Core Web Vitals: Are Your Clients’ Sites Ready for Google’s New Ranking Signal?
Google announced in late May that sometime in 2021, it will be adding three new search signals into the mix to play into a website’s overall page experience score and, therefore, a website’s overall search engine results pages (SERP) visibility.
To help webmasters prepare for the impending change, Google also created a dedicated “Core Web Vitals” report at this time in Google Search Console.
“Core Web Vitals” Metrics Include:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP).
- First Input Delay (FID).
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS).
In early November, Google provided a follow-up announcement that “sometime” would officially be May 2021.
This means the countdown has begun.
While there are several excellent articles offering SEO recommendations on how to optimize for Core Web Vitals, there’s little published on the why – i.e., the anticipated impact that Core Web Vitals as a ranking signal will have on search visibility.
Being able to both understand and communicate the why effectively is crucial for SEO pros when deciding their top priorities for the coming quarter.
As well as when they are presenting roadmaps to important stakeholders to get their buy-in.
In The Remainder Of This Article, I Will Outline:
- The 2021 impact of Core Web Vitals: what we know.
- How seasoned SEO professionals predict search visibility will be impacted.
- How FOX.com has prepared for this new update (and how you can, too).
- The benefits of prioritizing Core Web Vitals Scores on your SEO roadmap for late 2020/early 2021.
Read on to learn more.
The 2021 Impact of Core Web Vitals: What We Know
In case you missed Google’s first and/or second announcement surrounding Core Web Vitals: Google Search Console is now able to quantitatively show webmasters their areas for improvement surrounding user experience – including loading, interactivity, and visual stability.
Starting in May 2021, these Core Web Vitals will become direct Google ranking signals.
While Google has been noting the importance of user experience for years, these two announcements have raised the stakes by putting websites’ SERP visibility on the line.
Not to mention, Google will make web pages with “poor” Core Web Vitals ineligible for the viable “Top Stories” carousel – and remove its previous AMP eligibility requirement.
(SEO professionals for news publications may want to pay special heed here.)
Google has not announced (and likely won’t, in my opinion) the actual ranking fluctuations that SEO pros can expect from this impending signal.
However, their decision to add the new signal was explained the following way:
“Through both internal studies and industry research, users show they prefer sites with a great page experience… Great page experiences enable people to get more done and engage more deeply; in contrast, a bad page experience could stand in the way of a person being able to find the valuable information on a page.”Google Webmasters Blog, May 2020
For more instructions on how to optimize your website’s Core Web Vitals performance, I highly recommend checking out this Search Engine Journal guide, written by Rachel Castello.
After all, this post is largely focused on why you should consider prioritizing this initiative highly on your roadmap… but you are going to need to know how.
How Seasoned SEO Professionals Predict Search Visibility Will Be Impacted
Based on the results of my Twitter poll taken on November 16, SEO pros seem to be in a disagreement, and/or uncertainty, about how influential Core Web Vitals will be on SERP rankings starting in May.
Participants’ answers were significantly varied, as illustrated below.
While 28.4% of SEO professionals polled answered with a carefree, cyber *shrug*, 16.2% of SEO pros polled answered that they were prepping for the next Mobilegeddon.
Five hours and 352 votes later, the final poll results were in.
And in true SEO fashion, *drumroll* we’ve ultimately decided that it “it depends.”
(Tell me I’m not the only one who has seen this hilarious pie chart meme.)
SEOs: What is your predicted impact of “Core Web Vitals” becoming a ranking factor this coming May? #SEO— Elizabeth Lefelstein (@lefelstein) November 16, 2020
Jokes aside, the spread results of this poll aren’t surprising, as SEO professionals haven’t been offered any concrete answers from Google here.
The closest I’ve found is a cryptic Reddit post from Google’s Gary Illyes:
“Like any other search engine, Google works hard to surface the highest quality and most relevant results for users’ queries… it’s extremely unlikely that CWV would ever become “the primary factor for Organic Traffic”. That’s not to say you can ignore CWV, though.”Gary Illyes’ Reddit post
I’m of the opinion that we shouldn’t disregard the fact that the last time Google gave us such a generous heads up on a new ranking factor was for the infamous “Mobilegeddon” back in 2015.
