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Big changes don’t come to Google’s search algorithm all that often, but there’s a major shift arriving coming this May that might change how we think about optimizing for search. First announced in Spring 2020—timing that illustrates the importance of the change—the initiative, dubbed Core Web Vitals (CWV), is “meant to make it easier for marketers to quantify what a quality user experience is on Google,” according to a Google announcement. The decision is part of Google’s larger focus on Page Experience when it comes to judging websites. 

But what do they really mean by experience? How do they define it? And what took them so long? 

Until now Google didn’t especially care about user experience. It didn’t prioritize sites that had exemplary interactivity, speed, and visual stability. But going forward, those sites will be given an edge on search engine results pages (SERPs), and as digital experiences generally improve and user expectations evolve, Google plans to expand its efforts in this area.

Now, that doesn’t mean sites with terrible content are suddenly going to outsmart Google by loading quickly. While that actually would slightly impact Google’s performance index, let’s not get it twisted—the contents of your web page are still the most important factor in performance.  

But Google’s announcement of Core Web Vitals means site experience is no longer a secondary consideration. Now, website managers have three distinct metrics to gauge how they stack up. 

What are Core Web Vitals?

The Core Web Vitals are broken down into three page-speed specific metrics, also known as “signals”—Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Delay (FID), and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). Each vital is meant to measure a different aspect of the user experience. 

According to MoveWeb, an American software company which surveyed over 6,500 sites, only 13% of sites actually had a “good” score. But the Core Web Vitals are far from the only metrics from which search ranking is determined—there are rumored to be close to 1000 signals, including content length, historical page updates, and even the length of domain registration. 

To find out where a site currently stands, Google has launched a report which will let marketers know areas for improvement. Sites that are passing Google’s thresholds have a score in the 75th percentile or higher.

If the battle for search rankings supremacy was a hockey game, then Core Web Vitals would be like the game-deciding shootout. Being great in shootouts alone won’t help your page rank higher—you still have to play a complete 60-minute game before overtime. But if two sites have similar quality content, a site’s user experience (as measured by the Core Web Vitals) can be the deciding factor.

“In cases where there are many pages that may be similar in relevance,” says Google, “page experience can be much more important for visibility in Search.”

The Truth Comes Out

Even before the Core Web Vitals were announced, website stakeholders had long assumed that Google was already taking site experience into account, but just hadn’t made the move public. But now, all companies, regardless of size, have to get the memo: user experience impacts the business’s bottom line.  

Is it too much for people to expect a fast, engaging experience with the pages they visit? In the year 2021, 38 years since the launch of the internet, Google is doing more than ranking sites—it’s trying to set a new benchmark to raise the stakes of the digital world.

Seth King is a writer and editor based in Boston.

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