In 2019, site speed is more important than ever. We can’t stress enough what an incredible metric it is to your overall digital strategy and online presence. Specifically, it has a major impact on SEO rankings on desktop and mobile (especially with Google’s mobile first index), paid ads on Google with its impact on quality score, and most importantly, overall user experience and conversion.
At the end of the day, slow websites will have a low number of conversions, a high bounce rate, and a low number of pages per visit. Essentially, a slow site means people will bail because no one has the patience to wait for a website to load. This is even more important for businesses when there is a long conversion funnel on the website. There is always drop-off when a conversion funnel has multiple steps and pages, but when you also have a slow website and users are trying to get through a more complex conversion funnel, that drop-off is amplified.
Let’s break down just how much of an impact site speed has across multiple digital channels.
Site Speed’s Impact on SEO
Site speed is a ranking factor and an even larger ranking factor for mobile pages. Google is rolled out a Mobile First which will officially took effect in July 2018, With that being said, we have already seen the direct impact that site speed has on our clients’ websites’ SEO rankings and organic traffic.
The reason why site speed is a ranking factor is that it is, first and foremost, a sign of quality user experience. A fast site speed will result in a better user experience, while a slow site speed will result in a poor user experience. A user is typically staying on a site longer if the site speed is faster and they also convert better and bounce less. For those reasons, Google has made it a ranking factor.
We view three to four seconds or less as a good page load time. This varies slightly based on the type of site and industry but typically if your web pages load in under three to four seconds, you’re doing well. Once you exceed that load time, we start to see less optimal rankings as well as a poorer user experience. Conversely, if we brought this page speed down to sub-three to four seconds we would likely see better rankings.
We have seen the effects of this first-hand with a client. We implemented site speed optimizations on a client’s website and the client’s developer accidentally removed the work we had done. The website with the site speed optimizations went from a four-second load time to a 12-second load time after the optimizations were removed, which caused rankings to plummet. We went back in and updated the site with the proper site speed optimizations again and got the website back to a four-second load time and rankings went back up.
This illustrated in real-time that site speed has a direct link to SEO and keyword rankings. This is rare, as almost nothing happens in real-time for SEO, it’s a slow and steady wins the race scenario, but we saw the ranking impact in just a few days when site speed optimizations were stripped and then re-implemented. It was a great experiment because we already knew site speed made an impact on SEO, but this really showed the emphasis Google is placing on it for mobile and desktop from a search perspective.
The benefits of site speed on user experience impact other digital channels as well, like paid search.
Site Speed’s Impact on Paid Search
With PPC and site speed, it comes down to paying the most affordable and cost-effective rate for your keyword bidding, which is determined by your quality score. For paid media, quality score is basically how relevant Google finds your website’s landing page to a search term, which takes a look at the user experience based on that person being driven to your page from that specific keyword. Ultimately, slow site speed will appear to Google as a poor user experience and will, in turn, bring down your quality score.
Quality score determines how much you pay (cost per click or CPC) and your average position on the SERP (Search Engine Results Page). If you have a low site speed/quality score it’s really hard to show up in the top two positions on the SERP and depending on how competitive the keywords are, you might not show up in the top spots. If you have a low enough quality score, your ads won’t show up at all. As you can see, quality score makes a huge impact on PPC.
Additionally, like any other channel driving traffic to your site, with a low site load time, conversion rate will be lower and bounce rate will be higher – two things you don’t want when trying to drive sales or leads.
Quality score is the number one metric you want to look at for PPC to ensure your ads are performing at their best. With a better quality score, you’ll see a better and higher ad position and a lower cost per click. With faster site speed, you can assume your quality score will be higher, you’ll pay less, and rank higher.
Site Speed’s Impact on Social Ads
Much like paid ads on Google, Facebook also favors higher site speed when it comes to ads. Facebook, much like Google, wants to show you the best results for what you are interested in.
Facebook had an algorithmic change in August 2017 that prioritized user experience, where site speed came into play. As we’ve discussed, the better the site speed, the better the user experience. Facebook announced that this site speed and user experience will cause your ads to either be prioritized or not. While there are many factors that come into play for Facebook’s algorithm with social ads, a fast load time does influence a higher priority on the newsfeed, while slow load time influencers a lower priority on the newsfeed.
Site Speed’s Impact on User Experience and Conversion
As we’ve discussed, site speed has an impact on a number of digital marketing channels, but what it really comes down to is user experience and conversion. User experience affects SEO, Paid Search, and Paid Social, which is why site speed is so important as it plays a direct role in user experience.
Site speed is a huge reason why people bounce off of sites. When we refer to a bounce, we mean someone who is not viewing more than one page on the site before leaving the site. This rate of people coming to your site and those that bounce is called a bounce rate. If a site has a slow load time, people will not stick around and they will bounce. That is why slow sites typically have a very high bounce rate, while faster sites tend to have a lower bounce rate. One thing to keep in mind is that bounce rate is also a ranking factor for SEO, so it should be a priority of yours to have a lower bounce rate.
When it comes to conversions, site speed also plays a large role. Ultimately, if people are bouncing due to a slow load time, they’re not converting. This is especially true if your website has a longer checkout or conversion process. As we mentioned, with each page that needs to load to make a conversion, there is more chance for drop-off.
