Core Web Vitals for News Publishers
Google's upcoming Page Experience update will introduce Core Web Vitals as ranking factors and remove the AMP requirement from mobile Top Stories.
First of all, my apologies for the long wait for this newest edition of SEO for Google News. There’s a bit of an explanation at the end of the newsletter.
It likely won’t have escaped your notice that there’s a change coming in Google that’s very interesting for publishers. Announced exactly a year ago, Google will finally be introducing their Page Experience ranking signal in the coming month.
This Page Experience ranking factor encompasses several different individual signals, including signals that Google has been using for years: whether the page is served over HTTPS, if it’s mobile-friendly, and the lack of intrusive interstitials.
It will also include a set of new signals: the webpage’s Core Web Vitals scores:
Google’s advance notice for these ranking signals has definitely put the cat among the pigeons in SEO land. Not a week goes by without a new article on Core Web Vitals being published somewhere.
Optimise for Core Web Vitals
Rather than try to reinvent the wheel and publish another piece on how to optimise for CWV, I'm instead going to list some of the best resources I’ve come across and that people have sent me:
We Analyzed 208K Webpages, Here's What We Learned About Core Web Vitals and UX - if you want to know how your CWV scores stack up against other websites’, this is an interesting piece of research from Brian Dean (@BackLinko).
Twitter thread - when I asked the question on Twitter, folks responded with a wealth of links. Check them out at your peril!
If you’re serious about improving your site’s core web vitals scores (and, as I’ll explain below, you should be), please do dig into these guides and resources.
What we’re really interested in, though, is what the impact of CWV will be for articles listed in Top Stories and other news elements on Google. This is where things get a bit murky.
Top Stories, Core Web Vitals, and AMP
In its updated Page Experience FAQ, Google says something interesting about core web vitals in relation to Top Stories (emphasis added):
With the upcoming change to Top Stories carousel, all web pages irrespective of their page experience status or Core Web Vitals score are eligible for Top Stories carousel. When the changes go live the compliance with Google News content policies will be the only requirement, and we will use page experience as a ranking signal across all the pages.
This is elaborated on a bit later in the FAQ (emphasis added):
With the upcoming change to Top Stories, any news publisher’s content whether via AMP or another technology is eligible provided it complies with Google News content policies. Whether content shows up in practice will depend on a number of factors that ranking considers, and page experience criteria will be one of them. To be clear, any content irrespective of its page experience metrics is eligible for Top Stories feature on Google Search.
So let’s unwrap that a bit.
First of all, the biggest change is the removal of the AMP requirement for mobile Top Stories.
At the moment, articles that don’t have an AMP version are extremely unlikely to be shown in Top Stories carousels on mobile search results. This will change with the roll-out of the Page Experience algorithm update, when all news articles - AMP or otherwise - will be eligible to appear in Top Stories on mobile (and desktop of course).
For many publishers, maintaining a parallel development track for AMP has been a struggle - especially for paywalled content. With this upcoming Page Experience update, those publishers could get rid of AMP and instead focus entirely on their ‘regular’ article pages.
But there’s a catch.
While Google says that articles won’t need AMP and that all articles irrespective of their Core Web Vitals score are eligible, they also make clear that CWV will nonetheless be a factor taken into consideration for Top Stories rankings.
And, when it comes to AMP, an article page’s CWV scores can be taken from either the AMP version or the regular version. Quote from an article on the amp.dev blog:
The Core Web Vitals metrics for a page are determined by observing real user interactions with web pages. In the case of AMP, this means that pages could be served from either the publisher’s domain or via an AMP cache, depending on how users encounter the content.
Core Web Vitals are metrics trying to emulate real user experience with a webpage, and the metrics are taken from the Chrome User Experience report - basically people who use the Chrome browser share their data with Google.
Essentially, CWV are based on real-world data. In the real world, when an article has an AMP version, a user will most likely interact with that AMP version.
When a user goes directly to a news site and clicks through to articles there, they’ll get the regular version of the article. However, most traffic to articles will likely come from Google’s search results. And on mobile (the largest device category), those search results will show AMP articles where available. So the bulk of real world users - people on a mobile device using Google to find news articles - will see an article’s AMP version first and foremost.
As a result, the CWV scores will be primarily based on an article’s AMP version. Specifically, the AMP article as served from Google’s AMP cache with all its preloading and other optimisations that it performs. (Some have called this ‘cheating with performance’ and I’m inclined to agree.)
This means that an AMP article is very likely to have an advantage over non-AMP articles when it comes to Core Web Vitals and, by extension, the Page Experience ranking factor.
Core Web Vitals for New Published Pages
There’s of course a bit of a complication here for news publishers: the shelf life of an article in Top Stories is no more than two days. And, more importantly, an article needs to start ranking in Top Stories immediately when it’s published - Google can’t wait for Chrome UX data to come in regarding the article’s CWV scores.
So what happens in this case? Well, if there’s no Chrome UX data available for a webpage (as there won’t be for newly published articles), then Google looks at what it can expect from the article based on what it knows about other articles on the site.
