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With Google’s May update (now pushed back to mid June) fast approaching, many bloggers are feeling stressed out about their site speed and core web vitals.
I have had many people contact me to ask if their site speed is ok and how much they should be focussing on improving their speed.
I’m going to try and answer that fairly complex query here.
Hopefully by the end of this article, you will understand if you have a problem with your site speed or core web vitals and will have some ideas how to go about fixing any problems.
Firstly, what is this ‘May Google update’ all about?
Google announced a few months ago that they were rolling out some changes in May which will make core web vitals an official page ranking factor and that site speed will be more important than ever for SEO.
It’s rare that Google gives us so much warming (if any) before a core update which is why it has many bloggers and online business owners in a bit of a tizz.
Bloggers wear many hats but not many would claim to be site speed gurus and it can be tempting to ignore the problem. But the risk is that by ignoring the issue, your site may take a huge hit when this update rolls out resulting in significant traffic losses.
This may or may not be felt in May/June when the rollout starts. Google has stated that the changes will be rolled out gradually and the full effects felt by August 2021.
We do need to remember whilst important to address, we also need to keep things in context.
It’s important to remember that core web vitals only make up a tiny proportion of all the signals Google is looking for when determining search rankings.
Acing your core web vitals isn’t going to guarantee you a place in the top 3 search results unless your website is well SEO optimised. Equally, failing one of your core web vitals isn’t going to mean the end of all your blog traffic.
It is more likely to mean that where two well optimised, well written articles from websites with similar levels of authority are competing, the one with better optimised core web vitals is likely to see a traffic boost.
If you don’t have a good grasp on SEO yet, I recommend reading my beginners guide to SEO.
If you have a good grasp on SEO but want to start ranking for more competitive search terms then I recommend reading about how you can use Frase for content optimisation.
And if you want some more advanced strategies, check out these 8 advanced SEO tips.
What are the Core Web Vitals all about?
There are many aspects for site speed and this can make it difficult for Google to understand how fast a site is for user experience.
For example, if a site uses lazy loading, images may not load for several minutes until a reader scrolls far enough for the image to come into view. User experience is great but if Google used total load time to determine if this was a good user experience, there would be some discrepancies.
So Google have started using 3 metrics which are standardised and not affected by the likes of lazy loading. These will be used as official ranking signals. Therefore, if you perform well across all three, it is likely your articles will rank a little higher and get more blog traffic.
- Largest Contentful paint (LCP)
- Cumulative layout shift
- First input delay
Let’s look at those in more detail.
Largest Contentful Paint
This is the time it takes for the largest element on the initial load page to show. Usually that will be an image but if you removed your featured image, it will likely be text which will make your LCP much faster.
Google wants us to aim for a CLP < 2.5 seconds. (Remember this is not total load time!)
- Below 2.5 seconds = good
- 2.5-4 seconds = needs improvement
- Above 4 seconds = poor
Ways to improve LCP
- Remove your featured image and put your first image below the fold so your reader has to scroll at least a little to see it.
- Use a quality host (reduces TTFB)
- Use a good caching plugin (reduces TTFB)
- Use a good theme that doesn’t rely too much on-page builders e.g. don’t use Divi (reduces TTFB)
- Get rid of all unnecessary plugins
- Swap bloated plugins for lighter weight alternatives where possible
- Consider using a CDN
- Optimize your images
- Use an image compression plugin like Short Pixel and make sure you have enough credits.
- Avoid using Google web fonts and instead, use the web or systems safe fonts.
- Use lazy loading
- Check with your ads company if there are any modifications they can help with.
TTFB is the time to first byte which is essentially when your page can start loading. It is usually determined by your hosting + caching and to a lesser degree, your theme. Anything which affects TTFB will have an impact on your overall site speed and your LCP.
Cumulative Layout Shift
This is the amount of movement amongst elements on the page.
You have probably experienced poor CLS before when you tried to click on something only to end up clicking on something else as the page suddenly shifted whilst it was loading.
A high CLS is annoying for readers and therefore makes for a worse user experience.
Google wants us to aim for a CLS of less than 0.1
- Less than 0.1 = good
- 0.1-0.25 = needs improvement
- Greater than 0.25 = poor
Ways to improve CLP
- If you use ads, discuss optimisations your ad network can help you make. (Ads are often the main culprit for a high CLS)
- Avoid using fonts hosted online eg Google fonts
- If you do choose to use them, then pre-load the font files. (You can often do this with your caching plugin.)
