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The Car Dealer’s Guide To Google’s Core Web Vitals

When it comes to Google’s algorithm, one thing we know with certainty is that it’s going to change. Often. 

In May 2021 Mid-June 2021, Google is upping the ante for its website experience standards, adding its newly defined Core Web Vitals — including load time, interactivity, and content visual stability — to the already hundreds of signals it considers when ranking search results. 

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on April 19, 2021 to reflect Google pushing back the rollout date of this algorithm update from May 2021, to a gradual rollout beginning in Mid-June 2021 with the expectation of full incorporation into the algorithm by the end of August 2021. We’ll continue to update this article whenever we receive new information, so be sure to bookmark this page!

Algorithm updates like these can instill a bit of anxiety in anyone who relies on the search engine giant for customer acquisition, but our SEO advice to dealers remains the same: when you focus on creating the most relevant, helpful, and user-friendly content and experiences — you have nothing to fear when Google updates their algorithm. That’s because every update is only a minor tweak towards their same overall mission: providing the best, most helpful answers when users ask questions.

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So while Core Web Vitals and the surrounding hype may sound like a major shake-up to the SEO game, Google has already publicly stated in their help documentation that when it comes to achieving high rankings, quality content that’s relevant to the user’s search intent is still the most important ranking factor.

“Our systems will continue to prioritize pages with the best information overall, even if some aspects of page experience are subpar. A good page experience doesn’t override having great, relevant content”

-Google

Core Web Vitals are certainly worth our attention and ongoing optimization (see everything below!), because they are a helpful measurement to continually improve the brief experience car shoppers have during page load — but they shouldn’t change your approach to how you earn and convert organic traffic.

You will win in search results if you focus on being the best answer for car shoppers asking what, when, where, why, and how they should buy. And as an SEO agency that then built our own website platform, we were literally born for the challenge of helping you do just that 🙂

WHAT ARE CORE WEBSITE VITALS?

Put simply, Core Web Vitals are Google’s measure of your website experience based on real-user data. Google first introduced Core Web Vitals back in the spring of 2020 to provide unified guidance for quality signals it deems essential to delivering a great user experience. Each of the Core Web Vitals measure an aspect of usability: including load time, interactivity, and the visual stability of content as it loads. 

It’s important to remember these are not new concepts. At Dealer Inspire, we have always focused on developing sites that deliver fast, easy, and helpful consumer experiences. Now Google is just trying to simplify and prioritize the measurement of them, motivating site owners to meaningfully improve the experience Google users will have.

While we expect the metrics that make up Core Web Vitals to evolve as user expectations change, there are three key metrics Google is currently tracking:

Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)

The first Core Web Vital is all about load time. LCP measures how quickly site visitors see your content, specifically the interval between the start of a page-load to when the largest image or text block in a user’s viewport is fully rendered. Google knows users are impatient, and if loading takes too long, they’ll get frustrated and move on.

We carefully balance the complexities of dealership websites with necessary page speeds by strategically prioritizing loading the content that users will view and interact with first, providing a near instant experience above the fold where the user begins (as seen in the example on the right).

First Input Delay (FID)

The second metric of Core Web Vitals focuses on how quickly a page becomes interactive. Measured in milliseconds, FID is a real-user performance metric that tracks how responsive a site is to the very first action a user takes, such as tapping a button or entering data in a form. Think of this as the first impression of your website, and even minor delays can leave visitors feeling like your site is clunky.  

In these examples, the website on the right allows the user to begin their search immediately, whereas the left website needs to keep loading before that critical CTA becomes clickable — making the user click multiple times before it works.

Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)

The final metric of Core Web Vitals measures page stability. CLS tracks how often the page elements move around while the user is trying to read or interact with them. Think about how frustrating it can be for a user trying to click or read an element of a page, only to have it move on them while they are in the process.

In these examples, notice how the position of the buttons on the left website continue to shift up and down as new page elements load in, whereas the main CTA on the right website remains steady. Even though this all happens in such a brief moment, it can make all the difference between the user being confident in the shopping experience, or frustrated.

HOW IMPORTANT ARE CORE WEB VITALS TO SEARCH RANKINGS?

As Google sharpens its focus on user experience as a ranking factor, it’s worth keeping this shift in perspective. While important, Core Web Vitals will be just one data set among hundreds of others that Google considers in its algorithm when ranking websites.

