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My Experience of the Google Search Central Unconference

Dave Smart
Dave Smart
// 7 July 2021
Facilitating at Google's Search Central Unconference

A What Now? An unconference! Rather than the normal conference idea, where someone presents a talk, probably with slides, an unconference is about someone suggesting a topic. The people attending that session then talk about it.

So it's about participation, and sharing ideas and learning from the whole group, rather than just sitting back and soaking in the lessons (or spreading the word from the pulpit, if you are on the speaker's hot seat!)

For a bit more detail on it, and how it worked, read the event announcement on Google's blog.

This year, I facilitated a session, along with fellow Google Product Expert & all-around star, Mihai Aperghis.

It's Vital to Chat about Core Web Vitals.

This is the second year that Google has run the Unconference, in last year's event I ran two sessions, one on web vitals, and one on hreflang.

This year I was interested in talking about web vitals again, there's been a lot of developments, outreach and tooling since then, and now it's here and rolling out as part of the page experience ranking signal.

I wanted to chat with people and learn from them if they were more familiar with them, what issues they were having, and what tools they might be using. So I submitted that as a topic and Mihai had done much the same.

With the unconference being so expertly and smoothly organised by googlers Terry Endacot & Martin Splitt, they recognised that and grouped our sessions into one.

Our Session

If we told you, we'd have to kill you … Well not really, but one of the main features of the unconference is that it follows Chatham House Rules. In short, that means it's not recorded, and everyone agrees not to attribute who said what. This means that people are much freer to share opinions, thoughts and ideas without them worrying about looking daft, or having to explain that outside the context of the group discussion.

But it's fine to talk about the group in general. We had just over 20 people join in, and again thanks to the hard work of Terry & Martin, these were a great mix of people, from developers and technical SEOs, both in-house and agency, developers, bloggers & content creators.

This was perfect, as it meant people could bring their different experiences & skill sets to the conversation.

The Conversation

Mihai hit on the great idea of the first thing on the agenda being a round of introductions. Despite the sessions being only 45 minutes (which go FAST!), I felt it was more than worthwhile to break the ice. It's easier to speak up again once you already have.

Then it was onto the topic. The conversation was great, with a good number of participants sharing issues and insights. It flowed well, and I'm sure we could have kept it going for much longer than the 45 min slot.

For this, the credit has to go mostly to the awesome attendees, who really got into the spirit of it, and interacted. If you were one of those, rest assured, you're one of my favourite people.

Mihai also deserves a good amount of praise for steering the conversation along.

The Takeaways

The (loose) aim was to gather some feedback, which was presented briefly once all the attendees (from across the different sessions) joined back in the main call. For us these were:

  1. CLS is the Hardest.
    LCP & FID tends to be more 'stable' across site templates, but CLS is harder to pin down, reporting the actual shifting elements in Search Console would be great!
  2. Search Console's Grouping
    Google's grouping of pages together isn't always that helpful, especially for CLS issues.
  3. There's a Need for a Primer
    For non-technical bloggers & creators, a simple, what this is and what to do about it would be helpful. There's a level of worry and concern about something that's been announced that impacts rankings, but a lot of the material out there can be very technical, as are the 'fixes'.
  4. Prioritising with Dev Teams
    Understanding the relative importance and impact of improving Core Web Vitals and how to communicate that too busy dev teams, so everyone is on board with where in the almost ever-present backlog this needs to sit.
  5. Web Fonts be Hard, Yo
    Web font loading is a complex and mysterious thing to get right.

Chewing on that Takeaway

Some great food for thought served up by all the participants! I agree with all the points raised. For 1 I think a lot if this is it's a very 'new' type of performance metric, we've not had something that isn't just speed (be that how fast stuff comes across the wire, or how quickly a browser can stitch it together) exactly. Tools beginning to appear that help visualise CLS. like Chris Johnson's excellent Layout Shift GIF Generator springs to mind.

But it does also highlight that people lean on Google provided tools, a lot. That's understandable as from the SEO perspective (and this was the Search Central Unconference), that's the source of truth. I hope and look forward to seeing their tooling and reporting evolving as time goes on here.

3 I really, truly wholeheartedly agree with. It's a hyper-technical subject as are a lot of the guides and explainers. I only have to think back about how much I've learned about core web vitals in the year since the last unconference, and I do this kind of thing for a living. There are still concepts that are tough to wrap your head around.

I think there's a good gap in the market for some of these primers, there are some good ones around already, Understanding and Optimising for the Core Web Vitals update by Billie Geena & The Almost-Complete Guide to Cumulative Layout Shift are two brilliant examples that manage this. But the more the better.

And yes, web fonts are surprisingly hard to sort. This is a great deep-dive More than you ever wanted to know about font loading on the web by Malte Ubl and this is a more accessible piece Best practices for fonts by Katie Hempenius. But in light of 3, I think this is something that needs improving at the browser level. Maybe new APIs, or tooling to simplify the current ones. I think it's going to be a more mainstream concern now, as people see the metrics and issues around it, whereas before they would have had to go looking more. That added level of interest will hopefully drive innovation.

Summing it Up

I loved the unconference, that's down to the hard work of Terry & Martin, the brilliance of Mihai, and most of all the amazing gang of participants that were good enough to join us. I'm proud to have been a small part of it.

About the Author:

Dave Smart

Dave Smart

Technical SEO Consultant at Tame the Bots.