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The Importance of Site Speed in 2018

March 22, 2018
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In 2018, site speed is more important than ever. We can’t stress enough what an incredible metric it is to your overall digital marketing services 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 web page 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 a mobile device. Google is rolling out a Mobile First index moving forward, which will officially take effect in July 2018, meaning now is the time to optimize for mobile site speed so you’re not on the losing team when it officially rolls out. 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.

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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 your SEO marketing strategy 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 and overall site’s performance. 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 speed does influence a higher priority on the newsfeed, while slow load time influences 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 relevance, so it should be a priority of yours to have a lower bounce rate.

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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 pagespeed insight 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
  • Remove render-blocking javascript
  • 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 Process

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 leaner 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 web 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.

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Other Brands Weigh In

Don’t just take our word for it, check out some other marketing leaders weighing in on why they have put an emphasis on site speed and what results it’s gotten them.

Meri Chobanyan

Content Producer and PR manager at SEMrush – a major all-in-one SEO and digital marketing suite that we use at Power Digital

“Throughout the entire previous year (2017), Google was gradually getting everyone used to the fact that page speed is of high significance. So, Google’s recent confirmation about page speed officially becoming a ranking factor – so far, for mobile search –  in July 2018 should not strike us as an unexpected update. As a business owner, the “Speed Update” will affect your slow pages’ performance. Yet, Google really underlines and makes it clear that speed won’t be the utmost ranking factor for mobile search results, and slow pages that showcase quality and relevant content will still get a chance to rank for Google’s top positions.”

Jordan Harling

Chief Digital Strategist for Wooden Blinds Direct, one of the leading window furnishing companies that operate entirely online

“People are impatient nowadays. There’s so much competing for our attention all the time – social media, smartphones, Netflix – that we can access instantly. So waiting even a few seconds for a website to load seems like an eternity, it can cause people to flip out. This little delay in load time affects more than just people’s moods and their perception of your company though, it also affects your SEO. With the continuing trend towards users viewing the web on mobile devices and Google’s growing insistence on fast websites for its search rankings, quick-loading websites have become a necessity. If people have to sit and wait for your site to load, most likely they’ll grow tired and move onto your competitors. This isn’t even only an issue for SEO, it also affects conversion rates. A two-second delay is all it takes to increase checkout abandons to 87%. That’s just two seconds, less time than it takes to read this sentence.”

Michelle Kubot

Marketing Director at Ambrosia Treatment Center

“Starting July 2018, Google is upping the ante on site speed by (finally) including it as a ranking factor on mobile. It’s already been a ranking factor in desktop for years. So, if you want your brand’s website to rank in Google, you should be looking at site speed.

Every second counts for users too. The longer your page takes to load, the more likely the user will abandon your site. (And, you might have paid for that click). Even if they stay this time, providing a good user experience is critical for repeat business and customer satisfaction.

We are always looking for ways to keep our site speed down. I personally check Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool every month to see how we’re tracking and what we can do to get better.” 

Andrew Sumitani

Director of Marketing at TINYpulse, the leading employee engagement platform.

“Site speed is important to our brand as it is inseparable from a delightful customer experience. The difference between a fast site and a slow one may be mere seconds for one visitor. But over hundreds of thousands, if not millions of visitors, those seconds add up to a lot of waiting before a blank screen.

On TINYpulse.com, we’ve recently taken extra measures to make sure that our most highly-trafficked pages, namely our blog, are mobile-responsive and equipped with Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). This protocol strips away a lot of behind-the-scenes processes and extra code designed to benefit the publisher — all for the sake of creating a snappy visitor experience.

Google is unwavering on its goal of delighting users, so they reward publishers that align with this goal and invest in steps like this. The result? Our year-over-year search traffic is double what it was last year.”

Amanda Austin

Founder of Little Shop of Miniatures, an ecommerce store specializing in dollhouse miniatures

“I see site speed as a very important component in reducing bounce rates. Research shows that even a four-second page load increases the bounce rate by 25%. Research also shows that customers expect a page to load in two seconds or less. If you are paying for advertising, you are practically throwing money down the drain if your page load times are not acceptable.

Knowing this, we regularly test our page load speed on Google’s PageSpeed Insight. We have always tested well, but if we didn’t, we would compress the images on our site, compact HTML, and follow all the other best practices for page load speed.”

Jonathan Holloway

Director of Digital Strategy at NoExam.com

“I’ve been working in digital marketing for 10 years. In the last five years especially, I have seen site speed become more and more important as mobile users increase. Lately, we have been working to improve our site speed by combining CSS and javascript, optimizing images, and moving javascript below the main page content. The result has been faster load times and increased conversion rates for mobile users. This has led to increased revenue without having to increase spend on advertising channels. It’s important for our brand to have fast site speed since we spend a lot of money on paid traffic, and the increased conversion rates allow us to compete with larger competitors.”

Brett Helling

CEO of Ridester

“Three factors that make site speed a top priority for Ridester are: a fast loading website helps put a great first impression of our brand on the visitors; humans attention span is lesser than that of a goldfish as per research, and with each passing year visitors desire for instant gratification is increasing; if your site isn’t loading soon enough the potential visitors will leave it and never return again; today, site speed is an SEO ranking factor for both desktop and mobile search results of Google.

Changes that we have made which improved our site’s speed include implementing a CDN (we use WPengine), cleaning up our database, removing any plugins/themes etc. that we don’t use, optimizing our images, and tweaking our CSS and javascript, and running site speed diagnosis via multiple tools such as Google Site Speed, Pingdom, and GTmetrix to instantly know if there are any issues and make changes to fix them right away.

As a result, we have seen improvements in our site speed, and also in our SEO rankings.”

Get Started

Luckily for you, Power Digital’s expert web development team has developed a proven, fast, and cost-effective process for doing site speed optimizations for brands all over the world. We’re able to see 50 percent or more improvement on site speed and the cost range for us to handle from A-Z is anywhere between $1,500-$12,000 for this type of project, depending on the size of your site. Please contact us for a quote and help us help you take your business to the next level, starting with one of the most impactful updates you can make in 2018.

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