A good way to think about the impact Core Web Vitals and other page experience signals could have on your rankings is to think of it like a tiebreaker when all else is equal. The all encompassing page experience signals will simply be an additional way for Google to prioritize sites that would otherwise have very similar content quality and relevancy to the user.

For example, Google may deem two model landing pages from two different local dealers to have equally valuable content and find both are relevant to a local shopper’s query. In this case, the page with better Core Web Vitals scores and better user experience may have the edge in the SERP. 

A comprehensive SEO strategy will continue to be the most critical element to winning the SERP. From technical platform optimization to building your local search presence and developing a deep content strategy, we believe in a holistic approach that steadily grows your results and future-proofs your presence from algorithm changes.

HOW DOES GOOGLE MEASURE CORE WEB VITALS?

Google has updated their Page Speed Insights test to specifically measure a web page’s Core Web Vitals, and provides two data sets upon completion of the test:

Field Data
This is a 28-day performance summary from real-life users via the Chrome User Experience Report. The purpose of field metrics is to provide actual real-world feedback. Google will use field metrics for ranking purposes.

Lab Data
Simulation data generated from Lighthouse provides a performance score that estimates the page’s performance in real-time. The purpose of Lab measurements is to give publishers and SEOs a way to test and diagnose site performance to identify areas of improvement.

Performance metrics for each Web Vital statistic are graded according to three outcomes:

  • Good (passes): 90-100
  • Needs Improvement: 50-89
  • Fail: 0-49

To ensure you’re hitting the recommended target for most of your users, a good threshold to measure is the 75th percentile of page loads, segmented across mobile and desktop devices.

WHAT IS A GOOD CORE WEB VITALS SCORE?

Google has offered benchmarks for what it believes is a good user experience and has set the bar high based on user behavior and expectations of how fast people expect sites to load. According to Google’s performance assessment, these are the metrics you want to strive for:

  • LCP should occur within 2.5 seconds of when the page first starts loading
  • Pages should have a FID of less than 100 milliseconds.
  • Pages should maintain a CLS of less than 0.1

Chances are, your site isn’t meeting these standards today, and that’s all right. Most websites don’t. A study conducted in August by ScreamingFrog across 20,000 URLs found that only 12% of mobile and 13% of desktop results passed the Core Web Vitals assessment.

This was backed up by our analysis of auto industry sites in which we looked at 150 sites across 11 different website providers. We found average google pagespeed metrics to be 22 on mobile and 50 on desktop, far below the 80-90 Google requires to be in the green. 

 Dealer Inspire Industry Analysis, March 2021

While we recommend aiming for improvements, we think it’s imperative to understand these scores in the context of the auto industry and the complex site functionality you offer to users. Google’s recommended benchmarks are uniform across all industries and types of sites, and fail to consider the unique complexities of a dealership or ecommerce site. While getting a perfect score is possible, it would mean sacrificing many elements of your site that would negatively impact the user experience. 

HOW DO I GET READY FOR CORE WEB VITALS?

While the technical aspects of your platform’s performance are your provider’s responsibility, you do need to consider the content, images, and 3rd party tools that your team and other partners may be adding to your website. What you add, upload, and integrate into your website can have a significant impact on your Core Website Vitals. 

You can use PageSpeed Insights to see where you stand and identify issues that are negatively impacting the user experience and your performance. This report will provide a list of opportunities and diagnostics to help your pages load faster. 

While each site will be unique, there are a few common troublespots we recommend you check:

Watch out for third-party scripts

Now is the time to review all third party scripts running on your site. Evaluate if they are still necessary, and if they are dragging your scores down. While we don’t recommend removing valuable tools just because of your score, it is important to consider whether you have widgets that are doing more harm than good. Using first-party chat, digital retailing, and trade-in solutions made by your website provider will make your user experience faster and more seamless.

In other words, don’t just remove third party scripts that are performing and generating leads for you. Carefully review each one and if they are not providing value, then remove them (for example – take a close look at pop ups, scripts that insert a lot of content, multiple tools on your site that may be doing the same thing). Tools made by your website provider have a greater chance of being optimized for the full platform experience, rather than just being an independent add-on that may not be built with pagespeed in mind.

Evaluate image sizes

We expect this will be one of the most important factors when it comes to your performance scores. When uploading images to your site, make sure they are as lightweight and compressed as possible — we recommend staying under 150 KB. Dealer Inspire websites provide a max limit on the media library and optimize images through our CDN (content delivery network), but it’s still important to consider when adding media. Something as simple as your homepage slider can make a huge difference in load times if the image is not optimized for the web.

