Google is finally pushing its page experience update to the collection of algorithms that generates its search results. If you’re at all concerned with organic traffic to your WordPress site – and you should be – it’s time to take action.
The search company admits that it will be a month or two before users can expect to see changes in search as a result of the update. But when the update has taken full effect, the elements that make up your WordPress website’s page experience will be more important than ever before.
- What is page experience?
- Where can I review the page experience of my WordPress website?
- How can I improve my site's page experience scores with WordPress?
- Which WordPress plugins are best for page experience?
- How do the top page experience plugins stack up?
What is page experience?
Page experience is a measurement of your website’s overall performance and usability as determined by Google. Individual pages of your WordPress website must achieve minimum scores in each of five categories in order to deliver a good page experience, and in turn, rank well in search results.
Core Web Vitals
The core web vitals page experience category is one consisting of three separate signals. Those signals include largest contentful paint (LCP), first input delay (FID), and cumulative layout shift (CLS).
Google assigns passing scores for LCP and FID to pages that load and allow for interaction in a timely manner. You’ll learn how to improve WordPress loading times ahead.
CLS, on the other hand, is a measure of how much a page’s content shifts around after it has loaded. Website layouts that shift around as visitors scroll provide a very poor page experience. While you may have encountered your fair share of frustrating layout shifts while browsing popular news websites, it’s easy to avoid if you’re not filling your website with obnoxious ads.
Most web traffic is mobile, so it stands to reason that Google would prefer to highlight sites with strong mobile usability higher than those without. And as you probably know, mobile usability has been a ranking factor for years now, but it’s more important than ever before thanks to the page experience search update.
Like the core web vitals category of signals, mobile usability can be divided into three key signals. Those include element clickability, text size, and content width. You should provide plenty of space for navigation links and buttons when serving content to mobile visitors. Likewise, text should be large enough to read and it should not stretch past the edges of a smartphone screen.
Most modern WordPress themes are built with mobile usability in mind. Explore the recommendations below if you have reason to believe that your theme is delivering poor mobile usability. Providing mobile visitors with an excellent experience is just one of many ways in which a great theme can improve the page experience of your WordPress site.
Sites with serious security issues have never ranked well in search. Those that suffer from these types of issues will be marked with a warning tag in search results, and most users know to avoid them entirely.
Most security issues are caused by malware or malicious intent on the part of the webmaster, but there are exceptions. Make sure that you’re using a strong and unique password for your WordPress account. By doing so, you’re better protecting your website against hackers and exploits. Additionally, you’ll want to remove any WordPress user accounts that are no longer in use. Review this article from Google for more best practices as they relate to website security.
Just as most visitors expect a page to deliver a good mobile experience, so too do they expect a website to be served over HTTPS. In fact, modern web browsers will actively discourage users from visiting a website that is not. And rightfully so, as a website that is not protected with HTTPS puts visitor data at risk.
You will need an SSL certificate to serve your WordPress website over the HTTPS protocol. SiteGround is among the many hosting providers offering free SSL certificates to all customers.
It’s worth noting that the Five Guys website in this example is indeed secure by default. An insecure version of the website was visited just to grab the above screenshot. It’s actually kind of hard to find websites that are not secure, which is all the more reason to protect your own site with an SSL certificate if you haven’t already.
Ad experience is the fifth and final page experience category that all WordPress webmasters must consider. Thankfully, it’s not hard to deliver a positive ad experience.
Common sense will get the job done here. Those same distasteful ads that force many popular news websites to shift around are delivering poor ad experiences. Avoid ads like those and any others that make it difficult for visitors to navigate your WordPress website.
Similarly, any ads on your website should not be misleading. Be as upfront as possible about any links that you’ve been incentivized to include. Your visitors will appreciate the honesty and so will search engines.
Where can I review the page experience of my WordPress website?
Whether you know it or not, Google has been quietly monitoring the page experience of your WordPress website for a while. This is to your advantage. As long as your website is public, you can quickly learn how the page experience update might affect your website in particular.
The best way to review the page experience of your WordPress website is with Google Search Console. The service is free to use, and you can begin monitoring your site’s performance in each of the five ranking categories shortly after registering your site. To do so, just navigate to the Page Experience tab of your Search Console property.
To assess changes to your WordPress page experience in real time, turn to tools like PageSpeed Insights and Chrome’s Lighthouse instead. You can access PageSpeed Insights at https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/, while the Lighthouse tool is built into Google Chrome.
To use Lighthouse, go ahead and open up the page of your WordPress website you’d like to test. Next, hit the F12 key on your keyboard to open Chrome’s DevTools.
The DevTools window is made up of many tabs, and the Lighthouse tab is among them. Expand it and click the Generate button inside to prepare a report in real time.
You’ll notice that Lighthouse uses categories all its own to group ranking signals. Either way, the tool provides actionable results. Green category scores contribute to a strong page experience for your WordPress website, while other scores indicate areas in need of improvement.
Feel free to jump back and forth between tools for score comparison, but do not neglect Search Console. Google Search Console provides a better overview of your page experience as it affects your search ranking.
