People like fast sites.
And so does Google. In fact, Google likes blistering fast sites so much it is preparing to move to what it is calling a ‘mobile first‘ index in 2017.
‘Site Speed’, we are told by Google in the above video, is a ranking factor. But as with any factor Google confirms is a ranking signal, it’s usually a small, ‘nuanced’ one.
Now that Google is determined to focus on ranking sites based on their mobile experience, the time is upon businesses to REALLY focus on delivering the fastest DESKTOP and MOBILE friendly experience you can achieve.
Because if you DO NOT, your competition will, and Google will rank those pages above your own, in time.
To make our results more useful, we’ve begun experiments to make our index mobile-first. Although our search index will continue to be a single index of websites and apps, our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results. Of course, while our index will be built from mobile documents, we’re going to continue to build a great search experience for all users, whether they come from mobile or desktop devices.
If you have a responsive site or a dynamic serving site where the primary content and markup is equivalent across mobile and desktop, you shouldn’t have to change anything.
A fast site is a good user experience (UX), and a satisfying UX leads to higher conversions, and now that Google is pushing so hard in this direction, it is time for us to take action.
How fast your website loads is critical but often a completely ignored element in any online business and that includes search marketing and search engine optimisation.
Very slow sites are a bad user experience – and Google is all about good UX these days.
This article lays down some research that backs up this view.
Every Second Does Count
(While you read this article, you can test your site speed (and tons of other stuff) quickly by running it through our free seo checker tool.)
FIRST – How Much is ‘Website Speed’ a Google Ranking Factor?
‘How much is a very slow site a negative ranking factor’, historically, has been a more useful interpretation of the claim that ‘website speed is a Google ranking factor‘.
First – for I have clearly witnessed very slow websites (of 10 seconds and more) negatively impacted in Google, and second, from statements made by Googlers:
We do say we have a small factor in there for pages that are really slow to load where we take that into account. John Mueller, GOOGLE
Google might crawl your site slower if you have a slow site. And that’s really bad – especially if you are adding lots of new content or making lots of edits to content on the site.
We’re seeing an extremely high response-time for requests made to your site (at times, over 2 seconds to fetch a single URL). This has resulted in us severely limiting the number of URLs we’ll crawl from your site. John Mueller, GOOGLE
John specifically said 2 seconds disrupts CRAWLING activity, not RANKING ability, but you get the picture.
How Fast Should Your Website Load in 2017?
Historically most of us have focused on making our desktop versions of our site load as fast as possible, but with Google switching to the mobile index first, we must primarily now focus on mobile speed.
Research from Doubleclick (owned by Google) published in September 2016 suggests:
‘The average load time for mobile sites is 19 seconds over 3G connections.’ DOUBLECLICK
‘Slow loading sites frustrate users and negatively impact publishers. In our new study, “The Need for Mobile Speed”, we found that 53% of mobile site visits are abandoned if pages take longer than 3 seconds to load.’
‘sites that load in 5 seconds vs 19 seconds observed: 25% higher ad viewability (and) 70% longer average sessions (and) 35% lower bounce rates’
The report concludes:
‘While there are several factors that impact revenue, our model projects that publishers whose mobile sites load in 5 seconds earn up to 2x more mobile ad revenue than those whose sites load in 19 seconds.’
Recent Case Studies on Site Speed Performance
There are third party site speed case studies available to back these findings from Doubleclick up:
- Ancestory.com recorded a 7% positive rise in conversions after improving the render time of web pages by 68%, reducing page bloat by 46% and reducing load time by 64%.
- A presentation by AliExpress claimed they reduced load time for their pages by 36% and recorded a 10.5% increase in orders and a 27% increase in conversion rates for new customers.
- Artificial latency added to the Telegraph resulted in page views dropping by 11% for a 4s delay and 44% for a 20s delay.
- The Trainline reduced latency by 0.3s across their funnel and revenue increased by an extra £8 million a year.
- Instagram increased impressions and user profile scroll interactions by simply speeding up their site.
and very interestingly:
‘For every 100ms decrease in homepage load speed, Mobify’s customer base saw a 1.11% lift in session based conversion, amounting to an average annual revenue increase of $376,789. Similarly, for every 100ms decrease in checkout page load speed, Mobify’s customers saw a 1.55% lift* in session based conversion, amounting to an average annual revenue increase of $526,147′ (from wpostats)
Very interesting recent (2016) speed experiments ran at Forbes have also concluded:
“over the testing period users read fewer articles each day whilst experiencing delays loading each web page.”
|Page load time||7 days impact||28 days|
|1 second slower||-4.9%||-4.6%|
|2 second slower||–||-5.0%|
|3 second slower||-7.2%||-7.9%|
Other research is hard to find, but would indicate as fast as possible.