For recall, the SEO company, BrightEdge performed a case study in 2015 in the weeks following the rollout of Mobilegeddon and found that “there was a 21% decrease in the number of non-mobile-friendly URLs on the first three pages of the SERPs compared to before the update.”
It’s irresponsible to jump to the conclusion that websites with poor Core Web Vitals scores will see similar -21% SERP visibility declines.
However, this case study does serve as a nice reminder for SEO pros who forget and/or downplay the serious impact of Mobilegeddon.
The study acts as a reputable data point when presenting SEO roadmaps to stakeholders – in order to illustrate the value of prioritizing this initiative.
Beyond my Mobilegeddon theories, it’s also worth highlighting that Google itself says that:
“Studies show that for pages that meet these thresholds of Core Web Vitals, visitors are 24% less likely to abandon the site.”Google article
So even without Core Web Vitals being an official ranking factor (which we know it is), providing better user experience for web visitors is a win-win for webmasters.
That said, I am just one SEO professional’s opinion.
The following quotes are from other SEO pros from other leading companies with their take on how, exactly, they think this new ranking signal will impact SERP rankings.
Spoiler: They too fall across a sliding scale on how impactful they think this new page experience ranking factor will be on SERP rankings:
Predicted High Impact
Here’s what Christian Alvizuris, SEO Analyst, Disney, predicts:
“I think this update will be really big. For a lot of websites, this will mean completely changing the way their templates are coded and how their resources are rendered.
Projects like these can take some time to execute so prioritizing them in your roadmaps early on is important.
Additionally, there could be a positive impact for non-AMP websites that are well optimized. Showing up in Google’s Top Stories can help publishers command more SERP real estate when they may have previously struggled.
News publishers who’ve benefited from using AMP can probably expect to see a lot more competition after the update.”Christian Alvizuris, SEO Analyst at Disney
And here are thoughts from Justin McKinney, Head of SEO, Wpromote:
“I don’t think Google would be providing webmasters with a year’s notice about a change that won’t have a major impact.
They’ve also invested significant time and resources into building new tools and reports that give webmasters information around new signals like Core Web Vitals.
So, while I think that probably the most authoritative websites will be relatively unaffected, there should be a lot of movement beyond the top tier authority sites.”Justin McKinney, Head of SEO at Wpromote
Predicted Moderate Impact
According to Sarah Durkin, Head of Search, The Action Network:
“Improving user experience is always a top priority at The Action Network. We know user expectations continue to rise concerning speed and personalization.
Our goal at Action is to not only meet these demands but set the standard for sports betting content and data.
Google’s Web Vitals announcement brought more clarity around performance thresholds and reinforced our commitment to investing engineering resources to improve these tangible measures.”Sarah Durkin, Head of Search, The Action Network
Tyler Emerson, SEO Content Strategist at Entertainment Weekly, had this to add:
“Google has clarified the specific measurement points of something we have known is important for awhile: how (and how quickly) our pages load.
It’s helpful to know the specific benchmarks Google is using to quantify these broad terms, but it hasn’t changed much in terms of strategy – only how we measure and confirm a favorable page load.”Tyler Emerson, SEO Content Strategist at Entertainment Weekly
Predicted Low Impact
Barry Adams, Founder of Polemic Digital, had this to say:
“While the Page Experience update is highly anticipated and much publicized, I don’t expect to see massive shifts in rankings and visibility.
Google tends to tread carefully when it comes to these updates, and doesn’t want to rock the boat too much.
Historically, load speed and other user experience signals have been rather minor ranking factors, and I don’t see this change drastically in 2021.
Moreover, many niches are dominated by sites that are currently very poor in terms of Web Vitals scores – most will not have cleaned up their act by May, so I suspect they’ll continue to dominate.”Barry Adams, Founder of Polemic Digital
And here are thoughts from Ariel Kozicki, SEO Manager at Reformation:
With the disappearance of the Request Index Tool, the enhancements of the Structured Data Testing Tool last year, and now an emphasis on Core Web Vitals as a ranking signal, It seems like [Google Search Console] is heading in the direction of a complete revamp.
