In May 2021, Google will roll out a new ranking signal called page experience, which combines some existing signals with a new set of Core Web Vitals. As with any announced algorithm update, there’s a lot of speculation ahead of the rollout date and Google is drip-feeding us the occasional info and news update.
In this article, we summarise all of the latest news related to page experience and Core Web Vitals, including updated metric boundaries you definitely want to know about and some insights into the kind of impact Google expects this update to have.
Page experience and Core Web Vitals: a quick summary
Just in case there’s any confusion about the page experience and Core Web Vitals relationship, let’s quickly summarise what’s going on here.
Page experience is a new ranking signal that rolls out in May 2021 and combines four existing signals with three new Core Web Vitals. The good news is, you should be on track with the four existing signals so it’s those Core Web Vitals that could shake things up a little when the page experience signal rolls out.
The three new ranking signals are:
Loading: This simply refers to loading times although Google is changing the way it measures this with a new standard called ‘Largest Contentful Paint’ (LCP).
Interactivity: Measures the responsiveness of interactive elements on your page (links, buttons, etc.) after users click them, using a new standard called ‘First Input Delay’ (FID).
Visual Stability: Detects the movement of elements after they’ve loaded on the page and any instability this causes, using a new standard called ‘Cumulative Layout Shift’ (CLS).
By now, you should already have a strategy in place for optimising loading times (page speed has been a mobile ranking factor since 2018) but Core Web Vitals implements a new measurement of page speed with more demanding targets to aim for. Meanwhile, interactivity and visual stability are entirely new signals website owners need to start optimising for.
For an in-depth look at how to optimise for these, take a look at our guide on Core Web Vitals and the page experience update.
Google updates metric boundaries for Core Web Vitals
The most important news on Core Web Vitals over the past couple of weeks is that Google has changed the metric boundaries for the three new signals. Previously, Google had set hard boundaries for each signal – for example, 2.5 seconds to achieve a ‘good’ rating on Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) for loading times.
Originally, Google wanted to see loading times of under 2.5 seconds and all of the boundaries for LCP, FID and CLS used the updated this on 17 February to define these boundaries as
Technically, this makes each of the Core Web Vitals slightly easier to optimise for but the important thing here is that it makes more sense for the boundaries to be targets that website owners can aim for.
Google expects a gradual impact from the page experience update
The marketing community has a habit of drumming up hype about any and every change but Google isn’t expecting any overnight turmoil from the page experience update. In a recent Search Central Live Fireside Chat, Danny Sullivan responded to a question asking about the impact Core Web Vitals will have on rankings.
The question was: “Do we expect the impact on the metrics to be significant or more subtle?”
Sullivan initially answered with: “I think, if you go back and look at how we’ve had these sorts of things [in the past], it really isn’t that, okay, then the next day everything completely changes. There’s no intent to try to do that, even though we might say we start using this as a factor.”
What he said here is that announced algorithm updates, like the upcoming page experience one, don’t have a history of changing things overnight. So there’s no reason to expect a drastic, immediate impact on search rankings after page experience is introduced.
He then reiterated the point that content quality is the most important factor: “So, maybe you don’t have the best page experience… But if you’re still the most relevant content, that is going to, you know, [rank higher] overall on various things we’re looking at. I think it’s not a case of start being all super concerned and understand that we want to make sure that this is coming in a moderated fashion.”
However, he also said the importance of page experience could increase over time, especially as more content is produced for the same keywords and the differences in quality get smaller.
He said: “But over time what will happen is, as more and more content is coming up in page experience and if you’re in a situation where things are all relatively equal, the things that are more page experience and oriented are likely to start doing better.”
Funnily enough, he later referenced the 2015 mobile-friendly update in a Twitter exchange, which had little impact upon rollout but gradually became more significant over time. Sullivan said that, as many pages still needed to optimise for relatively new mobile technologies and experiences, “using it more heavily as a factor doesn’t make much sense”.
However, he acknowledged that ”over time, it might become more valuable” and we could see the same kind of gradual impact with the page experience update.
Key points ahead of the page experience rollout
May 2021 rollout: the page experience update rolls out in May 2021.
Gradual impact expected: after a minor initial impact, page experience is likely to become a more important signal over time.
Content still priority: the page experience signal makes UX more important for SEO than ever, but the priority is still quality content. With all else being equal, though, page experience will be a key deciding factor in where you rank.
Tools for Core Web Vitals: Google has incorporated Core Web Vitals into Lighthouse, Search Console, a Chrome plugin and several other tools to help you measure and optimise for them.
Visual indicators: Google is working on visual indicators (placing labels on search results) to help users choose pages that perform well for page experience.
Core Web Vitals benchmarks: you may need to pass all three of Google’s Core Web Vitals benchmarks to get any ranking boost from the page experience signal.
Page experience will affect Top Stories, too: aside from being applied to search, the page experience signal will also apply to Top Stories in mobile.
AMP is no longer required for Top Stories: for now, pages can only show in Top Stories if they use the AMP format but Google is removing this requirement and pages that score high enough in the page experience signal will also show in Top Stories.
More experience metrics to come: Google is making it clear that more page experience and Core Web Vitals metrics will arrive in the future and existing ones could evolve over time, too.
Kerry Dye is head of SMB SEO at Vertical Leap.