By now, you’ve likely heard the SEO community abuzz with all things Core Web Vitals. With today’s website visitors wanting quality content presented seamlessly on all devices, this recent Google algorithm update puts an emphasis on user experience.
It’s long been known that the easier a website is to navigate and interact with, the greater its user engagement. And the greater a website’s user engagement, generally the more likely it is to rank higher on Google!
But the Core Web Vitals trio is just the latest addition to many UX-focused ranking signals. These metrics are not only relative, but also nowhere near the most important factors for your positioning on this mighty search engine’s results pages. In other words, there’s a lot more to consider than these page speed scores.
Below, we explain how this new algorithm works, its influence on your website and what you can do to improve performance moving forward.
What are Core Web Vitals?
Core Web Vitals are a subset of elements that form Google’s Page Experience ranking signal (which also includes existing factors like mobile friendliness, HTTPS security, safe-browsing and intrusive interstitials).
In particular, Core Web Vitals have been created to answer three speed-centric questions:
- How fast does a page load?
- How quickly does its content stabilise?
- How soon can users interact with the page?
There are three Core Web Vitals, which we breakdown below.
Largest Contentful Paint
Largest contentful paint (LCP) revolves around page load speed. More specifically, how long it takes for the primary content in the viewport to load. In non-developer talk, that means the length of time between clicking on a page and seeing its main content.
For a solid user experience, LCP should generally occur within 2.5 seconds – which is easier said than done for very large web pages or those with heaps of features to show. That said, there are several ways to improve LCP, including:
- Getting rid of unnecessary third-party scripts
- Upgrading your web hosting
- Implementing asynchronous loading
- Deleting large content features
Cumulative Layout Shift
Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) measures how stable content is when a page is rendering. Or in other words, how much the layout of visual content unexpectedly shifts during this process.
Ever gone to click on a button right after you think a page has fully loaded but then at the very last second, said button moves slightly down the page and you end up clicking on something else? Yeah, that poor user experience is what the CLS signal is hoping to prevent.
For a frustration-free user experience, your pages should generate a CLS score below 0.1. To improve performance, you can:
- Utilise fixed attribute dimensions for all visual media
- Ensure ads have a dedicated space to appear
- Implement any new user interface features below the fold
First Input Delay
First Input Delay (FID) measures how long it takes for a page to enable user interactivity, such as scrolling, typing and clicking. This metric considers how real users engage with your website.
For a good user experience, your pages should score an FID under 100ms. While FID is less important for low-interaction, content-heavy pages like blog posts, this signal matters for conversion-focused pages designed to encourage actions like signing up, booking and enquiring.
To improve FID performance, you can:
- Delete any unessential third-party scripts
- Set up a browser cache
How important are Core Web Vitals to a website’s rankings?
While slow page loading should be fixed if affecting user experience, it’s important to understand that Core Web Vitals are more of a consideration than essential inclusion when it comes to SEO. Let’s take a look at the key reasons why.
Other ranking signals
Don’t expect your website to jump to #1 on Google just because it generates a great page experience score. On the flip side, missing the mark on a green Core Web Vitals score won’t leave your website in the digital dust.
Rather, Search Engine Results Page (SERP) positions are determined by hundreds of diverse ranking signals. That’s why the influence of any single signal is generally not that significant. While your website rankings can be affected if it performs particularly poorly in certain aspects, the subset of Core Web Vitals isn’t one of them.
For example, having slightly faded paint on your car isn’t ideal, but it probably won’t affect it’s selling price – unless every other car for sale of that same make and model has a brand new coat. Which brings us to our next point.
Put simply, rankings are always relative. That’s why getting to the top of a Google search results page not only depends on your website’s performance, but also that of every other website trying to rank for the same keyword.
This is a key consideration when approaching Core Web Vitals, which most websites around the world haven’t been built to take into account. In fact, a Search Metrics study found that out of over 2,000,000 URLS analysed, only 4% of websites got the green light in all Core Web Vitals. That means 96% didn’t achieve a good score.