As John Mueller explained during an SEO Office Hours hangout:
…it depends a little bit on your site and how much data we have for your site. Especially when it comes to speed, where it's based or it will be based because it's not not live yet, it'll be based on the Core Web Vitals and the Chrome User Experience report data, which is just a very small sample of the the people that visit your site aggregated. And that's something that doesn't have data for every url of a website. So depending on how much data is available there and how easily it is for us to figure out which parts of your site are separate and then that's something that we can do easier or that is a little bit harder.
And the easier in in your case it would be for example to split out the forum from our site where we can tell oh slash forum is everything forum and it's kind of slow and everything else that's not in slash forum is really fast uh if we can recognize that fairly easily that's a lot easier. Then we can really say everything here in such forum is kind of slow everything here is kind of okay.
On the other hand if we have to do this on a per url basis where the url structure is really like we can't tell based on the url if this is a part of the forum or part of the rest of your site. Then we can't really group that into parts of your website and then we'll kind of be forced to take an aggregate score across your whole site and apply that appropriately.
Summarised, Google will try to recognise a webpage’s type based on its URL pattern and guesstimate its Core Web Vitals scores based on the same page type on that website for which it does have Chrome UX data.
Since most publishers have recognisable URL patterns for articles, this is fairly trivial for Google to identify. So a newly published page doesn’t get a free pass - if your existing content has known CWV scores, your newly published articles will be assumed to have similarly CWV scores.
Gradual Roll-Out & Ranking Signal Strength
In its latest blog addressing the Page Experience update, Google have said they will start a ‘gradual roll-out’ of the algorithm from the middle of June 2021:
We'll begin using page experience as part of our ranking systems beginning in mid-June 2021. However, page experience won't play its full role as part of those systems until the end of August.
So no sudden flick of a switch and the world is a different place. We’ll start to see initial changes in the middle of June, and the roll-out should be completed by the end of August.
What kind of ranking changes can we expect? Well, on this the Googlers have been a bit vague and contradictory.
From what various Google liaisons have said, we can expect the Page Experience ranking signal to be a fairly minor one - more of a ‘tie-breaker’ signal when two pages are relatively equal in other aspects:
… if you’re in a situation where things are all relatively equal, the things that are more page experience and oriented are likely to start doing better.
But, at the same time, they warn that the signal might become a stronger factor over time:
So with page experience, it could become a more important factor over time than with an initial launch as a great page experience becomes more common to pages.
So no need to panic. Unless your CWV scores are awful, then panic. But don’t panic too much, because it’s a gradual roll-out. But do panic because the ranking factor can become stronger.
Are we having fun yet?
Seeing is Believing
This isn’t the first time the SEO industry got itself into a tizzy for a pre-announced Google algorithm update. We have a long and colourful history of ‘major’ algorithm changes that Google gave plenty of advance warning for: HTTPS, mobile-friendliness, mobile-first indexing, and page speed, to name but a few.
Every single time, there was a lot of hubbub prior to the update rolling out. And every single time, the update proved to be a fairly innocuous one with only minor ranking changes as a result.
It’s worthwhile to adopt a stoic attitude to these pre-announced updates. Just wait and see what happens. Probably nothing much will happen.
Nonetheless, if your site has terrible Core Web Vitals scores, that does point to something beyond Google’s fickle algorithms: it’s likely your site is not very pleasant to use for your readers.
And that is something that is worth addressing - with or without the spectre of Google’s sword hanging above your head.
Here are some interesting articles (that aren’t directly about Core Web Vitals or Page Experience) that I’ve come across recently:
Dan Smullen (@dansmull), head of SEO at Independent News & Media, wrote an excellent case study showing the impact of disabling AMP on a news publication. Definitely worth a read if you’re thinking of pulling the AMP plug yourself.
With the Page Experience update, Google will retire the badge for AMP articles in mobile results. Lily Ray (@lilyraynyc) conducted a survey that shows how often people actually recognise the AMP badge, and what the impact of removing that badge could be.
A strong piece from Koray Tuğberk GÜBÜR (@KorayGubur) that looks at several Google patents that could play a role in determining a news source’s rankings in Top Stories for breaking news and specific news topics.
On May 12th my grandmother, Annie Kanters-Veldhoen, passed away peacefully. She was my last grandparent and outlived the other three by over a decade and a half.
With her death, my last living connection to a significant period in our history ended. She lived through the second world war and carried the mental scars of that period with her all her life.
In 1944, shortly after Eindhoven was liberated by the Allies, she was given a four-leaf clover by an English-speaking soldier (likely Canadian or American). She carried that four-leaf clover with her at all times for over 77 years, until the day she died.
Once, when she found out her wallet was stolen, the first thing she cried out was “oh no, my clover!” She didn’t care about the money in her wallet, nor the bank cards. The clover was the first thing she thought of. Fortunately the wallet containing the clover was recovered.
While her passing was not unexpected and she had a long and fulfilling life, leaving behind four children, twelve grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, it has still deeply affected me. It’s truly the end of an era.
Not too many years from now, no one who remembers WW2 will be alive. Yet, now more than ever, we cannot forget the lessons the war taught us. It’s up to all of us to carry forth those lessons and try our best to prevent humankind from making those same mistakes again.
As always, thank you so much for reading. Please send this newsletter on to anyone who think might find it interesting, and subscribe if you haven’t yet done so.