In the future, I foresee different iterations of what’s currently there. My advice? Don’t tailor your SEO strategy toward any singular tool in particular as it may be fleeting in longevity. Keep focusing on quality and speed like we always have been.”Ariel Kozicki, SEO Manager at Reformation
All in all, there seems to be a mixed bag of opinions – from the anonymous Twitter polls to featured pros.
But what about FOX Networks specifically?
How FOX.com Has Prepared for This New Update (& How You Can, Too)
At FOX, our SEO team decided that we needed to prioritize this initiative for three core reasons:
- The risk of what could be quite a significant drop in SERP visibility simply wasn’t worth the risk.
- Similarly, a significant portion of SEO traffic across our domains come from the “Top Stories” carousel, which we also weren’t willing to lose.
- We had a lot of “poor” URLs to contend with (as opposed to a handful of “needs improvement” URLs).
By November 2020, we’ve gone from tens of thousands of “poor” URLs on FOX.com, to just a few hundred that are currently being validated as fixed in Google Search Console.
While there is more work to be done, we’ve made enough progress on this initiative that I can offer a bit of advice for those struggling to get Core Web Vitals prioritized by product teams:
Tip 1: Cite Reputable Data Points
Research reputable case studies (like the BrightEdge one highlighted in the previous section) that offer data points to help you illustrate the potential impact of prioritizing/de-prioritizing this initiative.
Offering stakeholders concrete numbers is instrumental for SEO professionals getting various initiatives locked into larger product roadmaps. We really have to cut out these “it depends” answers where we can!
Tip 2: Break Up Large Tasks Into Smaller Tickets
Create a handful of small tickets to get pulled into each two-week product sprint (i.e., Ticket #1: “FID of watch pages”, Ticket #2: “CLS of show pages”, Ticket #3: “CLS of category pages”…) instead of one giant ticket.
Not only will the Product team be more inclined to get your tickets prioritized because it’s a lighter lift, but you also get to report on meaningful improvements taking place every month.
Questions to Ask Yourself If You’re Not Sure How to Prioritize Core Web Vitals
To help you decide if Core Web Vitals campaign would be beneficial for your team to prioritize in early 2021, I would ask yourself the following questions:
What Is Your Website’s Starting Point?
Do you have tens of thousands of “poor” URLs including your most crucial pages?
Or, just a handful of URLs that “need improvement?”
What Else Is on Your Roadmap/What Development Resources Are Available to You?
If you have several critical SEO priorities on the horizon or limited development bandwidth, you’ll have to make some collaborative, cross-departmental decisions on what will make the largest business impact.
Are You a News Publication?
News publications that get a significant amount of search traffic from the “Top Stories” carousel (or wish they did) should definitely consider optimizing for Core Web Vitals.
Recap: What We’ve Covered & Why It May Be Beneficial to Prioritize Core Web Vitals In Your SEO Roadmap
To recap what we’ve learned in this post, Google will be rolling out new ranking signals in May of 2021 called the “Core Web Vitals.”
While Google has been emphasizing the importance of optimizing for user experience for years, the stakes will be raised in May when this becomes a quantifiable ranking signal as a part of an overall page experience score.
Polled and interviewed SEO professionals fall across a wide spectrum when asked their predictions for how this new ranking signal will impact SERPs.
Ranging from “cyber shrugs” (time will tell/we already knew Google liked this) to “preparing for the ‘next Mobilegeddon.’”
(Sites that ignore Google’s year-long notice could get slammed).
There are many variables to consider when deciding how to prioritize a Core Web Vitals campaign for your clients’ websites.
- The website’s starting point.
- The development resources available to you or shared with other departments.
- The industry of the website.
But citing reputable data points where possible and breaking up large tasks into smaller tickets can help SEO professionals make steady progress on the initiatives they care most about.
Originally published on Search Engine Journal on November 19, 2020.
SEO expert with a specialized background in news, entertainment, and real estate websites | USC EMBA Candidate '24 | Based in LA | Can I pet your dog?