When Google recently announced that faster page loading speed has an impact on a site’s search engine position, people began taking a closer look at how quickly their pages are rendered in the eyes of Google. There is even a tool, provided by Google, that tells you how fast your pages load and what files could be compressed in order to reduce overall loading times. Currently, Google Webmaster Tools also has a feature in its “labs” section that will give you a graph of how fast your site loads, and they will tell you how your site stacks up to others on the internet.
However, SEO should not be the first consideration when it comes to page loading speed. If you think back to the early days of web surfing, people logged on to the internet by way of a phone line and a glacially slow modem. There was almost always a 30 second wait for a site to actually load, and it took more time if there were images involved. While people were more patient with the technology, it wasn’t uncommon for people to leave a site if its pages didn’t seem like they were going to load at all. You can check your analytics to see how many of your customers are still coming in from a dialup connection, and typically you will see less than 5% of your traffic coming by way of this anachronistic channel.
Today, people’s impatience level begins after a few seconds, and this can have a huge impact on your conversion rate. If your site is still loading 6 seconds into the visit, your site isn’t considered as trustworthy as one that appears to load instantly. This impatience will compound itself if visitors go from one page to another and have to keep waiting for page elements to come up. Impatience creates fear, uncertainty, and doubt, and these factors can throw a monkey wrench into your conversion funnel.
When you understand how Google sees your site load time, you should also pay particular attention to how users are interacting with your site. Google servers are fast, efficient machines with great software and fiber optic connections to the World Wide Web. The average user may be running an old computer, brimming with antivirus bloatware and speed killing background applications. They may have an outdated web browser, and share a DSL line that is serving an Xbox in one room and Farmville in the other. Your Flash elements and great graphics may take a lot longer to load on the “Average Joe’s” computer, and the operator may not have the technical skill to understand why you site just isn’t loading fast enough.
Some of the steps you can take to improve your page speed may also keep you out of the doghouse with your hosting provider, especially if you have a cap on your bandwidth. Better file compression can allow you to save multiple kilobytes for every visitor session. We have even seen cases where 100K was saved on the homepage, and this kind of bandwidth savings can make for a nice safety cushion when your site traffic ramps up. For sites that already handle a lot of visitors, less throughput also is going to help with load balancing and overall capacity, which in turn can once again speed up page loading times.
In Google Webmaster Tools, there is also a list of some specific pages on your site and their load times, so you may be able to bring down the “average” load time of the site by fixing your most egregiously slow pages. When you spruce these pages up, you should also look to see if there are any elements that are common to other pages on the site. By keeping in mind that the whole site (not just the homepage) can be an issue, you are also improving the user experience for people who delve more deeply into your content, and these people are your most likely converters.
Google’s use of page load speed serves two purposes. The first is to improve the user experience for people who come to Google. The second, while not as widely discussed, improves the efficiency of Google’s servers and indexing functions. When Googlebot comes to visit a site, it does not have to wait around as long to get information, can cache compressed files more quickly, and can move on to its next batch of pages in a more timely manner. As a website owner, it pays to play Google’s game if you want to get found, but the value of serving your customers should always trump the SEO considerations that come with creating a faster site. While Google’s page speed guidelines may create a great reason for streamlining your site’s download speed, you can still enjoy far greater dividends from more conversions, happier customers, and increased sales.