Google’s Core Web Vitals and How a Slow Website Hurts Therapists

In May, 2021 Google added new ranking signals to their search engine. They’re called Core Web Vitals, what Google has ambiguously defined as “Page experience ranking signals”.

The update is was about user interaction with an emphasis on speed.

Passing Google’s Core Web Vitals gives sites a healthy ranking boost on Google. Needless to say there has been quite a bit of shuffling in the rankings since 2021 that will likely continue going forward as Google continuously refines its ranking metrics.

Therapists should know about Core Web Vitals, how they may affect their rankings, and what therapists can do to make sure they’re taking advantage of the ranking signals.

An image of Google's three Core Web Vitals metrics: Largest Contentful Point, First Input Delay, and Cumulative Layout Shift, First Input Delay, and Cumulative Layout Shift.
An image of Google's three Core Web Vitals metrics: Largest Contentful Point, First Input Delay, and Cumulative Layout Shift, First Input Delay, and Cumulative Layout Shift, and the optimal metrics for each criterion.

What are Core Web Vitals?

Core Web Vitals is a general term that really refers to a few measurable attributes of a website. These attributes measure user experience.

If we translate this Google-ese into english it breaks down to 3 core metrics:

  1. Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): a measurement of how quickly a website loads. Good websites load within 2.5 seconds.
  2. First Input Delay (FID): a measurement of how quickly users can interact with a website. Good websites should be interactable in less than 100 milliseconds.
  3. Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): a measurement of a website’s stability (are visual elements on the site moving around?). Good websites have a CLS score under 0.1.

What these all add up to can be wrapped up under the category of speed. Google has given increasing preference to sites that load fast and stay stable while being fast.

Search any keyword on Google and test the speeds of the first ten results. The same trend emerges. Faster sites rank higher on Google.

But, Google released a FAQ document that states that, for now, the Core Web Vitals score only affects rankings for mobile search. While they may not immediately apply to desktop results Core Web Vitals still matters for therapists.

More than half of worldwide searches are mobile. In the United States mobile accounts for 40% of online traffic. Nearly half. That number is likely to go up as infrastructure is developed and implemented (think true 5G) which makes mobile ever more viable as a way to navigate the web.

One way to think about May’s update is that Google is indicating that the web is changing to conform to mobile search.

Therapists should start optimizing their sites for mobile search, not only to prepare for Google’s Core Web Vitals ranking signals but for a future in which the vast majority of search is mobile.

*All three Core Web Vitals benchmarks must be met in order to qualify for the ranking signal boost rolling out this May, said Google’s John Mueller.

How To Tell if A Site Passes Core Web Vitals

Therapists should test their site’s core web vitals by going to Google’s PageSpeed Insights and plugging in their URL.

A picture of Google’s Page Speed Insights tool that measures whether or not a website passes Google’s Core Web Vitals.
It is funny to note that many large websites don’t pass Google’s Core Web Vitals test. Even YouTube, a property owned by Google, doesn’t pass the test (as of this writing).

If a site doesn’t pass, don’t panic. Last August, Screaming Frog found that only 12% of Mobile and 13% of Desktop results passed the Core Web Vitals assessment. Most of the internet has a failing grade. Even PageSpeed Insights itself does not pass.

Unfortunately bringing a site up to snuff isn’t as simple as flipping a few switches. The platforms that have been used to build the web have become a hindrance to meeting Google’s demands.

WordPress and Squarespace Don’t Work for Google

An issue with Core Web Vitals is that many of the problems they point to are issues at the heart of tools like Squarespace and WordPress. These Content Management Systems (CMS) platforms that make it so easy to build a website also make it very difficult to always stay on top the changes to ranking signals.

Take Squarespace. There are facets of the website builder that developers can’t access which prevents them from fully optimizing the page. That’s because CMS tools are built for people who build websites, not Google.

The goals of Google and publishers don’t always align and the strict metrics of Core Web Vitals are indicative of this divergence.

To optimize completely for what Google wants would be to strip most sites of all their images and interactive media, winding back the clock to when the internet was Netscape and barebone HTML websites. Obviously, this isn’t going to happen. SEOs and webmasters can only do so much to indulge the Core Web Vitals best practices.