- Avoid using CSS to resize images and use aspect ratio instead.
- Try removing sliders or disabling lazy loading if you are still having problems.
First Input delay
This is the amount of delay between a reader taking action on your site and seeing change. So for example, if they click a link, fill a form or click on a drop-down box.
Google wants us to aim for less than 100ms.
- Less than 100ms = good
- 100-300ms = needs improvement
- Above 300ms = poor
Ways to improve First Input Delay
- Minify and compress CSS
- Remove unused CSS
(A good caching plugin can help you with all of the above.)
Other Search signals that are important
There are some other important signals Google will also be prioritising in the May/June update.
These are as follows
- Safe browsing – as long as your site is free from malware and hasn’t been hacked, you will be fine.
- Is there a SSL certificate? (If your site begins with http:// instead of https:// then speak to your host about getting a SL certificate installed for higher site security.)
- Is the site mobile friendly? (If you are using a mobile responsive theme you should be fine.)
- No intrusive interstitials (avoid early pop-ups which interrupt with audience viewing. Exit-intent pop-ups are fine and cookie pop-ups are fine too as these are a legal requirement.)
How to know if your site speed is fast enough and if you are passing core web vitals
I recommend using Webpagetest.org to analyse your site.
There are many site speed test tools out there but some have considerable flaws. For example, GTMetrix is very popular but only tests from servers in Vancouver.
The reason I like Web Page Test is that it allows you to get really specific about where you run your speed test.
It also gives you lots of information including core web vitals and also a waterfall graph which is a visual depiction of who your site loads. It’s an easy way to spot what is causing delays.
Finally, they allow you to run multiple tests and take an average score.
Whenever you run a test, you will get slightly different scores so to be able to take an average is really useful!
So what tests should you run?
I recommend selecting your home page and a few important blog posts for example your affiliate articles or posts which are already getting a lot of traffic.
Next, check where most of your audience resides. You can do this using Google Analytics and take a look at Audience – geo-location. Take a look at your map and statistics. You can even get more focussed by toggling cities on the maps view.
You will want to choose a server nearest to the bulk of your audience. So for me, I use Dulles, VA, USA as many of my readers are on the East coast of the USA.
Next you can choose the type of browser. Since you are most concerned about SEO, I recommend using Google’s Chrome browser for your tests.
So start with Desktop and then when you are getting good results with desktop, see if you can continue to make tweaks to see benefits on mobile devices too!
What to look for in your test results
These are the metrics I recommend you look at. Take a note of them before you make any changes so that you can see improvement as you make changes to improve your site speed and core web vitals.
TTFB – time to first byte. This is how long before your site can even start loading (like laying the groundwork.) Hosting, caching and to some extent your theme can impact this. Aim for below 300-600ms. If yours is high then you need to get and optimise a caching plugin.
FCP – first contentful paint – the first non white space elements to show on your page.
Core web vitals – LCP, CLS and TBT.
Fully loaded time – how long your site takes to fully load – though it will be usable before this! Therefore LCP is more important than fully loaded time as long as it is not excessive. Aim < 4-5 seconds if you can.
Total requests – This is how many requests the page has to make to load. Keep this number as low as possible, preferably below 100. if you are running ads, this number may be much higher.
Total bytes – this is the page size. Keep it below 1MB if possible. Too many unoptimised images is usually the culprit for very large pages.
Next, take a look at the waterfall graph.
Take a note of where your LCP occurs and focus on any of the request which take place before your LCP.
Now look for any longer bars occurring before the LCP as these are probably requests which are having a significant impact on site speed. You can click on those requests to open them up and see what they are.
This is how you can identify if it is a particular script or plugin causing problems. You can then reach out to the plugin developers to see if you can optimise your site better or you might want to delete or find an alternative plugin that serves the same purpose but is lighter.
Make sure you document any particular hold ups or delays so you can action them later and then run another test to see if there has been any improvements.
Ways to improve site speed.
Always make a backup of your website before you make any major changes. Your host can help you with this or you can use a plugin like Updraft Plus. If anything unexpected happens, you can reinstall the backup!
