In late May, Google announced a future algorithm update centered on UX, or what Google is calling “page experience.” Page experience will combine some existing ranking signals with three new page load time signals called “Core Web Vitals”. Google will be giving at least a six-month notice so webmasters have time to make changes, meaning it will likely be 2021 before the update takes effect.

Core web vitals

The Top Stories feature on mobile search results will also be impacted with this update. Specifically, accelerated mobile pages (AMPs) will no longer be a requirement, and page experience will become a Top Stories ranking factor. However, this update is unlikely to impact many pharma sites as Top Stories articles are generally reserved for fresh news.

What Are Core Web Vitals?
Core Web Vitals were introduced in early May 2020. They consist of three new metrics that aim to measure different elements of perceived page load time. After all, users don’t care how fast pages load; they care about how fast pages appear to load. In fact, you could be reading this article right now with no complications and the page is still loading in the background.

Here is a quick breakdown of each metric.

Core Web Vital Metrics

Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) Source

  • Proxy for: Loading – When does it appear the content has loaded?
  • Actual definition: The time for the largest element within the initial viewport of the page to be rendered
  • An improvement on: First Contentful Paint, First Meaningful Paint
  • Benchmarks: Less than 2.5 seconds for the fastest 75% of page loads
  • Biggest Factors: Server response times, render-blocking JavaScript and CSS, image optimization, file compression

First Input Delay (FID) Source

  • Proxy for: Interactivity and responsiveness – When does it appear the page is usable?
  • Actual definition: The time between a user action (e.g., click, tap, key press) and the browser’s response to that action. Scrolling and zooming are not considered for this definition.
  • An improvement on: Time to Interactive
  • Benchmarks: Less than 100 milliseconds for the fastest 75% of page loads
  • Biggest Factors: JavaScript execution time, size and number of requests, 3rd party code, JavaScript minification, deferring unused code

Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) Source

  • Proxy for: Visual stability – How often do users experience unexpected layout shifts (e.g., clicking the wrong button because it moved unexpectedly)?
  • Actual definition: The sum of all individual layout shift scores for every unexpected layout shift that occurs on the page. A layout shift occurs any time a visible element changes its start position from one frame to the next.
  • An improvement on: N/A; this metric is the first of its kind.
  • Benchmarks: Less than 0.1 CLS score for the fastest 75% of page loads
  • Biggest Factors: Size attributes or CSS aspect ratio boxes, rendering elements in a top-down order, animations that trigger layout changes

Field Data vs. Lab Data: Who Wins?
Some tools measuring Core Web Vitals and other page load time metrics display field data, while others show lab data.

Field data is real user data from opt-in Chrome users. This data represents what is actually happening and what Google will be using in its algorithm. Importantly, First Input Delay (FID) requires actual user interaction in order to be calculated, so lab data cannot measure it (Total Blocking Time is the closest lab-available equivalent).

Lab data calculates similar metrics in a simulated environment. Lab data can be useful in pre-production environments where user interaction is not possible. It can also be useful in diagnosing issues found within field data as user behavior can be volatile and noisy. Additionally, tools like Lighthouse provide more than just scores; they provide suggested solutions.

Ultimately, field and lab data can play critical and complementary roles in improving page experience. Below is a list of field and lab tools that measure Core Web Vitals.

Measuring Core Web Vitals
Core Web Vitals can be measured using the following tools:

  • PageSpeed Insights (field + lab): Incorporates lab data from Lighthouse and field data from the Chrome UX Report.
  • Chrome UX Report (field): Provides user experience metrics for how real-world Chrome users experience web pages.
  • Google Search Console (field): Incorporates data from the Chrome UX report by page and device.
  • Chrome DevTools* (lab): Operates from within the Chrome browser to show field data.
  • Lighthouse* (lab): Can be run via Chrome DevTools, PageSpeed Insights, a Chrome extension or a custom command prompt.
  • Web Vitals Extension (field): Provides Core Web Vitals metrics for your session.

How Big of an Impact Will This Update Make?
Google has not shared much in this area, like whether the importance of the existing metrics will be adjusted. Google has confirmed this is a page-specific algorithm update, but pages often share domain-wide characteristics and could be impacted as such.

At this point, we think the ranking impact will be minor when the update finally arrives. This prediction is based on three observations.

1. These Signals Mostly Exist in the Current Algorithm
Four of these metrics are currently part of Google’s algorithm, and the three new ones are not completely brand new. Why? Page load time is already a ranking factor and the Core Web Vitals appear to be a more sophisticated aim at it.

2. Nothing Beats Great Content
This excerpt below is pulled directly from Google’s announcement. In short, better content beats a better experience, but having both packs a greater punch.

A good page experience doesn’t override having great, relevant content. However, in cases where there are multiple pages that have similar content, page experience becomes much more important for visibility in Search.

3. Historical Precedents Suggest More Bark Than Bite
Google made over 3,600 updates to its algorithm in 2019. Most updates go unannounced and unnoticed. Some go unannounced but noticed by the SEO community. When they do get confirmed by Google, it’s typically at the same time as the rollout or after the fact.

This update is an extremely rare example of Google announcing an update in advance. Prior examples include page load speed, HTTPS and mobile-first indexing. In these examples, the impact ended up being relatively minor. In retrospect, these updates appeared to be more about social engineering than ranking. Because of that, we predict this page experience update will follow suit.

While the ranking impact may be minor, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously. What is the point of SEO? It’s not to generate rankings, it’s to attract relevant, high-converting organic visitors. If we want to accomplish our overall goal, we must think beyond traffic generation toward a strong user-experience that engages, informs, delights and converts its audience. Moreover, improving a page’s load and response time helps generate more value from all traffic sources, not just organic traffic.

What Should Pharma Marketers Do Next?
Pharma marketers should consider the following actions as next steps to prepare for Google’s page experience update.

1. Check Your Numbers and Develop a Plan
Comparing these new metrics against the specified benchmarks is a great first step. Intouch will be reviewing these for all ongoing SEO client sites. The numbers are the easy part. Understanding how to improve them is more nuanced. Depending on the proposed solutions, it may involve other disciplines such as development, IT and creative.

2. Don’t Wait Until 2021 to Get Started
Even when a worldwide pandemic isn’t underway, sites within the pharma industry often struggle to get out site updates quickly and frequently. Since the solutions may involve some trial and error, along with some cost-benefit deliberation, it’s recommended to get out in front of this as quickly as can be done responsibly.

3. Consider What’s Next
This wasn’t the first UX-related algorithm update, and it certainly won’t be the last. This isn’t exactly a secret either. Consider these excerpts from the Core Web Vitals and page experience announcements:

Looking ahead towards 2021, we are investing in building better understanding and ability to measure page speed, and other critical user experience characteristics. – Chromium Blog

Because we continue to work on identifying and measuring aspects of page experience, we plan to incorporate more page experience signals on a yearly basis to both further align with evolving user expectations and increase the aspects of user experience that we can measure. – Google Webmaster Central Blog

It’s not about where the algorithm is but where it’s headed. Experts from SEO, UX and analytics should be working together to ensure visitors are having positive experiences on our sites and that their expectations are met and exceeded.

If you have specific questions about your website, reach out to your Intouch contact to discuss further.

Author information: Tylor Hermanson is a group director, SEO, in the Kansas City office.