Google’s page experience update: A bridge between SEO, Development and UX

Adam Smith
By Adam SmithSEO & Content Executive
10 minutes to read

In the midst of a global pandemic, Google announced in March that it will be rolling out its Page Experience update in 2021.

The search giant explained that the update “measures aspects of how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page”.

In simpler terms, the update will ensure that user experience is incorporated into Google’s ranking signals more than ever before. Alongside the announcement, Google confirmed new core web vitals. These are new metrics that webmasters have been advised to work on in advance of the page experience roll-out.

Ordinarily, Google rolls out an update and makes an announcement afterwards – sometimes it does not make one at all. In this case, it has let webmasters know well in advance about the update because of the continuing disruption caused by COVID-19.

What are the core web vitals?

According to Google, these core web vitals “measure dimensions of web usability such as load time, interactivity, and the stability of content as it loads (so you don’t accidentally tap that button when it shifts under your finger)”.

Let’s look a little closer at each of these metrics, what they mean and why they will become a more prominent factor for SEOers in 2021.

Largest contentful paint

In Google’s eyes, the biggest object on a page is the most important and, once it has rendered, it is safe to assume that the most useful elements of a page have loaded and the user has enough to engage with the content.

In the example below, you can see that the header image is the largest contentful paint (LCP), but it appears after the headline and body text. The page experience update encourages webmasters to work more closely with developers to increase the loading time of these larger page elements.

By render-blocking code and compressing images to ensure the LCP is prioritised and loads quickly, developers can help ensure pages achieve higher LCP scores.

First input delay

First input delay (FID) refers to the time between a user’s initial interaction with a page (clicking on a link or image) and when the browser responds to the request.

The best way to improve FID scores is to defer non-critical tasks until they are required. For example, a large video may slow down the page speed and lead to a low FID score, so using lazy-loading to only load elements as the user sees them will help to speed up a site.

However, this is easily the toughest metric in the core web vitals to improve. Improving FID may lead to a lower LCP score, as developers opt to load smaller elements first in order to improve speeds. A lot of collaboration will be required between developers and SEOers to generate the best possible experience.

Cumulative layout shift

Ever gone to click on a link or image on a page and seen an ad load above it instead? This is a cumulative layout shift (CLS). These are most common on sites that have several paid ads.

Along with Google Search Console, CLS can be measured in Google Lighthouse, which highlights the specific nodes that cause layout shifts. An effective way of stopping these frustrating shifts is to statically reserve space on a page by styling the element prior to the ad tag library loading. This will ensure that, even if ads take longer to load than other page elements, they will load in a space that is not already taken up by body content.

What impact will the page experience update have on websites?

This update won't only impact search results. It will change how development, SEO and UX teams work together.

All three teams need to collaborate to maximise a site’s online performance, but this update shows the evolution of Google’s algorithm.  Lifestyle and news sites, in particular, rely on ads to make money and many of these cause CLS and contribute to low FID scores.

For example, the Mirror site at the moment only passes one of the three core web vitals, with its use of ads contributing to its low performance.

We won’t know exactly how sites will be impacted if they do not improve their core web vitals until the update is rolled out. Of course, Google’s algorithm is incredibly sophisticated and other ranking factors (quality content, strong backlinks) are likely to compensate for low core web vitals scores. After all, a site with an outstanding user experience score still will not rank if its content provides no value to users.

However, one thing we do know is that Google’s clear communication around the update shows it’s taking user experience seriously, so webmasters should start preparing now.

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Articles by Adam Smith

Adam works as a SEO and Content Executive for Enjoy Digital. He loves creating engaging content that delivers coverage for clients.