What Google’s New Page Experience Update Means for Images on Your Website

It’s easy to forget that, as a search engine, Google doesn’t just compare keywords to generate search results. Google knows that if people don’t enjoy their experience on a web page, they won’t stay on the page long enough to consume the content — no matter how relevant it is.

As a result, Google has been experimenting with ways to analyze the user experience of web pages using quantifiable metrics. Factoring these into its search engine rankings, it’s hoped to provide users not only with great, relevant content but with awesome user experiences as well.

Google’s soon-to-be-launched page experience update is a major step in this direction. Website owners with image-heavy websites need to be particularly vigilant to adapt to these changes or risk falling by the wayside. In this article, we’ll talk about everything you need to know regarding this update, and how you can take full advantage of it.

Note: Google introduced their plans for Page Experience in May 2020 and announced in November 2020 that it will begin rolling out in May 2021. However, Google has since delayed their plans for a gradual rollout starting mid-Jun 2021. This was done in order to give website admins time to deal with the shifting conditions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic first.

Some Background

Before we get into the latest iteration of changes to how Google factors user experience metrics into search engine rankings, let’s get some context. In April 2020, Google made its most pivotal move in this direction yet by introducing a new initiative: core web vitals.

Core web vitals (CWV) were introduced to help web developers deal with the challenges of trying to optimize for search engine rankings using testable metrics – something that’s difficult to do with a highly subjective thing like user experience.

To do this, Google identified three key metrics (what it calls “user-centric performance metrics”). These are:

  1. LCP (Largest Contentful Paint): The largest element above the fold when a web page initially loads. Typically, this is a large featured image or header. How fast the largest content element loads plays a huge role in how fast the user perceives the overall loading speed of the page.
  2. FID (First Input Delay): The time it takes between when a user first interacts with the page and when the main thread is free for the browser to process the event. This can be clicking/tapping a button, link, or interacting with any other dynamic element. Delays when interacting with a page can obviously be frustrating to users which is why keeping FID low is crucial.
  3. Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): This calculates the visual stability of a page when it first loads. The algorithm takes the size of the elements and the distance they move relevant to the viewport into account. Pages that load with high instability can cause miscues by users, also leading to frustrating situations.

These metrics have evolved from more rudimentary ones that have been in use for some time, such as SI (Speed Index), FCP (First Contentful Paint), TTI (Time-to-interactive), etc.

The reason this is important is because images can play a significant role in how your website’s CWVs score. For example, the LCP is more often than not an above-the-fold image or, at the very least, will have to compete with an image to be loaded first. Images that aren’t correctly used can also negatively impact CLS. Slow-loading images can also impact the FID by adding further delays to the overall rendering of the page.

What’s more, this came on the back of Google’s renewed focus on mobile-first indexing. So, not only are these metrics important for your website, but you have to ensure that your pages score well on mobile devices as well.

It’s clear that, in general, Google is increasingly prioritizing user experience when it comes to search engine rankings. Which brings us to the latest update – Google now plans to incorporate page experience as a ranking factor, starting with an early rollout in mid-June 2021.

So, what is page experience? In short, it’s a ranking signal that combines data from a number of metrics to try and determine how good or bad the user experience of a web page is. It consists of the following factors:

  • Core Web Vitals: Using the same, unchanged, core web vitals. Google has established guidelines and recommended rankings that you can find here. You need an overall “good” CWV rating to qualify for a “good” page experience score.
  • Mobile Usability: A URL must have no mobile usability errors to qualify for a “good” page experience score.
  • Security Issues: Any flagged security issues will disqualify websites.
  • HTTPS: Pages must be served via HTTPS to qualify.
  • Ad Experience: Measures to what degree ads negatively affect the user experience on your web page, for example, by being intrusive, distracting, etc.

As part of this change, Google announced its intention to include a visual indicator, or badge, that highlights web pages that have passed its page experience criteria. This will be similar to previous badges the search engine has used to promote AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) or mobile-friendly pages.

This official recognition will give high-performing web pages a massive advantage in the highly competitive arena that is Google’s SERPs. This visual cue will undoubtedly boost CTRs and organic traffic, especially for sites that already rank well. This feature may drop as soon as May if it passes its current trial phase.

Another bit of good news for non-AMP users is that all pages will now become eligible for Top Stories in both the browser and Google News app. Although Google states that pages can qualify for Top Stories “irrespective of its Core Web Vitals score or page experience status,” it’s hard to imagine this not playing a role for eligibility now or down the line.

Key Takeaway: What Does This Mean For Images on Your Website?

Google noted a 70% surge in consumer usage of their Lighthouse and PageSpeed Insight tools, showing that website owners are catching up on the importance of optimizing their pages. This means that standards will only become higher and higher when competing with other websites for search engine rankings.

Google has reaffirmed that, despite these changes, content is still king. However, content is more than just the text on your pages, and truly engaging and user-friendly content also consists of thoughtfully used media, the majority of which will likely be images.

With the proposed page experience badges and Top Stories eligibility up for grabs, the stakes have never been higher to rank highly with the Google Search algorithm. You need every advantage that you can get. And, as I’m about to show, optimizing your image assets can have a tangible effect on scoring well according to these metrics.

What Can You Do To Keep Up?

Before I propose my solution to help you optimize image assets for core web vitals, let’s look at why images are often detrimental to performance:

  • Images bloat the overall size of your website pages, especially if the images are unoptimized (i.e. uncompressed, not properly sized, etc.)
  • Images need to be responsive to different devices. You need much smaller image sizes to maintain the same visual quality on smaller screens.
  • Different contexts (browsers, OSs, etc.) have different formats for optimally rendering images. However, most images are still used in .JPG/.PNG format.
  • Website owners don’t always know about the best practices associated with using images on website pages, such as always explicitly specifying width/height attributes.

