None of the links below are affiliate links. I just like sharing my favorite tools and resources with no other agenda.
In May 2020, Google announced the impending rollout of Core Web Vitals. There was much speculation about how much impact Core Web Vitals would have on search ranking and how heavily they would be weighed in Google's algorithm.
Google usually keeps the specifics of their search ranking factors super secret. In the case of Core Web Vitals, they've given us specific metrics with specific target goals. Partially because of this, Core Web Vitals have become a very hot topic in SEO and online publishing.
My Experience with Core Web Vitals
Since most of our clients at NerdPress are food bloggers, a very competitive niche with lots of money and revenue involved, getting Core Web Vitals into the "Good" range has become a big part of what we do for our clients. Because of my experience with theme development and my interest in website optimization, I ended up our resident expert in Core Web Vitals optimization.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, I've helped optimize site speed and Core Web Vitals on hundreds and hundreds of websites. I've spent countless hours figuring out the root causes of Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) and why it can be so difficult to hit the Good range for Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) on desktop.
I now lead a team of two full-time Site Speed Nerds plus other team members who optimize Core Web Vitals and site speed on over 750 unique websites.
My "Easy Button" for Passing Core Web Vitals.
First off, I have to share that at NerdPress, we avoid the terms "passing" and "failing" when discussing Core Web Vitals status. This is because, in May of 2021, Google revealed that Core Web Vitals aren't "pass or fail". In reality, the closer your numbers get to the "Good" range for each metric, the better it is for SEO. And there is also an advantage to having even one or two of the three metrics in the "Good" range.
Obviously, the ultimate goal is to get all three metrics (CLS, LCP, and FID) into the "Good" range for both mobile and desktop. Really, it's more like six metrics because mobile and desktop are treated separately. In fact, desktop vitals weren't included as part of the search rank algorithm until months after it was launched for mobile.
Want to know more about Core Web Vitals?
Check out the "Intro to Core Web Vitals" article that I co-wrote with my boss, Andrew Wilder, on the NerdPress blog.
If you're not working with a professional to optimize your site's Core Web Vitals, it might be intimidating to try and tackle them by yourself. So, I wanted to share my "easy button" for improving your Core Web Vitals.
I'll be honest, what I recommend may not be super easy to implement, but it is something you can do without hiring a professional.
Step 1: Invest in Good Web Hosting
If you're serious about your blog or website and it's anything other than a hobby or personal site, the best investment you can make in your site is good web hosting. Period. End of story. Don't try to argue with me, you'll never convince me otherwise. 😉
On many budget web hosts, you share a server with other websites. This means your resources are often limited, metered, or budgeted. If a site on the shared server starts using a lot of resources, your site may be impacted.
Some economy web hosts will even throttle your traffic. This means if your traffic picks up, your host may block some visitors from getting to your site!
And don't get me started on the security implications of a shared server.
The Difference Good Web Hosting Can Make
But do let me tell you about my personal experience moving a site from a budget, shared hosting environment to a Managed WordPress host on a dedicated server.
Back when I ran my theme shop, I was struggling to improve page load times on my site. My goal was to get my most important pages loading in under 2 seconds.
At the time, my home page took 12 seconds to load! This was after I spent a considerable amount of time optimizing my theme, images, etc., for site speed.
I finally took the plunge and moved to one of the new "Managed WordPress" hosts that offered dedicated servers. I went with a small Canadian-based host called WP Cloud.
I migrated my site to their server and without any other changes, my home page load time dropped from 12 seconds to 2.1 seconds! That, my friends, is the power of a good web host.
Web Hosting Recommendations
At NerdPress, we currently recommend two web hosts:
- BigScoots - https://www.bigscoots.com/
- Agathon Group - https://www.agathongroup.com/
I have worked extensively with both of their teams. Their hosting services are great and their support is down right amazing. They also offer free migration services for your site.
No, they're not as cheap as the budget hosts but you get what you pay for. And they're miles cheaper than other hosts that don't provide nearly the same level of service or support. If you're looking for a new host, check them out and tell them Heather from NerdPress sent you.
Step 2: Get a Good WordPress Theme
If you can't afford an amazing custom theme by the likes of Bill Erickson and his team at CultivateWP, chances are you're going to use a commercial, pre-made theme.
(I can't afford one of Bill's amazing themes for this site, either. This themes is a custom Genesis theme designed by yours truly with some help from great plugins. For more info, see my Credits page.)
I'm going to tell you what to avoid and what to look for when it comes to using a commercial WordPress theme.
WordPress Theme Don'ts
I beg you, for the love of all that is holy, do not Google "best WordPress theme for X" and pick a theme recommended in any of these articles. Many of these options are based on which WordPress theme developers offer the best affiliate earning deals. These reviews are obviously biased and cannot be trusted.
My second no-no is themes based on theme builders. I used to be fairly neutral towards theme builders like Visual Bakery, Elementor, etc. After fighting to optimize site speed and Core Web Vitals on a number of sites that use these plugins, I'm decidedly in the anti-page builder camp. Learn how to use the the block editor. If you need advanced blocks, get a decent block plugin. I like Genesis Blocks.
Also avoid the "do it all" themes. If a theme comes with 90 different demos and promises it can do anything and can be used to build any type of site, I promise you that theme is bloated with code and unlikely to be easy to optimize for site speed and vitals.
Free themes are tempting and fine for when you're starting out. There are some great free themes in the WordPress Theme Repository. But if you're blogging to make money and generating some serious traffic, you're going to want a premium theme that comes with regular updates and support.
Also avoid theme markets like Themeforest or Creative Market. Some decent themes by reputable shops can be found on both sites, however, sorting the good from the bad is not for the faint of heart. Themeforest, for example, continues to sell themes that haven't been updated in 5 years or more and which would clearly not be compatible with modern versions of WordPress. Just don't with either of these sites.
