Speed and SEO: Can Google Change the Internet Again?

Posted by Sam Battin, Senior Search Strategist

When Google says "Frog," webmasters ask "How high?" while they're still on the way up (I can’t take credit for this joke – I paraphrased it from a joke originally written by Dave Sim). 

The issue of the day is speed; how long does it take pages on your site to download so a visitor can see them?  The following is a November 2009 quote from Matt Cutts, one of Google's primary public voices about SEO:

…a lot of people within Google think that the web should be fast.  It should be a good experience, and so it's sort of fair to say that if you're a fast site, maybe you should get a little bit of a bonus. If you really have an awfully slow site, then maybe users don't want that as much.

Matt Cutts' comments on site speed certainly indicate that Google may soon consider the speed of your site as part of its ranking algorithms.  No one likes to wait; this is why Web users went from modems to broadband and cable as soon as these technologies became available.  A fast site provides a better user experience, and Google's all about giving a good experience to their visitors.  Showing the fastest sites as search results is another step in that direction.

More indications of an emphasis on site speed come from Google's new efforts to help webmasters reduce their site's download times: Site Speed.  All the pages there are set up to identify and fix site download problems.

The introduction to the Google Speed Site is also telling.  On the front page, in the very first paragraph, Google asks "What would be possible if browsing the web was as fast as turning the pages of a magazine?"

This question is rhetorical, of course, because no one knows.  Everyone's had the experience of clicking a link and staring at a blank page for several seconds to see if anything will happen.  (Myself, I count to three seconds.  If there's still nothing, I'm clicking the "back" button.  They had their chance, and they blew it.)

It's unlikely that I'm the only one who will bail out when a page fails to load, and your site may even lose customers and revenue to poor download times.  How long can you reasonably expect your visitors to wait for those 15 javascript functions on your home page to load and execute?

There are measures webmasters can take to improve their download times.  Some are relatively old, such as enabling GZip, and some are new, such as a Firefox add-on that lets you identify the scripts that are taking as many as 30 seconds to execute.

There's even a section of Google Webmaster Tools that explains to you how long your site is taking to load.  From the Google Webmaster Tools Dashboard, click on "Labs" and then on "Site Performance."  You'll see a helpful graph that shows the ups and downs of loading times on your site. 

Influencing the speed of the Web can have positive business results for Google.  If the Web becomes more efficient and download times are lessened, Google will be able to crawl and index a higher number of sites, leading to more accurate and relevant results for search queries. 

What to Do
We strongly recommend that you look at the "Site Performance" section of the Google Webmaster Tool, because it compares the average loading time of your site against the average loading times of other sites in the Google index.  In the "Performance Overview" section of the Webmaster Tools, you will see a helpful statistic, such as

On average, pages in your site take 3.3 seconds to load. This is slower than 55% of sites.

At the current time, we can't say that speed will definitely become part of the Google algorithm, and no one but Google knows how much download times will positively or negatively impact rankings.  If there are penalties or bonuses to be assigned from site download speed, they will likely occur first at the farthest ends of the bell curve (e.g. really low or really high speeds). 

You may be able to check your web analytics against your site download times to see if you're losing any visitors to long page load times.  Have your IT team review the Google Webmaster Tools "Site Performance" section, and see the Google Site Speed page to see if there are any quick fixes that can be made, such as enabling GZip. 

Remember, your ultimate goal is to enhance your visitor experience through site speed, and not rankings.  You may get better rankings from higher speeds, but don’t expect this (unless Google makes an official announcement).

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