What is PageSpeed Insights and how to interpret your score?
If you own a website, you’ve probably heard about the importance of page loading speed. You’ve most likely read from hundreds of experts that slow websites can alienate your audience, make you lose potential customers, and penalize you on Google.
When you realize that your website is not fast enough, you start a frantic search for the causes of the slowdown. You install a variety of plugins, reduce the size of the images, improve the website’s structure, and when everything seems to be finally fixed, you check your score on Google PageSpeed Insights and… you’re back at the starting point! Google returns a series of orange and red writings, advice on what to improve and, above all, a score well below your expectations – far from that 100% you’d like to see on the screen.
How is it possible? You felt like you were doing everything you needed to do to make your site faster, yet PageSpeed’s results say otherwise. The truth? Chasing that utopian 100% on PageSpeed won’t do you any good. That score, in fact, is worthless if it’s not seen from the right perspective.
Too often, scoring metrics end up fueling illusions of success. What to do, for example, with hundreds of thousands of page views each month if your users aren’t on target? Or thousands of social followers who aren’t interacting with your content? Similarly, chasing the highest value on PageSpeed is not as important as it seems and, indeed, it can even worsen the browsing experience. How? We explain it in this article.
Let’s take a step back: what is PageSpeed Insights?
PageSpeed Insights is a tool created by Google that analyzes web pages and provides suggestions to make them faster. You don’t need to own the domain to get a report. Just type the URL you want to examine in the search bar and you’ll get an analysis with two separate reports: one for the desktop and one for the mobile version of the website.
Included in the reports are suggestions on actions to take to increase speed, and an overall rating expressed on a scale of 1 to 100.
It’s free and unlimited, which makes it really very useful for analyzing your own domains and those of your competitors. As we already mentioned, however, the mythical 100% score shouldn’t become an obsession.
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The PageSpeed score and the speed of your site
An important premise is that, to date, it is unclear how much your PageSpeed score affects your Google ranking.
When you perform a search, the search engine results are not organized based on PageSpeed parameters. The search algorithm relies on a plethora of factors, many of which are unknown even to the leading experts. One of the most important factors for ranking is loading time, but it’s not the only one: many other essential elements contribute to better search engine optimization and users’ browsing experience.
The analysis produced by Google’s tool is therefore not sufficient to evaluate the performance of a site. To get as clear a picture as possible, it is necessary to cross-reference the results with those of at least one other measurement platform, such as Pingdom Tools or GTMetrix, which are very useful for getting a thorough understanding of website performance.
These two tools analyze the performance and loading times of the URLs you’re interested in and, like PageSpeed, provide a final evaluation score with some pointers on how to improve the results.
What are Google’s Core Web Vitals?
PageSpeed Insights doesn’t simply focus on loading time – it also includes a series of parameters on page usability, called Core Web Vitals, which refer to the user’s browsing experience.
But how do these factors work, and how do they determine the final PageSpeed score? Google links them directly to the user experience, that is, the experience of visitors as they explore a web page. If navigation proceeds quickly and smoothly, the search engine’s rating will be higher. On the other hand, when errors that affect the usability of the content emerge, the overall rating goes down.
The Core Web Vitals indicated by Google are three:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)
- First Input Delay (FID)
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)
If you own a website, all you have to do is access Google Search Console – one of the best free tools for solving indexing problems – to monitor them under the heading “Core Web Vitals”. Let’s see what parameters each factor takes into consideration.
Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)
The Largest Contentful Paint indicates the time it takes for a page to load the largest element to display. In other words, the time to load the essential components that make up the page, such as the overall architecture or textual content.
Think of a page with a picture of a product: the picture will most likely be the largest element.
The ideal loading duration should be less than 2.5 seconds. If it is more than 4 seconds, the performance is considered poor.
First Input Delay (FID)
First Input Delay measures how much time elapses between the page opening and the moment the user can actually interact with its content, for example by clicking a button.
Think of a checkout page and the delay you experience before you can fill out the form.
Google considers good a FID below 100 milliseconds and bad a FID above 300 milliseconds.
Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)
This is the parameter that evaluates the stability of a page. It may happen that the elements in a page need some time to be positioned in the right place – for example, an image that appears out of frame for a few fractions of a second. CLS monitors these inaccuracies to determine the overall score of the page.
