Core Web Vitals: SEOs aren’t sold the work was worth it

Since its announcement, the page experience update generated much speculation among SEOs. This was because it made user experience more of a Google ranking factor than it had been before and because it was announced more than a year ahead of its rollout.

Well in advance of the rollout, Google said that the page experience update would be relatively minor: “While this update is designed to highlight pages that offer great user experiences, page experience remains one of many factors our systems take into account. Given this, sites generally should not expect drastic changes.”

Now that the update has been fully rolled out for several months, it’s time to review its impact as well as discuss a new way to optimize Core Web Vitals (CWV) and improve your user experience.

Few SEOs have seen significant rankings changes, but that’s only part of the story

“I don’t know anyone who has been impacted. Even those that had a really bad score… major improvements and no change,” UK-based freelance SEO consultant Andy Drinkwater said on Twitter, speaking specifically in regards to impacts on the search results (rankings). Drinkwater’s experience seems common — numerous other SEOs have also shared that the investment in improving CWV has yet to yield returns in the SERPs.

Isolating the page experience update. It’s important to recognize that any perceived results from optimizing CWV might not have occurred in isolation. The page experience update rolled out between June 15 and September 2, 2021. During that span, Google also rolled out two spam updates, the July 2021 core update and potentially numerous unconfirmed updates as well.

These external variables make it more difficult to correlate the effects of the page experience update to visibility or performance.

But, ROI isn’t just on the SERP. Rankings are only one metric and they do not necessarily reflect the full effect of improved UX for your business. Other metrics, like conversion rate, may benefit as you improve your site for users. “I have seen massive impacts on the conversion and cost savings fronts but not on organic,” said freelance SEO and PPC consultant Arnout Hellemans.

While most marketers refrained from getting into specifics or providing data, SEO consultant Kristine Schachinger shared a screenshot of improved clicks and impressions (see below). “Page Speed and CWVs created these increases,” she said.

“Performance optimization may not be a silver bullet for rankings, but we don’t optimize just for that,” said Detlef Johnson, Search Engine Land’s SEO for developers expert. “[Core Web] Vitals, as determined by Google, are the tip of the spear that you can sharpen to cut through the network to load the experience faster, which can lead to more add-to-cart actions because it builds confidence and trust,” he added.

Semrush’s preliminary study “[hasn’t] spotted any significant changes in rankings.” “Field data indicates very minor changes to all three metrics we measured before, after, and one month into the update,” Aoife McIlraith, VP of marketing, core product at Semrush, said in the tool provider’s assessment of the initial impacts of the page experience update. The study, which focused exclusively on mobile search results, collected the top 10 results from both desktop and mobile SERPs for 2,500 random keywords; the CWV metrics for all the URLs in the top 10 of those results were measured just a week before the update rolled out, roughly a week after it began rolling out and once more, a month after the rollout started.

“Since the update, we can see that Google seems to be taking a delicate stance, leveling out the rest of the SERPs instead of changing the top rankings due to CWV factors,” McIlraith said in reference to the share of URLs in which all three CWV metrics were “good.”

“So far, we haven’t spotted any significant changes in rankings or managed to link them to CSW [sic] factors, so it’s hard to pinpoint any systematic patterns at this point,” McIlraith concluded, “But some initial analysis may imply that there is a general improvement trend in regard to CWV.”

“[CWV] has a measurable influence on the Google rankings,” according to SISTRIX. Approximately two weeks after the page experience update rollout was completed, SISTRIX evaluated how rankings changed for “good domains” (that meet all three CWV criteria) and “bad domains” (that do not meet at least one of the three CWV criteria).

“Based on the Visibility Index, we saw that pages that meet all of Google’s requirements rank one percentage point better than the average,” Johannes Beus, CEO and founder of SISTRIX, said. Pages that failed at least one of the CWV metrics, on the other hand, ranked significantly worse (3.7% worse on SISTRIX’s Visibility Index).

Correlation is not causation. As mentioned at the top of this article, attributing performance to CWV optimizations may not be straightforward. “Maybe websites that have good Core Web Vitals scores also generally have better content?” Beus said, “There is therefore no final evidence, but there are strong indications due to the timing and the announcement by Google.” In addition, each study also highlighted the unusually high frequency of algorithm updates that occurred this past summer.

Optimizing Core Web Vitals with Priority Hints

At this point, it seems like Google’s statement that SEOs “should not expect drastic changes” continues to hold up. Nevertheless, UX is an important factor for most visitors and optimizing it can improve conversion rates. To provide site owners with more control over how their pages load, Google has recently introduced Priority Hints, an experimental feature available as an Origin Trial in Chrome 96+. 

The Google Flights page with an LCP background image loaded with and without priority hints. With the priority set to high, the LCP improved from 2.6s to 1.9s. Image: Google.

Priority Hints are a markup-based signal, available through the importance attribute, that allows you to tell browsers about the relative importance of a resource. This can be used to boost the priority of the LCP image, causing LCP to happen sooner and thus improve the associated metric (as shown above). Conversely, you can set the importance to lower the priority of above-the-fold content that may not be as important, like the second, third or fourth images in a carousel.

The importance attribute can be applied to the link, img, script and iframe tags. It can be set as “high,” “low” or “auto” (the default value that lets the browser decide the appropriate priority). 

The Priority Hints feature is available as an Origin Trial from Chrome 96 to 99 and will run until March 22, 2022. Developers or site owners can register for it here. As this is an experimental feature, the future of Priority Hints may depend on the feedback Google receives.

Optimizing Core Web Vitals complements holistic SEO

Sites exist to serve businesses and audiences. For businesses, search rankings should only be relevant with regards to their goals, which are typically generating leads or conversions. While the page experience update may reward content that performs well on CWV with better rankings, “You are not going to notice it when you have other, bigger factors going on,” Johnson said, “If you optimize your titles, you’ll see more of a lift in valuable rankings. If you are in a tie with another website then optimizing the Vitals can give you the advantage you want.”

Ultimately, the goal is to please users or potential customers, and improving your page experience via Core Web Vitals optimization can help you accomplish that, regardless of its impact on your rankings.


About The Author

George Nguyen is an editor for Search Engine Land, covering organic search, podcasting and e-commerce. His background is in journalism and content marketing. Prior to entering the industry, he worked as a radio personality, writer, podcast host and public school teacher.