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Improving Cumulative Layout Shift at Telegraph Media Group

Improving Cumulative Layout Shift at Telegraph Media Group

Within a couple of months the leading UK news website managed to improve their
75th percentile CLS by 250% from 0.25 to 0.1.

Chris is a principal software engineer at The Telegraph.

The visual stability challenge #

Layout shifts can be very disruptive. At Telegraph Media Group (TMG) visual stability is particularly important because readers predominantly use our applications to consume the news. If the layout shifts while reading an article, the reader will likely lose their place. This can be a frustrating and distracting experience.

From an engineering perspective, ensuring the pages don't shift and interrupt the reader can be challenging, especially when areas of your application are loaded asynchronously and added to the page dynamically.

At TMG, we have multiple teams contributing code client-side:

  • Core engineering. Implementing third-party solutions to power areas such as content recommendations and commenting.
  • Marketing. Running A/B tests to assess how our readers interact with new features or changes.
  • Advertising. Managing advert requests and advert pre-bidding.
  • Editorial. Embedding code within articles such as tweets or videos, as well as custom widgets (for example, Coronavirus case tracker).

Ensuring each of these teams do not cause the layout of the page to jolt can be difficult. Using the Cumulative Layout Shift metric to measure how often it's occurring for our readers, the teams got more insight into the real user experience and a clear goal to strive to. This resulted in our 75th percentile CLS improving from 0.25 to 0.1 and our passing bucket growing from 57% to 72%.

250%

75th percentile CLS improvement

15%

More users with good CLS score

Where we started #

Using CrUX dashboards we were able to establish that our pages were shifting more than we'd like.

CrUX Dashboard showing about 55-60% good, 15% needs improvement, and 25% of poor scores.
Our Cumulative Layout Shift scores between June 2020 and February 2021.

We ideally wanted at least 75% of our readers to have a "good" experience so we started identifying the causes of the layout instability.

How we measured the layout shifts #

We used a combination of Chrome DevTools and WebPageTest to help recognize what was causing the layout to shift. In DevTools, we used the Experience section of the Performance tab to highlight individual instances of shifting layout and how they contributed to the overall score.

The front page of Telegraph with an ad in the header highlughted with a blue overlay.
Identifying a layout shift caused by the advert loading client-side above the header using the Experience section of Chrome DevTools.

WebPageTest helpfully highlights where the layout shift occurs in the timeline view when "Highlight Layout Shifts" is selected.

WebPageTest filmstrip view of the Telegraph website with the layoutshift highlighted with a red overlay.
WebPageTest highlighting where the layout shifted.

After reviewing each shift across our most visited templates we came up with a list of ideas as to how we could improve.

Reducing layout shifts #

We focused on four areas where we could reduce layout shifts:

  • adverts
  • images
  • headers
  • embeds

Adverts #

The adverts load after the initial paint via JavaScript. Some of the containers they loaded in did not have any reserved height on them.

Animation of the Telegraph website. The list of stories gets pushed down when an ad loads above it.
The "More stories" block below the advert is shifted down after the advert loads.

Although we don't know the exact height, we're able to reserve space by using the most common advert size loaded in the slot.

Animation of the Telegraph website. A placeholder rectangle for the ad is placed above the list of stories. The ad loads in place of the placeholder without causing a layout shift.
By reserving space for the advert, the "More stories" block below remains static before and after the advert loads.

We had misjudged the average height of the advert in some cases. For tablet readers, the slot was collapsing.

Animation of a tablet view of the Telegraph website. The placeholder slot is bigger than the ad so the content shifts up after ad loads.
The advert slot collapsing after it loaded for readers on tablet sized devices.

We revisited the slot and adjusted the height to use the most common size.

Animation of a tablet view of the Telegraph website. With the placeholder matching the ad size, there's no layoutshift when the ad loads.
Ensuring the space we reserved for the advert slot matched the most commonly served height of the advert.

Images #

A lot of the images across the website are lazy loaded and have their space reserved for them.

Animation of article preview cards loading.
Lazy loading images without disrupting the layout.

