The Page Experience Update: A Marketer’s Guide to Google’s SEO Changes

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Google’s new update introduces three Core Web Vitals that will be used to determine where pages rank in searches. We break down the next steps you need to take.

If you’re a marketer, or you’ve eaten lunch with a marketer in the past six months, chances are you’ve heard about an upcoming change to the Google algorithm.

Called the Page Experience algorithm update, this new set of rules will likely change the positions of existing rankings and make it harder for certain websites to rank highly on Google search engine results pages (SERPs). Following a few false starts, the updates are now officially planned for mid-June 2021, with the full impact expected to become apparent by the end of August. 

With SEO and Organic Search being a core traffic driver for many ScaleUp companies, we’ve been tracking updates closely to ensure that our portfolio companies are prepared. Our learnings are summarized here.

What’s going on?

With the Page Experience algorithm update, Google has announced three new signals that its algorithm will use to rank search results. 

The new signals, collectively known as Core Web Vitals, are:

  • Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), which measures loading performance
  • First Input Delay (FID), which measures interactivity
  • Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS), which measures visual stability

These Core Web Vitals join other technical signals Google was already using, like mobile friendliness and HTTPS security. 

Each Core Web Vital provides clues about how pleasant interaction with a given page is likely to be. They measure things like how long it takes the largest element on the page to load, how long it takes for a website to respond after you click a link or button, and how much the content on a page moves around while you’re reading it. 

Starting mid-June, Google will automatically analyze indexed pages to measure each of these signals and use the results to determine where in an SERP a given page should appear. It’s also hinted at the possibility of adding a visual indicator next to search results to show the user whether the page is expected to have good or bad UX, though there are no concrete plans for this yet. 

Why is Google making these changes?

Google makes changes to its search algorithm all the time, though most of them don’t receive as much attention as these changes have. Google’s goal with search has always been to provide the information users are looking for as quickly and easily as possible. Pages that take a long time to load or that shift content around while you’re trying to read them are seen as poor user experiences and are therefore targeted by algorithm changes. By elevating pages with good UX and demoting pages with poor UX, Google intends to make the search experience better for the user. 

Why is everyone so worked up about the update?

As far as Google algorithm updates go, the Page Experience update is relatively significant and could require a lot of work to get pages up to snuff. 

Also, unlike, say, semantic changes to the way Google handles keywords or page titles, poor performance on Core Web Vitals could potentially be difficult (and time-consuming, and expensive) to fix.  

Thankfully, Google has given us plenty of heads-up about the changes, as well as some free tools to assess Core Web Vital performance.

Somewhat problematically, however, these tools tend to display big scary red numbers when they don’t like what they see, leading many to assume that their websites are fundamentally broken, and might disappear from search results. 

Will my website be affected?

It’s easy enough to check! Google has built Core Web Vitals reports into all of its usual tools, including Page Speed Insights and Google Search Console. 

Google also offers instructions for checking Core Web Vitals manually, as well as in a lab environment for testing updates prior to launch. 

Try running your domain or landing page through Page Speed Insights. You’ll see a report for performance on LCP, FID, and CLS, as well as a list of potential opportunities for improvement. 

I see a lot of red numbers. Am I doomed?

Don’t freak out if your performance is poor by Google’s standards. You should definitely take steps to improve performance and should probably do so sooner rather than later. But performing poorly on Core Web Vitals isn’t a death sentence for your SERP positions — yet. 

Very few of Google’s search signals are must-haves. Your performance will be used to rank your page relative to all the other websites vying for a position atop the SERP for the same query. 

While great Core Web Vitals will help you move up the rankings and maintain #1 slots, you don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be better than the rest of the pack. If you have a competitor that you consistently rank against in content, check their Core Web Vitals. Since the changes are still relatively new and marketers and web developers are still getting a grip on them, chances are many of your competitors are in the exact same boat as you.  

What should I do next?

From a big-picture perspective, marketers need to decide how high-priority page experience work should be. Web developers don’t usually have a ton of free time, and these changes won’t all be easy. 

Here are recommended next steps:

  1. Check your website using official Google tools, such as Page Speed Insights.
  2. Begin making updates in line with Google’s recommendations, starting with those that require the least amount of time and effort. 
  3. Research additional technical updates. There are plenty of good resources available that list technical updates that can help you improve performance on Core Web Vitals.
  4. Organize updates in priority order, based on likely impact and required resources. 
  5. Work page-experience maintenance into your regular SEO strategy. Don’t drop everything and rebuild your website from scratch — keep producing great content and optimizing existing content, and do some work on your Core Web Vitals when it makes sense.
  6. If you’re not already doing so, track your keyword positions using a tool like SEMrush, Moz, or Ahrefs, so you can see quickly, and act, if your rankings start to nosedive. 

The bottom line

Google is rolling out updates to the way they rank pages in search. These updates use technical signals such as loading times and the amount that content moves around on a page to predict user experience. 

These updates have marketers worried, but maybe a little more than they ought to be. While the updates require immediate action, most websites won’t be hugely affected, at least not at first. 

At the end of the day, you should want the same thing Google wants — to provide a great experience for your users. If you lead your marketing and web development efforts with that goal in mind, you’ll end up in a good place. 

If you’re concerned that you’ll be impacted by Google’s update and you’re an Insight portfolio company, reach out to us at Onsite. We’re happy to walk you through the changes and help you assess the impact to your company.

A Marketer's Guide to 2021

  • Neal Behrend, Vice President, Marketing COE

    Neal is a Vice President on the Insight Onsite team. He partners with portfolio companies tackling B2C marketing challenges where he focuses on organic growth, analytical paid demand generation, web and app conversion rate optimization, and using lifecycle and integrated marketing to improve retention, upsell, and LTV. He also engages in…