Using conventional methods, it can take a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to tackle these issues. Most solutions, such as manually editing images and hard-coding responsive syntax have inherent issues with scalability, the ability to easily update/adjust to changes, and bloat your development pipeline.

To optimize your image assets, particularly with a focus on improving CWVs, you need to:

  • Reduce image payloads
  • Implement effective caching
  • Speed up delivery
  • Transform images into optimal next-gen formats
  • Ensure images are responsive
  • Implement run-time logic to apply the optimal setting in different contexts

Luckily, there is a class of tools designed specifically to solve these challenges and provide these solutions — image CDNs. Particularly, I want to focus on ImageEngine which has consistently outperformed other CDNs on page performance tests I’ve conducted.

ImageEngine is an intelligent, device-aware image CDN that you can use to serve your website images (including GIFs). ImageEngine uses WURFL device detection to analyze the context your website pages are accessed from (device, screen size, DPI, OS, browser, etc.) and optimize your image assets accordingly. Based on these criteria, it can optimize images by intelligently resizing, reformatting, and compressing them.

It’s a completely automatic, set-it-and-forget-it solution that requires little to no intervention once it’s set up. The CDN has over 20 global PoPs with the logic built into the edge servers for faster across different regions. ImageEngine claims to achieve cache-hit ratios of as high as 98%+ as well as reduce image payloads by 75%+.

Step-by-Step Test + How to Use ImageEngine to Improve Page Experience

To illustrate the difference using an image CDN like ImageEngine can make, I’ll show you a practical test.

First, let’s take a look at how a page with a massive amount of image content scores using PageSpeed Insights. It’s a simple page, but consists of a large number of high-quality images with some interactive elements, such as buttons and links as well as text.

FID is unique because it relies on data from real-world interactions users have with your website. As a result, FID can only be collected “in the field.” If you have a website with enough traffic, you can get the FID by generating a Page Experience Report in the Google Console.

However, for lab results, from tools like Lighthouse or PageSpeed Insights, we can surmise the impact of blocking resources by looking at TTI and TBT.

Oh, yes, and I’ll also be focussing on the results of a mobile audit for a number of reasons:

  1. Google themselves are prioritizing mobile signals and mobile-first indexing
  2. Optimizing web pages and images assets are often most challenging for mobile devices/general responsiveness
  3. It provides the opportunity to show the maximum improvement a image CDN can provide

With that in mind, here are the results for our page:

So, as you can see, we have some issues. Helpfully, PageSpeed Insights flags the two CWVs present, LCP and CLS. As you can see, because of the huge image payload (roughly 35 MB), we have a ridiculous LCP of nearly 1 minute.

Because of the straightforward layout and the fact that I did explicitly give images width and height attributes, our page happened to be stable with a 0 CLS. However, it’s important to realize that slow loading images can also impact the perceived stability of your pages. So, even if you can’t directly improve on CLS, the faster sizable elements such as images load, the better the overall experience for real-world users.

TTI and TBT were also sub-par. It will take at least two  seconds from the moment the first element appears on the page until when the page can start to become interactive.

As you can see from the opportunities for improvement and diagnostics, almost all issues were image-related:

Setting Up ImageEngine and Testing the Results

Ok, so now it’s time to add ImageEngine into the mix and see how it improves performance metrics on the same page.

Setting up ImageEngine on nearly any website is relatively straightforward. First, go to ImageEngine.io and signup for a free trial. Just follow the simple 3-step signup process where you will need to:

  1. provide the website you want to optimize, 
  2. the web location where your images are stored, and then 
  3. copy the delivery address ImageEngine assigns to you.

The latter will be in the format of {random string}.cdn.imgeng.in but can be updated from within the ImageEngine dashboard.

To serve images via this domain, simply go back to your website markup and update the <img> src attributes. For example:

From:

<img src=”mywebsite.com/images/header-image.jpg”/>

To:

<img src=”myimages.cdn.imgeng.in/images/header-image.jpg”/>

That’s all you need to do. ImageEngine will now automatically pull your images and dynamically optimize them for best results when visitors view your website pages. You can check the official integration guides in the documentation on how to use ImageEngine with Magento, Shopify, Drupal, and more. There is also an official WordPress plugin.

Here’s the results for my ImageEngine test page once it’s set up:

As you can see, the results are nearly flawless. All metrics were improved, scoring in the green – even Speed Index and LCP which were significantly affected by the large images.

As a result, there were no more opportunities for improvement. And, as you can see, ImageEngine reduced the total page payload to 968 kB, cutting down image content by roughly 90%:

Conclusion

To some extent, it’s more of the same from Google who has consistently been moving in a mobile direction and employing a growing list of metrics to hone in on the best possible “page experience” for its search engine users. Along with reaffirming their move in this direction, Google stated that they will continue to test and revise their list of signals.

Other metrics that can be surfaced in their tools, such as TTFB, TTI, FCP, TBT, or possibly entirely new metrics may play even larger roles in future updates.

Finding solutions that help you score highly for these metrics now and in the future is key to staying ahead in this highly competitive environment. While image optimization is just one facet, it can have major implications, especially for image-heavy sites.

An image CDN like ImageEngine can solve almost all issues related to image content, with minimal time and effort as well as future proof your website against future updates.

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