Why Most People Misinterpret Google’s PageSpeed Insights

Last updated on Apr 29th, 2021 | 7 min

TL;DR: When testing your website with Google’s PageSpeed Insights, focus on metrics from real users (field data) and not on simulated test results like the optimization score.

 

PageSpeed Insights (PSI) is the most popular speed testing tool out there.

It’s easy to use, has a clean UI and gives you a ton of suggestions for improvement. Not to mention, it's a Google product, making it the primary test tool for SEOs, webmasters and marketers.

But there’s a problem:

Users often focus on the wrong things when looking at their PSI results.

In this article, you’ll learn why that is and how to avoid making the same mistake.

The Optimization Score

The overall optimization score that PSI provides makes things very simple.

PSI Optimization Score

Green is good, red and orange aren’t. It’s a powerful heuristic that saves mental energy.

Most users don’t want to deal with the intricacies of web performance, so it's useful to have an overall score.

But like most mental shortcuts, the score doesn’t answer important (and nuanced) questions like “How are real users experiencing my site?”

Here’s why:

The score is computed with lab data, which doesn’t come from real users.

Instead, PSI uses a predetermined device and network settings to analyze a page. After that, it gives you an optimization score and suggestions for improvement based on a set of best practices.

At the same time, your website users may have older devices or slower network connections, both of which lead to a different experience.

That’s why it’s easy to misinterpret your result.

A green score looks good, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to a better user experience.

This is where it pays to read the fine print next to the Lab and Field Data sections.

Lab Data vs. Field Data

As I said, lab data is collected on a predetermined device and network settings.

This type of data is easy to get, as it doesn’t require real users. It’s also great for debugging and finding problems with specific resources (images, fonts, etc.).

At the same time, lab data might not correlate with how people experience your site.

Lab Data Info

Source - How To Think About Speed Tools by Google

On the other hand, field data is collected from real users.

In PSI, field data comes from a massive dataset full of metrics for real page loads - the Chrome User Experience Report (CrUX).

Field Data

Source - How To Think About Speed Tools by Google

Put simply, field data captures load times for users when they visit a page.

This allows you to find the connection between speed, user experience and business metrics like conversions.

That’s why Google also uses field data to determine whether your site passes the Core Web Vitals audit.

Field Data vs. Lab Data

There’s also another problem:

Unlike the optimization score, the field data (Core Web Vitals) evaluation is done for the previous 28-day period.

28day period

As a result, you have to wait a few weeks for the assessment to go from red to green after an optimization. That’s why you should test your site regularly, at least once a month.

The issue here is that users typically expect quick and clear feedback. The optimization score (lab data) provides it, but the field data evaluation doesn’t.

What If There Isn’t Enough Field Data?

In some cases, CrUX doesn’t have enough data to accurately represent a website’s performance.

There are other ways to access field data directly from CrUX:

Unfortunately, both methods are time-consuming and require technical expertise.

An alternative is to use the Core Web Vitals report in Google Search Console. It also contains data from the CrUX, i.e., from real users.

Google Search Console Report

While it only shows you information about the three Core Web Vitals metrics, this report is still a great place to find pages with common problems like a bad CLS or LCP.

Google Search Console

Another option is to use advanced tools that don’t have Google’s field data but offer other ways to understand your website’s performance.

For example, WebPageTest and GTmetrix only use lab data. However, they let you simulate tests from different locations and on various devices and network settings.

WebPageTest Homepage

Source - WebPageTest

At the same time, Google Analytics’ “Technology” and “Mobile” reports can show you the users' devices, browsers and network conditions.

Google Analytics

By using data from Google Analytics to run personalized tests in WebPageTest or GTmetrix, you can get a better picture of your site’s performance in different scenarios.

DevTools also lets you emulate how slower networks and older devices load your site. You can run a performance audit on a page (right-click → Inspect → Performance → Reload) with a slowed-down CPU and network.

DevTools

Again, bear in mind that WebPageTest, GTmetrix and DevTools can only give you an approximate, i.e., lab data. Nothing can fully replace field metrics.

Make sure to keep an eye on PSI as your website grows and field data becomes available.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, testing your site’s performance isn’t so straightforward.

There are numerous ways to test, each one with its pros and cons. If you want a deeper dive, Google has an entire talk on their speed tools:

 

They also have a detailed infographic on the topic.

On the other hand, if you don’t want to spend hours learning about these tools, just remember this:

You should focus on improving the data collected from real users (field data) when optimizing your site. You should also test your site regularly to make sure visitors are always getting a great experience.

Because we know how crucial field data is, we’re working on a new Telemetry report for NitroPack that will show real-user metrics (incl. Core Web Vitals) for your websites in real-time. Once we release this feature, the metrics will be available directly in your NitroPack Dashboard.

Put simply:

The Telemetry report will visualise how real people are experiencing your website in real-time.

Our goal is to give you:

  • A clear view of how visitors experience your site;

  • Instant feedback after website changes so you can iterate accordingly;

  • A way to monitor your Core Web Vitals for Google’s upcoming algorithm update.

Our team is currently working hard to perfect this feature. Keep an eye on our blog in the following weeks for more details.