What Publishers Will Need To Change About Their Ad Experience For Google’s Core Web Vitals

Brian Weiss Freestar

The Sell Sider” is a column written for the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Brian Weiss, yield and product strategy manager at Freestar.

Publishers battling for the top ranking among the most-searched keywords face a big change to the rules of the game in May 2021, when Google will be updating its search algorithm to incorporate Core Web Vitals (CWV), three new metrics to measure page experience. These changes aren’t an act of altruism. Google search’s update aims to improve the perceived user experience and overall brand of their browser, where Google is the default search engine.

Google has described CWV as: “a set of metrics related to speed, responsiveness and visual stability to help site owners measure user experience on the web.” It’s rare for Google to be so transparent and proactive about changes in their search algorithms, so when notice is given a year in advance, there’s good reason to pay attention

For web users, this set of standards will lead to a more user-friendly browsing experience, one which publishers have allowed to erode over time as more revenue-centric metrics like clicks, viewability, and video completion rate dominate conversations and dashboards. Many publishers have grown out of touch with their audience and how they interact and engage with their websites.

So while Google is forcing change, the industry as a whole stands to benefit from rethinking and adjusting to meet these new standards. Publishers who choose to adapt and be proactive stand to gain from not just increased search traffic, but also more users returning to their websites and spending more time each session.

With implementation just months away, publishers need to begin optimizing for the upcoming algorithm changes.

The Three Core Web Vitals Crunch Points

Core Web Vitals will comprise three of the seven search signals used by Google to determine a webpage’s “page experience” score. The score affects a publisher’s rank on search results and, just as importantly, appearing in what they refer to as “rich results” or “enriched search results”. These are the results that appear at the top of the search results page.

  1. Loading Performance: Google calls this metric Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) which is essentially the amount of time it takes for the main content of the page to be loaded. Websites should aim to have LCP occur within 2.5 seconds of landing on the page.
  2. Visual Stability: We’ve all encountered unexpected layout shifts that cause us to accidentally click on an ad. Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) is the most relevant to digital advertising since varying ad heights and delays in load time cause the content on the page to move unintentionally.
  3. Interactivity: The technical term for this is First Input Delay (FID), a measurement of the time from when a user first interacts with a page (for example clicking a link or tapping on a button) to the time when the browser is actually able to begin processing the response to that interaction.

Four Changes To Make Due To Core Web Vitals

Core Web Vitals should make you consider where, how, and what size ads are placed on your page, especially for mobile users. Ad placement and frequency needs to accommodate pages that are narrower in width and thus have a far greater scroll depth.

To capture the full value of a pageview, you first have to fully understand where users are focusing their attention, and then at what size and frequency ads can be placed in those focus points without having a negative impact on user experience.

  1. Consider “sticky footer” ads. The traditional “sticky footer” ad product is by far the most versatile and ensures revenue regardless of what the device type or browsing behavior might be. The other benefit is that you’re able to ensure an ad unit remains in-view at all times so on pages with less to scroll through, like a video page, there will always be at least one display unit in-view which can then be refreshed every 30 seconds.
  2. Use lazy loading. To provide a smooth, quick-loading web page, one of the best options is to lazy load any ad placements that aren’t currently in view. Prioritizing what loads and when is key. For example, only loading an ad when it’s within 500 pixels of entering the viewport (the part of the screen that’s visible) can have a massive impact on page speed and the ultimate goal of improving page experience.
  3. Define ad sizes in advance. One of the most problematic of the three new metrics being introduced as it relates to ads is Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS), since traditionally the height of the ad which wins a programmatic auction results in the page shifting to accommodate. To prevent page shift, the maximum ad height needs to be determined so that regardless of what size ad wins an auction, the page doesn’t shift.
  4. Evaluate ad density. The easiest way to audit your existing inventory is to calculate ad density. You can calculate ad density by adding up the height of all ads within the main content portion of a mobile page, then dividing by the total height of the main content portion of the page (referred to as the viewport height). Based on Google’s standards, ad density shouldn’t exceed 30%. To reduce ad density, publishers can space their ads out and reduce their size. An even more elegant solution is to first determine where users spend the majority of their time on each page type and device type. Using tools like Hotjar, publishers are able to measure the scroll depth and click/tap density and visualize it with a heatmap, which you can then further segment by device type and operating system to name a few.

Clear Up Any Speed Bottlenecks

On mobile devices, users scroll through content far faster than on desktop. That means there’s far less time for ads to render and be fully viewable. As a result, the ad placements that are highest up on the page are the hardest to fill.

A great way to measure performance is Google Ad Manager’s Ad Speed reports. They display a snapshot of your network’s ad serving speed and can be segmented by ad unit and device type to determine reasons for non-viewable or non-deliverable ad impressions. Other valuable insights can be gleaned from looking at the tagging speed, which shows ad speed by elapsed time for different periods, including “Page navigation to tag loaded time.” These reports make it easy to identify and improve the factors contributing to fast or slow load time.

A Worthy Investment

Resilience through periods of great change defines great companies from the rest. Look at this algorithm change as an opportunity to gain an edge on competitors by understanding the right balance between user experience and monetization.

For publishers, now is the time to get to know your audience again. Strengthen your website's foundations so you’re prepared to weather whatever storm may lay ahead.

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