In the digital world, as in life in general, the only constant is change. This is evident, based on Google’s regular shifts to its search algorithm. This article will explore Google’s Core Web Vitals Algorithm and how it will affect search results and search rankings in 2021.
Although necessary for ensuring the most accurate search engine results possible, algorithm changes sometimes make it challenging to implement SEO best practices on a website. On the flip side, algorithm updates represent a valuable opportunity to provide the type of informative, high-quality content that prospective customers are searching for and expect to find when performing a search. Moving forward, these types of algorithm changes may also spark a greater emphasis on user experience, and with it, happier website visitors who need no longer worry about slow load times or lag when trying to interact with a web page.
Before we get into the details about the new changes coming, let’s take a moment and quickly define a few terms to help make sense of all this information and why it matters to small business owners.
First, we need to define what is a search algorithm. Search algorithms help determine a web page’s ranking when performing a web search (i.e., what order a webpage shows up in the search results). Every search engine uses a unique set of rules to determine which pages should be displayed in the search results and in what order.
Why does this matter? Search engines are the primary tools we use to get the information we need about the products we buy, the places we visit, the businesses we choose to support, the news we choose to consume, and so much more. We expect (as we should) the results to be relevant, contextually accurate, and useful based on our search term. Therefore, the changes and updates made to search engine algorithms aim to benefit the end-user first and foremost.
Search algorithms today are incredibly complicated and typically rely on an ever-changing mix of ranking factors to rank a website. The algorithm is continuously changing so that website owners cannot “trick” or “influence” search engines to produce false positives or rank a website higher than may not be a great match for the search term entered. Most search algorithms utilize three major ranking factors as a baseline to search results: relevancy, individual factors, and off-page factors.
- Relevancy – as search engines crawl web page content, they look for keywords, image descriptions, headlines, or other types of information such as location data to identify what a webpage is about and what kinds of searches it may relate to. Search engines today are highly contextual as well. They look at the keywords used in the page and how those apply overall to the subject matter being discussed, and how relevant those keywords are to the term the search user enters as their query.
- For example, if I’m searching for a new “immersion blender” search engines will understand that I am looking for information about immersion blenders and make the assumption that I am looking to make a purchase. Therefore, they will typically show product-oriented results first based on the context clues from my search term.
- Individual Factors – Because each search engine uses a unique algorithm, every search engine has different rules that create various individual factors that influence the ranking of a web page. These rules also determine what each search engine considers a “best practice” (such as high-quality content, page speed, or schema markup) or actions that might penalize your website (such as keyword stuffing or too much duplicate content across web pages).
- Off-Page Factors – While relevancy and individual factors look mostly at the web page content and structure, search engines also look at other outside metrics that help determine a page’s rank in search. For example, backlinks or hyperlinking to other credible websites or looking at click-through performance data (the number of clicks your web page gets in the search results compared to the number of impressions) will help search engines determine how to rank a web page. Just as with individual factors, poor off-page factors can lower a website’s relevancy and search ranking.
Core Web Vitals
As described above, Google’s Core Web Vitals Algorithm is simply a more robust and complex version of the common search algorithm we know today. I would say this update is more of an addition to the search algorithm already in place. This new addition to the algorithm is set to launch sometime in 2021, representing a new set of ranking factors but not dismissing or replacing those ranking factors already in place. The algorithm promises to increase the importance of user experience in search engine results, thereby forcing webmasters and website owners to take concerns such as site navigation and load time into account when optimizing content.
To put it into layman’s terms, Google is looking to improve the “real-world experience metrics” of websites for its search users by answering questions such as:
“How fast does a webpage load?”
“It is interactive?”
“Is it stable? And how fast after loading does it stabilize, so elements on the page are not shifting around?”
If you’re confused about Google’s Core Web Vitals Algorithm, you’re certainly not alone. Many businesses have previously ignored these technical metrics and instead focused their SEO efforts on keyword selection, placement, and other on-page factors. This strategy alone may produce diminishing returns soon, so it’s essential to start implementing user experience best practices as quickly as possible.
What is Google’s Core Web Vitals Algorithm?
An essential set of metrics designed to measure several areas of web page development, core web vitals highlight the importance of user experience.
These indicators involve several aspects of usability, including everything from load time to content stability.
