In May 2021, Google will launch a major algorithm update. This Google core update will mark significant changes for digital marketers.
For search engine optimization (SEO) professionals, Google’s update to its page ranking algorithm may mean changing how you build websites and create online content.
That’s causing a little anxiety.
“This is a huge step,” writes marketer Cesar Cobo. “Not only would your rank be affected, your organic clickthrough rate might get hit, too.”
Let’s explore Google’s upcoming update in detail, and go over some ways marketers can prepare for the change.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- What to expect from the Google core update
- How it’s different from the current page ranking algorithm
- Why this change is happening
- How SEO professionals are preparing for the update
The 7 page experience signals in Google’s May 2021 update
While Google’s core update probably won’t present a noticeable difference for the average searcher, some SEO professionals may find they need to change their approach — especially when it comes to page experience.
The page ranking algorithm update will change how Google’s search engine measures the quality of users’ experience on a webpage.
In May, the updated page experience signal will look at seven key components:
- Mobile friendliness
- Safe browsing
- HTTPS/SSL, or encryption
- Intrusive interstitials
- Loading speed (LCP)
- Interactivity (FID)
- Visual stability (CLS)
"Optimizing for these factors makes the web more delightful for users across all web browsers and surfaces, and helps sites evolve towards user expectations on mobile," Google explained. "We believe this will contribute to business success on the web as users grow more engaged and can transact with less friction."
What are these seven factors, exactly? Let’s take a deeper look at what each one means.
1. Mobile friendliness.
Half of all internet traffic comes from mobile devices, according to Statista, so it’s vital that your website is mobile-optimized. This aspect of Google’s algorithm favors websites with responsive design, which fluidly adapts to the user’s screen size and orientation without any zooming or tapping.
2. Safe browsing.
Another keystone of page experience is safety. Google prioritizes user safety by crawling websites for potential malware. It also weeds out content that contains potential social engineering, or phishing.
3. HTTPS/SSL, or encryption.
Google’s Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) factor is a search ranking signal that incentivizes websites to use HTTPS — a more secure protocol than HTTP, that encrypts data transfers between websites.
Websites that use HTTPS can buy SSL certificates to lift their search rankings. Cloud and SaaS-based platforms like BigCommerce or Webflow allow you to purchase SSL certificates; if you have built your own website, you can buy one from your domain provider.
SSL is an important part of Google’s page experience algorithm, as it ensures users have a secure browsing experience.
4. Intrusive interstitials.
Intrusive web elements such as pop-ups, paywalls, and banners can hurt a website’s user experience. Excessive use of these interstitials can hinder your webpage’s ranking.
Some interstitials, such as cookie pop-ups or age verification requests, are necessary for safe browsing and won’t affect your performance.
5. Loading speed, measured by Largest Contentful Paint (LCP).
Slow page loading can negatively impact a user’s experience. Most users don’t have the patience to wait;, in fact, 38% of web users will abandon a page after five seconds of loading, according to Pingdom.
While page speed has been a ranking factor in Google’s algorithm for years, it will become more important than ever with the Core Web Vitals update.
According to Google Developers, largest contentful paint (LCP), “reports the render time of the largest image or text block visible within the viewport, relative to when the page first started loading.”
In other words, this new signal takes note of the largest element on every webpage and measures its total loading time.
With the new Google core update, a “good’ LCP will be 2.5 seconds or less for 75% of page loads.
6. Interactivity, measured by First Input Delay (FID).
Interactivity, also referred to as First Input Delay (FID), is a measure of responsiveness.
According to Google Developers, FID “measures the time from when a user first interacts with a page to the time when the browser is actually able to begin processing event handlers in response to that interaction.”
In other words, the lower a webpage’s FID score, the more promptly it starts processing users’ clicks and swipes.
In Google’s new page ranking algorithm, a good FID is 100 milliseconds or less.
7. Visual stability, measured by Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS).
Visual stability means a webpage remains stable throughout a user’s visit. On some unstable webpages, text can suddenly move as new elements load and shift other elements on the page. This can be annoying, making users click links, or even buy buttons, unintentionally.
