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In our digital economy, patience for sluggish page loads is wearing thin. A slow-loading page means that visitors will likely bounce off, leading to a loss of page views and, ultimately, lost sales. Studies show that, if a page takes more than three seconds to load, as many as 40% of its visitors would abandon the site.
Given today’s competitive landscape, brands simply can’t afford to have an underperforming website. To achieve SEO success—and keep customers happy—optimizing your media, site speed, and user experience are essential.
In this column, you’ll learn about the opportunities that Core Web Vitals (CWVs) offer and hear from web performance experts as to where you should focus your SEO efforts now to reap the best possible results.
The CWV Countdown Is (Still) On
In 2020, Google announced that its Core Web Vitals (CWVs) will, along with previous UX-related search signals like mobile-friendliness and HTTPS encryption, determine websites’ SEO page rankings in mid-2021.
CWVs are based on exhaustive research on the aspects of an ideal web-user experience. The three metrics are Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Display (FID), and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS), which assess a website’s load time, interactivity, and visual stability, respectively.
The launch of the CWVs was recently postponed from May to a gradual rollout starting mid-June 2021, leading to completion by end-August.
In a company statement, Google stated that it made that decision to allow companies “to make refinements … with page experience in mind.” The delay is great news for organizations given the recent evidence that 47% of websites have an LCP score of greater than 2.5 seconds, which means that nearly half of all websites fall into the Needs Improvement or Poor buckets. If an e-commerce site meets Google’s thresholds for all three metrics, visitors are 25% less likely to abandon it.
Nonetheless, even with the extended time to get prepared, it is absolutely paramount that brands move quickly to improve their sites’ CWVs.
Experts Weigh in on Web Performance
Given the high expectations consumers have for site visits, web performance is vital for both user experience and business outcomes. Where should you focus your optimization efforts?
Below are a few key takeaways from our recent conversations with Tim Kadlec, Harry Roberts, Tammy Everts, and Scott Jehl, who shared tips derived from their research and hands-on experience with brand sites.
Brands Are Rushing to Remove Performance Barriers
Catchpoint performance-engineering fellow Tim Kadlec says that the company has received numerous inquiries from clients on optimizing for CWVs.
According to him, those concrete targets are the “clearest signal from Google yet on what constitutes good web performance.” Tim also adds, “I’ve seen a lot of organizations put focus on the CWVs right now because SEO ranking and the resulting traffic is a massive component of business success. Your reputation is going to be on the line based on whether you’re hitting these metrics.”
Separately, consultant and front-end architect Harry Roberts told us that “nearly every inquiry we’ve received in 2021 relates to CWVs.” However, despite the search giant’s emphasis on the tremendous effect of those metrics on search, Roberts says, “I’ve been advising against panic. Those measurements are just one of many ranking factors.”
His advice: “Businesses keen on accelerating page loads should focus on content delivery and metrics like LCP. Once a measurement is in hand, identify a page’s primary goal, work backward from there to form a hypothesis on why that page might be loading slowly, and then fix the issue.”
Perception of Speed Is Hardwired
In her 2016 book, Time is Money: The Business Value of Web Performance, Tammy Everts pointed out that humans have a neurological need for quick, simple processes. She cited a study on task switching, which found that even a minor delay in load time for a website causes people to work 50% harder in terms of mental capacity.
A similar study she referenced on mobile devices showed a comparable peak of user frustration. “That means our brains don’t manage expectations based on a device or task—we’re frustrated either way with lengthy load times,” added Tammy.
In an electroencephalogram (EEG) study, Tammy tested a hypothesis that performance affected mobile users’ long-term perception of retail brands.
Here’s her finding: “Where the only differentiator was perceived rendering time, those who experienced a slower site used three times more negative adjectives to describe the brand—boring, tacky, unhelpful—than those who experienced the faster version of the same site.”
New Formats and Tools Can Make Sites More Visual Without Slowing Down Performance
According to Scott Jehl, a hybrid designer-developer at Filament Group, tools for delivering images with HTML alone are extremely effective. He observes that “since 2016, responsive images have been working on more browsers. Plus, you can deliver an appropriate size on HTML by setting <src> and <size> attributes on <image> elements.
“Why not also apply all your options with CSS and SVG for a rich look? Additionally, new and well-supported image and video formats, such as WebM, WebP, and AVIF, help deliver media faster and keep their weights in check. Tools that efficiently compress media and deliver pages are a tremendous help, especially for large e-commerce sites.”
With today’s websites becoming more image- and video-centric, coupled with the urgency for digital-minded companies to improve user experience, the timing of Google’s CWVs could not be more perfect. Not only is Google being very clear about the metrics it’s using, but it’s also giving website developers ample time—along with very clear guidelines—to raise page rankings.
Ultimately, that initiative will lead to better experiences for the online audience and, subsequently, for Google’s users—a win-win for everyone. Keep in mind that the metrics are based on actual page loads of actual user experiences in Chrome. That meaningful data is then used to boost the prominence of a site that Google is confident will attract users.
With the digital economy taking precedence, optimized media will only grow in importance. Slower websites will be left in the dust, pushed further down in Google rankings where they might be completely overlooked. Those with strong CWVs scores will get a tie-breaking boost from Google. So, don’t let the sum of your visual media work to the detriment of your web performance. Instead, make media optimization your priority now.
Featured Image: Image by Cloudinary. Used with permission.