What are Google's Core Web Vitals?

August 4, 2021


Kurt Lambert and Geoff Kerbis join the show to talk about Google’s Core Web Vitals: content loading speed, interactivity, and visual stability. In this conversation, you’ll hear:

  • examples for each type of core web vital
  • when this may impact your site
  • what resources companies will need to address issues
  • theories on why Google is making this change

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John Tyreman:  Hi gang. Welcome to The Digital Marketing Troop, where we go in the trenches to help you learn more about digital marketing. I’m your host, John Tyreman, and I’m here joined today by two returning guests, Kurt Lambert, VP of SEO and Developing Operations at Silverback Strategies, and Geoff Kerbis, SEO Team Lead and Senior Account Manager at Silverback Strategies. And today we’re here to talk about your core web vitals through Google’s eyes. But before we dive into that topic, I’ve got a bit of an icebreaker for you guys. What’s a brand or store that was a staple growing up for you but no longer exists today? Kurt, let’s start with you.

Kurt Lambert:  Wow.  I’d have to go… one that was kind of close to my heart. One of my favorite jobs through high school and in college was at KB Toys and I used to love going there as a kid, had a lot of fun working there part time in the summer. So, when they went out of business I was definitely sad to say the least. I miss that place. 

John Tyreman:  Geoff, what about you?

Geoff Kerbis:  You know if I have to go to… there’s so many that I could choose and that’s terrifying to think like, if you grew up in the northeast, you might have known Calador, Sports Authority, Bygone Era, but I’m gonna have to go with Blockbuster. I know they still technically exist, but I was a blockbuster kid. I visited twice a week, getting a different movie or video game and returning it, trying out the demo games and all that stuff. So, have to go with Blockbuster.

John Tyreman:  Blockbuster was gonna be my store of choice too, Geoff. We’re both blockbuster kids, then. That’s great. Well, Let’s turn to our topic at hand here. So Kurt let’s start with you. What are core web vitals? Can you give our listeners an overview to help us understand what this is? 

Kurt Lambert:  Yeah, of course. So core web vitals is probably a big buzzword that a lot of listeners have heard over the last year. And it relates to a new Google update that they’ve started rolling out over the last year. So for several years experience factors like site speed and mobile friendliness have been SEO staples to what we try to optimize for in SEO and core web vitals was Google’s next evolution to taking good user experience even further. So officially core web vitals are some metrics that Google created to really help measure the overall experience of a given page, taking into account, how quickly your the main content area of a page is displayed, how quickly a user can start interacting with that page, and making sure that that layout is stable and easily readable and clickable. When Google made that announcement last summer, they gave website owners a year or so to start really checking their sites for these metrics with the advanced warning that over this summer of 2021, these metrics will then be seen as direct ranking factors that can really affect websites’ organic presence, visibility, traffic, depending on how those metrics stacked up for a particular website. 

John Tyreman:  Okay so from what I understand, there’s really like three main areas of these core web vitals. There’s how fast your content loads on a given page, the interactivity between the user and the web page and how responsive it is, and then the visual stability of the site. So I’m curious, can you give our listeners some examples of, like, what’s a real life example of maybe it’s a bad experience that someone might have on a website where the loading speed or interactivity is off or the visual stability is off? 

Kurt Lambert:  Yeah, I could run through some quick examples of all three metrics there. So the first one is what we call Largest Contentful Paint. And that’s just, how quickly does the main content area have a page load. So, like say you’re reading an article on the Washington Post, and you know you kind of see the page starting to display but the body of that article you’re kind of waiting for five seconds or so for that to really display before you can start reading the article. That would be an example of a poor largest content full paint because that main large content area just takes a while to display. The next one is Time To Interactive. So you know we can see the article in this case but say there’s a button somewhere in the article or a video that we really want to click on. You know, a lot of times with pages there’s a lot of JavaScript loading in the background and CSS and all these different styling elements, and it can take browsers a long time to really process all those resources behind the scenes. So even though you might see a video that’s in that article, you’re trying to click the play button, it’s just not playing right away, because everything is still loading in the background, the browser is still trying to figure that out. So in that case because the page truly isn’t interactive yet, that’s a poor user experience signal to Google. And then the third one is Cumulative Layout Shift. So, this is when you’re scrolling down this article and you’re really trying to kind of read section by section. Well, if there are a lot of images, or maybe some banner ads that are kind of embedded into this article, and they don’t load right away, you’re trying to read a particular section, as the ads load in your browser, it’s pushing the rest of that article down the page and you’re constantly having to try to scroll down and keep up with it. So then that’s kind of that third user experience signal to Google that, you know, the layout has too many shifts here, readers might, might not like it, they might have a hard time really kind of picking out the information that they’re trying to see. So those three metrics kind of rolling them up into core web vitals to Google’s eyes, they do a really good job of representing what a true page experience might look like.

