First Contentful Paint: Why It Matters and How to Optimize It in 2024

In the competitive digital landscape of 2024, delivering an exceptional user experience is more critical than ever. A core aspect of UX is how quickly your web pages load and render content to visitors. That‘s where First Contentful Paint (FCP) comes in.

FCP is a key performance metric that measures how long it takes for a user‘s browser to render the first piece of DOM content after they navigate to your page. In other words, FCP quantifies the moment when a user feels that something useful has started loading—whether that‘s text, an image, graphics, or other visual elements.

While FCP may seem like just another technical metric, it plays an outsized role in shaping a user‘s first impression of your site. A fast FCP assures visitors that your page is loading and provides a sense of progress. On the flip side, a slow FCP can leave users staring at a blank white screen, unsure if anything is happening. That uncertainty can cause visitors to bounce before your content ever has a chance to shine.

In this in-depth guide, we‘ll break down everything you need to know about FCP—why it matters, how to measure it, and proven techniques to optimize it for peak performance. Let‘s dive in!

First Contentful Paint vs Other Web Vitals Metrics

To grasp the significance of FCP, it‘s helpful to understand how it differs from other page speed metrics. Google tracks a number of Web Vitals, including FCP, First Input Delay (FID), Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS).

While all of these metrics reflect aspects of the page load experience, FCP specifically captures the first point in the timeline when a user can see any content rendered on the page. This sets FCP apart in a few key ways:

  • Unlike metrics like Time to Interactive (TTI) which measure when the page is fully loaded and usable, FCP focuses on the user‘s initial impression during the page load process. A fast FCP provides reassurance that something is happening.

  • FCP differs from LCP, which measures when the largest element (e.g. a hero image) finishes rendering. LCP is an important metric for the overall loading experience, but a fast FCP still matters even if LCP takes a bit longer. In fact, an early FCP can make an extended LCP feel less disruptive.

  • Whereas FID captures interactivity and CLS measures unexpected layout shifts, FCP is squarely focused on the visual aspect of content rendering. It directly reflects what the user sees on their screen.

So while FCP is just one signal in the larger constellation of Web Vitals, it‘s uniquely important because it marks the pivotal moment when a page transitions from feeling like it might be frozen or broken to seeming like it‘s coming to life. Hitting that moment quickly is table stakes for a positive first impression.

How to Measure First Contentful Paint

Now that we understand what FCP is and why it matters, let‘s talk about how to actually measure it. Google provides a few primary tools for assessing FCP in the lab environment (prior to a page launching) and in the field (with real users).

Some of the most common lab tools for measuring FCP include:

  • Lighthouse: An open-source, automated tool for improving web page quality. Lighthouse can be run against any web page to audit performance, accessibility, SEO, and more. It provides an FCP score in milliseconds.

  • Chrome DevTools: A set of web developer tools built directly into the Google Chrome browser. The Performance panel in DevTools captures an overview of various page speed metrics, including FCP.

  • PageSpeed Insights: A Google tool that reports on the real-world performance of a page for mobile and desktop devices. It provides both lab and field data, including FCP scoring.

While lab data is useful for getting a sense of FCP prior to launch, field data reflects how real users are actually experiencing your page. Some key tools for measuring FCP in the field include:

  • Chrome User Experience Report: A public dataset of real user measurement data for millions of websites. It measures field versions of Web Vitals metrics, including FCP.

  • Search Console Core Web Vitals report: A report in Google Search Console that shows how your pages perform based on real-world usage data from the CrUX report.

  • Web Vitals JavaScript library: Allows developers to measure Web Vitals metrics like FCP in JavaScript.

To get the most holistic view of your FCP, it‘s best to leverage a combination of lab and field data for your pages. Lab data will help you identify and fix issues prior to launch, while field data will show you how users are experiencing FCP in the real world.

What‘s a Good First Contentful Paint Score?

To provide a good user experience, Google recommends the following FCP scoring:

  • Green (good): FCP occurs within 1.8 seconds.
  • Orange (needs improvement): FCP occurs between 1.8 and 3 seconds.
  • Red (poor): FCP occurs after 3 seconds.

Google‘s data shows that most users bounce when page load time surpasses 3 seconds, so an FCP under 1.8 seconds is ideal to keep visitors engaged.

Keep in mind that these target scores are determined by looking at FCP data across many thousands of websites. Your FCP score reflects how your site compares to FCP across the web. A "good" score means your FCP falls in the 75th percentile among all sites—not just sites similar to yours.

Also remember that FCP is just one piece of the larger Web Vitals puzzle. In Search Console and PageSpeed Insights, you‘ll see an overall performance score that factors in FCP along with FID, LCP, and CLS. A low FCP can drag down this overall score, but the weighted average means other metrics will likely have an even bigger impact.

So while achieving a "green" FCP should absolutely be a priority, make sure to also keep tabs on the other key vitals that collectively influence user experience and search rankings. A holistic approach will serve you best.

What Causes High First Contentful Paint?

If your FCP falls short of the 1.8 second target, you‘ll want to understand what factors are contributing to the lag. Some common culprits include:

  • Slow server response times: If your server takes a long time to deliver content to the browser, your FCP will suffer. High Time to First Byte (TTFB) directly impacts FCP.

  • Render-blocking resources: CSS and JavaScript that must be loaded before content can be rendered will delay FCP. Optimizing or deferring these resources can speed up paint time.