In this video from 2014, slow load times are one of the main reasons people abandon a checkout process:
Research (albeit from 2013) would suggest that slow load times are having an increased impact on e-commerce websites:
a 2-second delay in load time during a transaction resulted in abandonment rates of up to 87%. This is significantly higher than the baseline abandonment rate of 67%.
In a 2012 study it was found that:
two thirds of UK consumers (67%) cite slow loading times as the main reason they would abandon an online purchase.
Maile Ohye, from Google, claims in the video above that:
“2 seconds is the threshold for ecommerce website acceptability. At Google, we aim for under a half second.“
That Google video is from 2010. That claim was based on independent research commissioned by a company called Akamai in 2009:
Based on the feedback of 1,048 online shoppers that were surveyed, Forrester Consulting concluded the following key findings:
- 47 percent of consumers expect a web page to load in two seconds or less
- 40 percent of consumers will wait no more than three seconds for a web page to render before abandoning the site.
- 52 percent of online shoppers stated that quick page loading is important to their site loyalty.
- Shoppers often become distracted when made to wait for a page to load. 14 percent will begin shopping at another site, and 23 percent will stop shopping or walk away from their computer.
- Retail and travel sites that underperform lead to lost sales. 79 percent of online shoppers who experience a dissatisfying visit are less likely to buy from that site again. 64 percent would simply purchase from another online store.
Additional findings indicate that quick page loading is a key factor in a consumer’s loyalty to an eCommerce site, especially for high spenders. 79 percent of online shoppers who experience a dissatisfying visit are less likely to buy from the same site again while 27 percent are less likely to buy from the same site’s physical store, suggesting that the impact of a bad online experience will reach beyond the web and can result in lost store sales. Akamai 2009
A decade ago, research commissioned by the same organisation claimed that web shoppers were more likely to abandon a website if it took longer than four seconds to load.
The research by Akamai in 2006 revealed users’ dwindling patience with websites that take time to show up.
Akamai claimed 75% of the 1,058 people asked would not return to websites that took longer than *four* seconds to load.
The time it took a site to appear on screen came second to high prices and shipping costs in the list of shoppers’ pet-hates, the research revealed.
Akamai consulted a group who shopped regularly online to find out what they like and dislike about e-tailing sites.
About half of mature net-shoppers – who have been buying online for more than two years or who spend more than $1,500 (£788) a year online – ranked page-loading time as a priority. Akamai claims that one-third of those questioned abandon sites that take time to load are hard to navigate or take too long to handle the checkout process.
The four-second threshold is half the time previous research, conducted during the early days of the web-shopping boom, suggested that shoppers would wait for a site to finish loading.
To make matters worse, the research found that the experience shoppers have on a retail site colours their entire view of the company behind it.
About 30% of those responding said they formed a “negative perception” of a company with a badly put-together site or would tell their family and friends about their experiences.
Further research by Akamai found that almost half of the online stores in the list of the top 500 US shopping sites take longer than the four-second threshold to finish loading.
The survey questioned 1,058 net shoppers during the first six months of 2006. Consultants Jupiter Research did the survey for Akamai.
Whether this research is 100% valid is explored by your own experience. For instance, if you KNOW that the information you need is probably on a specific web page, you’ll probably wait a lot longer than ten seconds to see the info. But if you do not…
Undeniably, though, it’s been a long-held belief in good practice website design that your website needs to load fast if you want to keep visitors happy.
This research only backed this up.
And that was many years ago.
Today – in 2017 – Site speed is a critical area of website development and profitable e-commerce.
Desktop users expect a site to load within a second or two in 2017. Mobile users are a little more patient, for now.
See below how slow load times impact your business:
Bandwidth or the capacity to send and receive data is an important consideration when designing an electronic document for distribution over the Internet.
It is important that the link to the Internet (from the computer serving the pages to customers) has sufficient capacity to be able to handle the expected load.
Otherwise, the response to users will be unsatisfactorily slow.
Some people today STILL connect to the Internet over a phone line, using a modem with a speed of 28.8 to 56 kilobits per second (kbit/s).
This “narrowband” communication requires user to wait while a dial-up connection is made before they can access the Internet, and means that Internet use, when connected, is slow.
Broadband services offer significantly faster data rates, enabling the delivery of services, such as high-speed Internet access. These may also be “always on” connections to the Internet.
However, what looks great and downloads quickly within the confines of the Web manager’s high-speed network connection does not necessarily work as well for the average user of the Internet.
It is probably best to presume that your user has a SLOW connection capability – and aim to deliver for them a satisfying user experience as possible.
Then – everybody wins.
