How core web vital updates boosted search traffic for a consumer business

January 5, 2022


Recurring guest Geoff Kerbis joins the show to talk about a site migration project that prioritized core web vital updates, resulting in a 25% increase in organic web traffic after only a few months. In this conversation, we talk about:

  • How to work with developers to prioritize CWV updates
  • The impact of CWV updates on site migration timelines
  • The impact of CWV updates on organic search visibility and good URLs

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John Tyreman:  Hi gang. Welcome to The Digital Marketing Troop, where we go in the trenches to make sense of digital marketing and big topics and trends. I’m your host, John Tyerman. And I am joined today by recurring guest, Mr. Geoff Kerbis, SEO Team Lead and Senior Account Manager at Silverback Strategies. Geoff, how are you doing today?

Geoff Kerbis:  I’m doing great, John. Thanks for having me back.

John Tyreman:  Yeah, thanks for coming back on the show. Today we’re here to talk about a mini case example of how an update to a website’s core web titles lead to organic traffic gains. But before we dive into that, I have a question that I want to ask you because we’re in the holiday season right now. I’m curious, what’s your favorite holiday movie?

Geoff Kerbis:  Alright, John, I always come with unorthodox answers to this podcast and why not have a couple more? So I’m going to give you three. I’m going to give you the unorthodox. My version of the Die Hard movie, right? Because everyone debates Die Hard every year, but I am a gigantic fan of Batman Returns because it technically is a Christmas movie. There is snow, there is a Christmas party, and you see Santa during the movie. Now it’s played by Danny DeVito who’s playing the penguin but it is still technically a Christmas movie. Now my favorite traditional Christmas movie is White Christmas. It is a beautiful film. I actually own an original poster from the movie and it is framed within my abode. And we bring it out for Christmas every year as just like a really nice thing to have. And then I will give a new recommendation for my bingers out there. Single All The Way on Netflix is one of the best Christmas movies I’ve seen in recent years. And I know that sounds wild but it has a lovely little story, it is really well acted and it’s very cute and makes you feel warm and fuzzy over the Christmas holiday. So I highly recommend giving you at least three movies to pick from to watch or add to your Christmas movie catalog.

John Tyreman:  Well, there you go. If any listeners out there want to up their Christmas movie game,  Geoff’s got you covered. Well Geoff, let’s dive into our topic. Let’s start here. Let’s set the stage for our listeners. Can you give us a sense of what kind of business we’re talking about with this one?

Geoff Kerbis:  In this instance, we are talking about an organization that has an ecommerce based website that sells not only online but also provides more information about products that have to be sold in store. This is something that is not unique. We deal with these businesses every day whether it is an auto dealership, or maybe even an organization that sells mattresses or larger items where you might want to test it in store before you buy it. So in this instance, the organization has been around for a very long time. But their online portal is a bit unique and is a small part of the total revenue that the organization net gains. It is not really the main focus or the breadwinner, as far as revenue. With that being said, this year, they really have been trying to put more and more of a focus on “How can our online store and our online digital marketing efforts become more fruitful for the organization as a whole?” So that’s one of the reasons that Silverback was brought in to be a partner in growing not only their overall online presence, but the value that SEO can bring to their overall online presence.

John Tyreman:  Can you walk us through kind of like the timeline of what happened so we can understand some of the background leading up to some of these implementations and then the results that came?