Core Web Vitals are defined by Google as including:
- First Input Delay (FID). This metric references the amount of load time required before a web page becomes interactive. Specifically, it involves delays that may occur after taking certain actions, such as clicking a button while using a desktop or tapping on a mobile device’s navigation link. As a field-only metric, the FID can only be tracked accurately if an actual user provides some sort of input. This can make it difficult to measure, although Google offers help via PageSpeed Insights. Ideally, this metric will not exceed 100 milliseconds.
- First Contentful Paint (FCP). This highlights initial impressions among users based on the time it takes a particular site to load. FCP focuses largely on perception, as it references the point at which users can spot activity on the screen. More specifically, FCP relates to the early portion of a webpage’s loading experience, in which the user’s initial impression can make a huge difference. Elements that typically trigger FCP include logos and loading animations.
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). Designed to verify visual stability, this user-centric metric determines how often website visitors observe unexpected changes to a particular page’s layout. You will notice this often on a mobile site when you click a button or link before the page fully loads and the button shifts to a different spot on the page. Issues such as suddenly moving links or text constitute some of the most common — and most frustrating — layout shifts. Websites that include paid ads are notorious for this issue and will start to see lower rankings because of it. As its name suggests, CLS looks at the cumulative impact of these shifts in content in hopes of highlighting how often users encounter annoyances or impediments that make it difficult or sometimes impossible to navigate webpages.
The Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) should also be considered when optimizing content based on Google’s evolving algorithm. Similar in many regards to FCP, LCP is distinct in that it determines the point at which the page’s primary content finishes loading. With LCP, it’s not just about first impressions but also the entire loading process and its influence on the overarching user experience. When in doubt, strive for an LCP load time that falls within 2.5 seconds of the page beginning to load.
While the above factors play into Google’s Core Web Vitals Algorithm, ideal metrics and best practices can and will change significantly over time. A lot depends on what web users consider a desirable web experience versus one that is less desirable. What users expect now could differ from what they want from webpages in just a few years. Google will provide updates when the Core Web Vitals change.
What Role Will Core Web Vitals Play in Google’s Next Algorithm Update?
In the future, the Core Web Vitals referenced above will become a primary ranking factor in Google’s algorithm. They will also play a role in determining which websites land within Google’s Top Stories. Previously, Google required Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) for Top Stories, but Core Web Vitals will replace this. Large news outlets tend to hold the advantage with Top Stories, but smaller businesses that successfully implement the Core Web Vitals could gain a much-needed edge on the competition.
By transforming Core Web Vitals into a ranking factor, Google is encouraging webmasters and marketing professionals to focus on user experience. Announcing the change in advance is also strategic: this ensures that the Core Web Vitals will be implemented sooner than later. As a result, the eventual algorithm change will be less of a problem for webmasters who have already begun to shift their approach to include user experience alongside other SEO essentials.
Keep in mind that, while the Core Web Vitals will become more critical soon, they will by no means be the only factors taken into consideration when determining rankings for search engine results pages (SERPs). Other attributes that have previously proven important (such as high-quality content, keyword placement, and a solid linking strategy) will still need to be considered. The growing emphasis on the Core Web Vitals exemplifies the increasing role user experience plays in SEO and marketing in general.
When Should the Change Be Expected?
While Google previously announced that its new algorithm would be released in 2021, the search engine has also promised at least six months’ notice before unveiling it. This warning has yet to arrive, as Google has pushed out the release due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At this point, an algorithm change isn’t likely until late 2021.
Despite the delay, it’s prudent to begin preparing as if this shift will begin sooner. After all, while Google may not yet prioritize the Core Web Vitals in its rankings, consumers increasingly demand lightning-fast websites with minimal load times.
By tracking measures such as the First Input Delay, First Contentful Paint, and Cumulative Layout Shift, you can better understand what users encounter when they visit your site — and how this influences not only their experience but also your general ability to reach leads and spark conversions. Minimal loading issues will help website visitors make the most of your content while gaining a powerful first impression of your brand. Any effort you take to improve user experience now will pay off on both a short-term and long-term basis, so don’t delay.
At Vinci Digital Marketing, we pride ourselves on remaining on the cutting-edge of all things SEO. We can help you abide by Google’s best practices for user experience to ensure that your message reaches your intended audience. Contact us today to learn more about our SEO, content marketing, and web design services.
How are you preparing for the upcoming changes to Google’s algorithm? Leave a comment below to let us know!