Long story short: unless the vast majority of websites are set up for Core Web Vital success (which they’re not), then you don’t have to worry about keeping up with competitors or being pushed down the rankings!
Keen to check out Core Web Vital scores in your industry? You can get an idea of how other websites in your sector are performing here (take this with a grain of salt, as it only displays UK websites for now!).
A ranking factor that you should be focusing time, energy and budget on instead? Content. When push comes to shove, Core Web Vitals aren’t near as important to your rankings as relevant information and useful features.
Think about it. A page with lots of helpful and engaging content that’s highly relevant to a search query can still technically rank well with a low page experience score. Compare that to a quick-loading page with filler content, poor readability and nothing of actual value to the user, and it’s easy to understand why Google places more weight on the former.
Analysing performance on Google Search Console
Tracking and monitoring Core Web Vitals performance is simple. First, Google’s Chrome User Experience Report gathers real, anonymous data from your website for each Core Web Vital. This data then powers analytical tools such as Search Console’s Core Web Vitals Report and PageSpeed Insights.
The Core Web Vitals Report can be found in the “Experience” section of Search Console. This report is designed to display how your pages are performing with a colour coded scale: red means poor, orange needs improvement, and green is good. It’s that clear.
Note that you do not need to have green scores for all three metrics to experience a boost in rankings – just one ‘good’ score can have an effect. What’s more, these scores are all or nothing, pass or fail. That means once you’ve hit the green threshold, optimising your website’s speed even further won’t make a difference to its rankings.
If you want to investigate and troubleshoot any issues, head over to PageSpeed Insights (you’ll find a link to this tool in every Search Console report!). Run by Lighthouse, there are heaps of performance metric tools here. The ones you should focus on are opportunities and diagnostics. As things can get quite technical at this stage, we recommend calling in an experienced web developer who can solve these issues for you if necessary.
Why wasn’t my site built to satisfy Google’s Core Web Vitals?
Time & technological developments
When it comes to past website builds and Core Web Vitals, remember that these SEO ranking signals (and therefore the technological developments to facilitate them) simply didn’t exist until 2020 and were not fully understood by the broader development community until 2021. In fact, Google still seems to be tweaking the relevant score thresholds for Core Web Vitals (i.e. changing the goal posts) as recently as 2021.
It’s important to understand that the world of SEO is constantly evolving – and with it, the best practices for website development. Core Web Vitals appeared without consultation with the developer landscape, which is why the majority of content management systems (CMSs) don’t have the built-in functionality to optimise for them. We’re all catching up as best as technically possible given the tools available.
WordPress themes & budget
And as CMSs haven’t been updated to address this ranking signal, their templates and plugins haven’t either.
Another potential culprit for code bloat is the use of plugins, which need to be downloaded if you need further functionality beyond the core CMS options. While plugins are easy, affordable and efficient solutions, they can also contribute to code bloat.
Many site owners still opt for themes, which are a great way to save time and money when a custom website isn’t feasible for their business. With thousands of cost-effective options to choose from, you can select the perfect design for your brand and business objectives. Just note the compromise you’ll need to make when it comes to Core Web Vitals performance.
That said, theme site providers should start improving as this Google update is being rolled out, given it’s one of the key things their customers will be asking for! For instance, it sounds like Elementor is already working on improvements to target Core Web Vitals – and we expect others will soon follow suit to some extent.
Marketing tools & content
Another critical factor to consider is that your website has been built for multiple purposes and objectives.
While speed is certainly important for user experience, it’s often the case that your business may want sophisticated branding elements like fancy fonts, sweeping images and other visuals to bring your business to life online. Within reason, we’re guessing your brand’s identity is more important than one of hundreds of ranking factors.
What’s more, chances are your website’s key goal is to facilitate some sort of conversion, be it an enquiry, booking, sign up or purchase. And to do anything useful with this valuable data, first you’ll need to track it. In reality, most businesses will want to monitor user engagement and conversion metrics to support their marketing strategies and overall objectives. The thing is, essential marketing tools like tracking codes (e.g. Facebook pixels and Google Analytics tags) add to your website’s script, in turn impacting Core Website Vital performance. Again, it’s a matter of priorities.