Geoff Kerbis:  Absolutely. So in this case, some of the things that happened were we had been discussing with this client the idea of going through a site migration and a site merger. Now, in their previous format, they, because there are many different countries that they worked in, they had separated out the different countries on separate subdomains, which is fine, but when it comes to visibility, it really… subdomains do have value in some instances, but in others such as theirs, where there are many of the same products being displayed or sold on their sites, it can really take away the impact that certain pages can have and it can spread your efforts and spread your SEO around, so it’s cannibalizing each other. So in this instance, we had the idea of, “Hey, let’s merge this site, the US based site with the rest of your subdomains to ensure that everything is under one household”. Now there can be language tags associated to differentiate so Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo can understand what the differences are. And one of the other big things that we were discussing is, let’s also use this as an opportunity to reformat the site in a way that makes sense from an SEO perspective, because the original subdomain was not built with SEO in mind. It’s very rare that you come to a website as an SEO and you look at it and you said, “Wow, the SEO who was on this project did a great job” because nine out of 10 times and SEO was not involved in designing a website. It’s just how it is. I always joke that if a website was designed by an SEO it’d be a blank piece of paper with just words on it, and that would be amazing. Now, during the process of the migration and merger, one of the big things that I always recommend is to do a technical audit of the site, really to lay a foundation of, “Hey, here’s everything that we would like to fix going into the merger so we start off with a clean slate”. Couple of things that were found were things like missing href 1 tags, finding that there were certain things like redirect chains, very common stuff. But one of the big red flags was that there were issues with core web vitals happening across the site. And some of these were larger issues, but there was a small, unique thing in the instance that we were not in charge of the merger or the migration of the site. We were working with a third party vendor to be able to do so and help the client together. So what ended up happening was a series of meetings where you know, myself as an SEO, one of our dev experts at Silverback Strategies and third party vendor as well as the client sat down and had a meeting to try to come to a true understanding of the importance of some of the things that we’re finding and really creating a list of priorities as we were merging the site. Not only were we trying to solve the technical aspects, but also trying to understand “Hey, how can we implement core web vitals and prioritize core web vitals through some of these technical audit aspects that we have”, which led to really fruitful conversations. Did this increase the amount of time that this project took? Yes, absolutely. When it is not one person creating everything that’s going to happen, it extended the timeline. But on the other side of it now, looking at the results, one of the reasons why I’m here is it had some really fruitful gains as a whole. We were able to find that by investing in core web vitals the organization, just from the beginning of the first full month of having a site that was merged and migrated saw a 25% boost in the amount of product page views that it had. And that 25% boost came specifically from having good page experiences. Now, if anyone who is listening to the podcast is not familiar with a good page experience it is a ranking factor boost that is only eligible to pages that pass a couple of Google based factors. That is, that the page has a mobile usability score that is considered good, It has a core web vital score that is considered good and it’s a secure page. And because of our focus on making sure that these pages had those factors, and we’re prioritizing those factors, they got rewarded as a whole. And one of the other things that happened during this time period is we noticed that as the month of November rolled on, and a lot of purchasing was happening a little bit earlier, we were seeing huge boosts in the amount of impressions we were able to get. And we were out ranking, many times, our peers who had deprioritized their core web vitals. There’s a lot of debate as to what core web vitals does affect and does not affect. But what I can say from this experience and now reviewing all of our clients, trying to figure out other ways that everyone else can sort of get this boost right? 25% of an increase in anything usually will make someone smile. There is going to be someone who’s happy in the meeting when they say “Oh, we saw a 25% increase in traffic”, is that when it comes to your most competitive keywords, or your most valuable keywords, it really does pay to look at the page as a whole and understand if you are passing the basic needs. Because if your term does become one that is eligible for a good page experience boost, wouldn’t you like to at least be eligible to win that impression, or win that quick? Now, Google initially and there were many SEO specialists who were saying, “Well, products are not going to be the priority as far as core web vitals”. And to that I’d say, are products the priority? Not in all cases. A lot of it is information based but products are in certain industries being prioritized, especially when they can’t be purchased online in some instances, and even when they can be purchased online. You want a quick easy loading experience. Who is going to buy from a website that takes them 10 seconds to load the page? It feels like a bad experience. So what I have learned from this experience as a whole is when you are working with a client it is worth investing in making sure that core web vitals is a priority for your site. It is very much a team effort. You have to, if you are not a dev expert, when you’re an SEO, you’re going to have to work with someone who’s highly knowledgeable about that. You’re going to have to work on making sure that the client understands that even though they’re not seeing gigantic changes in their site performance, it will pay off as far as prioritizing how good of a site it is in the eyes of Google. And the work with this client is not done, right? When we started off the migration, we were at 0% as far as having good URLs eligible for the good page experience. We’re now at 58.7%. As of today, we are now looking to be at about 80 to 90% of good URLs. So it’s continuous work. It is not easy, but it’s also proactive work. And if you’re not being proactive with your client, you’re just sitting to wait for the Google algorithm to hopefully boost your page. 

John Tyreman:  Hope is not a marketing strategy.

