In May of 2020, Google announced that an update to the company’s search algorithm could be coming sometime in 2021. It didn’t make much of an impression for most people, but in one corner of the tech world, search engine optimization (SEO) professionals immediately kicked into high gear.

According to StatCounter, a web traffic analysis website, Google has overwhelming dominance as a search engine, with 81 percent market share on desktop devices and 94 percent on mobile. Appearing high up on search results is vital for attracting users, so websites are always anxious to maintain and improve their Google search rankings. Anytime Google announces a change in its algorithms, there’s a scramble to figure out just what those changes mean.

Google’s May announcement said the next upcoming change will have to do with site performance — how quickly a page loads in the browser after a user navigates to the site. This factor is not entirely new; Google has been using performance as a factor in determining search rank on desktop since 2010, and on mobile since 2018.

“It’s been a big factor for some time, in part because mobile usage has exploded,” said Chris Rodgers, CEO of Colorado SEO Pros. “Because page load speed has such a big impact in the mobile environment, that helped push it as a priority in terms of Google’s algorithm.”

But Rodgers said Google was now going to put more weight on specific measures of page load speeds as it makes performance a more nuanced and important part of determining search rank.

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What Are the New Search Signals?

Google has hundreds of factors — what the company calls “signals” — that together determine the order that websites appear on its search results. Some of the most important signals are outside individual websites’ control, such as the wording of the search query and how many other websites link to your site. But there are also signals, such as the quality of the site’s content and its technical polish — known as the “technical SEO” — that websites do control.

“Technical SEO is all about what’s going on underneath the hood,” Rodgers said. “Are there broken links? Are there pages that Google can’t get to or can’t understand?”

“Technical SEO is all about what’s going on underneath the hood.”

Part of technical SEO’s future focus seems to be on site performance. Google’s announcement about its upcoming search ranking update spotlighted Core Web Vitals, a collection of metrics the company created to quantify the “user experience” factor of a website. Core Web Vitals is currently composed of metrics that evaluate the loading speed of a website in three different ways.

The first metric calculates how long it takes the website to load its largest visible piece of content, such as an image, video or large block of text. This is known as the “largest contentful paint,” and Google’s website describes this as a measure of a website’s “perceived load speed” to the user.

Another criteria measures how quickly a website becomes responsive once the user navigates to it. The length of the delay — known as the “first input delay” — is the time between when the user first tries to interact with content on the page and when the website actually responds.

The third metric is on how much a website’s layout shifts during the page loading process. This problem, known as “cumulative layout shift,” is what causes the frustrating experience of having the text you were reading suddenly shift out of view.

“It can just be annoying, or it can be really bad if you went to click on a link and you clicked on something else instead,” Rodgers said.

All these metrics combined determine Google’s Core Web Vitals, and higher scores are expected to increase a website’s search rank.

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Easy Changes for Improving a Site’s Core Web Vitals

In Rodgers’ experience, developers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about SEO, but they should.

“Most web developers are probably not focused on it, because they’re not looking at things through the Google lens — they’re looking at it through the users’ lens,” he said. “But if you’re the developer, if and when your client goes to hire an SEO, you can bet they’re going to come full circle and ask you to solve these issues. And if they’re serious about SEO and you can’t solve these issues, they’re going to look for someone who can.”

There are many changes developers can implement to improve a website’s Core Web Vitals. Rodgers said one of the quickest fixes is to scale back the sizes of images and other resources being loaded onto a website.

“It might be as easy as changing the image resolution, the file sizes, even the file type,” he said. “Sometimes it can be that you’ve got a bunch of CSS that’s being stored on-page, and you need to store that off-page. You can compress all of the HTML so that it’s not all spread out.”

He said a good way to improve a website’s cumulative layout shift score is to make sure lazy loading is done correctly. Lazy loading is the practice of loading non-critical but data-intensive resources after the majority of the page has already loaded, so that the most important parts of the website can load faster. Resources such as images and videos are often lazy loaded.

The problem occurs when developers don’t include placeholders on the page for where the lazy-loaded resources will go — an image being lazy loaded will suddenly appear after most of the page has already loaded, altering the structure of the page and shifting things out of place. Using placeholders fixes the shifts caused by lazy loading.

“It might be as easy as changing the image resolution.”

There are also backend changes developers can implement to improve Core Web Vitals.

“One of the things that we look at right away is whether there’s a CDN, a content delivery network,” Rodgers said. “It’s usually not a huge gain, but it’s a pretty easy way to speed things up.”

CDNs are services that cache copies of a website on servers in geographically distributed locations. They can help cut down on load speed time by decreasing the distance between users and the website’s data.

And finally, there are also tools for developers to track their websites’ Core Web Vital metrics. Chrome has them in the browser’s built-in developer tools feature, which includes the Chrome Lighthouse tool.

“Lighthouse is a great tool — they give you a lot of immediate recommendations on the webpage that you’re testing on,” Rodgers said.

PageSpeed Insights is another tool that specifically measures and gives feedback on website performance metrics. Developers can use these tools in combination with reading Google’s recommendations on improving Core Web Vitals to manage their website performance.

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Change Is Coming, but How Much Change?

Trying to predict what Google is going to do with its search ranking algorithm can be frustrating for developers trying to keep up with SEO changes.

“We know the page experience update is going to ding us for cumulative layout shifts — we don’t know how much,” Rodgers said. “Google’s telling us this is a big deal, telling us way ahead of time, but then when it actually comes time, are they actually going to make this a big factor? No one knows.”

Google’s own announcement last year about the upcoming changes reminded developers that having good information is still one of the most important factors for determining search rank, and that the company is evaluating the overall user experience, not just performance.

“While all of the components of page experience are important, we will prioritize pages with the best information overall, even if some aspects of page experience are subpar,” the announcement read. “A good page experience doesn’t override having great, relevant content.”

But page performance is going to be increasingly important for determining search rank in the future, and Rodgers said it’s better to get ahead of the changes.

“Even if, for some reason, the update doesn’t affect SEO in a big way, user experience is important, and page load speed is really important, down to some very specific metrics,” Rodgers said. “People need to start looking at this right now.”

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