Working with Google’s core web vitals update

Google's latest assault on less than perfect user experience could have wide-reaching implications for site owners who don't take action as Core Web Vitals become a core algorithm ranking signal

As topics go they don’t come much hotter right now than Core Web Vitals. A quick search for this bewildering phrase currently returns over 2.23 million results and competition to rank among the top results for this term puts it in the same bracket as obscenely competitive niches such as car insurance and online casino sites. In short this is big news and the chances are this is not the first time you’ve heard about it.

Core vitals search volumn

So what are Core Web Vitals and why should they concern you? Well first up let’s identify where the term originates and get the lowdown from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Google describes Core Web Vitals as “an initiative… to provide unified guidance for quality signals that are essential to delivering a great user experience on the web.” That may mean something to search industry professionals but to most of us, it sounds like David Brent-style mumbo jumbo.

Core Web Vitals: a potted history

It was early in 2020 that Core Web Vitals was unveiled to the web development world as a phrase of interest. Google explained that as part of their efforts to encourage better adherence to the highest user experience standards they would be factoring in three specific new site load measurements as a means by which to rank sites. These new measurements pertain to loading performance, interactivity and visual stability. They were due to form part of the core Google search algorithm from April of last year however this date was pushed back until 2021 owing to the ongoing global pandemic.

Any new updates to Google’s core ranking algorithm tend to be met with panic within the web development and online marketing communities, due to the potential for incurring catastrophic traffic losses, and thus Core Web Vitals instantly gained a reputation as a metric to be feared.

Webmasters of a certain vintage will still wince at mention of Google’s Panda update, unleashed in 2011 to combat “low quality content”, and the subsequent Penguin update from 2012 which targeted sites with questionable backlink profiles. These algorithm updates allowed Google to keep on top of quality in their search results, maintaining their position as the planet’s most used search engine. But the millions of sites that lost their competitive search visibility and consequently most of their traffic and revenue, paid a heavy price.

It’s understandable then, that news of Core Web Vitals coming along and potentially penalising hundreds of millions of websites across the world, would be met with terror. Thankfully however, Penguin and Panda are not the only precedents from which we can draw conclusions.

Page speed and UX impact

Google has actually been pushing for site load speeds to be a primary consideration of developers for many years now. As part of their drive to reward those sites that deliver the best user experience, it has long been understood that slower websites would enjoy less ranking benefit than their speedier rivals. However, the data hasn’t always backed up this long-held assumption and there are countless examples of big brands continuing to dominate search results pages despite less than optimal on-page performance.

It’s also fair to say that Google has previously threatened to make sweeping impactful changes to the way search works, without having dished out the web-wide hammering that many had predicted. In 2016 Google’s announcement that they were switching to a mobile-first search index led to widespread doom-mongering about the hopes and dreams of any sites that hadn’t been built specifically with mobile users in mind. In reality, however, five years on there are still non-mobile sites being returned in prominent search positions, with site owners simply being casually reminded via Search Console that at some unspecified date in the future their sites will need to be optimised for mobile users to continue to benefit from competitive search rankings.

That’s not to say that Google’s threats should be taken lightly and of course, there are reasons beyond fear of Google that site owners and developers should be wanting to deliver the very best experience to their users. Load speeds are intrinsically linked to user experience and the average user’s patience in waiting for page elements to load grows thinner and thinner. Why wait for a slow site to load if there’s another site providing a similar service without the delay?

So what are these Core Web Vitals?

In short, you’ve got three tests you should be aiming to ace. These are Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Delay (FID) and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). You can measure how your site currently performs by running a test at PageSpeed Insights and the quicker you achieve the three scores the better.

core vitals score

More than just a measure of how quickly a page appears on screen, these tests gauge when a site has become stable and a user can actually engage with it, making Core Web Vitals a more nuanced guide to site performance. Delivering content is now only half of the battle, and ensuring that content is ready to be interacted with has become just as important.

Key Core Web Vital considerations

Every site is different and there are hundreds of different programming languages, frameworks and content management systems behind the modern web. This means that different site owners are going to have different levels of control over how much they can affect and improve Core Web Vitals. An experienced web developer who has coded their site from scratch in HTML is invariably going to have more capacity to exert meaningful change than a site owner beholden to WordPress and any number of third-party plugins.

Does this mean that sites using a CMS like Drupal or WordPress are at a natural disadvantage in terms of improving Core Web Vitals scores? Not necessarily. In fact, there are plenty of advantages in using a popular CMS over operating a custom-built site, particularly in terms of real-world examples to draw learnings from. You can be pretty sure that any time-significant performance improvements are identified through updates to WordPress, they’ll be tested and shared thousands of times, so you’ll always have options.