But there’s still hope. Work can be done to at least move the meter for any therapist’s website’s Core Web Vitals.

What Can Therapists Do To Improve Their Core Web Vitals?

Here are a few solutions therapists can start implementing to improve their Core Web Vital scores (Unfortunately, what follows mainly applies to WordPress based sites. Squarespace sites are a bit trickier to deal with):

Let’s start from the top…

Remove unused and outdated plugins

It’s almost incredible how many unused plugins pile up on the backend of a WordPress website like junk in a garage. Even worse is how many plugins sit waiting to be updated. (Update those plugins!) And most of us, myself included, never to think to delete those unused or redundant plugins. What harm could they be causing?

The problem is that plugin hoarding can seriously slow down a site. Think of a website as a person and each plugin as a free weight. Too many plugins are going to eventually slow the website-person down so much that they can’t even move.

An image of the plugin page on the backend of WordPress with an arrow pointing towards the delete button under the “Search & Replace” plugin.
An image of the plugin page on the backend of WordPress with an arrow pointing towards the delete button under the “Search & Replace” plugin.

Only keep the plugins that serve a real, useful purpose. That’s plugins that improve security, increase site speed, or improve user experience.

Therapists need to scrutinize their plugin list,* and ask themselves “Am I actually using this plugin? Do I even know what this plugin does?” If the answer, they should consider removing the plugin and decluttering their backend.

*(Therapists may want to consult their web developer before tinkering too much with their installed plugins.)

Optimize images so that they’re under 100KB

Big bulky images are one of the worst offenders when it comes to slowing down a website, hurting its Core Web Vitals metrics.
Google's Core Web VItals recommends images be served in next-gen formats.
While Google recommends next-gen formats, it's more important to format images to a proper resolution to keep file sizes small to decrease page-load time.

Core Web Vitals itself recommends serving images in next-gen formats—although these formats don’t necessarily work with all browsers. But what really matters is to try and optimize images so that they’re under 100Kb. The smaller the file size the faster the page the image is on will load (Although the image shouldn’t be so small that it looks outright bad.)

Therapists should resize photos to an appropriate height and width. Doing so will automatically reduce the file size. The vast majority of websites don’t need images above 1280 x 720 (barring banner images).

A big problem is that many therapists use image optimization plugins which don’t necessarily optimize images properly. These plugins keep the original large image and deliver a compressed version of the image on the frontend of the website, but that original large image still exists on the site’s server, thereby slowing down the site’s load time.

Images need to be compressed and then uploaded to the site. This will ensure that the therapist’s both quickly and smoothly.

Check How Websites Load on Mobile

Sitting behind a computer makes it easy to forget that many potential clients are accessing therapist’s websites through their phone.

Therapists need to check the functionality of their sites on their phones. Some themes and layouts may look great on desktop but have layout issues on mobile, thereby failing the Cumulative Layout Shift metric of Core Web Vitals.

Squarespace tends to load pretty well on mobile devices but some WordPress themes can appear funky. Margins may be too thin or wide, images can overlap text, text can overlap sidebars and banners. Nothing gets potential clients to bounce faster off a website than a website that looks like a Potato Head.

If a site appears funky on mobile devices therapists should tinker with their theme to ensure it displays properly on mobile. The issue is rarely straightforward so they may want to contact their web developer if they’re not sure where to start.

Core Web Vitals and Therapist’s Sites

When Core Web Vitals rollout in May they will only apply to mobile rankings but that doesn’t mean therapists should ignore the issues affecting their site today. Eventually Core Web Vitals will likely apply to Desktop search as well, and let’s not forgot just how many people are searching for therapists on their mobile devices.

Core Web Vitals is an indication that Google treats mobile search seriously and that web developers and people who maintain websites should also treat mobile seriously if we want to rank well on Google.

Rectifying issues today will ensure that therapists continue to maintain and improve their positions on Page 1 of Google and within the Google My Business 3-Pack, or obtain these coveted rankings.

Making a plan of action to get your website up to snuff is the best way to stay ahead of
Google’s changes to ranking factors. If you want to know steps to take to bring your site up to snuff check out our Private Practice Marketing Scorecard to see where your website stands..

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