How can I improve my site’s page experience scores with WordPress?
Don’t worry if your website is earning a less-than-perfect score in any page experience category. It’s nearly impossible to receive a score of 100 in any of them, but with WordPress, it’s not hard to come close. Consider the following fixes and plugins when looking to improve your page experience score with WordPress.
Make your website mobile-friendly
Many of your website’s visitors are attempting to read and browse on a smartphone. Run your website through this handy tool from Google if you’re not sure whether or not it’s mobile responsive. If it isn’t, your website is actively driving visitors away.
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix: just switch to a mobile-friendly theme. One of the WordPress platform’s greatest selling points is the ability to switch from one theme to another in an instant. Nearly all of the themes in the theme repository will adapt to screens of all sizes. If your theme isn’t among them, it’s time to switch.
Looking for a theme that is clean and simple yet highly extensible? Have a look at GeneratePress. Many of its best features are completely free, and the developer makes excellent support available to everyone.
If you’re looking for something a little flashier, check out Divi. The premium theme is bundled with access to dozens of layout packs all built by a professional designer. The packs include layouts tailored to industries ranging from business and ecommerce to health and beauty.
And a great theme will do far more than increase mobile usability. Lightweight themes like GeneratePress include fewer scripts, stylesheets, and similar requests. This sparing use of resources will ultimately improve your page experience with WordPress.
Convert and compress your images
Images will inevitably increase your website’s load times. At the same time, they’re also critical to your site’s user experience. Images break up long passages of text and can illustrate a topic in a way that words cannot, but when left unchecked, images can eat up a lot of visitor bandwidth and decrease site performance.
Instead of eliminating images entirely, you should optimize the images you add to your WordPress website. You can do this by compressing your images and by converting them to a modern format, but you won’t need to do any of that by hand. Plugins like Smush will do this automatically and in the background as you upload new photos.
If you’re curious as to how this works, Smush actually removes unused data from your photos in order to decrease file size without sacrificing image resolution or clarity. If you upgrade to the pro version, Smush will even create WebP alternatives of your uploaded images.
WebP is a modern image format that offers all of the benefits of older formats but at a fraction of the file size. WebP Converter for Media will generate WebP images at no cost but it will not compress your originals like Smush.
Cache website pages and static resources
When a visitor navigates to a brand new WordPress page for the first time, a lot happens behind the scenes in order to fulfill the request. The platform will start by processing that request for a better understanding of what the visitor is after and will proceed to make several calls to a database in order to retrieve the content that the visitor is after. With the content in hand, WordPress builds the page that is eventually sent to the visitor’s browser for viewing.
There’s no reason for WordPress to do this when the same page is visited by another user a few minutes later, and with caching enabled, the platform won’t need to. Instead, WordPress will spot the similarities between the requests and will serve up an exact copy of the page that was delivered to the previous visitor.
And that’s just one form of caching. Well-optimized websites benefit from client-side caching as well. Your WordPress website is made up of many static resources that never change but are used across many pages. These include your website’s logo, scripts that are silently loaded in the background, and more. By enabling client-side caching, you’re allowing your visitors to reuse these resources during subsequent page visits. That way, they don’t need to redownload the items as they navigate from one area of your website to the next.
If, for some reason, you choose to apply only one optimization to your website, choose to enable caching. It’s among the most effective ways to improve page experience with WordPress. W3 Total Cache offers toggles for both page-level and client-side caching and it is completely free.
Minify and defer scripts and stylesheets
Like images, the scripts and stylesheets that make up your website can have a huge impact on load times. These files don’t make themselves known like images, but nearly every page on the web is served up with at least a few of them.
Fortunately, there are multiple ways to decrease the amount of time it takes to serve those scripts and stylesheets to visitors. The first is to minify them. When you enable minification of these files, you’re simply telling WordPress to remove unnecessary spaces, comments, and other superfluous characters from them. It’s a surprisingly effective way to decrease the size of a script or stylesheet.
Once you’ve minified your site’s files, you can defer them so that they load only after more important site resources have been served. By deferring scripts and stylesheets, you’re allowing visitors to load the most important parts of your website – the parts required to read and navigate – and forcing non-essential resources out of the way during that process. And the same W3 Total Cache plugin that simplifies website caching can do the same for minification and deferment.
To enable these features, install and activate W3 Total Cache. Next, expand the plugin’s Performance submenu and navigate to the Minify screen. Confirm that minification is enabled in both the CSS and the JS section. For an even greater boost to your WordPress page experience, enable HTML & XML minification as well.
Even with these settings enabled, there’s still more you can do to speed up delivery of your site’s static resources. Compressing your files will offer even greater improvement.
Compress text files with gzip
Enabling gzip compression can decrease the size of your site’s scripts and stylesheets in a way that minification cannot. That being said, it’s completely safe (and usually advisable) to leverage both methods. This article from CSS Tricks does a great job of explaining the difference between the two methods and outlines the improvements you can expect to see from each.