Similarly, taking advantage of visual page builders like Divi or Elementor, on top of your WordPress backend, may require more tweaking than a naked WordPress installation, but this should be weighed against the many benefits this setup will have on the overall web build and ongoing maintenance process. Any noticeable performance gains from having a less complex backend are irrelevant if they come at the cost of not having the control to implement on-the-fly changes and updates.

How to optimise Core Web Vitals on a WordPress site

Broadly speaking the fewer third-party plugins and scripts your WordPress site uses the better. The more plugins you have the more code you need and the key to optimal performance is to minify your code. However, one of the core advantages to WordPress, and among the primary reasons for its enduring popularity, is the flexibility that comes with having access to thousands of add-ons enabling you to customise your site in ways that would otherwise require specialist knowledge or input.

This is why it’s important to understand there will always need to be a trade-off between pure, streamlined, speed-score-smashing code and everyday functionality for you as a site owner. The more work you can administer yourself without the need for additional plugins, the better. But in order to truly remove yourself from the comforting embrace of third-party add-ons you’re effectively going to need to become a full-time web developer and this won’t be practical (or even desirable) for most people.

The sweet spot will have to be somewhere between the amount of work you’re prepared to put in as a site administrator and the number of functions you need to outsource to third parties. Not all plugins are created equal and some will have cleaner code than others. Some of them will even help you with your page speed scores, so it’s certainly not worth demonising plugins and blaming them for having below-average load speeds.

WordPress plugins to improve Core Web Vitals

When a topic is as hot as Core Web vitals it’s inevitable that developers are going to be keen to capitalise by rushing out their plugins promising tweaks and optimisations to bring your site the load speed enhancements it craves. As a result, the WordPress marketplace is now flooded with new add-ons making bold claims about their performance-enhancing credentials.

Some of these plugins should be ignored or at best eyed with cautious suspicion, but there are a handful worthy of your attention. First up we recommend WP Rocket. This plugin is a powerful caching tool that offers an incredibly simple optimisation interface to deliver day-to-day site performance improvements without the need for any complex configuration. Just fire it up and you should soon notice your Core Web Vitals scores begin to look more healthy.

We recently used the WP Rocket plugin to help optimise a WordPress site we developed for the financial modelling consultancy firm Numeritas and the results were excellent. The scores on PageSpeed Insights went from 47 to 82 on desktop, making a huge difference to the amount of additional work required to achieve desirable Core Web Vitals scores. The load time of this site is also under 4 seconds (3.865s) – tested from London on Google Chrome.

This is a project we’d delivered using the popular visual page builder Elementor, to simplify the client’s ongoing management of the site, but we were conscious of the fact that Elementor brings its own demands to the overall build. Thankfully WP Rocket bolstered the performance considerably, and we’ve been hugely impressed by the gains we’ve seen to date.

Another no-brainer of a plugin for speed improvements is Imagify. Image compression remains one of the simplest routes to healthier site load performance and Imagify is the standout tool to easily compress all of your on-site imagery without sacrificing perceptible quality.

We recommend both Imagify and WP Rocket to all our clients who use WordPress and all of our web builds benefit from access to the premium versions of these great tools. Do get in touch with us if you’d like to find out more on how they can help tune up your site to be better equipped for the Core Web Vitals era.

core vitals on elementor website

Further tweaks to improve Core Web Vitals

Once you’ve determined the plugins you want to aid you in your journey to optimal load times, it’s time to consider those plugins that aren’t coming along for the ride. Particularly with older sites it can be easy to let the number of plugins you rely on slowly creep up and up over time. Sometimes even the simplest of code snippets can be added and updated through third-party plugins to save going into the theme editor and updating the raw code, but invariably the raw code update would be cleaner and, therefore, quicker.

Purge your redundant or bloated plugins and consider any that offer a shortcut to activities you could legitimately perform manually yourself. There are always going to be some plugins that offer functionality beyond your own technical expertise and naturally, you’ll want to keep these. But for those plugins merely saving you marginal effort, the chances are your site will appreciate the performance improvement from their removal more than you’ll appreciate the meagre saving of your own time they offer.

You may also wish to consider having your site content served via a content delivery network (CDN), effectively minimising the journey between user and server. Popular CDNs such as CloudFlare, StackPath and Google Cloud are available for a small monthly fee to help you shave valuable milliseconds from your overall load time. If you’re not using one already check with your hosting provider as they may have a discounted option available as an add-on to your regular hosting cost.

Core Web Vitals: should you be worried?

Recent history suggests that it’s unlikely there’ll be an overnight armageddon in terms of Core Web Vital demands destroying the ranking performance of established websites. However, there’s no denying these measures are only going to increase in significance so the sooner you’re on board with achieving excellent scores for LCP, FID and CLS, the sooner you can reap the rewards in a future where patience is at a premium.

Test your own scores regularly at PageSpeed Insights or Measure and if you’re at all worried about not being able to reach the speeds you should be, get in touch with Preface Studios and we’ll be happy to guide you through your options to improve.

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