However the inline images at the top of the articles did not have any space reserved on the container, nor did they have width and height attributes associated with the tags. This caused the layout to shift as they loaded in.

Animation of the article page loading. When the main image loads at the top of the page, the text moves down.
A layout shift caused by the article's main image.

Simply adding the width and height attributes to the images ensured the layout did not shift.

Animation of the article page loading with placeholder reserved for the main image. When the main image loads at the top of the page, there's no layout shift.
The main article image loading without causing the layout to shift.

The header was below the content in the markup and was positioned at the top using CSS. The original idea was to prioritise the content loading before the navigation however this caused the page to momentarily shift.

ALT_TEXT_HERE
The header of the page loading inelegantly.

Moving the header to the top of the markup allowed the page to render without this shift.

ALT_TEXT_HERE
The layout is no longer disrupted by the header of the page loading.

Embeds #

Some of the frequently used embeds have a defined aspect ratio. For example, YouTube videos. While the player is loading, we pull the thumbnail from YouTube and use it as a placeholder while the video loads.

The video player slot loading a low resolution thumbnail while the video player loads.
The video player slot loading a low resolution thumbnail while the video player loads.

Measuring the impact #

We were able to measure the impact at a feature level quite easily using the tooling mentioned towards the start of the article. However we wanted to measure CLS both at a template level and at a site level. Synthetically, we used SpeedCurve to validate changes both in pre-production and production.

SpeedCurve chart showing a steep drop in CLS score.
Tracking CLS progress synthetically using SpeedCurve.

We're able to then validate the results in our RUM data (provided by mPulse) once the code reached production.

mPulse chart showing a drop in CLS score.
Validating site-wide CLS improvements with mPulse RUM data before and after making changes.

Checking the RUM data provides us with a good level of confidence that the changes we're making are having a positive impact for our readers.

The final numbers we looked at are for the RUM data Google collects. This is especially relevant now as they will soon have an impact on page ranking. For starters we used the Chrome UX Report, both in the monthly origin level data available through the CrUX dashboard, as well as by querying BigQuery to retrieve historic p75 data. This way we were easily able to see that for all of the traffic measured by CrUX, our 75th percentile CLS improved by 250% from 0.25 to 0.1 and our passing bucket grew from 57% to 72%.

CrUX dashboard showing p75 CLS for telegraph.co.uk is 0.1.
Results from the Crux Dashboard.
BigQuery showing p75 values improving month to month, from 0.25 to 0.1.
BigQuery run displaying the p75 values of 2021 to date.

In addition, we were able to make use of the Chrome UX Report API and create some internal dashboards split into templates.

Internal dashboard showing average good score of 76.2, needs improvement of 9.3, and poor score of 14.6.
Internal dashboards making use of the Chrome UX Report API highlighting our average score and the worst performing pages using that template.

Avoiding CLS regressions #

An important aspect of making performance improvements is avoiding regressions. We've set up some basic performance budgets for our key metrics and included CLS in those.

A performance budget dashboard which shows synthetic checks measuring CLS on some of our high traffic templates. The budget is currently set at 0.025.

If the test exceeds the budget it'll send a message to a Slack channel so we can investigate the cause. We've also set up weekly reports, so that even if the templates remain in budget we're aware of any changes that have had a negative impact.

We're also planning to expand our budgets to use RUM data as well as synthetic data, using mPulse to set both static alerts and potentially anomaly detection which would make us aware of any changes that are out of the ordinary.

It's important for us to approach new features with CLS in mind. A lot of the changes I've mentioned are those we've had to fix after they've been released to our readers. Layout stability will be a consideration for the solution design of any new feature going forward so that we can avoid any unexpected layout shifts from the start.

Conclusion #

The improvements we've made so far were quite easy to implement and have had a significant impact. A lot of changes I've outlined in this article didn't take much time to deliver and they were applied to all of the most commonly used templates which means they've had a widespread positive impact for our readers.

There are still areas of the site we need to improve. We're exploring ways we might be able to do more of our client-side logic server-side which will improve CLS even more. We will keep tracking and monitoring our metrics with an aim to constantly improve them and provide our readers with the best user experience possible.

Last updated: Improve article