How To Speed Up Your Website Load Times
Optimise your images!!
- Remember to optimise your images – the most important thing you can do to decrease download times. Optimise just means to save for the web’ in Photoshop, for example. Keep JPGs for photographs and Gifs for images with large blocks of flat colour.
- There are several ways to optimize images and here’s one if you have Adobe Photoshop. For your JPGs, PNGs, and other files you may have that aren’t GIFs, open them in Adobe Photoshop and simply go to File > Save For Web and reduce the image to 70% (JPG) You probably won’t even notice the difference in quality, but you’ll have nearly halved the image size.
Load background images via external CSS
- It’s possible to present images as part of the background, called up through external CSS stylesheets.
- Browsers download background images after everything else. By using this technique, your text will load instantaneously, and your site users can freely roam about the page while your 50kb fancy image downloads.
- The ‘link’ is always added to the Head Section i.e. anywhere between the <head> and the </head> , add this code :<link rel=”stylesheet” type=”text/CSS” href=”your-CSS.CSS”>
Minimise white space, line returns and comment tags
- Every single letter or space in your HTML code takes up one byte. It doesn’t sound like much, but it all adds up. We’ve found that by working through your page source and eliminating unnecessary white space and comments, you can shave off up to, or even over (if your HTML is inefficient) 10% of its file size.
Remove unnecessary META tags and META content
- The most important tags for search engine optimisation are the keywords and description tags, although due to the mass abuse they’ve lost a lot of importance in recent times. When using these META tags try to keep the content for each under 200 characters – anything more increases the size of your pages. Lengthy META tags are not good for search engines anyway because they dilute your keywords.
UK Government recommendations:
‘Documents published on the web need to be kept small, be linked efficiently and contain only the data and graphics that they require’.
Guidelines for UK Government websites
Illustrated handbook for Web management teams
My Own Case Study Testing Site Speed As A Ranking Factor
Some time ago I decided to speed up the Hobo site to see if increasing page download speed had a positive impact on ranking, or the amount of traffic Google sent to your site.
We looked at an actual page on Hobo, and all the files involved in creating the page and looked to see where we could make speed improvements.
Essentially we took 299kb (Whoops!) and reduced it to an ‘old-school’ @50k target size by:
- redeveloping our bespoke WP theme template and CSS
- reducing image size
- deactivating underperforming plugins
- validating CSS and HTML
- improving the accessibility of the page
- making our form script load on only the contact page
- Gzip compression server side
- Total loading time:10.5 seconds
- Total objects:78 (299.2 KB)
- External objects:4 (3.6 KB)
- (X)HTML:1 (22.5KB)
- CSS:6 (43.5KB)
- Scripts:3 (97.8KB)
- Images:68 (135.5KB)
- Total loading time:0.3 seconds
- Total objects:12 (50.8 KB)
- External objects:1 (1.3 KB)
- (X)HTML:1 (16.5KB)
- CSS:3 (8.2KB)
- Images:8 (26.2KB)
Google Webmaster Tools Performance Overview
Using GWT Performance Overview (found in Google Webmaster Tools LABS feature) I could monitor what Google thought of my page speeds – and as a result of the changes we made – we halved the download speed according to the measurements Google make:
On average, pages in your site take 3.4 seconds to load (updated on Dec 14, 2010). This is slower than 58% of sites. These estimates are of medium accuracy (between 100 and 1000 data points)
Clearly, there’s still room for improvement on the site. But, the graph shows a big improvement, even though I started adding elements to the site since we made the changes to the site near the end of November 2010, and had since slowed things down a little again with some other plugins (that will probably be getting uninstalled):
Speed Test & Accessibility Tools Used
Google also has a great page with plenty of tools for the web developer serious about improving website load times. I will no doubt introduce some new things over time that will increase my download times again, but I will be sure to keep an eye on things. I’m sure there’s a few other things we could do to increase the download speed of our pages, but that will do for now.
Why does validation matter? There are different perspectives on validation—at Google there are different approaches and priorities too—but the Webmaster Team considers validation a baseline quality attribute. It doesn’t guarantee accessibility, performance, or maintainability, but it reduces the number of possible issues that could arise and in many cases indicates appropriate use of technology. Google.
It has been long debated whether or not valid HTML improves your actual website rankings. It is probably a good idea to aim for a decent level of accessibility for your website pages – its something my own site lacks at the moment with all the recent changes I have introduced.
One of the major drawbacks with the previous WordPress template was the amount of code bloat. There were multiple divs within the code that had no effect on the visual appearance, the only thing they contributed was bumping the file size of the pages up a few kilobytes.
Coupled with the code bloat there was also a lot of non-semantic mark-up, divs with intangible classes and ids.
