Five things retailers need to know about Google’s Core Web Vitals

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By Eric Portis, developer evangelist at Cloudinary

Portis: more important than ever for retailers to rank high on Google Search

Without question, the pandemic accelerated retail’s digital transformation. The fact that online giant Asos now owns the once seemingly invincible high street brand TopShop is a stark reminder that there is no going back to the ‘old normal’. The competition to win consumers’ hearts, minds and digital carts is not necessarily a new game for online retailers, but it’s a competition that’s rapidly intensifying — calling for skills in everything from neuroscience to search engine optimisation (SEO).

Online competition got even fiercer recently as Google Shopping’s use grew during the first lockdown. Today when a shopper searched Google for a specific product, first they see all the results from Google Shopping, followed by the paid ads, then finally the normal search results. This means it is more important than ever for retailers to rank high on Google Search. As the web evolves at a breakneck pace, Google too continuously adapts how it ranks search results. 

One important change is looming on the horizon that retailers must be aware of and prepare for. Starting in June 2021, SEO rankings on Google will be influenced by Core Web Vitals, a new set of metrics that measure web performance. As the dominant search engine, Google has carried out extensive research to find out what factors contribute to a great user experience. It used the resulting research to define the Core Web Vital metrics. 

With retailers getting hit from all sides with business challenges, having to adapt to a new set of online metrics can feel like a massive, unwelcome burden. That’s why the first thing to remember that Core Web Vitals is ultimately about creating the best user experience for site / app visitors. Better to see the metrics as a route to improving the customer journey, reducing cart abandonment, and boosting sales. 

The three Core Web Vitals

Fortunately, there are only three Core Web Vitals — a manageable number for most retailers to deal with. And as with everything Google, the metrics sound very techie, but the concepts behind them are pretty easy to understand.

The first, Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), refers to how long the largest object on a site takes to load before a site visitor can see it completely. Google recommends keeping the LCP under 2.5 seconds. 

The largest objects on a site are usually images whose format, size and quality haven’t been optimised for a user’s device or browser. According to HTTP Archive’s 2019 Web Almanac, “Unoptimised images are often the greatest contributor to page bloat. Looking at the 90th percentile of the distribution of page weight, images account for a whopping 5.2 MB of a roughly 7-MB page. In other words, images comprise almost 75% of the total page weight.” 

The HTTP Archive also revealed that more than 47% of desktop and 57% of mobile websites must improve their LCP to meet Google’s criteria. Therefore, the second thing retailers need to know is that image optimisation is the low-hanging fruit to getting a high LCP score.

Image optimisation is a process that involves striking the right balance between image quality and fast loading times. Variables such as the overall page design, the devices through which people view content, available bandwidth, site visitor expectations, and now the LCP score, all need to be considered when optimising images.

The good news for retailers and the third thing they need to know is that image and video management tools are available to automate image optimisation and factor in all these variables.

The second Core Web Vital is called First Input Delay (FID) and it refers to the time it takes for a page to become interactive for the user. Google recommends that this takes less than 100 milliseconds. 

Finally, the last Core Web Vital is the Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). This relates to stability and analyses how stable a site is while it loads and when you interact with it.

What happens to all the other metrics?

Retailers may well wonder what the introduction of Core Web Vitals means for the other factors they have had to consider, like content structure, use of HTTPS and mobile-friendliness. That’s why the fourth thing worth knowing, is that other factors still are taken into consideration for Google’s search rank. The Core Web Vitals complement, rather than replace these.

Will Core Web Vitals be the last metrics?

Sorry to disappoint, but the fifth thing retailers should be aware of is that the Core Web Vitals are not engraved in stone. As mentioned before, Google continuously works on its ranking factors. At least Google has implied that moving forward, it will communicate changes clearly on a yearly basis. We can expect that the metrics will be fine-tuned regularly. Other metrics relating to security, privacy and accessibility are likely to be added as the web universe evolves.

Rest assured that before introducing its new metrics, Google carries out lots of research to ensure changes benefit the user experience, which ultimately improves outcomes for retailers. For instance, it discovered that sites that meet its recommended metrics have a 24% lower abandonment rate. Following the Core Web Vitals and using tools that automate image optimisation, retailers can gain higher search rankings, reduced reliance on paid traffic, and increase their profits.