The law of unintended consequences tells us that certain actions can have effects that are unanticipated or unwanted. In the online publishing space, we see this frequently. Developers roll out new features that negatively impact other components on a publisher’s website, or anticipated product updates cause glitches in software and drops in Google ranking.
When Google started rolling out Core Web Vitals as a benchmark for measuring user experience, the goal was to measure the dimensions of web usability, so things like page loading time, responsiveness, and website stability would influence page rank in Google search. It’s been just about one month since the rollout of Core Web Vitals was complete, and already we are seeing some consequences that digital publishers weren’t prepared for.
What Is Core Web Vitals?
Core Web Vitals is a set of metrics used to score a user’s experience when loading a webpage. Core Web Vitals score how quickly page content loads, how quickly a browser loading a page responds to a user’s input, and how unstable the content is as it loads.
As a publisher, the three metrics you should be most familiar with are:
- First Input Delay (FID)
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)
Of these three metrics, Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) is having the most impact on digital publishers right now. CLS measures the visual stability of a website. If the primary content of a webpage loads, and then it gets pushed around by other content (for example, images or display ads), then the layout has “shifted.” Consider a time when you’ve clicked onto a website as a visitor and accidentally clicked on an advertisement when you intended to click on a “Next Article” button. With the Core Web Vitals rollout, Google is now penalizing publishers for the type of layout shift that causes this to occur.
To measure and track CLS, Google multiplies how much of the screen shifted and how far it moved. If the words in an article naturally take up 50% of the screen, and they move halfway across the screen during a shift, then Google’s impact fraction would be 0.75. The distance fraction in this example would be 0.25. Having a CLS score that’s above .1 means the user experience is diminished, and as a result, a publisher’s Google ranking may drop.
Is Your Ad Inventory the Culprit?
The entire premise behind Core Web Vitals is to improve the user experience and bring high-quality websites up higher in the Google ranking. We know that publishers with low CLS scores will likely see a drop in Google ranking now that Core Web Vitals have been rolled out. If you’ve already noticed the drop, you’re probably wondering what happened and how you can reverse those changes.
The most common cause of a high CLS score is poorly performing ad inventory.
Publications that run ads are significantly more likely to see layout shifts than those that do not. Display ads are one of the hardest elements to contain on a webpage. Ads are hard to control, and they often load on the page in real-time. Additionally, advertisers bring different demands, with unique creatives and ad sizes that can be a real stressor on a website.
How to Respond
Thankfully, we have already started to hear about a number of minor adjustments publishers can make to improve their CLS scores without limiting display advertising. For example, some publishers have started creating single-sized ad positions at the top of each page, which are available exclusively for hard-coded ads. This ensures that no layout shifts will occur. However, the downside to this solution is that there is only one size per ad slot.
Another best practice that is becoming more common has to do with something called “lazy loading.” Publishers are refraining from loading certain ads until the last minute—when the ad is actually needed. There are a few potential downsides to this approach, though. If users scroll too quickly, the ad may load too late. Additionally, lazy loading can hurt viewability and CPMs.
Finally, we are hearing about more publishers using real-time data to personalize the ad experience for individual website visitors. Personalizing the type of ad that’s placed, and where it’s placed on the page, can improve the CLS score without hurting the user experience. It can also lead to improvements in website latency.
To learn more about the latest best practices for digital publishers, reach out to Web Publisher PRO.