On a related note, newsletter opt-in boxes, cookie banners, pop-up ads, cookie banners and other dynamic content features on your website may be really useful from a marketing and growth perspective. However, these elements may cause layout shifts that hinder your website’s visual stability and resulting CLS score.
Long story short, some very important factors like branding elements and marketing tools may be trade-offs for Core Web Vitals performance (more on this below!).
The benefits of building a custom WordPress website
Leveraging third party themes or templates can be great as they’re an affordable option for many businesses. However custom designed and developed WordPress sites will generally make it easier for us to help clients to achieve better Core Web Vitals.
We recommend custom website development if possible within your budget, as we develop everything from start to finish. This allows us to build for purpose and ensure your code only includes exactly what’s needed. Here are just some of the things we do to optimise your custom website:
Images are loaded wisely
As large images are often the primary cause for slow page loading, optimising your website images can help to improve your Core Web Vitals.
One way to do this is to only include on screen elements in the first payload, deferring the loading of any below-the-fold visuals. By utilising this lazy loading approach, you can boost your LCP score. Any images below the fold will load when users arrive at the specific viewpoint. Prior to this, only the dimensions of these images will load (to prevent any page break).
You can also ensure images are in WebP format, which may significantly reduce file size and in turn the degree of loading required.
Fonts are carefully selected
Font rendering is another key factor when it comes to page loading speed. Browsers do not render text until the font has loaded from the payload. Therefore, if your webpage’s fonts are downloaded from a third party source such as Google Fonts, this can delay page rendering and impact loading speed.
The most straightforward solution? Choose a sans serif font that is already loaded in Apple, Windows and Android device systems. That way, your webpage doesn’t have to wait on an extra downloading step!
If you don’t want to forgo your favourite font, it’s absolutely fine to prioritise your branding – just be aware that you may then need to compromise on page load speed and its effects on user experience.
Scripts are optimised
- Utilise GZip Compression to reduce file size and support quicker network transfer.
So, should you choose a custom WordPress website or third party theme site?
Before we wrap things up, let’s take a look at the overall advantages of custom versus theme websites. Equipped with these key takeaways, you can make an informed decision on the right solution for your business.
Custom WordPress websites
- A unique look and feel will set your site apart from competitors (Torqit’s ecommerce site, Quality Teaching Academy’s education hub and Canberra Pest Control’s service-centric website are just some of our custom creations to give you some inspiration!)
- Functionality and features can be fully customised to suit your needs and goals
- Built for purpose and optimal performance, with all unnecessary code excluded
- Drag and drop flexiblocks make it easy for non-developers to enter and manage content
- Quicker development process, often meaning a sooner launch date!
- Low-cost solution for smaller websites and businesses with limited budgets
- Can still be partly customised to fit your brand (for example, check out these theme websites we built for Newcastle Locksmiths, WellFit Personal Training and Agility Trees!)
- Clear page builders make it simple for non-developers to fill in the content blanks
Learn more about the benefits of each approach with our helpful video below (you can set the play speed to 1.5x if you’re short for time!). Here, we run through the difference between content management on custom WordPress sites with flexiblocks and on third party themes with multipurpose page builders.
Still can’t decide between a custom-designed website or a theme-based site? Work with our web developers to review your needs, weigh up the pros and cons and get the most appropriate solution for your business!
Get the right support for your business
Overall, our main message here is that Core Web Vitals are a consideration rather than essential inclusion. While the effect of these new signals on Google rankings is far from significant, a quick and smooth user experience will help your website to engage and win over your audience. At the end of the day, you’ll need to weigh up your priorities and decide what features are most important (and feasible) for your business. From branding elements and marketing tools to budgets and time constraints, there’s a lot more to think about than your Core Web Vitals score!
To start your digital project with Redback – whether a custom website build, an SEO action plan or anything in between – contact our team of website and marketing specialists today.