Upload images for both desktop and mobile

It’s also important to optimize your images for the device they’ll be seen on. There’s no need to load a larger image meant for desktop when the user is on mobile, so we make it easy to upload an alternate version of the image specifically for mobile. That way you’re only asking your website to load smaller, lighter images for the majority of your traffic that visits on their phone.

Rethink iFrames

Third party content published on your website using an iFrame can have a significant impact on page performance, since the page is being delivered from a different server than the rest of your website. Not only can iFramed content lead to an increase in First Contentful Paint, but it can also add to your Cumulative Layout Shift score as well. It’s critical to create your own content on-site and have OEM content delivery directly through your provider’s API integration.

HOW QUICKLY WILL IMPROVEMENTS BE REFLECTED IN MY CORE WEB VITALS SCORE?

All of these tips, along with optimizations Dealer Inspire is making on your behalf, have the power to incrementally improve your Core Web Vitals performance — but don’t expect scores to shift overnight. Since Core Web Vitals rely on Field Data from real users, it will take time for improvements to be reflected in your score. Field Data reported in the PageSpeed Insights tool is from a previous 28 day cycle, meaning it will take almost a full month to see the impact of your optimizations.

WHAT IF MY CORE WEB VITALS ARE IN THE RED?

If you’re looking at your Core Web Vitals performance and seeing red or orange, this is your reminder to take a deep breath. Remember, less than 15% of ALL sites across ALL industries currently have passing scores. Early analysis of some of Google’s own pages even showed they were struggling to pass their own assessment. Here’s what you need to keep in mind. 

Perfect scores may actually do more harm

The sites we found with the best performance scores usually lacked core functionality and design features that guide shoppers to buying decisions. A completely stripped down site might very well land you in the green, but you’d sacrifice other key aspects of the user experience and may jeopardize other ranking factors. If the page loads a few milliseconds faster, but the shopper no longer has the tools to customize their payment and submit their lead, was it worth it? 

Level set against your competition

When it comes to rankings, remember that you are competing against other complex automotive sites that face similar challenges with Core Web Vitals. While it is a great guidepost, Google’s performance measures don’t take into account the nuances and complexities of different types of websites. Amazon.com is rated on the same scale as your cousin’s one page blog. Let that sink in. If you really want to see how you’ll fare should Core Web Vitals become the deciding ranking factor, benchmark your site against your competitors. 

Look to trends before sounding alarms

Instead of simply looking at your performance score, we recommend looking at trends. A sudden dip of several points can be a better indicator of a true problem than your raw score. Looking at changes in your performance score can help you identify troublespots and can also be a great way to understand which changes are having a positive impact. If you do look back historically, note that Google changed how Core Web Vitals were measured in May of 2020. Many sites experienced a significant drop with this change, so don’t begin benchmarking before that change. 

Address the low hanging fruit

See our tips above to identify potential trouble spots on your site. There may be large images and third-party applications and scripts that are adversely impacting your performance. Assuming these are not essential for functionality or experience, consider removing them to see if it improves performance. 

Expect change to be incremental

Remember that any changes you make will take some time to have an impact on your performance score. It’s important to keep in mind that most changes will result in incremental improvements and that these will take time to register due to the lag time in reporting. 

LET’S MAKE YOUR WEBSITE ALGORITHM PROOF

When it comes down to it, you shouldn’t have to be worried about every single update to Google’s algorithm. SEO has been a part of our DNA since the very beginning, and we’d love to show you how our flexible web platform combined with a holistic search strategy can make your website algorithm proof now and in the future.

Let’s Talk Strategy

Bert Berousek
Bert is an SEO Strategist at Dealer Inspire who enjoys crafting expert-level, holistic SEO strategies for Dealer Inspire’s automotive clients. He also flexes his SEO muscles for non-auto clients specializing in technical SEO and overall web architecture. While he’d never say this to out loud, Bert is kind of a big deal.
Scott Wiley
Scott Wiley is the Director of Support Development at Dealer Inspire. He nerds out with code regularly while ensuring process and customer service are at the root of everything we do. His devotion to support is only matched by his big personality...which is only rivaled by his 6'9 stature. Before you ask, no he didn't play basketball.

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