Why digital media companies shouldn’t obsess over site speed alone

Speed matters, but for many digital publishers, site speed is the be-all-end-all. It’s their number one priority. This is understandable as a slow website can impact your website’s rankings, user experience, and conversion and bounce rates.

But too often, site speed, measured by Google’s Page Speed Insights, is prioritised over more important measurements: Core Web Vitals and the Page Experience tab in Google Search Console.  These offer a more complete and accurate depiction of real-world page performance (and the capacity to improve traffic) far more than page speed alone. You will get more bang for your bucks focussing on moving these numbers than you will from any incremental increase in speed.

The fact is that many business critical products such as ad tech and analytics, can significantly hit site speed. But this can be palatable as long as they don’t hurt your Core Web Vitals and Page Experience metrics.

The complex nature of measuring page performance

In the realm of digital media, the all encompassing idea of a page’s “performance” extends far beyond speed, which is essentially how long a site takes to load. In comparison, Google’s Core Web Vitals and Page Experience measurements, while taking load times into account, also considers more nuanced measurements of user experience such as interactivity and visual stability.

They measure parameters like:

  • Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): the time it takes for the largest content element in the viewport to fully load.
  • First Input Delay (FID): the time from when a user first interacts with your page
  • Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): gauges if a site unexpectedly shifts its layout.

These measurements reflect the actual user experience more accurately, providing a more nuanced understanding of a site’s performance.

Surprisingly, it’s entirely possible for a site to exhibit good site speed but still perform poorly when evaluated through the lens of Core Web Vitals. 

Google’s page experience algorithm  

Quite often, the terms Core Web Vitals and Page Experience are used interchangeably. However the reality is that Core Web Vitals are just a component of Page Experience.

In addition to the three Core Web Vitals parameters detailed above, Page Experience looks for things like a sites mobile-friendliness, that it runs on a secure site (yes – still in 2023) and that intrusive user interfaces/pop-ups, aren’t impacting a users experience on the site. Google then measures this against real-world traffic data based on how your users are actually experiencing your site. Conversely, site speed is measured only using a simulated environment. 

Read more about how Google views a good page experience.

The impact of ad tech and analytics

Most modern media companies rely heavily on a number of layers running on their sites. From ad tech to various analytics platforms – all of these business-critical functions can diminish a site’s performance. 

Quite often in the development phase of new projects, our team will build what we commonly refer to as a bloat kill switch. This is a flag that we pass into the URL which disables all ad tech and analytics to provide our clients real-world, side-by-side comparisons of the same product – just with all the extra layers disabled. 

External tools like this do impact site performance scores, due to the size of the libraries and frameworks being loaded in. However, most of them are able to be implemented or integrated in such a way that they don’t impact meaningful metrics like Core Web Vitals. 

Diminishing returns of single-minded site speed optimisation

The pursuit of site speed optimisation can often be a game of diminishing returns. There comes a point where investing additional resources into enhancing site speed yields progressively smaller increases in performance. 

For instance, shaving off milliseconds from an already fast-loading page that passes all Core Web Vitals targets, may require significant technical effort and resources, but the perceptible benefit to the end user and your overall performance, is minimal.

Moreover, this single-minded obsession with site speed can inadvertently lead to the neglect of other crucial aspects of page performance. A publishing website might be lightning-fast, but suffer from issues like ads that jump around the page or delays in when a visitor is able to click or input their email address. Which of these is more important to audiences?

Instead of chasing the site speed, development resources are often better utilised in making sure your tech stack is hitting everything it needs to in Google Search Console. Or doing important maintenance such as getting your URL permutations in order.

How to get the balance right with site performance 

Identifying the best areas to devote development resources and budget can be a tricky balancing act for publishers. Too often speed can be prioritised over other important metrics. If you need help working out where you can move the needle the most efficiently, reach out to The Code Company. 

Ben May

Ben is Managing Director of The Code Company. He is passionate about working with publishers on clever and innovative ways to solve complex problems. He works with The Code Company team on all projects, bringing his perspective and problem solving skills to deliver great outcomes.