W3 Total Cache should enable gzip support at the time of activation. To double check your gzip compression settings, navigate to the plugin’s Browser Cache screen and make sure there’s a checkmark next to Enable HTTP (gzip) compression.
Decrease server response time
Without a doubt, plugins make it much easier to improve page experience with WordPress, but there’s only so much that even the best plugin can do to speed up your website. When you’ve finished optimizing with the best forms of caching and compression, your hosting provider will need to pick up the rest of the slack.
Your hosting provider is directly responsible for your website’s server response time, or the time it takes for the machine that’s hosting your website to respond to the visitor who has requested it. Providers that are serving your website on modern and capable hardware can offer lower response times than those that are not.
As a result, your website is only as good as the company you’re hosting with. Sure, you can save a few bucks by picking a budget provider, but it could cost you organic traffic and visitors in the long run.
SiteGround has configured their machines specifically for the WordPress platform. Even better, they offer free SSL certificates and a powerful WordPress plugin – SG Optimizer – that offers all of the same optimization features as the plugins outlined above.
Those with a bigger budget may benefit from a switch to WP Engine. Their plans are pricier than those of SiteGround’s, but website performance on their shared machines is second to none.
As mentioned earlier, HTTPS is no longer a luxury on the web. Anybody serving a website to the public should be doing it over HTTPS.
Both SiteGround and WP Engine offer free SSL certificates with their hosting plans, but they’re not the only ones. Confirm that your provider has installed an SSL certificate on your behalf then activate it if you haven’t already.
If you’re running a modern version of WordPress, just navigate to the Site Health screen of the control panel. From here, the platform will check to see if your hosting environment supports HTTPS. If it does, you can make the switch with a single button click. Those on older versions can safely make the switch with this guide.
Which WordPress plugins are best for page experience?
If you’re looking to improve your WordPress website’s page experience on a budget, a combination of two or three plugins will get the job done. Smush and WebP Converter for Media will optimize your images while W3 Total Cache takes care of the rest. And if you’re able to upgrade to the pro version of Smush, you can forego WebP Converter for Media entirely.
But why install three plugins to do the job of one when it can be avoided? WP Rocket is the gold standard among page experience plugins for WordPress. It’s an all-in-one solution, and webmasters can enable and disable individual optimization settings as needed. WP Rocket will compress and convert your images, enable multiple layers of caching, and will aggregate your site’s scripts and stylesheets. These optimizations happen quietly behind the scenes, but the boosts is site performance can be dramatic.
SiteGround customers will find many of the same features in the company’s SG Optimizer plugin. If you’re already paying for a SiteGround hosting plan, SG Optimizer is hands down the most effective way to improve page experience with WordPress. What’s more, the plugin is free, but it simply won’t work on any hardware that isn’t managed by SiteGround.
How do the top page experience plugins stack up?
Optimization plugins are available to all WordPress webmasters regardless of budget or hosting environment. But given the choice between two or more plugins, how do they compare?
To find out, the homepage of this very website was run through the PageSpeed Insights tool. The tool assigns a score of 0 to 100 to any public web page. The higher a page’s score, the better its page experience.
The tool assigned the page the following score prior to any optimizations, and it leaves plenty of room for improvement. With a score like this, competing against pages with similar content in search would be very difficult.
After finding the site’s baseline, W3 Total Cache, Smush, and WebP Converter were all activated. W3 Total Cache requires a little tweaking to work at its very best, but the plugin wizard simplifies setup. With page caching enabled, minification enabled, and WordPress emojis disabled, attention was shifted to the site’s images.
Smush offers a handy bulk optimization tool that compresses multiple images at once. Unfortunately, bulk optimization is limited to 50 images with the free version, but a paid upgrade lifts that limit. WebP Converter for Media imposes no such limit. Instead, you can use the plugin to create lightweight WebP versions of your images all at once.
The combination of three free plugins increased the PageSpeed Insight score to a respectable 85 out of 100. That’s an 88% increase over the baseline.
But how well can a single plugin do the job of three? In order to test this, the site was reverted to its previous state and SiteGround’s SG Optimizer was installed. Though it didn’t deliver the same boost as the other plugins, it came really close. Moreover, the plugin made the process of applying optimizations much easier.
WP Rocket offered similar results, both in terms of score and usability. But WP Rocket has a big advantage over SG Optimizer: it will work in almost any environment. If you’re willing to invest in a single optimization plugin that does it all, you won’t be disappointed with WP Rocket.
As you can see, your website is in good hands with any of these plugins. SG Optimizer and WP Rocket are both great choices for webmasters who prefer an all-in-one solution. Alternatively, those looking to improve WordPress page experience on a budget can easily do so with free plugins like Smush, WebP Converter, and W3 Total Cache.
If you have yet to improve the page experience of your WordPress website, now is the time. But simply increasing your site’s usability and decreasing load times is no longer enough. Moving forward, you’ll need to monitor your WordPress site’s page experience closely in order to stay competitive. You can do this with free tools like Google Search Console and Google Chrome’s Lighthouse feature.
With that said, remember that content still trumps all. The best WordPress page experience will mean very little without strong posts to back it up.