WordPress Theme Dos
I have a long list of theme don'ts. I also have a long list of dos.
Do purchase your theme directly from the developer's website. I honestly don't trust developers who don't have their own website. If they have their own, well-designed website, it tells me they've invested time into their business and probably into their designs.
Do check out theme demos, theme features, and support documentation. Run the theme demo through Google PageSpeed Insights to see how well it performs. You don't have to be a site speed expert to know that if the numbers are all red, it's not a good choice. Make sure the theme has the features you want. Review the theme documentation to make sure they cover every step of setup and are clear and well-written.
Do look for themes that don't rely on a lot of plugins. A prime example being page builder plugins. If a theme relies on a long list of plugins to provide the basic features you need, that's a red flag to me. Yes, you'll end up using some plugins on your site but better that you're able to chose your own plugins. So, look for themes that aren't packed with every feature possible. You're going to be able to add most features with a plugin. That's the role of plugins.
Have questions? Reach out to the developer. If you have questions before you purchase a theme, contact the developer. The speed and level of service with which they reply to your inquiry will be a good indicator of the overall quality of their support.
My Favorite WordPress Themes
I work with a lot of WordPress themes. I've seen the good, the bad, and the really, really ugly.
Hands down, my favorite themes come from Feast Design Co. I've been working with their themes for years and many, many of our clients use the Feast themes with their awesome Feast Plugin.
The Feast themes + plugin are optimized for SEO, Core Web Vitals, and for general WordPress best practices. Skylar is constantly adding new, useful features to the plugin. The investment you make into this product is 100% worthwhile. Every time we onboard a new client at NerdPress and they're already using a Feast theme + the plugin, it makes our lives so much easier.
I don't use one of their themes on this site because I wanted to build my own custom Genesis theme, but it's compatible with the Feast plugin. I use a number of the plugin features on this site including the Modern Mobile Menu (a CSS-only mobile menu!), the Advanced Jump Links (see above), and more.
Feast themes are geared towards food blogs but can be used on almost any niche. They are minimal in design. But you may be able to tell from my site design, that matches my aesthetic. The intent is to let your content shine rather than your fonts.
If a Feast theme isn't quite what you're looking for, I also like:
- Restored 316 - Lauren uses the Kadence framework which is well-optimized for site speed.
- Kadence WP - This block-based WordPress framework was created by a developer from my hometown. It's since been acquired by Stellar WP.
- GeneratePress - When used responsibly, GeneratePress can be used to build highly performant WordPress sites.
- Themes by Brian Gardner - I know I said to avoid free WordPress themes, but Brian is an absolute legend in WordPress and he's been designing some beautiful block themes with great minimal aesthetics.
Step 3: Use a Site Speed Plugin
Even though Feast themes + plugin are well-optimized for speed, at NerdPress, we still use one or two site speed plugins to fully optimize sites for site speed and Core Web Vitals. Feast provides recommended settings to best optimize site speed with Feast + WP Rocket, a paid site speed plugin that we use on all of our sites at NerdPress.
Other favorite site speed plugins include:
- Perfmatters - Their image lazy loading includes advanced options WP Rocket does not and I'm a huge fan of their critical image preload feature. This plugin lacks the page caching WP Rocket provides, so you'll want to pair it with a decent page caching plugin.
- Flying Press - Flying Press includes page caching like WP Rocket and also has some of the advanced image lazy loading and critical image preload features that Perfmatters offers. It's currently edging up on my list of favorite site speed tools.
Step 4: Aggressively Cache Your Site
At NerdPress, we use page caching via WP Rocket in combination with Cloudflare CDN and caching. We also use the Cloudflare firewall to protect sites. Cloudflare has an extensive network of 200+ worldwide edge-caching locations which means faster page loading times. And caching means less resources and bandwidth usage on your server.
We use a Cloudflare Enterprise solution to achieve around 90% caching on-the-edge. WP Rocket page caching handles the other 10%.
To mimic our aggressive setup, I recommend WP Rocket (or Flying Pages) with Cloudflare and the Super Page Cache for Cloudflare plugin. This plugin makes it easier to manage HTML caching using a free Cloudflare account. For additional features like the Web Application Firewall (which I highly recommend for security), upgrade to the Cloudflare Pro plan for about $20 US per month.
Step 5: Optimize Your Images
Food blogs are very visual and image heavy, so we include image optimization in our premium plans. Our preferred tool for image optimization is the ShortPixel plugin. Imagify is a good option, as well.
Once you install either plugin, choose the most aggressive compression level and set a max image width (1200px is our recommendation). Then bulk optimize your existing images. After your current images are taken care of, let the plugin automatically optimize new images as you upload them.
Optimizing your images means quicker overall page load times, especially on mobile devices and can help if you're struggling to get your LCP into the Good range.
Step 6: Tidy up Your Plugins
You'll often hear that the best way to optimize plugins is to remove as many as possible. The fewer the plugins the better, many say.
That's not strictly true. It's more about the quality of the plugins you use than the quantity. As with themes, avoid plugins that do "all the things". Stick with simple plugins that do just what you need and do it well. Don't load your site up with so many features and widgets that it becomes unusable.
Do an audit of your plugins and remove any you're not using or that don't provide truly vital features on your site.
If you want to know what plugins I use on this site, check out my Credits page.
A Few More Thoughts about Core Web Vitals and Site Speed
Once you're in the Good range for the six Core Web Vitals metrics (FID, CLS and LCP for mobile and desktop), there's no known SEO benefit to trying to make your numbers even better. Although, better numbers may mean a better user experience for your visitors.
If you follow the steps above, it will make it much easier for you to "Pass" Core Web Vitals.
Leave a Reply