The search engine is altering its ranking criteria in favour of websites offering smooth and rapid downloads, but few firms seem prepared for what’s set to be a significant change
For the first time, Google is about to start ranking web pages not only by how useful their content is, but also by how they perform when being viewed.
The search engine’s so-called core web vitals (CWV) update will reward pages that download quickly and are steady and responsive as they do so. If items on a page move around as they materialise, increasing the risk of a false click on an advert, say, the new algorithm will take a dim view. Having links that are instantly responsive when they show up on screen will also be a key criterion for a high ranking.
The update references all the ‘page experience’ attributes a site must possess to satisfy the search engine. This was originally due to start applying in May but has been postponed to June, with a full implementation due by the end of August.
The reason for the delay could well be a lack of awareness among website managers. When search agency Searchmetrics analysed 2 million sites, it found that 96% offered a page experience that would fall short of Google’s forthcoming benchmark.
Jonathan Hopper, CEO of Garrington Property Finders, is not surprised. He believes that many companies are “asleep at the marketing wheel” and underestimating the impact of the update.
“Businesses should be approaching this with a good dose of fear and a sense of opportunity,” argues Hopper, who has been studying the update’s implications. He believes that a good starting point for website managers would be to focus on the part of the page that viewers don’t see until they start scrolling.
“To defend our top positions in search, we at Garrington have worked hard at speeding up the performance of our site by compressing pictures and also by bringing in ‘lazy loading’. This allows the part of the page on view to be prioritised, with pictures below the fold loading only as a viewer scrolls down to them,” Hopper says. “This means that a page appears much faster on screen, because it’s not waiting for unseen content to download.”
Smarter coding for pictures
Finding the fastest way for pictures to download is a common concern for businesses dealing with the CWV update. Patrick Heath, CTO of experience-days provider Fizzbox, reveals that he has been treading a fine line in this respect.
His firm’s website needs to be rich in content, featuring lots of high-quality photos to convey the joy of the events on sale, but it must also be easy to download. The answer, he says, is to change the site’s coding to make images appear on the screen more quickly and without shifting. That entails programming in the size of pictures, so that browser software “knows” how much space to leave for them on the page as a placeholder. This prevents items on the page from suddenly shifting midway through the download.
Fizzbox is also creating different-sized versions of pictures for mobile and desktop browsing, so that smartphones are no longer obliged to download large image files – an especially frustrating experience for users on a low-bandwidth mobile connection.
Heath recommends looking through website code to eliminate any programming errors that might be making the pages slower to load than they need to be.
“It’s a real balancing act, but there’s much that companies can do simply by not being lazy,” he says. “We’ve gone back to best-practice methods.”
Energy business E.ON has been going through similar processes with its website. The company’s head of search-engine optimisation, Sascha Otto, says it has been working hard to ensure that image files are compressed as much as possible, so that they download quickly. It has also examined the way its pages were programmed to ensure that the contents of each page don’t shift around.
“We’ve had to look at the programming to ensure that the navigation icons on a page stay in the same place when it downloads,” he says. “We noticed that they could change position, which was not good. We also took a long, hard look at the coding to see if it was all necessary. We stripped out those little pieces of script that had been inserted over the years that weren’t strictly necessary but would likely hold us back.”
Customer focus is rewarding
Although the changes required may seem daunting, they are serving as a wake-up call to businesses to consider their websites as more than a repository of persuasive marketing material.
Financial software provider Finastra is another firm that’s applied lazy loading in its bid to satisfy Google’s upcoming algorithmic alteration. But it has also made some crucial tweaks to settings on its content management system that would have been overlooked if its SEO agency, Tug, hadn’t spotted the need for them in an audit.
A good example of how small changes can have a big impact came with the discovery that Finastra was using a font on the site that differed from the default option in the content management system. Simply changing it to match the default has enabled far higher page download speeds.
This focus on serving content to customers more smoothly will give firms a competitive edge on Google’s rankings, according to Tina Lange, senior SEO consultant at Searchmetrics. The company’s research has revealed a low level of awareness among businesses, which means that few will be ready in time for the start of the update in June.
Lange’s advice is for companies to look not only at their own sites, but also at those of their competitors. Google has tools for measuring a page’s performance that can specify what a business is getting right and where it can improve. They also show if rivals are better prepared and so give a business some strong hints at how they might fare better when the page experience update begins.