For the new template, we mocked up a simple wireframe, based on the existing blog layout and started to flesh out the site; what divs were needed and what the appropriate class names and ids would be. From there we starting designing the website in the browser to help iterate and see how things shaped up. A major plus point of designing in the browser is that you can see how the site displays across multiple different browsers; Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Internet Explorer and Opera.
Redoing the CSS
As well as completely recreating the template files, the CSS files were also redone. Nothing was carried over; we started with a clean slate.
The first thing we did when setting up our CSS file was to use a reset that the rest of the file would be built upon.
There is a tutorial on the A List Apart website that discussed how to go about creating a completely fluid/scalable website, much like you would have with an old school table but instead built entirely with divs. I had been desperate to try this in a live production site for some time, and the hobo blog provided me with this opportunity. Grab the corner of your browser window and resize the website to watch the elements flow around each other.
All of the CSS was then factored into single line declarations, as opposed to multi-line, to save valuable kilobytes.
All of the typography within the site was also addressed. We used the golden ratio, with the help of the Modular Scale website, to keep everything harmonious. Here’s a tutorial on how to use the modular scale website. Moving forward – we may use Google Web Fonts too.
Speed Up Contact Form 7 Plugin For WordPress
Contact Form 7 plugin for WordPress is quite bulky in terms of external scripts its loads. I have since removed this plugin and use Gravity Forms.
Quickly optimise your contact form 7 WordPress plugin by just adding the following code to the end of your functions.php – you can take 70kb off your load time.
NOTE: Be sure to wrap the following in PHP tags in the example illustrated below:
Relaunching the Site
As most businesses do, we had to revamp the site after some jarring Google updates made it clear some changes needed to be made.
So I lost some of the carefully reworked code above. We had to rebuild the site on the hop, as fast as possible, and that meant some sloppiness along the way.
Some of the pages we had created were FAR TOO BIG, and so it was time to optimise them again!
The first place to check was Pingdom, and you can see from the images below, that we vastly improved page speed scores for important pages primarily by focusing on optimising image file size:
That was a risky maneuver because at the time we had no idea how Google would handle these ‘lazy load’ setups, where content loads on the user scrolling down the page.
So far it has all worked out – and the load time improvement the plugin affords has been worth it.
I’ll continue to focus on improving the speed of my site when I can.
This is a great video about speeding up web pages, aimed specifically at developers – and I will be using the advice in it to improve speed on this site even further:
SO – What effect did all this variation in page load speed have on my rankings?
Did these massive differences in download speed impact the Hobo website rankings positively or negatively?
After all, Google did say site speed was a ‘ranking factor’……
Well, no, not that I measured with any accuracy in the short term.
Improving your desktop site speed score in isolation of developing a compelling user experience, will not magically lead to BETTER rankings in Google in the short term.
As many SEO said back in the day, and Maile Ohye confirmed in the video from 2010:
“Rankings is a nuanced process and there is over 200 signals, but now speed is one of them. Know that ‘content’ and relevance’ are still primary.”
Is that ranking signal and slight speed improvement justification for spending hours redeveloping your site? On its own – it was not – when you have to choose between SEO clean-up tasks, website redevelopment, content marketing or making your page more relevant in the first place.
A technical approach to improving user experience, it seems to me, would begin with site speed.
A faster site should improve visitor satisfaction levels and the number of conversions, for instance. This very well might have a second-order effect on your rankings over time – as many SEO think that QUERY COMPLETION & SATISFACTION SIGNALS are significant measurements in how Google orders search engine results pages in 2017.
To be honest, I never expected faster website load times to directly improve the rankings of my website.
I did want a faster site, though – for all the benefits I list at the beginning of this article.
I still use Google Search Console (AKA Google Webmaster Tools) and the other tools mentioned to keep an eye on website download speeds and accessibility.
Website & Page Load Speed Is A Google Ranking Factor, but….
‘content’ and relevance’ are still primary’ Maile Ohye, Google
Website and page load speed will affect Google rankings, just not as much as links, good titles & content that satisfies a search engine visitors intent. My test above confirmed what I already thought.
A fast host could be argued to be a prerequisite in 2017, and a fast site too if your web designer has any clue.
I’m asked quite a lot these days about server speed and Google rankings. It could be part of the algorithm on some VERY minute level (why not?), but small differentials in page speed load will never be as important than the actual utility or relevance of the page you want to rank.
You can’t put lipstick on a pig in 2017, and its risky, long term, to try to.
If your server is dog*&^% and your website takes minutes to load it’s a bad user experience and your site probably will not be doing your online business any good, anytime soon.
Website & Page Load Speed Tests & Tools