high quality user experience for people then they have people coming back over and over and over again, and, you know, fueling their bottom line with advertising.

– So it’s a win-win-win.

– Yeah, it’s a win-win-win. The websites win, Google wins, and the users win as well. So yeah, that makes sense.

– Right, that’s good, so, yeah.

– Huh?

– Now, well, I was going to say that the funny thing about some of these tests, so like the Lighthouse report, funny thing is Google might make some recommendations in there that seem really straightforward, right? So as an example, it’s like, Oh I see that you’re on a WordPress site. Well, here’s like a link to some plugins that can, you know, move some of these things in line or, you know, defer the loading of these scripts and that’ll solve the problem for you, right. But, you know, what Dave will tell you is, okay,

– That’ll break more than what it solves.

– Exactly. You know, that’s a cookie cutter kind of response. That’s ultimately, I mean that could totally break a bunch of stuff on your website.

– Yeah, so. Yeah, so. Core Web Vitals coming down the pike here in a couple months, we’re recording in February. It’s May technically. So the impact is to be seen. Our recommendation is to, you know, do a, at the very least, do a little audit, do a little scoring, look at Search Console, do some page speed tests and see where you are and see, you know, what Google is telling you as how you can fix it. Stack rank those put those on a, you know, spreadsheet and maybe have some columns for level of difficulty and then level of impact. It would just have a little calculator on, hey what would I tackle first? And what would I tackle last? And I think Dave came up with a really good kind of quick and easy way to see what the impact of addressing scripts is, where if you’re deploying them through something like Tag Manager, building like a test URL with a parameter that says, Hey, when this URL loads don’t load Tag Manager and run the test, the Lighthouse test, on that URL and see how much of a difference that makes. And then, you know, if you’re all green after that, then, okay, great. You’ve kind of prioritized what a big impact be.

– That’s good.

– It gives you a starting point, but you also have to look behind the scenes with the Lighthouse scoring side of things. It actually has a calculator behind the scenes that weights everything differently. So if you’re turning off your scripts, you’re going to solve some of the higher weighting aspects like the total blocking time, the time it takes all the scripts to process, but you still have the largest Contentful Paint, you know, bringing in all your imagery and stuff like that. So you might, by turning off all your scripts, you might solve one thing, but the weighting aspect of it, makes other issues seem higher than too. You know, so that’s not a quick fix just by turning off the scripts.

– Yeah, but it’s a way to kind of yeah. Do-

– it’s a place to start.

– It’s a place to start that’s exactly right, yeah.

– Like, for our site, for example, you know, for a desktop performance score, we have currently about a 75, our site’s five years old at this point. So it’s in definite need of some housekeeping. But we turn off Tag Manager and we score 96.

– Yeah, yeah. So that last 4%, right? Those last four points, it may not be worth going after. We’re already in the green with the 96. So then we realized that we got a big chunk of savings there, but clearly we’re not going to not run Tag Manager, not run some scripts or whatever we need, or to run analytics in there, or something like that, build retargeting audiences. So what are we going to do is we want to now go and say, okay, we’re going to just housekeeping or clean some stuff up. We might even add some rules and say, Hey if it’s this page, don’t run this script. Or if it’s this page, only run this script on this page, something like that, right. Not just blatantly run the pMAP software on every single page. Now, we want to start focusing. So a little bit of thought, a little work.

– Yeah, I will give a quick pro tip of the day. If your website is using anything that loads YouTube, Vimeo, other content services in on a script perspective on every site, even though you’re not using it, those are our major blockers, right there. Even things like translate scripts, Google Translate. If you only give them the option to translate blog posts, don’t load Google Translate Scripts on your home page either. That’s a huge impact.

– Yeah, so those are the kind of the thought process that goes into. So like when we work with clients these are the things that we’re thinking about and that we’re taking action on. And so hopefully these tips are helpful for you all out there. We have a white paper on this. I’ll link that in the show notes and the description of the video here. And anything else you guys want to touch on before we jump?

– I mean, I think just the main thing as we’ve been diving into this, you know, Dave hit me up said, “Hey, you know, what are we doing about this Core Web Vitals thing?” And I was like, “I don’t know, Dave, what are we doing about this Core Web Vitals thing? Like what can we do about it?” And I mean, that’s the question people are asking right now. Because I think people are aware that it is a thing, but there’s not that much information out there, at least not to the level that I’ve heard Dave talk about. And I mean, you get this guy on the phone with a client, and he’s talking about their particular website and their particular actions that they can take. And I mean that’s something that is not super easy to get information on if you’re just Googling around about Core Web Vitals. So I just underscore like the importance of getting someone that really knows this kind of stuff inside and out to take a look to help you prioritize what these things are. So that May, you’re not rolling the dice.

– Yeah, you definitely need someone that can make a informed decision, not an emotional decision, you know, and guide you in removing something because it has a big impact and that impact is better, that impact is higher than the gain that you would get from using it in the first place.

– Yeah, and you need multiple voices or one really, really unicorn smart voice to weigh the pros and cons of any decision that you make towards this Core Web Vitals. One last thing I’ll add in there is like, you know, if your site is five years old or however, you’re older, you know, maybe you’ve had a business change or adding new services and your site has not kept up, this may be a good impetus to say, okay, let’s, you know, engage an agency to redo our site and update our content, and our design, and all that. And at the same time, they’re going to build with Core Web Vitals and all of Google’s technical.

– Yeah, and I think at this point in time, if you’re already in conversations to do a redesign, to revamp your website, make sure that agency takes performance as one of the key factors for success.

– Absolutely. Great point, great point. Awesome guys. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I think this was really helpful. You know, if you all out there liked it, please comment. You’ve got questions, comment. We’ll reply. Like it, share it with your friends. And we’ll find Alex and Dave, Alex the fox and Dave the unicorn on another podcast in the future. Thanks guys.

Alex Swope

Alex SwopeDirector of Strategy

Dave Brong

Dave BrongChief Technology Officer

Arsham Mirshah

Arsham MirshahCEO & Co-Founder

Podcasts Info:
Creative + UX

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