Tricking WCV

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Google has said that Web Core Vitals (WCV) are going to be an SEO factor, and the date is nigh: May 2021. So, I’m seeing some scrambling to make sure those metrics are good. Ya know, the acronym soup: CLS, LCP, and FID. There is starting to be more and more tooling to measure and diagnose problems. Hopefully, once diagnosed, you have some idea how to fix them. Like if you have crappy CLS, it’s because you load in stuff (probably ads) that shifts layout, and you should either stop doing that or make space for them ahead of time so there is less shifting.

But what about LCP? What if you have this big hero image that is taking a while to paint and it’s giving you a crappy LCP number? Chris Castillo’s trick is to just not load the hero background image at all until a user interacts in some way. Strikes me as weird, but Chris did some light testing and found some users didn’t really notice:

Although this accomplishes the goal, it’s not without a cost. The background image will not load until the user interacts with the screen, so something needs to be used as a fallback until the image can be loaded. I asked a few friends to load the page on their phones and tell me if they found anything strange about the page, and none of them noticed anything “off”. What I observed is that the few friends I asked to test this all had their fingers on the screen or quickly touched the screen when the page was loading, so it happened so quickly they didn’t notice. 

It’s a fine trick that Chris documents, but the point is fooling a machine into giving you better test scores. This feels like the start of a weird new era of web performance where the metrics of web performance have shifted to user-centric measurements, but people are implementing tricky strategies to game those numbers with methods that, if anything, slightly harm user experience.

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