Firstly I highly recommend you take this course. It’s very affordable at just $45 (as of April 2021) and explains everything you need to know in plain English without all the jargon. It’s the best value course I have taken so far this year and is far more affordable than hiring a developer to make the changes for you!
Choose your hosting wisely.
Some super cheap hosts like Host Gator can be very tempting for beginner bloggers but they are very likely to run into speed problems. Bluehost is another popular host where lots of users complain of problems with site speed.
However, most quality hosts will use SSD web space (and not just to host your cached version of your site) which will be much faster. If you’re not sure, ask them if they use SSD across the board or just for caches.
You will also want to look for a host which has an optimised caching plugin. If they do not offer this, you may want to purchase a plugin like WP Rocket. (You probably don’t need both and more than one caching plugin can cause conflicts!)
I have used Siteground and do recommend them for site speed. They use SSD web space and have 24/7 support.
That said, I am planning to move to Lyrical Host. Whilst site speed is very similar, Lyrical Host is a smaller company that gives you a more personal service. Although they don’t offer 24/7 live chat, their customer service is excellent and runs until 2 AM – I’m unlikely to be working past 2 AM anyway!
The reason I plan to move to them is that they offer a lot of extras that bigger hosting platforms don’t like assistance with site speed or WordPress development issues. Most hosts will upsell you a speed service or tell you to hire a developer.
Recently I spoke to my own host about some site speed improvements and they quoted me £42 just to give advice, not to implement it! I contacted Lyrical Host who took a look and sent detailed advice for free even though I wasn’t currently hosted with them. I was so impressed that they won me over despite being a loyal and happy Siteground customer for many years!
Lyrical Host also plants 5 trees on your hosting anniversary to offset your carbon footprint which I love! I’m always quick to support ethical and environmentally responsible companies.
If you decide to switch to lyrical Host, I’m currently offering an exclusive bonus – head to my Lyrical Host Promo Code Page to learn more!
Use a good Caching Plugin
When a site is cached, a version of it is stored locally for more rapid access if a person returns to the page later. Caching can have a huge impact upon site speed.
Both Siteground and Lyrical Host both offer their own caching plugin, optimised for their own settings.
Not all hosts offer this and if there is no equivalent for your host then a good option is WP Rocket.
These are all terms which probably means very little to most non techy bloggers! But caching plugins do the work for you without you needing a lot of tech expertise.
Turning your cache on isn’t enough. You need to optimise it. Most plugins will have a wizard setup process to walk you through this. Youtube videos are also a great place to look for tutorials.
If you use a caching plugin supplied by your host, they should be able to help you set it up too!
Get rid of all unnecessary plugins
Be strict with yourself. What do you truly need?
Imagine your most ruthless friend is sitting with you helping you sort out which clothes to send to charity.
Delete plugins you don’t need and consider swapping other plugins to lighter versions. You can find bloated plugins by taking a look at the long page requests on your speed waterfall test.
In general avoid any widgets which pull in social feeds such as Instagram or Pinterest display widgets or interactive maps – these can really slow your site down.
Use a good theme
Some themes are faster than others but most will give you acceptable speeds.
Some themes use page builders extensively and these can slow your site. Divi is an example.
Lyrical Host also advises against using Pipdig themes which are often slow.
Choose a theme created by a web developer, not someone who is selling a child theme and selling it on Etsy or Creative Market. They might look pretty but they may not be properly coded and could be very bloated.
Before switching themes, check your TTFB. If it is high eg >500-600ms then first check your host is using SSD exclusively. Make sure that your caching plugin is working properly. Your host should be able to look into this for you.
Also, make sure you have used the correct URL to run a speed test. For example, if your site is www and you miss this off, it will show a falsely inflated TTFB.
Presuming you have checked all of this, if your TTFB s still high, it might be time to look for a new theme.
This site uses Flatsome which is fairly fast despite having its own page builder built-in. However, there are definitely faster themes out there. If I ever upgraded themes I would choose one of the following themes which recently were reported as some of the fastest themes available in a recent report:
- Ocean WP
- Generate Press
- Hello Elementor (I was surprised this one featured but it actually came out tops in the report I read!)
Mediavine have also bought out Trellis which is supposed to be very fast and SEO friendly. However, as of writing this article, there is a long waiting list for it (as it’s technically still in beta.)
