What's coming in Google's May 2021 Update

Robert Mohns, Principal Digital Marketing Strategist
Posted on May 4, 2021

Every few years, Google announces a change, and the world of SEO loses its mind. Remember “Mobilegeddon”? Get ready for Page-Experienceageddon.

Another spring, another big Google update! Google made some big changes last May and announced others that take effect this May sometime this summer. In this post, we’ll cover what’s changing (and what isn’t), how to see what Google thinks of your site, and provide a checklist to see if your site is ready.

Update: On April 21, Google announced they are both delaying rollout from May to June, and that they will be slow-walking it. It will gradually applied to search results and will not be fully deployed until August.We've updated this article to reflect Google's latest guidance.

In this post:

Say hello to “Page Experience”

Let’s start with the good news: Page Experience is a logical extension of what Google has already told us they’re doing. Pages have to be fast, safe, mobile-friendly, and non-intrusive. So there’s a good chance that you’re already in fine shape.

The change for 2021 is how Google applies that requirement. Assuming that your site is already mobile-friendly, safe, and secure, we should focus on speed. In the past, the slowest sites were penalized somewhat. But in 2021 and forward, the fastest sites will get a bonus.

This is a subtle but important difference:

  • Until now, great content could rank well on Google, so long as the page experience wasn't outright terrible. (This describes a lot of B2B websites – so B2B marketers, take note!)

  • Beginning Summer 2021, great content will not win unless the experience is also great.

The question you should ask your web team is this: Is our site actually fast with an actively good experience?

What is Page Experience? I need details!

Google is famous for its secret algorithms, but it’s actually quite open about what we should do to succeed. Here are the five factors that, together, form Page Experience:

The seven signals for Page Experience (graphic)

Page Experience includes all of:

  1. "Core Web Vitals" – Is your page fast and usable right away? (If you had to think about this, the answer is “no”.)

  2. Mobile-friendly – You know.

  3. Safe Browsing – Only load scripts and assets from trusted sources, and keep your server security patches up to date.

  4. HTTPS – Does your site default to secure connections? Does it use HSTS? If yes and yes, you’re done here.

  5. Intrusive Interstitials – Just don't do this. Ever.

Pretty much every modern site is mobile-friendly, safe, secure, and has given up on the intrusive promotional overlays. So that just leaves page speed to worry about.

How do I check my Page Experience?

The first thing you should do is hit up your Google Search Console. That’s the reporting tool that Google provides to website owners to tell them about their Google health. This tool is so important that I keep a shortcut to it in my Dock, along with Analytics and Tag Manager:

My Search Console is never more than one click away

To check Page Experience, go to Search Console. In the left-hand menu, choose “Core Web Vitals” from the “Enhancements” section. Hopefully, your report has lots of green, unlike this one:

Search Console's Core Web Vitals report
Don't be in the Search Hall of Shame

Click the “Open Report” link for Mobile (it’s more important). Check the errors, and share them with your web engineer or agency. Search Console will provide at least one specific page per issue it finds on your site. That won’t be the only page with the problem, just a representative page. Any page sharing its template or content probably shares the problem.

The next thing you should do is check out Google PageSpeed Insights. Put in your home page and click “analyze”. Then send it to your web developer or agency and ask them to explain it to you. If your scores are bad, don’t panic… you’re in good company:

This PageSpeed report is bad and Apple should feel bad
PageSpeed reports like this are actually quite common

Don’t panic, but don’t ignore it, either. If you’re in the red, you need to act now. (Unless you’re Apple, I guess.)

What should my PageSpeed score be?

PageSpeed is scored on a 100 point scale. Google says, “To provide a good user experience, sites should strive to have a good score (90-100).”

Unfortunately, how Google places you in that curve isn’t intuitive (unless you are a statistician):

  • The speed of the top 25th percentile sites is scored at 50

  • The speed of the top 8th percentile is scored at 90

Three-quarters of the web scores 50 or below. Only 1 in 12 sites scores 90 or better. And yet, 90 or better is what Google wants to see.

Some university instructors become infamous for “grading on a curve.” No matter how well the class does, only one student gets an A, only a few get a B, most will get Cs, and half the class will get a D or just fail. That’s the scenario we’re dealing with here.

