In March of this year at a ‘Mobile First’ session at SMX, Gary Illyes from Google confirmed that mobile page speed would be a factor in the search giant’s upcoming ‘mobile first’ indexing change. However, the use of site speed as a ranking factor is not a new concept by any means.
In fact, if you go back over seven years to April of 2010, Google confirmed on their own webmaster’s blog that speed had officially become a ranking factor:
“Today we’re including a new signal in our search ranking algorithms: site speed. Site speed reflects how quickly a website responds to web requests.”
That’s right, before Google’s Pandas and Penguins laid waste to the SEO landscape, and before RankBrain, Fred, or Mobilegeddon had any meaning to search marketers, page speed was already officially acknowledged as a factor.
The Value of Site Speed Beyond SEO
Ignoring the value and impact of better rankings, improved site speed has a massive effect on user experience and ultimately conversion. Consider the following stats reported in a recent blog post by DotcomWeavers:
- Mozilla accelerated its page speed by 2.2 seconds and gained a 15.4% increase in Firefox downloads. This translates into about 10 million extra downloads per year.
- Walmart experience a 2% increase in conversion rates for every 1-second improvement in page load speeds
Back in 2012, Fast Company published an eye-opening article citing the exponential impact of incremental improvements on site speed for the world’s largest online entities:
“Amazon’s calculated that a page load slowdown of just one second could cost it $1.6 billion in sales each year. Google has calculated that by slowing its search results by just four tenths of a second they could lose 8 million searches per day–meaning they’d serve up many millions fewer online adverts.”
How to Check Site Speed
Despite all of the data demonstrating why webmasters and online marketers should care about site speed, it still doesn’t really get the attention it deserves. However, savvy SEOs have known for years that developing the requisite skills to audit and improve page and site load times can reap massive gains in organic position over time.
To get a sense of how quickly your pages are loading, and what issues may be present in your code, there are a number of free tools available:
- PageSpeed Insights: Candidly, Google’s own page speed auditing tool gives limited insights into specific technical factors impacting a web page. However, ignore this zero-to-100 score for desktop and mobile load speed at your own peril. Where the search giant scores your site in the mobile and desktop indexes respectively offers a strong hint as to how page speed may be affecting organic visibility in search.
- WebPageTest: For a more comprehensive look at the load times and processing breakdown for every resource called on a specific webpage, WebPageTest is a great tool. In the “performance review” tab for a page’s results, one can get 0-to-100 scores on the following:
- First Byte Time: This metric measures the amount of time needed to complete all back-end processing and re-directs, before loading the first byte of data for the page. The quality of a site’s web hosting plan can significantly impact this grade.
- Keep-Alive: This metric checks to ensure that the response header contains a “keep-alive” directive or the same socket was used for more than one object from the given host.
- Compress Images: This metric checks .jpg images only. Photoshop quality 60 will pass, up to 50% larger will warn and anything larger than that will fail.
- Use Progressive JPEGs: Again, only associated with .jpg images, this metric checks that images are saved and served as progressive images. This means the image uses the JPEG suite of compression algorithms that will “fade in” in successive waves of lines until the entire image has completely arrived.
- Use A CDN: Checks for the presence of a content delivery network (CDN). A CDN provides quicker delivery of web resources to your visitors in locations around the world.
Methods of Improving Site Speed
Once you have graded your website using the aforementioned tools and recorded your baseline scores, it is time to roll up the sleeves and start working on improvements. Below are a series of techniques commonly used to improve site speed scores:
1. Upgrade Hosting: So, you only pay $4/month for that shared hosting plan? Great… Is that worth the potential negative impacts on your organic rankings and user experience? For the many sites on the highly popular WordPress platform, consider the benefits of shared vs. managed WordPress hosting. Or, for a slightly higher monthly spend, website can upgrade to a managed virtual private server (VPS) environment that offers even greater configuration and speed and needed.
3. Use Browser Caching: Web browsers can save and store (cache) a lot of information about a web page. This enables the browser to pull CSS, images, and other information from a local source rather than downloading from a web server when the page is visited again. However, webmasters must set their “expires” headers for various components of a page to instruct browsers as to what should be cached and for how long. Without these headers, the browsers will cache nothing by default.
4. Optimize Images: This seems to be an especially big factor in Google’s PageSpeed scoring. To ensure that images are not wasting server resources, check the following:
- Image dimensions: If the maximum width a sidebar image will every display at is 250px, there’s no need to upload a 1000px version of that image to your server. The file is then unnecessarily large and also will require the browser to re-size it before rendering, further slowing your page load.
- Image quality: If you do a lot of site optimization, invest in Photoshop or a similar tool (only $9.99 for a web-based subscription). Set up your desired image dimensions, the hit CTRL+ALT+Shift+S to “save for web.” In this screen, you will have the ability to set the image quality for a .jpg (typically 60-65 is optimal for low size without image degradation). Also be sure to click the “progressive” box before saving to ensure that you are saving your image as a “progressive jpeg”.
5. Update your PHP Version: Many web hosts still configure the sites on their server to use old versions of PHP like 5.2 and 5.3. Aside from slower speeds, these versions of PHP also have known security vulnerabilities. Ask your host to upgrade your site to PHP7 if you can’t make that change on your own.
6. Take it Easy on the Plugins: Plugins, particularly on the WordPress platform, offer a measure of convenience for webmasters. However, too many plugins eat into the available resources for the website to function, and severely compromise site speed once the site’s virtual memory becomes exhausted.
Like everything else in SEO, page and site load speed is just one factor, and expectations must be keep in check with respect to how much growth in rankings or traffic targeted improvements will make. However, in light of the multi-faceted benefits of faster loading websites, from usability to conversion-friendliness and organic ranking, speed optimization is a task well worth taking on.