“CLS measures the sum total of all individual layout shift scores for every unexpected layout shift that occurs during the entire lifespan of the page,” according to Google Developers.
In Google’s new update, visual stability will become more of a priority, with only minimal instability considered for ranking pages at the top of a SERP.
Comparing Google’s current and upcoming algorithms
Just to be clear, page experience is already a part of Google’s page ranking algorithm. However, the way Google analyzes page experience is set to change.
In May’s Google algorithm update, ranking signals from the current page ranking algorithm will be combined with three additional signals — referred to collectively as Core Web Vitals.
The addition of Core Web Vitals
Google’s Core Web Vitals will be added to the current algorithm to improve the way Google ranks based on user experience. The updated algorithm will consider new elements of page experience, like how quickly a page starts processing user input.
As per Google’s announcement, the rollout of the Core Web Vitals will also help clarify user experience expectations for top ranking content.
To have what Google considers “good” Core Web Vitals, websites need to hit these benchmarks:
“Good” Core Web Vitals means for 75% of page loads...
- LCP is 2.5 seconds or faster
- FID is 100 milliseconds or faster
- CLS is 0.1 or less
In general, you can consider Core Web Vitals as expansions on existing Google ranking signals that quantify previously qualitative elements of the user experience.
For SEO professionals, Core Web Vitals will mean that certain elements of page experience, like loading time and page stability, will have a bigger impact on page ranking success.
To indicate which websites meet the new page experience criteria, Google seems to be rolling out a Core Web Vitals icon to search results:
When your webpage meets Google’s “good” page experience criteria, users may see an icon shaped like a four-pointed star next to your page on Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs).
Why the Core Web Vitals algorithm change is happening now
Google focuses on directing users to pages that they’ll enjoy. One of the company’s 10 guiding principles is “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”
May 2021’s Google core update is designed to improve the user’s online experience by suggesting relevant pages that load quickly and facilitate a smooth experience.
With this algorithm change, Google will place additional emphasis on how a webpage feels for the user, rather than on older SEO tactics, like exact-match keyword use, that aren’t as impactful for the user.
In other words, Google says that the update will aim to weed out low-quality content.
John-Henry Scherck, owner of Growth Plays, sees another potential upside for Google here, too.
"[Google] wants to enforce standards that make it easier to crawl the web."
Google has presented this update as a good thing for users, but it may also homogenize the internet, making it easier for Google to scrape.
How SEO professionals are reacting to the new page ranking algorithm
We spoke to some of our favorite SEO experts about the upcoming Google core update to find out how they’re preparing.
Scherck explained that the Google page ranking algorithm update shouldn’t cause major issues for most enterprises and B2B companies. He believes that Google will continue to prioritize their ranking positions, even if their Core Web Vitals aren’t always optimal.
“People expect to see them,” Scherck said. “People want to see them.”
Nigel Stevens of Organic Growth Marketing agreed. He predicts that one of two things will happen — either Google will continue to offer top spots to large B2B companies like HubSpot and Shopify regardless of their Core Web Vitals scores, or it will quickly reverse the algorithm update when these companies begin to fall in the search rankings.
Even smaller companies that offer high-quality content through their digital marketing efforts, Scherck predicts, won’t have to overhaul their content strategies. Instead, he and Stevens think the shift toward Core Web Vitals will require small tweaks at most.
“I don’t think getting Core Web Vitals figured out is by any means the most important thing for a company to do,” Scherck said. “Typically, growth comes from building more pages, building more links, and improving user experience.”
“I don’t think getting Core Web Vitals figured out is... the most important thing for a company to do."
Scherck recommends that businesses pay attention to this algorithm update without obsessing over it — and crucially, without neglecting other aspects of SEO.
The only websites that really need to reconsider their SEO efforts are ad-heavy news sites, according to Scherck. If the ads don’t load at first, when they finally populate it can rearrange the page, creating CLS issues.