  • Excessive DOM size: A large DOM tree can slow down how quickly the browser is able to paint content. Reducing unnecessary elements can improve FCP.

  • Unused or inefficient CSS: Stylesheets that contain unused rules or aren‘t minified add unnecessary layout time. Optimizing CSS decreases time to FCP.

  • Large images or media assets: Images, videos, or other large files that load above-the-fold will push back FCP. Compressing, lazy-loading, or deferring these assets will help content paint faster.

  • Multiple page redirects: If your page has multiple redirects before landing on the final URL, each one will add network round trip time before the browser can begin painting content.

  • Web font delays: Custom web fonts can sometimes take a while to load, especially on slower connections. This can delay text rendering and negatively impact FCP.

It‘s important to note that every site is different, so the primary factor(s) dragging down your FCP will vary based on your unique architecture and assets. The key is to understand where your biggest improvement opportunities lie.

How to Improve First Contentful Paint

Armed with an understanding of your FCP baseline and key improvement areas, you can take steps to speed up paint time and deliver content to users faster. Here‘s a step-by-step game plan:

  1. Run an FCP audit in Lighthouse, PageSpeed Insights, and/or Search Console. These tools will flag the highest-priority opportunities to improve FCP.

  2. Cross-reference the audit insights with your field data from CrUX and real user monitoring. Verify what actual users are experiencing aligns with the improvement opportunities surfaced.

  3. Create a prioritized backlog of the main FCP detractors you need to address. Focus on the biggest needle-movers first, like reducing server response time, eliminating render-blocking resources, and compressing above-the-fold assets.

  4. Work with your development team to implement the necessary optimizations. Google offers detailed recommendations for addressing each Web Vitals improvement opportunity.

  5. Re-audit your FCP score to quantify your progress. Continue to iterate and make improvements until your FCP falls within the "green" zone of under 1.8 seconds.

  6. Monitor your FCP on an ongoing basis. As you add new features and content to your site, continuously test to ensure your FCP remains speedy. Treat it as a core benchmark in your Web Vitals dashboard.

Some specific optimizations that can help improve FCP include:

  • Minimize main-thread work: Reduce JavaScript execution time by minimizing and compressing JS files, leveraging browser caching, and breaking up Long Tasks.

  • Reduce server response times: Route users to a nearby CDN to cut down latency, leverage caching, and scale resources to handle high traffic.

  • Remove unused CSS: Identify and remove any unused CSS rules, or move unused rules to a separate sheet and defer it to speed up content rendering.

  • Eliminate render-blocking resources: Minify and compress CSS and JavaScript files, and consider inlining critical JS and deferring non-critical JS.

  • Compress images: Convert images to newer formats like WebP and AVIF, use image compression tools, and lazy-load below-the-fold images.

  • Preload important resources: If you know a key resource will be needed soon, consider preloading it to ensure it‘s available when needed.

  • Avoid multiple page redirects: Minimize the number of redirects, especially for resources that delay FCP.

  • Cache assets: Leverage browser caching to store assets locally in the user‘s browser, speeding up subsequent page loads.

The specific optimizations you choose to implement will depend on the unique needs and setup of your site. The key is to be proactive about continuously finding ways to trim milliseconds off your FCP for the good of your users.

The Business Benefits of Improving First Contentful Paint

By now, it should be clear that delivering a fast FCP is critical for a positive user experience. But the benefits of a speedy FCP extend far beyond just UX feel-good vibes—it can deliver meaningful business results.

Shaving milliseconds off your FCP can translate to:

  • Higher engagement: When your content paints quickly, users feel confident that your page is loading successfully. That positive first impression can keep them on your site longer, increasing dwell time and consumption.

  • Improved conversion rates: Slow FCP paints a picture of a sluggish site, eroding user confidence. But a snappy FCP can instill trust, keep users on-page, and ultimately boost conversion rates for key actions.

  • More return visits: A consistently fast FCP contributes to a reliable, enjoyable user experience. That can keep visitors coming back for more, improving retention metrics and brand loyalty.

  • Better search rankings: Google has stated that Core Web Vitals (including FCP) are a search ranking signal. A strong FCP can give you an edge in competitive SERPs.

Milliseconds matter when it comes to user attention and engagement. Even a seemingly small improvement in FCP can have an outsized impact across your key business and growth metrics.

For example, Pinterest reduced FCP by 50% and saw a corresponding 15% bump in SEO traffic and signups. Mobify improved FCP by 100 milliseconds which correlated with a 1.11% uptick in session-based conversion. Talk about return on optimization!

Closing Thoughts

At the end of the day, we‘re all striving to create lightning-fast site experiences that delight users and drive business results. First Contentful Paint is one key piece of that puzzle—a critical milestone in the page load journey that sets the tone for everything that follows.

By monitoring, measuring, and optimizing FCP as a core Web Vital, you can ensure you‘re delivering content to users as quickly and efficiently as possible. You‘ll create a strong first impression, instill trust and confidence, and keep visitors engaged for the long haul.

2024 is shaping up to be a big year for Web Vitals and the page experience ranking signal. By getting ahead of FCP optimizations now, you‘ll be well-positioned to ride the wave and secure a competitive edge. So what are you waiting for? It‘s time to paint a better picture for your users, one millisecond at a time!

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