Geoff Kerbis:  I mean, for some people it absolutely is. John, I disagree. There’s a lot of people who say luck as the number one thing.

John Tyreman:  Well, sometimes that can be true. But so Geoff, I’ve got a couple of questions. Thank you so much for walking through that timeline. Let’s unpack that a little bit. So you mentioned that there were some red flags that you saw in the technical audit that made you want to prioritize some core web vital updates. Let’s start there. Like what were some of those red flags that you saw?

Geoff Kerbis:  Yeah, no, that’s an excellent question. So there’s some super simple things that you can look into as far as trying to see if core web vitals is an issue with the site. The first place I always go is Google Search Console because why not learn from the source as far as what they think of your site? Since we were in a bit of a unique situation as we were merging one site with an already existing site, we had to look at both places and try to gain an understanding of okay, what’s the situation of core web vitals where we are going? What are the things that need to be changed from a template perspective in order to improve as a whole and look at where we are coming from? What’s the core web vital situation there?  There are things that come up. There’s a ton. You can look for JavaScript errors, you can look for your errors with images not being optimized, lazy loading problems. Maybe there are intrusive interstitials that are causing your page to not load properly or execute extra tags being on the page. The number two thing that I normally do in this instance is I really like looking at PageSpeed Insights in one moment in time, because it does a great job of showing you through the eyes of a search engine, how does this site load? What are some of the small things you can be looking for? And then using our own crawlers, such as Screaming Frog or Ahrefs to be able to get an understanding of the page experience. What I then found is super valuable, is sitting down with experts from our dev team to discuss. Okay, these are the things I found what is and is not possible, because there might be some things that have to be prioritized over others, because either there is a lack of the resources to be able to do something or you would fundamentally change the experience at the site if you were to try to fix something. And that’s a key thing. Because if you are a site that is selling based off of image quality and being able to look at the details of your product, then something like image optimization might have to go in the back of the line as far as your priority goes. It’s making sure that you are compromising as a whole and then you add in the expert who is actually developing the site, the third party in this case, and that’s then reinitiating the discussion. In this instance, our expert who was working on the vendor side, in this instance third party, really was having trouble prioritizing the concept of why core web vitals should be prioritized over a speedy migration. And it was a very simple conversation of just looking at performance as a whole. And looking at the possibility of these click boosts that we saw. We did not estimate 25%. In the beginning it was 15%. Maybe 20 If we’re doing great. So 20% with only 3/5 of the site optimized is a wild stat to be able to now pat everyone on the back and say, “Hey, we made the right investment”, right? But I would say start off with Google Search Console, move to PageSpeed Insights to see if it is a template by template instance. And then you can start taking deeper dives into specific issues and being able to identify the elements that are causing these issues.

John Tyreman:  Okay, that makes sense. And you kind of answered my next question. I was gonna ask what were some of those things that were sacrificed in that reprioritization? So you met with the third party dev team and with the client, you guys sat down and you said okay, in order for us to focus on these core web vital updates, we need to prioritize x y and z. What were some of the things that were bumped down the list? You mentioned a speedy migration being one of them. What were some others?

Geoff Kerbis:  Yeah, I think a speedy migration was the number one thing that was really put to the side as an understanding of hey, initially, we thought we’re gonna debut in August. August turned into September. I would also say that the number one thing that’s going to have to happen with any sort of core web vitals implementation is time. Time is one of those things where we don’t… normally when it comes to SEO, we’re very good about executing quickly and waiting our three to six months to see if it worked out. In the instance of core web vitals, there has to be a lot of hand holding, because there are very small edits that are made and also you have to be able to put on your UX cap to see if the site experience is still one that you would enjoy or you think a search engine crawler would enjoy, a spider would enjoy. So I would say in this instance it was time in the sense of delaying the project as well as making sure that we were putting a bit of an extra amount of care and love into making sure that the site was being executed in a proper way.

John Tyreman:  Well, Geoff, I’m looking at this chart here of the percent of URLs each day, day over day. And then the total impressions of those good URLs on each day, and I can’t help but notice around the beginning of December there’s that big spike in total impressions of good URLs. Looks like the number of the percent of good URLs bumped up. Can you talk a little bit about that spike, what do you attribute that to?

