It appears that Google has made sweeping changes to how their page speed insights scores are calculated, resulting in a significant improvement of overall scores across the board.
Don’t get too excited, though: It appears that the improvements occurred on their side. Let’s explore what that entails and what it could mean for the site you’re optimizing.
What Exactly Is Google Page Speed Insights?
Google’s Page Speed Insights (PSI) is a tool used by many webmasters to gauge page speed and performance on both mobile and desktop devices. It also displays Core Web Vitals, which are crucial components of the upcoming page experience update:
In the real world, one could use a single tool to capture the entire page experience from both the server and client side. But sadly, most tools don’t work in the real world. It’s therefore necessary to use more than one tool in order to gauge accurate performance of your site from industry benchmarks and metrics.
But, when it comes to Page Speed Insights, it does the job.
Myths about Page Speed Tools
Myth 1: It’s Possible to Capture Page Speed Using One Metric
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Identifying specific metrics involves examining a series of key milestones in your users’ journeys. You must understand all metrics that are involved in creating the final numbers and then you must ensure that they are accurately represented by your tool of choice.
Myth 2: If I Create One Score, My Rankings Will Magically Increase
This is, sadly, not how things will unfold. It requires significant tweaking in order to identify the specific improvements that page speed needs, and then you can create the metrics that will be most effective within a tool.
There are many different tools available, though, and not every tool will give you the exact solution you need. This is where an SEO analyst comes in. The analyst, if they are doing their job correctly, will assess specific metrics according to many different tools and put together recommendations that will allow you to make prioritized improvements to your page speed numbers.
Myth 3: Every Tool Is Equal When It Comes to Considering Different Devices
Again, there are too many factors in this equation to give an accurate assessment on. Certain page speed tools will give measurements that apply at a certain time to certain devices of the time period, but upgrades and devices evolve over time. They are never completely equal (or accurate) and it’s up to the analyst to come up with recommendations that can be tailored accordingly.
Myth 4: Fast Websites Will Immediately Result in Better Conversions
This is seldom the case. On their own, faster websites do not necessarily lead to better conversions or more customers. You can have the fastest website in the world, but if you don’t have content, links or a good SEO strategy, you will probably not reach the higher conversion rates you’re seeking. Page speed, in combination with the factors mentioned above, is what will help you achieve the conversions you deserve.
Two Different Types of Data Sets
Page Speed Insights uses two different data sets in order to track and report on performance. They use Real-World Field Data and Lab Data.
Real-World Field Data
Page Speed Insights, when given a specific URL, will look up the URL and its metrics in the Chrome User Experience Report data set. Assuming that Page Speed Insights has this data available, it will examine the metrics behind Core Web Vitals.
These include First Contentful Paint (FCP), First Input Delay (FID), Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). These Core Web Vitals make up Google’s page speed elements that you must get right in order to achieve a ranking benefit.
This type of data comes from Google’s open-source Lighthouse tool, which analyzes a given URL and generates performance scores based on Core Web Vitals metrics. But it also gives two additional data points: Time to Interactive (TTI) and Total Blocking Time (TBT).
Why Must I Care about These Metrics?
These metrics are being released in Google’s latest page speed update, scheduled to release in May, 2021. They will become the foundation for which page speed is measured and calculated.
Roger Montti reported that “targeted improvements on any specific sites will not be reflected in field data, especially CWV scores, until the next 28-day cycle is reported on.”
Google also announced a significant change in how Page Speed Insights gathers data. Specifically, it’s switching to the HTTP/2 network protocol.
This is why the page speed updates are significant and why we must consider this when working on page speed analyses.
With faster data transfer speeds thanks to the newly implemented protocol, you will not see delays in page speed processing, which is why this improvement is being shown across all metrics.
The one limitation on this is if your server is not supporting HTTP/2, but, this is highly unlikely. If you are suspicious about your host’s server speed, however, you may want to inquire about HTTP/2 and make sure that it’s enabled, just in case.
Google’s Official Page Speed Insights Update Announcement
This is Google’s official announcement regarding their updates to HTTP/2:
“As of March 3, 2021, Page Speed Insights uses http/2 to make network requests, if the server supports it.
…With this change, network connections are often established quicker. Given your requests are served in h2, you can likely expect metrics and the performance score to improve.
In general, performance scores across all PageSpeed Insights runs went up by a few points.”
A significant update, indeed. We are looking forward to page speed increases based on little effort on our part, and we’re sure there are plenty of SEO pros who feel the same!
What is the Difference Between HTTP and HTTP/2?
In 1997, the very first standardized version of Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) was created. Designed to facilitate communication between web browsers and servers, HTTP was (and is) what makes web browsing possible. It went through several early iterations of development, and eventually wound up as HTTP/1.1. This is the default for the web as a whole.
In 2015, a brand-new version of HTTP called HTTP/2 was created.
HTTP/2 solves many problems that the creators of HTTP did not foresee. HTTP/2 is significantly faster and much more efficient than HTTP/1.1.
HTTP/2 prioritizes content during the loading process, which is why it is considerably faster in comparison.
How Can I Tell if HTTP/2 is Enabled?
The method is quite straightforward. Simply bring up the Chrome Web Developer Console (hit the F12 key on your keyboard to do so), click on network and turn your attention to the to protocol column. It should specify HTTP/2 as the protocol in use. If it says anything else (as is the case below) you have some work to do.
Luckily, the process is relatively easy. If you’re familiar with server development, you might turn to Kaizen’s seven-step guide to learn how. If you’re not, just get in touch with your server’s administrator.
Does HTTP/2 Require Encryption?
No, HTTP/2 does not technically require the use of encryption. There are situations, however, where some implementations have said they will not allow HTTP/2 over unencrypted connections.
And here’s the real rub: At the time of writing, no existing web browser actually supports HTTP/2 on unencrypted connections.
So while encryption may not be technically required, it is practically necessary.
Google PSI Scores are Higher, but Probably Not From SEO Work
This is another element to consider beyond some of the specifics mentioned above. If you have made recent changes to your page speed, and you think these have resulted in improvements, you may want to double-check and test these changes on other pages. It’s likely that the improved results we are experiencing can be attributed to Google’s HTTP/2 update rather than any SEO measures implemented in the recent past.
Image credits / Screenshots by author, March 2021