For a while now, the stock answer to the question of whether speed matters much as a Google search ranking factor has been a source of frustration. Even the Magic 8-Ball won’t sidestep the question by answering “Maybe.”
Google first broached the subject in 2010 by announcing site speed would be included in rankings, though the search giant seemed to downplay the change. Fewer than 1 percent of queries would be affected, Google said.
Google’s John Mueller said last year: “I don’t know how much of that [PageSpeed ranking factor] is still used at the moment. So we do say we have a small factor in there for pages that are really slow to load where we take that into account. But I don’t know how much that’s actually still actually still a problem in ranking.”
Signs Point to Yes
Today, the numbers tell a different story. Searchmetrics’ ranking factors report found the 10 highest-ranking desktop pages load in an average of 1.16 seconds (compared to mobile’s 1.10 seconds), while the top 30 highest-ranking desktop pages load in 1.20 seconds (top-ranking mobile pages load in 1.17 seconds).
What gives? Like many things with Google, the answer comes down to a question of semantics.
Independent studies haven’t shown page speed to be a significant ranking factor. A 2013 analysis by Zoompf of over 100,000 pages found no correlation between load time and rankings. The study looked at both document load times and fully rendered times. The same held true for each, as it did for both generic and long tail searches.
Concentrate and Ask Again
So if load time can’t explain the correlation Searchmetrics finds, what does?
Well, some evidence in a recent study indicates that time to first byte, or TTFB, may be the key.
The study’s authors write: “The TTFB result was surprising in [that] a clear correlation was identified between decreasing search rank and increasing time to first byte. Sites that have a lower TTFB respond faster and have higher search result rankings than slower sites with a higher TTFB. Of all the data we captured, the TTFB metric had the strongest correlation effect, implying a high likelihood of some level of influence on search ranking.”
Google’s PageSpeed Insights also points to speed as an important ranking factor. The tool is designed to help webmasters better optimize both desktop and mobile web page load times by giving a “user experience” score. It details what rules you’ve passed and suggests what you should consider fixing.
Regardless of how speed may or may not impact search rankings, we do know that quicker load times contribute to a better user experience.
According to surveys done by Akamai and Gomez.com, about 50 percent of users expect pages to load in 2 seconds or less, and will lose interest in a site that hasn’t loaded in 3 seconds.
We also know that the speed of a page can significantly impact bounce rates, conversion rates and revenue. A 2014 study by Portent looked at a sampling of 16 sites to determine the impact of page load times on ecommerce conversions. While it’s obvious to even the casual observer that extraordinarily long load times would mean fewer conversions, this study lays it out clearly: For optimal conversions, get your load time down to 1 second from 2.
Because this isn’t necessarily a realistic goal for all businesses, the study’s authors recommend bringing down an 8 second load time to 5 seconds; this relatively easy change can generate an 18 percent increase in page values and page views.
Business newspaper The Financial Times put speed to the test in an internal study of website speed. Some subscribers saw normal load times, while others were deliberately slowed down.
Over the first seven days of a user arriving at the test and experiencing a one second delay, the FT saw a 4.9% drop in the number of articles they read compared to the control group. The difference grew to 7.2% for the users in the three seconds delay variant. After twenty-eight days of being in the test the difference grew for the two and three second variants, 4.4% to 5% and 7.2% to 7.9% respectively.
PageSpeed Insights: It is Certain
We already touched on Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool above. This is one of the best tools we have for evaluating page speed . According to Google, the tool looks at two primary factors: the time it takes to load the above-the-fold portion of the page, and the time it takes to load the rest of the page. For both of these, Google measures how long it takes from the time a user requests the page to the time it’s fully rendered. Another good tool is webpagetest.org, which gives an awesome filmstrip and video view of your page load time, in addition to TTFB and benchmarks.
When using the tool, you’ll receive a score between 0 and 100, with 85 or above meaning your page is performing well in terms of load time. Keep in mind that this tool works only on the page level, so it won’t evaluate your overall site speed.
It’s also important to note that PageSpeed Insights fetches your page twice: with a mobile user agent and desktop user agent. This means the results will help you optimize your page speed regardless of which device your visitors are using to access your site. Finally, as mentioned above, be sure to check your mobile User Experience score. Remember that a score of 80 or above will generally mean that Google has designated your site as ‘mobile friendly’ (note it’s also based on design and user experience).
While page speed may not be a significant ranking factor, its impact on user signals and user experience – particularly among mobile users – are undeniable. With all else being equal, a page that’s quick to load will always beat out a page that’s slow.
The research suggests that focusing on time to first byte is likely your best strategy. Use Google’s PageSpeed Insights to evaluate and optimize your site, paying special attention to your mobile User Experience score.
Do you regularly evaluate and optimize for page speed? Have you noticed a correlation between speed and rankings? Share below!