Geoff Kerbis:  Yeah, and John to add on top of that, if any of our listeners want to experience a poor experience with core web vitals, I would recommend checking out maybe some of their favorite websites. For example, I am an avid user of espn.com, they get the news that I want, but if you want to test out a cumulative layout shift, or maybe a time for interactivity, just try to decrease the size of your screen. You’ll notice, fairly quickly that there’s a lot going on on that page, that it’s just not making it a very good user experience for anyone who’s trying to go on that site and using multiple windows.

John Tyreman:  The example that comes to mind for me is a certain local sports website that I like to go to and it keeps getting… I have that same frustration and experience and a lot of times I bounce because I’m like, this article is not really that worth it to read if it’s gonna continue to jump around like that. So that’s interesting. Hey Geoff, I was talking with Haley Nininger on the podcast a few weeks ago about Google’s new timeline for phasing out third party cookies, and you know they love to drag these things out. So, from what I understand, this core web vitals, this update began rolling out in mid June 2021. Curious, have you seen any impact on any projects or accounts that you’re working on? What’s the impact been of this new core web vitals update?

Geoff Kerbis:  Yeah that’s a great question, John. I would say as far as immediate impact, we’ve seen very little in terms of rankings, and that aligns with what Google has said. Google has said they’re waiting for every one of the pages that they review to be reviewed before they have any major implications or have any major ranking changes and that makes sense. That’s fair. You don’t want to be the victim just because you were first in line, if that makes sense. But there are other implications that are coming into place, especially if we’re looking at the tools that Google is using to be able to notify us on how our core web vitals are doing. Just take Google Search Console for example. There have been multiple adjustments to how your pages are doing as far as an experience wise, just to make sure that Google was properly signaling to folks how important this is going to be. There has definitely been a larger focus on this equivalent to that, when mobile first was coming into play, and you would be able to see how Google Search Console was seeing your pages. So, while in immediate time, are we seeing much as far as making changes?  No. But do I expect to see a significant amount of changes come mid August, when this is supposed to be completed? Absolutely. And I think we all need to be prepared for that.

John Tyreman:  Okay, so I have to imagine, though, that Google’s number one priority in terms of serving up the content in an organic search results page would be the content itself and how it matches the user’s search query. So I know that core web vitals is important but do you think that Geoff, do you think that trumps the content side of things?

Geoff Kerbis:  That’s a great question, John. I think that it’s a part of any ranking factor. No ranking factor is going to have 100% of the decision making basis on whether or not it comes first, or it comes in to the second page or the third page. What I will point back to is mobile first indexing as a whole, or mobile friendliness, we’ll call it. A great example of that being, I’m going to pull out of my celebrity hat and focus on John Mulaney, really quickly. If you go into johnmulaney.com, or you search John Mulaney website on Google, you’ll be brought to John Mullaney’s website, where he sells tickets. You know, he has a tour coming up. I wanted to snag a few, was unfortunate not to be able to. But what I will say is if you go on to a site you’ll notice it’s not a mobile friendly site. The page comes up in white, no images displayed, or any of that. Now, if I was to say hey, mobile first indexing is a ranking factor that’s absolutely true, but content is going to be king in this case. Expertise, authority and trust are going to be king and because that’s John Mulaney’s website. He should be ranking in the top 10. Now, it gets a little bit more complicated when there are other sources that have expertise, authority and trust, and they do a great job with that ranking factor, and that’s what we’re going up against. There are, it’s not only you trying to rank for a certain keyword. Instead, it’s you, all of your competitors, and some competitors that you didn’t even know you were competing against. And if you want to have that edge, trying to have core web vitals done solidly on your site is going to be one of the things you need to be doing.

Kurt Lambert:  We really like to see this as a really good tiebreaker. I mean like Geoff mentioned, content is king. But when you kind of have websites, similar content, similar you know linking profiles and everything like that, something like this could really be a big difference maker. 

John Tyreman  So it sounds like this is a… I was gonna go that route, Kurt, in kind of summarizing what Geoff was saying and that this is a tiebreaker that could really help you out. Obviously you need to focus on the content, the user intent for their, what they’re searching for. But it seems like this update is much more technical in nature than some of the other updates like BERT, for example. Kurt, I’m curious, what resources do you see companies need to improve these core web vitals, like the loading speed, interactivity or the visual stability? What resources do companies need? 

Kurt Lambert:  Yeah, so with the core web vitals, there’s no doubt about it, this is one thing more so maybe than some of the other SEO optimizations that are really impactful, is one that requires a lot of development resources. Google has really tried to give website owners more information about how to identify what elements of a page or site should be addressed, but really they haven’t offered a lot of guidance about how to go about it. So it’s something that we’ve been talking through quite a bit with our existing clients. There’s definitely that development lift that’s going to be needed, regardless of how extensive some of these core web vital issues may be. Even though once you kind of kick off what the findings are to developers, some of them might find that it might be pretty straightforward for developers to knock out. So things like optimizing some images, shrinking down the coding of HTML, CSS, JavaScript, typically what’s been considered those more longer term page speed issues that people have been working through for years. However there’s, we’re now seeing that there’s a lot of underlying site wide issues that really tie back to how sites are built originally, that can really play a really big role in core web vitals optimizations. So things like what resources are loaded on a page and the order that these resources really start getting processed by your browsers. In cases like that it really involves taking inventory and stock of all the scripts, all the CSS, all those elements that really make up kind of the behind the scenes workings of a page layout, and then really kind of understanding its role in the page loading. And in cases like that, it really just requires a lot of dev time, a lot of just dev understanding for how that site was built and developed, and then knowing what steps are needed to be taken to really address the core web vitals issues. 