This one is definitely one of the most annoying aspects from a user navigation perspective: think about when you open the page with a news article, and as you start reading the text shifts because a banner ad is loaded.
If the elements settle in less than 0.1 seconds the performance is good, if they take more than 0.25 seconds the performance is considered poor.
Why aiming for 100% is not relevant
As we’ve already mentioned, it’s practically impossible to always reach the maximum score with PageSpeed, and persisting in trying to get there can become counterproductive. In some cases, PageSpeed’s suggestions are impossible to apply or worse, contradict each other, and they really require a lot of work to implement.
If you don’t have a good knowledge CSS and HTML, for example, you run the risk of following the suggestions too literally and “breaking” your site. It’s okay to try to do it yourself, but remember: it’s always better to get an expert to intervene before it’s too late!
If you’ve already tried to test your site with Google PageSpeed, these are some of the examples of reporting you may have encountered:
- intervene on the jQuery script;
- take advantage of browser caching.
And these are just three of the types of recommended interventions that, to be put into practice, require a bit of experience in coding.
However, we repeat that 100% is not a likely goal to achieve.
Want proof? Check out Amazon.com’s PageSpeed below:
Or Apple’s website:
If the world’s largest e-commerce site and one of best-known tech companies are happy with a mediocre score, it really means that the number isn’t that important.
When do you need to worry about PageSpeed?
To date, it’s unclear how many of the elements flagged by PageSpeed really impact the ranking on Google.
If Google Search Console or PageSpeed are reporting poor results to you, before you panic, the question to ask is: how important is organic traffic to my site?
If you fall into one of these categories:
- You’ve never invested in SEO, copywriting, content;
- Your traffic sources are Ads, social media, newsletters, referrals, in short NOT organic traffic;
- Your earnings are not dependent on ranking for specific keywords in search results;
You can relax: a low score on PageSpeed update won’t change anything for you.
If, on the other hand, your web project depends on organic traffic and you’ve invested in SEO, then it makes sense to invest in optimizing the on-page experience as well.
Why is Google showing PageSpeed everywhere?
In recent months, Google has integrated PageSpeed into many of its tools, such as:
- Search Console
- Google Analytics
- Google Ads
In June 2021, Google introduced some important changes among the factors accounted for to determine the ranking of a web page. Core Web Vitals are starting to play an increasingly important role in the ranking algorithm. Traditional SEO continues to be decisive, but an optimization strategy must also take into account the Core Web Vitals as shown by Google.
We are convinced that “the WordPress ecosystem” (i.e. themes, plugins, and services that integrate with your WordPress site) will largely adapt to Google’s changes as soon as they become officially relevant to SEO, just as it happened in the past.
That’s the strength of WordPress: a community of developers and companies that are constantly improving the software following market demands.
So what is PageSpeed Insight for?
Google PageSpeed Insights is a very useful tool for a first analysis of a domain’s performance, but it can’t be taken as the only benchmark to evaluate the navigability of a site. It can help to quickly track down problems that can be easily solved with plugins like WP Rocket or Imagify – such as oversized images or content that needs to be compressed -, but it does not provide enough information to identify the real criticalities of an online project.
The new role of the three Core Web Vitals – Largest Contentful Paint, First Input Delay, Cumulative Layout Shift – makes us assume that in a few months, at most a few years, the optimization criteria for web pages could change.
The new features introduced by Google show that PageSpeed is not the definitive analysis tool. If used in conjunction with other software, it can be a good tool to understand areas of improvement. However,it’s important to remember that the data shown in PageSpeed does not reflect not the full picture. In short, there is nothing wrong with using it, but always remember these guidelines:
- don’t rely only on PageSpeed Insights results to evaluate the performance of your site;
- always be very careful if you decide to apply the suggestions of the navigation report yourself. It’s best to get expert advice before doing any damage;
- don’t get obsessed with the final Google score, but focus on the loading speed and usability of the site;
Also, test your site’s performance on other tools such as Pingdom and GTMetrix to see what effect your interventions have had.
How do you improve your Core Web Vitals?
Core Web Vitals (LCP, FID, CLS) are largely influenced by how the pages are built.
Please note: we are not talking about page speed. A page can load in 2 seconds (a time considered very good!) but still have essential web signals that can be improved.