Kevin Jones, SEO manager for BigCommerce, also flagged ad-heavy news websites as a major target of Google’s update.
“All of a sudden, a video pops up, or an ad pops up out of nowhere,” Jones told MarketerHire. “That’s a bad experience... I think those types of websites are the ones that are at the highest risk.”
Jones added that some e-commerce website owners might also need to rethink their Core Web Vitals, “just to make sure [they’re] hitting best practices.”
Many e-commerce websites rely on pop-ups and banners to engage new customers and capture their email addresses. These tactics may prove problematic once the new algorithm is in place.
Ultimately, Stevens sees the update as a positive step toward making the internet a more enjoyable place. Companies should already be thinking about how they can improve their user experience, after all — Google’s just encouraging them to do what already made business sense.
Three big takeaways:
- How do SEO professionals feel about the update? Calm. This isn’t an SEO sea change.
- Who doesn’t need to worry about the update? Large companies — they’ll likely keep ranking well, regardless of their websites’ Core Web Vitals.
- Who could the update hit hard? Ad-reliant news sites, and e-commerce sites that have leaned into pop-ups.
Tools and tips to help you prepare for Google’s update
Regardless of what type of website you run, it’s always important to stay up to date with Google’s algorithm updates.
Here are a few tips for webmasters preparing for the upcoming changes.
1. Audit your current page experience.
Google provides tools for assessing three of the four current elements of the page experience signal.
- Mobile friendliness — Check for this by dropping any URL in Google’s mobile friendliness test. If your site uses accelerated mobile pages (AMPs), as many news sites do, it’s also worth checking out the AMP page experience guide.
- Safe browsing — Google flags malware and other user threats with its security issues report.
- HTTPS/SSL, or encryption — To make sure your site is in good standing here, open it in Chrome and look for a lock icon on the left side of the search bar. If not, it’s time to troubleshoot.
Together, these tools will help you analyze how your pages are performing and understand what needs improvement.
When it comes to actually updating a site, Scherck especially recommends Sitebulb. “Their recommendations are so well categorized and prioritized,” he said.
Though Sitebulb hasn’t yet rolled out functionality around Core Web Vitals, they will soon.
2. Get familiar with Google Search Console’s Core Web Vitals report.
So how do you assess the forthcoming elements of Google’s page experience? Google has tools for that, too.
Google Search Console offers a Core Web Vitals report to provide insights regarding your page performance. This report measures LCP, FID and CLS to help you understand and improve on Core Web Vitals.
Google has also integrated Core Web Vitals assessments into its existing developer tools, including Chrome UX Report and Lighthouse.
3. Focus on quality.
While it may be tempting to put more focus on Core Web Vitals, it’s important to remember that quality should always come first.
Content marketers should remember, as Scherck noted, that a high-quality webpage — one with engaging, original content — will always outshine a low-quality page that relies purely on SEO keywords.
“A good page experience doesn't override having great, relevant content," Google explains in its documentation. "However, in cases where there are multiple pages that have similar content, page experience becomes much more important for visibility in Search.”
4. Make preparations based on your industry.
Different types of webpages will be affected differently by the update. Informational pages, like explainers and how-to guides, tend to have better Core Web Vitals than transactional pages, Search Engine Journal reports.
In some cases, transactional pages like web stores and product pages face issues due to the underlying e-commerce CMS.
For this reason, companies in the retail space should take extra steps in their preparations for the algorithm’s arrival in May 2021 — and consider a content marketing strategy to supplement product pages and other transactional web properties.
If you’re concerned about how the Google core update will affect your organic traffic rates, use this guide to navigate the new search algorithm — but don’t stress too much.
This isn’t Google’ first update, and it won’t be the last. Google plans to update its page experience signals every year, “to both further align with evolving user expectations and increase the aspects of user experience that we can measure.”
It’s not a game-changing update, either, according to the experts — so even if you work in e-commerce, don’t get tunnel vision as you prepare for it. All the old SEO fundamentals are still important.