John Tyreman:  It sounds like websites that are built on, sort of like a patchwork of different types of coding methodologies, different structures, those are probably going to be the most at risk, it sounds like. Did I hear you right? 

Kurt Lambert:  Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, there’s, I mean, at the end of the day each site is really truly unique depending on its store, for how it was built, how it’s been maintained over time. But yeah, there’s definitely that development lift that’s going to be needed there. 

John Tyreman:  Interesting. Well you know, I know that we’re gonna dive into that topic in depth in another podcast episode. I’m really excited about that. But let’s uh, I’ve got one last question for you, Geoff and I think this is a fun one. We’ll have fun with this. You captured my attention the other day with some of your conspiracy theories around Amazon and Spotify. Have you got one for Google and what they’re doing with these core web vitals? I’m curious.

Geoff Kerbis:  Oh, John, you know I have one for core web vitals. So I go back and forth on this one because I think it has its valid points but I also think maybe this is just me really being a pessimist on Google as an organization as a whole. But I wouldn’t be in SEO if I didn’t see Google was an ally and an enemy at the same time. With that being said, I think that we can look to our friends at paid, in the paid sector, as far as why core web vitals is becoming more and more important. Back in 2018, Google put out a quality control for pages that had paid going towards them. This was in order to ensure that you were, Google was providing the best quality for the keywords that they were allowing to point to paid keywords. So for example, just our own Silverback Strategies. If we’re pointing for something like PPC agency, we want to have a high quality page that is easy to load and is of high quality. Why wouldn’t you want every single page displaying on Google to be high quality, easy to load and easy to interact with? Now, here’s where the conspiracy theory comes in. I am of the belief that this is in order to ensure that, as more and more terms become biddable, more and more pages have the ability to have high quality content that can then be put on an ad. Yes. Does that mean that Google will become more like Baidu where almost every single page on the Asian search engine is very much a paid place and there’s very little organic? Sure, but it’s also one of the most successful search engines in the world. And Google does have a bottom line, they are a publicly traded company by an Alphabet. So it wouldn’t be too surprising if they’re trying to find increasing ways of boosting their revenue as a whole. Now this is only a conspiracy theory. I would love to think that Google just wants to make sure that pages are easy to load so that they can answer your question and you can go to the next one. But there is that small voice in my head being like, can you imagine how many extra dollars they can put on that annual revenue report if they start trying to make more and more searches, really only winnable if they are paid, rather than organic based?

John Tyreman:  That’s an interesting theory. Kurt, do you have any thoughts on that? 

Kurt Lambert:  Yeah, I tend to agree with Geoff. I mean just being in SEO for as long as I’ve been working, you kind of see the ad real estate creep up more and more every year. There’s taking up more real estate in the ad space, there’s more ads per search result page, you know they’ve certainly been working their ways into shopping results, the local results, so I could totally see that. But at the end of the day, just tying it back to the core web vitals, it goes back to page experience. Google just wants users to be able to browse a page and get that information that they’re looking for. John, like your example that you mentioned earlier, where if you are trying to read an article that takes a couple seconds to load, you can’t click on it, you’re bouncing. You’re on to the next article. So I think core web vitals is still kind of rooted in being a good kind of best practice type of situation. 

John Tyreman:  Yeah, I would agree with that as well, and it makes sense, right? You know, Geoff, like you said, Google needs to continuously improve their bottom lines and make shareholders happy, and that’s their…

Geoff Kerbis:  Prerogative.

John Tyreman:  Prerogative.  Thank you, Geoff.

Geoff Kerbis:  You’re welcome.

John Tyreman:   All right gang. Well, Geoff, Kurt, thank you both for taking the time to have this podcast conversation with me. I think we covered core web vitals at a pretty fair clip, and if listeners want to learn more about core web vitals and connect with you to learn more, where should they have the… where would you have them go?

Kurt Lambert:  They can certainly reach out to one of us, you know, certainly happy to talk through it some more, in more detail, assess what their core web vital situation looks like. Found on LinkedIn. So LinkedIn.com/kurtlambert, all one word. And also on Twitter @KurtLambert.

Geoff Kerbis:  Yeah, and they can find me both on LinkedIn, and then, if they want to hear my SEO takes as well as terrible sports takes, they can find me @runGeoffrun on Twitter.

John Tyreman:  Well there you have it folks, you can find Kurt Lambert and Geoff Kerbis on LinkedIn and Twitter. Thank you all for another episode of The Digital Marketing Troop, we’ll talk to you guys soon. 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 silverbackstrategies.com 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.