Additionally, if your site is fast it gets people to the information they want faster, unfortunately, if it takes longer to load it gives them more time to change their mind. It’s better to catch people during their purchase decision with a fast and easy-to-navigate site in order to better lead them on their path to conversion.
What This Means for Your Website
Now that you know how important site speed is to your website and overall business, from impacting digital channels, to impacting your bottom line, here is a comprehensive guide on how to benchmark and improve it.
Benchmarking Your Site Speed
The first step in this process is to see how your website’s site speed is currently performing. We use a number of tools to run this analysis, which shows how your site stacks up. The great thing about these tools is that they are free and you can run as many reports as you want. Our primary tools for this are the Google site speed tool PageSpeed Insights, GTMetrix, and Pingdom. The process is very simple and includes running an automated analysis of your website URL. You will then get a report that breaks down the site speed insights and areas for improvement.
You can use this report as your baseline before making any optimizations and then run the analysis again once you have made updates to track your progress. Typical updates include resizing images and videos and disabling inactive plugins.
Assess Overall Website User Experience
In addition to optimizing your website for site speed, there are also a few other user experience metrics that complement site speed you should look at before and after implementing site speed optimizations. Ask yourself these questions:
- Did the navigation start successfully? Has the server responded?
- Has enough content rendered that users can engage with?
- Can users interact with the page, or is it still busy loading?
- Are the interactions smooth, natural, and free of lag?
Once you ask yourself these questions, you’ll have a better sense from the end-user perspective how your site stacks up and what updates you can make to improve overall user experience right off the bat. A combination of site speed and design elements will help your website excel and drive traffic and conversions.
How to Improve Your Site Speed
To dive more into how to improve your website’s site speed, it comes down to eliminating unnecessary elements that could be bogging down your page load time. Here is a quick overview of ways you can optimize your website for the best and most efficient site speed:
- Minimize landing page redirects, plugins, and link shorteners
- Compress files to decrease mobile rendering time
- Improve server response time by utilizing multi-region hosting
- Use a high-quality content delivery network to reach your audience quickly
- Remove redundant data that does not impact how the page is processed by the browser
- Optimize images to reduce file size without diminishing visual quality
- Reduce the size of above the fold content to prioritize visual content
- Use asynchronous scripts to streamline page render time
- Dynamically adjust the content for slower connections/devices
So, how can you efficiently and effectively resolve all of the above issues to make your site lightning fast? Let’s take a deep dive into our process at Power Digital.
Our site speed optimizations can take between a few weeks to two months, depending on how many pages the website has and how many issues are hindering site speed. This process has proven to get amazing results for our clients, where their page load time has decreased by over 50% in most cases, and our web development department has a skilled team that runs the process from A-Z. This means our process is very efficient and very cost-effective.
The fastest way to improve site speed is to simplify your design, which is why it’s the first step in our site speed optimizations. This means streamlining the number of elements on your page, using CSS instead of images whenever possible, combining multiple style sheets into one, and reducing scripts and putting them at the bottom of the page. The goal here is to create a lean and efficient site design.
Next, we jump into reducing your server response time, as this is a key update that can significantly reduce load time. Your target is a server response time of less than 200 milliseconds. Google recommends using a web application monitoring solution and checking for bottlenecks in performance.
After optimizing for design and server response time, two low-hanging fruit opportunities, we work on enabling compression. Large pages, which we find when clients are creating high-quality content (high-quality content is the goal!), are often 100kb or more, which means they are bulky and slow to load. You may be creating amazing long-form content, but it runs the risk of slowing your load time if not properly optimized. The best way to speed up the load time of these large pages is to zip them, otherwise known as compression. Compression reduces the bandwidth of your pages, thereby reducing HTTP response and reducing page load time. We use a tool called Gzip to run this process.
After we enable compression, we move on to enabling browser caching. When you visit a website, the elements on the page you visit are stored on your hard drive in a cache, otherwise known as temporary storage, so the next time you visit the site your browser can load the full page without even having to send an HTTP request to the server. This saves time for the page to communicate with the server to load, because it’s already stored like a memory. A surprising 40-60 percent of a websites’ daily visitors come in with an empty cache, which means there is a huge opportunity for subsequent visits to load faster. Yes, you should have a fast site speed on the visitor’s first visit, but the following visits can load even faster if you enable caching.
The next step in this process is to minify your resources, meaning deleting unnecessary pieces of code like spaces, line breaks, or indentations that you don’t need. This helps make the page more lean and easier to load.
Images are another big piece of the site speed puzzle. We go in and optimize images for size, format and src attribution, making sure we avoid empty image src codes. We also optimize CSS delivery, which holds the style requirements for a website page. We recommend an external style sheet because it reduces the size of your code and creates fewer code duplications.
The last few changes include prioritizing above-the-fold content, meaning ensuring that the content at the top of your website pages leads the fastest, as that is where users end up first. We also reduce the number of plugins on your site and eliminate any old or unused plugins. Finally, we reduce redirects.
This full process can be honed into a well-oiled machine with a skilled dev team and has such a vast impact on user experience and digital channels that is 100 percent worth your while to invest in.