Summary: Take a closer look at the ins and outs of the upcoming Core Web Vitals update, including how healthcare organizations can prepare their web properties.

Hello there, healthcare marketers. Remember the mobile page speed update that Google released in 2018, the one that had everyone scrambling? It was a major update where how fast a website loaded became a ranking factor.

Since then, Google has continued to prioritize user experience—especially on mobile. While user experience criteria have been used to determine ranking results for some time, it’s now becoming official and measurable. Cue the upcoming May 2021 Google update: Core Web Vitals.

Core Web Vitals establishes three metrics related to speed, responsiveness, and visual stability. These new metrics combine with existing page experience metrics, like HTTPS-security and safe browsing, and will become a new ranking signal called page experience. Google will use the page experience signal to determine whether or not a page is providing a good user experience. If it is, it’ll rank that page higher.

In an industry as competitive, this update can’t be ignored. Optimizing for mobile can help you rise to the top of Google and reach more patients.

 

What the Google Core Web Vitals Update Entails

What was once an authoritative list of web best practices and recommendations will now be baked into Google’s search algorithm. That’s kind of a big deal! As we shared in our overview of Google Core Web Vitals, there are a few things about this update we know for sure:

  • It centers around three core metrics: page load speed; page stability; and speed to page interactivity
  • It’s continually evolving, with the promise of regular additions to the “checklist” forthcoming
  • Your website’s search rankings will be affected by this update
  • The release date has now been announced: expect things to change in May 2021

Now, as to why Google is bringing Core Web Vitals into the fold of its many algorithmic ranking factors, it’s simple: better user experience (UX) is one of the company’s core missions. Thankfully, the company knows how impactful this update will be for various organizations, and they’ve given plenty of lead time, including a lengthy COVID-related postponement.

 

Related: Our Director of SEO, John McAlpin, explains how healthcare organizations can prepare for the Core Web Vitals update during an episode of the Ignite Digital Marketing Podcast. Listen to the episode Google Plans Big Moves in 2021. Are You Ready? to learn what you need to do to prepare.

 

Why User Experience (UX) Matters to Google and Marketers

Facilitating “delightful” web experiences has always been a stated mission of Google. It follows that they’d make user-centered metrics, such as page load speed, findability, relevance, and other aspects of page UX, a formal part of their search algorithm. And when the majority of people using your search engine are on their smartphones, it’s no surprise that you choose to elevate mobile ranking factors.

79% of people say they're more likely to revisit/share a mobile site if its easy to use

Your patients want to receive the best experience possible, both at your office and online. By providing a seamless mobile experience, they’ll be more likely to choose your practice and potentially share with their peers.

 

Think with Google

Putting users at the center of how we design web experiences has several advantages. For healthcare marketers, elevating mobile UX can lead to:

  • Improved page ranking in search engine results
  • Increased organic website traffic
  • Improved page engagement, bounce rate, and conversions
  • Enhanced brand reputation and user sentiment

 

How this Update Impacts the Healthcare Industry

Don’t shoot the messenger, folks. But it’s true: the healthcare industry is famously slow to adapt to the evolution of digital technology. Our work with healthcare clients is extensive, so take it from us: archaic websites built in-house, poor app integrations, and generally bad UX are quite common.

And now, those weaknesses will likely cost you.

While these shortcomings certainly didn’t help deliver good digital experiences in the past, they weren’t necessarily showstoppers. This time around, sites with poor digital experiences will fail to meet Google’s new standards and, most likely, experience a dip in search engine rankings. That might mean less visibility, engagement, leads, and other web performance metrics.

On the other hand, those healthcare organizations that do focus on optimizing their digital and mobile experiences will be in a position to improve their rankings once the Core Web Vitals updates do go live. Now is the time to update your website and prioritize UX and SEO.

 

3 Ways to Optimize for New Page Experience Signals

When looking at Core Web Vitals, things get very technical very fast. However, it’s useful to remember that, at least according to Google Search Central, it all centers around three core areas:

  • Loading
  • Visual stability
  • Interactivity

Google uses three specific metrics to measure each of these aspects of UX, each of which will become ranking factors with the upcoming Core Web Vitals update, namely:

  • Largest Contentful Paint (loading)
  • First Input Delay (interactivity)
  • Cumulative Layout Shift (visual stability)
Google's search page experience chart

Google’s Core Web Vitals focuses on three areas: loading, interactivity, and visual stability. These three factors are what Google looks for when determining a page’s experience, in addition to a few other factors as well.

 

Here’s what each of those metrics means and how healthcare marketers can optimize for each one becoming a significant Google ranking factor.

 

1. Largest Contentful Paint

Basically, largest contentful paint (LCP) measures how long it takes for the most prominent content (images, video, and block-level text) to load for a given page. Measured in seconds, with anything more than 2.5 seconds being pretty poor, LCP is an indicator of how quickly a page visitor sees meaningful content.

