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Core web vitals can’t take a backseat as cookies are phased out


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This post was written by Sam Robson, managing director of audience at Future PLC

Everyone in the digital advertising ecosystem is well aware that the cookie is on life support. Publishers, already facing an incredibly competitive marketplace, have spent considerable time investigating alternatives to packaging their audiences and maintaining ad revenue when the cookie crumbles.

Of course, putting ads in front of consumers is only possible if you have traffic to your site, and if a publisher’s audience disappears, that’s a problem that not even an alternative identifier can solve.

That exact scenario could play out due to yet another wrinkle in the digital media business coming from Google. Core Web Vitals, which are Google’s metrics for measuring a positive user experience, have the potential to have a major impact on search engine rankings. Of course, any major change to search results has the potential to upend traffic strategies and the very way in which consumers find their way to great content (and advertisers find their way to consumers).

Although Google just delayed the rollout of this page experience initiative, publishers have been investing heavily in CWV efforts to prepare. The delay gives advertisers, who seem laser focused on the loss of the cookie, time to educate themselves on the importance of CWV for their campaign efforts. Advertisers who fail to understand the significance of CWV may end up dumping their ad dollars on low-trafficked sites, or in the worst-case scenario, may run out of suitable places to run their ads altogether.

What are Core Web Vitals?

Google’s CWV reports are based on three metrics:

  • LCP (largest contentful paint): This loading metric is a measure of the amount of time to render the largest content element visible in the viewport (usually an image or video), from when the user requests the URL.
  • FID (first input delay): An interactivity measurement, FID is the time from when a user first interacts with a page (by clicking a link, tapping a button, or taking another action) to the time when the browser responds to that interaction.
  • CLS (Cumulative Layout Shift): CLS measures the visual stability of a page. This one of the more complicated of Google’s CWV metrics: it is “the sum total of all individual layout shift scores for every unexpected layout shift that occurs during the entire lifespan of the page.” A score of zero means no shifting, while a larger number means more layout shifts. In Google’s view, shifting page elements is a bad user experience, so the lower the score here, the better.
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When a URL reaches the threshold amount of data for any of these metrics, Google bases the page’s status on its most poorly performing metric. If a page is only as strong as its weakest metric, it’s critical to pay attention to all three measures.

Beyond SEO

Large-scale publishers have prioritized SEO over the years to drive more search traffic. It has trickled down where even journalists and editors know how to frame headlines and stories in order to get noticed. All of this investment could be for naught if sites fail to meet the CWV standards and end up ranked lower in search results. The consequences cascade from there: less traffic leads to fewer ad sales leads to less revenue.
Publishers are already working on solving these issues behind the scenes. Some are investing heavily, spending millions of dollars to prepare. But advertisers need to get involved, as well, especially if they want to have traffic to engage with.

Why this matters to advertisers

Organic search is a greater concern to publishers than it is to advertisers, but the buy side is at least aware that it pays to work with outlets that have solid SEO foundations. As advertisers start to formulate their post-cookie strategies, CWV becomes a critical variable.

One expected action from the loss of cookies is closer publisher-advertiser relationships and an increase in direct-sales. These relationships are often synonymous with big, attention-grabbing ads, but those can hurt CWV scores by being slow to load (especially if they are the largest element) and manipulating the layout.

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This matters, because if the main post-cookie strategy is to find target audiences, it doesn’t help to create a poor user experience. Audiences turned off by bad performing sites are going to abandon that site. Scale matters, but if sites with large reach fail to take CWV into account, their traffic will be impacted.

At its core, CWV is cleaning up user experience. In order to meet the criteria and provide a positive experience, publishers may end up with fewer low quality ad units on their pages. While advertisers may see new and updated formats and functionality, they will not suffer from fewer opportunities. Instead, premium experiences for the remaining ads will likely drive engagement and reduce tune-out. Advertisers have less fear of crowding, and publishers, hopefully, can make up for potentially lost revenue by charging higher CPMs for these remaining units, and getting more traffic by delivering the better user experience.

What can advertisers do?

While the burden for compliance rests largely on publishers’ shoulders, advertisers have a role to play in deciding just how well their publishing partners fare with CWV. The loss of cookies was already going to increase the need for communication between publishers and advertisers. The rise of CWV only makes that communication even more important. Constant dialogue around direct-sold campaigns, their performance, and their impact on the page environment is the only way that both parties are going to succeed going forward.

To that end, advertisers must be willing to compromise. The common link between the decline of cookies and the rise of CWV is the end user experience. Unwieldy pages that take too long to load and are constantly shifting are as much of a turnoff to consumers as constant retargeting. In the post-cookie era, it is imperative that advertisers prioritize the experience rather than simply chase replacement solutions.

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