I also think sites I’ve seen using it look very basic so I’d personally recommend waiting for it to improve before going down that route. Hopefully, they will develop some better child themes at which point it will become a better option.
When you are looking at themes, it is far more important to find a theme that is fast, responsive, SEO-optimised and easy to customise rather than one which looks pretty out of the box! All of the themes mentioned above thick all of these boxes and you won’t go far wrong with any of them so take a look and see which design you prefer!
Consider using a CDN
CDN’s use local servers to the reader rather than the server closest to the host.
These days, servers are more powerful and a CDN isn’t vital but it can result in small page speed increases. However, I had problems installing Cloudflare and it broke one of the plugins I use often so I decided to remove it. I didn’t see much change in site speed.
The process of turning Cloudflare off did cause some temporary downtime for my site which lasted a few hours. This is normal.
Optimise your images
This is a big one!
Try to keep your images below 50KB each. An image with 600x400px or 900 x 600px is usually sufficient but many people upload images which are far larger file sizes than this. This is partly because cameras have gotten so much more powerful and now have many more mega pixels than you actually need for the web.
So make sure you resize your images before uploading them to your website. You can use Tiny JPG to help with this. I also resize my images in Canva.
Once an image is uploaded to your site, you can compress it even more using a plugin like Short Pixel.
This is great if you have thousands of unoptimised images. It won’t be as good as if you removed optimised and re-uploaded every one of those images but let’s be realistic – that’s not happening anytime soon right?!
However, you may wish to optimise certain articles (like your highest traffic or most lucrative affiliate posts) by optimising each photo individually. It’s also worth uploading a smaller version of your logo as this will appear on every page.
Aim for below 50MB and for photos, always choose JPEG over PNG where possible.
As well as resizing your images and compressing them after uploading, lazy loading can also help to reduce your site speed as the image will only load as the reader scrolls down the page.
Make sure you always have enough Short Pixel credits especially if you are using their CDN to serve images. I recently ran out of credits and what was happening was that Short pixel was trying to serve it from their CDN then bouncing them back to my site which was slowing things down. Purchasing some more credits quickly resolved that issue!
Remove anything you don’t need
Leaving inactivated plugins, unused themes or old backups of your site hanging around makes your overal site much larger. Not only could this end up costing you more money when you need to upgrade your hosting plan for more space but it can also slow down your site.
So if you’re not using it, get rid!
The measures above are simple things you can do to try and improve your site speed. If you don’t get the results you want then you may need to consider hiring a developer to help you get a blazing fast website.
If you don’t want to fork out for a developer (they are not cheap) then I can’t recommend the Speed Boost course enough! At $45 it was a steal and is perfect for anyone wishing to take a DIY approach!
Hopefully you feel a little more confident about tackling your site speed.
Remember, site speed and core web vitals are only small cogs in a much bigger machine. Quality SEO optimised content and a well structured website with lots of related content is just as important if not more so!
Do what you can to get your site speed and core web vitals as good as possible but please do not lose sleep over it.
Do you have any other site speed tips? Feel free to share them in the comments.
**Disclaimer. I am not a site speed expert. This article is based on my own research and taking the site speed course mentioned above and a little trial and error. If in doubt, always speak to your host or a developer. And always ALWAYS do a backup of your site before you make any major changes. If anything goes wrong, you can just reinstall your backup!
- SEO for complete beginners
- 8 Advanced SEO tips you are probably not using yet
- How I use Frase to rank higher on Google
Recommended Resources for SEO
If you are new to SEO and want to learn the basics without taking a ridiculously expensive course then check out my ebook SEO for Affiliate Success. Not only will it help you to boost your website traffic but it will also help you to rank for lucrative affiliate keywords.
If you want a more in-depth course, then I highly recommend Eb Gargano’s SEO Jumpstart. It’s very thorough and easy to understand.
If you need to do better keyword research then the affordable tool I recommend is Keyserach. Get 20% off using this link and the discount code KSDISC.
For content optimisation, I recommend an SEO AI tool called Frase which will cut down your research times and help you to create better-optimised content that outranks even the toughest competition!
If you need help with your internal links which can be a complete faff, then I recommend checking out Link Whisper. You can sort all your internal links out in minutes instead of days and get a powerful SEO boost. Get 15% off with the code leanne15.
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