Geoff Kerbis:  Yeah, that’s a wonderful question. So we attribute it to a few different things. Since October, we have been making small edits to the core web vitals of the site and trying to further fine tune the site as a whole. And it doesn’t just stop at core web vitals. Even though core web vitals takes a lot of time and your attention, there are other things that are going on that have to be done and optimized, right? So we were, from a Silverback perspective, we actually added on almost a full team member to be making sure that there were other optimizations that we weren’t missing, based off of our focus on core web vitals. So that person’s job was specifically purely from a ranking factor perspective, which might seem silly, but also many SEOs have noticed this, that Google is throttling the amount of pages that are being indexed for any site and how they’re being indexed. It’s a fun new feature called discovered but not indexed. So Google can find it, but it’s not indexing those pages. And we are really working hard to make sure that Google is indexing all the pages that are important. And making sure as we are working with the client and working through all these core web vitals, we are also creating a list of the prioritized URLs that we are resubmitting to Google for indexing at any point in time. So while core web vitals can definitely take all of your time, it’s making sure that at the same time, you’re still sticking to the fundamentals of looking at ranking factors, looking at how you’re doing from a coverage perspective, and making sure that your site is not just about CWV performance, but total performance.

John Tyreman:  Okay, so it was a focus on some of the… let’s call it SEO basics? 

Geoff Kerbis:  Yeah, exactly. Exactly. No it’s… the basics still play a very important role. You know, so I’m a big basketball fan, John, and while dunks are really cool, sometimes a solid layup, or a 15 foot shot is really fun to watch as well.

John Tyreman:  Two points is two points. 

Geoff Kerbis:  Exactly. 

John Tyreman:  Okay, cool. So you could attribute that big spike in the total impressions of good URLs to a focus on SEO fundamentals meeting consumer search volume, so there may have been a spike in search volume around that time, you were set up to capture that search volume.

Geoff Kerbis:  Yeah, absolutely. I think that one of the big things that was important about that spike, is there was some stuff in the news that happened right around that time that could have caused a slight spike, especially within that industry. But what I’m more proud of is the steady nature of how those impressions are slowly going up, day by day, month by month. And it’s a very steady growth, as opposed to, in many industries that growth would stop right around Black Friday and dip for all glory in the world. So we’ve been able to make sure that we are increasing the number of good pages amongst the total presence of the site, while also making sure to increase those total good page experience URL impressions. 

John Tyreman:  Alright, Geoff, thank you so much. This is a really good example. And I think what it does is it shows how developers can be looking at a project like this, a site migration, through one lens, and SEOs can look at the same thing through a couple different lenses, but it’s really getting on the same page. It’s really understanding what priorities can be moved around. A speedy migration. While that’s obviously something that the client wants because they’re itching to get their site up, that may not necessarily be the right thing. It may make more sense to kind of take a step back, do things the right way, so that you can realize these gains, especially in a peak season.

Geoff Kerbis;  100%. I would say that my best lesson learned is even though digital marketers are asked to wear many many hats, right? I think we’re asked to have some dev expertise, some SEM expertise, some SEO expertise, all those sorts of things. Take the time if you have the resources available to invite more people in the room because yes, sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen is a problem. But if it is purely from a discussion basis of putting the best interest of someone at the forefront, and respect is brought in at the beginning, execution can be really something that benefits all parties involved. And luckily, in this instance, that was one of them.

John Tyreman:  Wise words my friend. Well, Geoff, thank you so much for taking the time to come on our show today. If folks want to connect with you and learn more, where can they find you?

Geoff Kerbis:  Yeah, you can absolutely find me on LinkedIn as Geoff Kerbis. That’s with a G and then you can find my terrible Twitter takes on Twitter @runGeoffrun. That is just as it’s spelled and just as it sounds.

John Tyreman:  Alright, Geoff, thank you so much for coming on the show. 

Geoff Kerbis:  All right, have a good one, John, and thanks again. 

John Tyreman:  If you found this podcast episode insightful, please subscribe, tell a friend and leave a rating and review. And to learn more, head on over to where we have a wealth of digital marketing insights on our Blog and Resource Center. We’ll see you next time on The Digital Marketing Troop.