Are Google’s Core Web Vitals Metrics Unreasonable?

Google’s influence over web designers, website owners, and everyday users is undeniable. The company is hyper-aggressive in detailing what it wants to see from the first two groups in order to serve up relevant results to the third.

One of their more recent efforts in this area revolves around something called “Core Web Vitals”. These metrics are in place to measure user experience. Items such as how quickly a page can be interacted with, it’s responsiveness, and how much visual shift during loading are measured.

Keeping tabs on these factors sure seems like a worthy endeavor. However, it’s not just for convenience. Google is planning to integrate visual indicators of page experience into search results in May 2021. The move has the potential to affect both SEO and how a website is listed on the search engine results page (SERP).

This means websites that don’t meet Google’s benchmarks could see a negative impact on their ranking. There’s also a possible hit with regards to how it displays within results. With that, site performance is going to be more important than ever.

It’s not only a call for web designers to bleed every last millisecond of speed out of their sites. This is also an open question about what Core Web Vitals means to sites on a tight budget or even those running a content management system (CMS): Is Google asking too much?

Tougher Testing

There are a lot of tools out there to measure website performance. Each has their own methodology for generating a report. There will likely be some variance in how the included categories grade out. Thus, they should all be taken with a grain of salt.

That being said, Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool seems to grade on the lower end of the scale. For example, a test website that gets a glowing result on GTmetrix is much less flattering on Google’s offering. The site doesn’t pass the Core Web Vitals standards for mobile.

The point here is not necessarily to complain (although this is quite a bummer). It’s more of a friendly heads-up to web designers: Just because your website looks great in a non-Google testing suite doesn’t mean it will do well in these particular metrics.

Not surprisingly, Google wants you to use their tools to determine how well your site does with Core Web Vitals. As such, all of that tweaking you did to get a great performance grade elsewhere may not impress this particular search giant.

Speed testing comparison between GTmetrix and PageSpeed Insights.

Top: A test site grades well in GTmetrix, while the same site struggles in PageSpeed Insights (bottom).

Who Might Core Web Vitals Potentially Hurt the Most?

If your website doesn’t pass muster when it comes to Google’s Core Web Vitals, some work will be required. First, there’s analyzing the PageSpeed Insights report and determining what needs done. Then it’s time for implementation.

But both budgetary and technological concerns could get in the way for some website owners. Let’s look at a few situations where Core Web Vitals may become extra burdensome:

Low-Budget Websites

Improving website performance costs time and money. Of course, if it helps with SEO, then it might be considered an investment. But it still may be out of reach for those on a tight budget.

When you think about it, there are multiple facets to better performance that need to be explored. That could include refactoring code, optimizing images and eliminating features that are dragging the whole site downward.

The costs for this type of work could easily add up. For an older or particularly slow site, it might end up being more cost-effective to start from scratch with a redesign.

Web hosting is also a potentially huge factor. Those on a lower-end shared hosting account may simply not have enough server resources. Once again, more robust hosting requires more cash.

Websites Running a CMS

A traditional CMS (WordPress, Drupal, etc.) that utilizes a database makes for a more complex case. The overhead from executing queries and other key functionality is generally going to slow down a website.

This is where features such as caching can help. But cache alone may not be enough to satisfy the likes of Google. It may take the use of a content delivery network (CDN) and higher-level web hosting to get things to an acceptable level of performance.

Even then, a bloated theme or plugin could also provide a setback. The WordPress commercial theme market, for example, is chock full of heavy options. Themes that need to load large frameworks and lots of custom code can be beyond the reach of developers.

In these situations, the only way to add enough speed may be switching themes, deactivating plugins or (possibly the most expensive of all) utilizing a headless configuration. These may not be realistic options for every website. At best, these measures are also an inconvenience.

Websites That Use Proprietary Software

Likewise, using a proprietary CMS (Squarespace, Wix, etc.) may leave website owners without a viable path to fixing each and every performance deficiency. While they may allow you to tweak certain bits and pieces of your website, other areas may be completely off limits.

As for server infrastructure, there’s not much to be done there, either. Perhaps an account level upgrade could provide more resources – but that’s up to the vendor to decide.

In general, website owners and developers could be left hoping that their service provider addresses these issues. Anything less will require living with the shortcomings or moving to a different platform.

HTML and CSS code on a screen.

Big Players vs. Everyone Else?

It’s fair to wonder if Google Core Web Vitals inevitably favors those with the most resources. Could a small-budget website with tons of great content be overshadowed by one that simply has more money to throw at performance?

At this point, we simply don’t know how Google would weigh one website against another when these metrics are included. And they aren’t likely to provide all of the details.

In some ways this is all reminiscent of the arguments over net neutrality. The fear being that, if an internet provider gives preference to certain types of traffic over others, it’s going to favor the well-heeled. Small startups could be at a major disadvantage and unable to compete with the big players.

Google may have no intention of favoring speed over quality. But, at the very least, Core Web Vitals seems to be raising the possibility.

Cables connected to a server.

Another Hurdle for SEO Success

It seems like every time we think we know what search engines want, they go and change the game on us. Regardless, the bottom line is that Google Core Web Vitals is going to impact every website that aims to be found in search engines. Naturally, some are going to avoid any potential negative effects better than others.

Great website performance should be on the top of everyone’s wish list – no argument there. But to earn a passing grade on these new metrics, it’s going to take resources. And that will sadly leave some people behind.

In this way, Core Web Vitals could indeed be asking too much. That leads one to wonder if a search engine should be able set such arbitrary requirements in the first place.

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