Below we indicate some actions you can take to improve these parameters.
1. Remove unused plugins (and features)
This is always great advice, but in this case, it’s especially good because plugins increase page weight and add scripts that negatively impact usability metrics.
Maybe a while back you installed a plugin to create an affiliate program that you never launched, or you have a plugin for sharing articles on social media that you are not using.
Better do a good cleanup.
2. Remove (and block) unused scripts (and services)
This tip is a variation of the above, with the difference that scripts often have more impact and are less visible than plugins.
Maybe you activated Hotjar a while ago and now you don’t use it anymore, or you have scripts to track conversions from Google Ads campaigns but that have now stopped. It’s best to clean up the scripts you do not need.
Several plugins can help you to speed up the cleanup process, including Asset Cleanup, which scans the page and temporarily deactivates plugins and scripts that are not in use, or W3 Total Cache, which optimizes the loading speed of each page through caching.
3. Simplify pages (where you get traffic)
Long pages, full of graphic elements such as sliders, videos, pop ups, have always been the enemy of usability.
If you have a site with hundreds or thousands of pages, simplifying the content can involve a huge amount of work, as you should review pages one by one. Start with the pages that receive the most organic traffic (you can check this information via Google Analytics) and focus on simplifying those first.
If, for example, you get organic traffic on the homepage, look at the structure of the page and think about which elements can be removed to make it lighter.
Is it really necessary to show 20 articles in rotation on a slider? Is it necessary to include all the testimonials? Or can you choose three and add a “Read all reviews” button? These are some examples of things to consider in the simplification process.
4. Make sure you use good hosting
The LCP value is also influenced by the performance and location of the server on which your site is hosted.
If your visitors are in Italy, it is better to have a server in Europe that uses fast and modern technology (SSD disks, LiteSpeed + LSCache, PHP 7.3+).
A hosting provider that is optimized for WordPress is WPX, which operates through servers in both Europe and the US and has proven extremely reliable so far. An alternative for larger websites looking to scale quickly is Cloudways, whose service is completely managed in the cloud.
How NOT to do to improve Core Web Vitals?
In the race for high scores, many website owners are approaching optimization in a way that may actually worsen the performance and usability of the pages. Here are some things to not do, when it comes to optimization:
1. Obsessing over scores
Software like PageSpeed Insight, Google Search Console, Google Analytics, but also GTmetrix and SEO tools such as SEMrush are automated tools that provide reports that need interpretation.
Some reports on technical issues are plain wrong while others make no sense and risk causing more harm than good.
Let’s take an example: a video on the homepage has a negative impact… but what if that video is what entices visitors to contact you? Would you remove that video to get a better PageSpeed score?
2. Installing NitroPack
NitroPack.io is a service that promises effortless optimization. It sounds too good to be true, and if one is not careful it can create unwanted issues on the website.
This service uses a series of ‘tricks’ to increase scores, and when looking at the data after running NitroPack the results are indeed amazing. The problem is that NitroPack improves the scores by “cheating” Google applying changes that only make it seem like the website is faster – the boost in the scores is often not matched by an actual improvement in the user’s experience.
We tested NitroPack and we don’t recommend it to anyone who cares about SEO and the users of their site. History has thought us that cheating Google is a bad idea.
3. Paying for expensive optimizations
We do not recommend paying for expensive PageSpeed optimization work at this time.
First, it’s an expensive job, and the return on investment is difficult to assess.
The PageSpeed score on mobile could go from 30/100 to 70/100 after a four-hour intervention, but will this be a sufficient score? Could more be done? And what if another tool still shows problems?
Second, extreme optimizations often last for a short time only and may bring more problems down the line: what happens if you install a new plugin and stats start to worsen?
Third, and perhaps most importantly: themes and plugins are adapting to new page experience requirements, and several warnings will disappear simply by doing regular site maintenance.
For example, at the beginning of June 2021 WP-Rocket version 3.9 came out with the “Remove Unused CSS” feature designed specifically to improve Core Web Vitals!
Need help with improving your website’s performance?
We hope these pointers have helped you gain clarity on Google PageSpeed Insights. Are you looking for help in assessing or improving your site’s performance? Get in touch with Mowgli today to find out who we can enhance your online presence.