Got 10 seconds? Probably. But I bet you won’t spend it waiting for a web page to spin, sputter and load. I hate that. You hate that. And search engines hate that, too. But if your site is lightning fast, everyone will love you.
Not too worried about your slow site? Maybe you should be. Sweet Brown (video autoplay) said it best: “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” And research findings agree.
As SEL news reporter Amy Gesenhues noted in her post last March, average page-load speed for top retail sites was over seven seconds — well above the ideal load time of three seconds or less. And, according to KissMetrics, that four- to five-second differential is costing retailers billions. In fact, according to their findings, a one-second delay in page response can lead to a seven percent reduction in sales.
But, page speed has implications beyond a poor user experience and loss of revenue — it also affects search engine rankings. SEOs have known this for years, but I wanted to find out if that factor was growing in importance. So naturally, I turned to the “government” to investigate.
No, I don’t have a friend in the NSA; rather, I explored the issue by examining Google’s page speed patents. Eventually, I dug into one entitled, “Using Resource Load Times in Ranking Search Results.”
Published in February 2014 (and filed seven months after Matt Cutts’ 2010 announcement that Google was now incorporating site speed into its ranking algorithm), the patent details how web pages that load faster receive a ranking score bonus that can move them up in the organic search results:
A search result for a resource having a short load time relative to resources having longer load times can be promoted in a presentation order, and search results for the resources having longer load times can be demoted.
But what I found interesting was how Google is actually tracking page speed. They are using Chrome — not their web crawler.
That’s because when Google developed their Chrome browser, they included tools that enable developers and Google engineers to measure page load speed. This time tracker sends device and page speed information to Google every time you visit a page within your Chrome browser.
But, Google also factors in page speed beyond Chrome.
When someone conducts a Google search — on any device or browser — Google considers the page speed of the relevant matches, and delivers a ranking bonus to the speediest. In other words, they compare your page’s speed test results with those of your competitors. Then they reorder the results — moving your page up or down — based, in part, on load times.
Please note, however, that the ranking bonus is not based upon a single, overall speed score for a page. The patent goes on to explain how Google factors in multiple scores derived from speed tests from various countries, devices and networks.
For example, let’s say you have a site that loads quickly for US visitors, but not so fast for folks in the UK. If a user is searching for your site from the US, you may rank higher in the search results than you would if a user in the UK searched using the same keyword. It’s another layer of personalization that makes generic keyword rankings less useful as an SEO metric.
(If you are interested in learning more about this Google patent and how page speed affects rankings, I’ll be digging into it further during a Catalyst Patent Watch Webinar on April 16th.)
But, the takeaway from this exploration is that Google is tracking page speed a lot more precisely than many people realize. Knowing that might help you better understand your rankings.
In general, your best bet is to ensure that your site loads quickly in all countries, across all devices and browsers.
While the above information is interesting and good to know, the real question is, how can you speed up your site today? Below are a few tips to help you do just that.
1. Optimize Your Database
Most sites use databases to store information. If you have an e-commerce store, blog, news site, or any type of dynamic functionality like internal search, then you are using a database. However, your database can impact your page speed.
Adding an index is one of the best ways to optimize your database for page speed improvements. Doing so will help your database find information faster. Instead of having to scan millions of records, your database can rely on an index to narrow down the data to a few hundred. This helps the data get returned to the page much faster.
For example, recently I was working on a site where the most popular pages were loading very slowly, taking between two to ten seconds each.
The problem was buried in the database — the table that stored the requested data didn’t have an index on it. After adding the index, the average page load time was reduced from the 2- to 10-second range to less than 1 second.
As you can see in the chart below, some load times were north of ten seconds — and, as I mentioned earlier, nobody is going to wait that long for a page to load. (Note that the page load times are measured in seconds — the lower the number, the faster the page loaded.)
2. Ditch Your Tracking Codes, Video Embeds & Share Buttons
Yep. You heard me right. You don’t need five different analytics programs. While tracking codes are vital for analyzing user behavior onsite, marketers should review each analytics program and determine which is necessary.
Remember, simplicity is key. Every time you add another tracking code to your page, it slows it down. For tracking codes you do include, be sure to put it at the bottom of the page. That way, the page can be displayed to the user even if the code hasn’t finished loading yet.
Also, limit the use of video embeds. Why? Video is a great way to build consumer engagement and create a better user experience; however, most video embeds (including YouTube) use iFrames to display the video.
iFrames place a real drag on page load times because they are essentially causing you to load a whole separate page within your main page.
Try limiting the number of share buttons on each page. This will help prioritize the marketing benefits rather than the negative impact to page speed.
Balance Page Speed With Rankings & Traffic
In each of the above cases, the brand manager needs to balance the risk of a slower page speed with the benefits of each initiative. The best way to make this decision is by testing the change and analyzing its effect on rankings and traffic against your KPIs.
For instance, many sites would prefer an increase in traffic due to share buttons and are comfortable with a decrease in rankings.
Bottom line: Multiple videos or share buttons on a page can dramatically slow down load time. It’s okay to use tracking codes, embed videos, and include share buttons, but be selective.
3. Use Caching When Available
When you visit a web page for the first time, your browser needs to request all the images, text, scripts, etc. from the website’s server. They are stored in your browser’s cache so that when you visit other pages on the site, you only need to download the parts of it that are unique. For example, the site’s logo will likely be the same on every page, so that is an image the browser can load from its cache quickly.
Up until the last year or two, browser caching capabilities were pretty limited. But once HTML5 came on the scene, it received some major updates.
For example, Local Storage allows you to store megabits of data using the browser instead of requiring it to be stored in your server’s database.
Alternatively, Application Cache lets you write fully-functional web applications that can run offline. The benefits of these two caching mechanisms are:
Also, if you use WordPress, you are in luck if there are many great caching plug-ins available to help speed-up a site. My favorite right now is Quick Cache.
4. Content Delivery Networks
Imagine that your website’s server is located physically in Texas. Your site should load quickly for residents there because its data need only travel a short distance from the server to their computer.
Wouldn’t it be great if a copy of your page could exist in a server both in Paris and in Texas? This is exactly what a content delivery network (CDN) does.
A CDN has servers all over the world, and they’ll store a copy of your website on those servers. This way, no matter where a visitor is, they’ll have access to content resident on a nearby server.
The good news is that there are plenty of CDNs out there; however, most are paid services. If you use Amazon for hosting, you can tap into their CloudFront service for CDN capabilities. If you’re a Rackspace customer, you’ll be happy to know that they partnered with Akamai to offer their customers CDN offerings.
But you don’t have to pay for a CDN. Surprise, surprise, Google is offering a free CDN called PageSpeed Service. In true Google fashion, they’re giving it away for free for a while. Then once you’re hooked, they’ll charge for it. That said, pricing will likely be competitive, and you’ll always have the option of switching to another provider down the road.
5. The Most Important Page Speed Tool
Within Google Webmaster Tools you now have access to “PageSpeed Insights.” This tool analyzes a given URL’s page load speed, and gives you tips on how to make improvements.
It is particularly valuable because Google uses a similar speed analysis as a factor in your rankings. Using this tool will allow you to see what Google sees. And if you’re smart, you might want to run it for competitors, and see how you stack up!
Again, nobody is going to wait around for your site to load. Today, speed rules. And now Google is paying a lot more attention to it than ever before. So take action, and improve your page speed now. Do it for your users!
Remember, you will never go wrong by making your site faster — traffic will never decrease, sales will never drop and engagement will never fall off. We all love speed, and if your site is blazing fast, we will all love you!
How has page speed affected your rankings? Got any page-speed boosting tips and tricks? Please share them here.