How to Optimize for LCP

First of all, it’s important to get an idea of how your site scores right now. You can get your LCP score using a variety of tools, though we recommend PageSpeed Insights and the Search Console Core Web Vitals report for starters. When directing your resources for LCP optimizations, know that there are four core areas that will affect your score:

  • Server response time
  • JavaScript and CSS
  • Resource load times
  • Client-side rendering (rendering a site in-browser using JavaScript)

Optimizing for server response time is going to depend a lot on the hosting service you use for your website. As such, it’s important to invest in a reliable service with adequate support. Avoid free hosting services, which tend to run slower, and consider a content delivery network (CDN) alongside ongoing database optimizations.

Optimizing for JavaScript and CSS ought to focus on so-called “render-blocking” resources. This is where a good web developer comes in handy, one who knows how to identify and resolve the common JavaScript and CSS issues that impact LCP. Common issues include:

  • Large, uncompressed CSS and JavaScript files
  • Extraneous server requests based on how critical CSS is handled, or unused JavaScript code
  • Bad, baggy JavaScript code
  • Website plugins and themes

Optimizing for resource load times centers around simplifying things in terms of the images, video, text files, and other resources you make available on your site. Configuring each page to lazy-load images is a common resource load time optimization, as is caching and image compression. However, resource load times can be impacted by a user’s connection speed, APIs, and database connections.

Optimizing for client-side rendering typically includes minimizing redirects, HTTP requests, and DNS lookups (among other common culprits). Since client-side rendering is so heavily reliant on JavaScript, bad or inefficient code can severely impact page load speed.

Demonstrate LCP

Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) is the speed at which the largest block of content loads on a webpage. This refers to the content that is actually the physically biggest on a user’s screen. In this example, the To-Do board occupies the largest portion

 

2. Cumulative Layout Shift

Cumulative layout shift (CLS) is a standard for evaluating stability on a page after everything has loaded. Surely, you’ve experienced frustration when you’ve found what you need, but suddenly the page jumps due to some late-loading element. This would be an example of page instability that could ding your site in the eyes of the Google algorithm. CLS is measured on a 0.1 – 0.25 scale, with anything above 0.1 being pretty suspect (or at least worthy of your attention).

How to Optimize for CLS

Of the three metrics covered here, CLS is perhaps the lowest hanging fruit. To optimize for CLS, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Size dimensions need to be specified for every image and video element on a page to prevent any unexpected movement when a given item loads
  • Ads can create page shifts as well, unless they’re given static “parking spaces” on the page
  • Dynamic content like popups and other elements, when inserted above existing content, can cause shifts

Web.dev by Google Developers has published a rather extensive guide to optimizing for CLS, which is worth exploring for a lot more in-depth tips.

Guide to optimize CLS

Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) is a Core Web Vitals metric. Ensure that elements don’t shift on mobile devices, which can disrupt users and impact your CLS score. Aim for a CLS that is less than 0.1.

 

3. First Input Delay

First input delay (FID) is all about time to interactivity. It measures (in milliseconds!) how quickly a site responds to user input—a click, tap, typing, and so on‚ the first time. This includes links, menus, buttons, and really anything that a site visitor can interact with.

For healthcare websites, this could be how fast your click-to-call or click-to-schedule button responds or how soon can a user input their information into a contact form field. People don’t want to wait and wonder if your website is working, nor does Google.

Here’s how FID is measured:

  • 100 milliseconds – good
  • 300 milliseconds – poor
  • over 300 milliseconds – bad
First Input Delay Graph

First Input Delay (FID) is all about time interactivity and how quickly a site responds to an action, like clicking a button. You want your healthcare organization’s website to be as quick as 100 milliseconds or less. 

 

How to Optimize for FID

To optimize for FID, you’re likely going to need the services of a web developer and/or programmers. While many of the LCP optimizations we noted above will generally impact FID (JavaScript cleanup, for example), we recommend Optimize FID from Google Developers for more in-depth starting points.

 

Final Takeaway: Audit Your Core Web Vitals Report and Optimize Against Best Practices

The best place to start is to see where your website stacks up. To do so, we recommend taking a close look at your Core Web Vitals report, which is available in Google Search Console. The results in this free, detailed report will serve as a good guide to your optimization plan moving forward. Another option is to work with an honest SEO consultant, who will perform their thorough audit (against Google’s standards, ideally).

You might be in for a rude surprise. In some instances, your website might be too much of a mess and require a rebuild. It often makes more sense to start fresh, rather than to spend the time and resources to fix old, outdated builds with bulky, slow-loading themes.

Whether you’re starting fresh or working through existing issues, keep the following best practices in mind:

  • Build a scalable infrastructure
  • Don’t go crazy with widgets and plugins
  • Keep it simple
  • Keep it fast

Regardless of your starting point, it’s important to start preparing, auditing, and testing now. More so than most other major updates of the past, the Core Web Vitals update could create serious consequences for healthcare organizations that fail to prepare.

 

Alex Membrillo Cardinal CEO

Alex Membrillo

Founder and CEO

Alex Membrillo is the CEO of Cardinal, a digital marketing agency focused on growing multi location companies. His work as CEO of Cardinal has recently earned him the honor of being selected as a member of the 2018 Top 40 Under 40 list by Georgia State University as well as 2015 and 2016 Top 20 Entrepreneur of metro Atlanta by TiE Atlanta, Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2016 Small Business Person of the Year,and the Digital Marketer of the Year by Technology Association of Georgia (TAG).