In other words, If your site scored well last year, but hasn’t changed much, it might well score worse this year. Because the rest of the web is improving.

Let’s get pragmatic. If your score is…

  • Under 50, then you should expect your Google rankings will fall this year.

  • Between 51 and 90, then you should expect to be outranked by faster sites. If the sites you compete with are also slow, your ranks will probably be fairly stable. For now.

  • Over 90, then if your content is good, you’ll rank well.

  • Over 96, then you have achieved nirvana. Very few sites will ever achieve this score.

If you score 50–80, you won’t be penalized, but you also will not be competitive.

PageSpeed is secondary to Core Web Vitals

It’s non-intuitive, but PageSpeed score is not what the May Google update is looking for! Google has very specifically stated that you must get a “Good” score (green in PageSpeed) for all three metrics: Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Delay (FID), and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). (And, yes, I know PageSpeed has issues. Doesn't matter. LCP, FID, and CLS are ranking factors. We have to deal with it.)

These three metrics will be “field data”. Google uses Chrome to measure the speed of sites across the web. That’s the source for the “field data” you see in PageSpeed Insights. Which leads us to…

Core Web Vitals are unforgiving

Here’s the crazy part – you can have a site that scores 100 on PageSpeed, but still won’t pass Core Web Vitals. Here’s how one of the fastest sites on the web, Daring Fireball, scores:

This site scored 100 in PageSpeed but fails Core Web Vitals

This blew my mind. LCP is good. CLS is perfect. But that quarter-second FID (First Input Delay) score is enough to fail a page that scores 100. Wow.

A couple of important updates:

  1. Google is changing how it measures CLS this spring.Instead of measuring the biggest change, it is taking an average of all changes. This will make the measurement more friendly to sites which use infinite scroll techniques or SPA architectures.
  2. Page Experience factors will be applied to mobile searches only. Searches done on the desktop (or iPad) shouldn't be affected. (source: Core Web Vitals & Page Experience FAQs, 12/2020.)

SERP changes are coming, too.

For the past few years, Google has used AMP – Accelerated Mobile Pages – as a carrot-and-stick to encourage sites to be faster. AMP sites get preferential treatment on search in general. On mobile, AMP results get a little lightning bolt symbol to show users they can expect a lightning-fast page. Most importantly, only AMP sites are eligible to appear in the news carousel at the top of the results page!

From a user experience point of view, AMP is great! But not every site has rushed to join the AMP walled garden, and Google is having to defend itself in federal court for using AMP anti-competitively. (Things have gotten severe enough that a member of the AMP Advisory Committee has resigned. Yikes.)

Google’s Search team isn’t waiting for lawsuits to work their way through the courts. Instead, they’re going to quietly retire the AMP promotion. AMP will no longer be required to get into the search feature carousel on mobile. Any site will be eligible, so long as it’s super fast.

This is a very strong signal that Google is serious about Page Experience – they aren’t merely using it to try to compete with Facebook anymore. They want websites to be fast, regardless of the technology you choose.

The Google May Summer 2021 Update Checklist

Here’s what you need to do to prepare for the May update:

  • Verify some basics:
    1. Make sure your site is mobile-friendly; Google recommends responsive design.
    2. Make sure your server uses HTTPS and enforces HTTP Strict Transport Security.
    3. Make sure there are no intrusive interstitials at page load.
  • Check your Core Web Vitals in Google Search Console. Fix the pages it complains about.
  • Check the new Page Experience report in Google Search Console.

  • Test your home page and major SEO landing pages using Google PageSpeed. Get their scores as high as you can – but focus on LCP, FID, and CLS. You must earn a passing grade on those, regardless of your PageSpeed score.

Above all: Make sure your content is great! No amount of technical SEO perfection will make up for vague content with no clear value to the visitor.

Slow Hurts

We already know that a slow website hurts your conversion and revenues. In 2021, it also will hurt your Google rankings. Time to get to work.

Tell people a slow website hurts conversion & revenues, nobody panics. But when Google says its hurts search, well then everyone loses their minds.

Further Reading