The Importance of Site Speed for SEO and User Experience

Primarily, users these days focus on the appearance of the website as it is the first element they encounter. However, studies show that users are very concerned with wait times. A slow website will discourage users from returning and may even stop them from visiting your website again. Site speed is also a growing factor for search engine positioning. As time progresses, speed will become more of a priority. Today, users have high-speed internet connections and will become more careless. They will want to find information quicker, and a fast website will cater to this. With this in mind, good quality unique content is a waste if users cannot find the website.

Definition of site speed

Site speed definition is the time it takes for a browser to receive a web server’s first byte when the user navigates to the page. It is sometimes confused with “page speed,” which is actually the page’s load time; page speed is a more user-centric measurement of a page’s speed since it is the user’s perception of speed. This differs from the official definition of page speed, which is a measurement of how fast the content on your page loads. In other words, page speed is the actual load time or the duration it takes to display the content on a specific page, while site speed is the measure of a sample of page views on a site. It’s important not to confuse the two, because increasing the page speed will not necessarily increase the site speed. This is due to the fact that increasing the page speed will only affect the specific pages that are altered. If the sample of page views remains the same, the site speed will also stay the same.

Importance of site speed for SEO

When a user types a URL into the address bar of a browser and hits enter, they have an intention to get to a site as fast as possible. They are not thinking about the site experience at this point. All they want to do is get to their desired site as quickly as they can. This is where site speed comes into play. According to a “Let’s make the web faster” Google initiative, 62% of people are unlikely to return to a site that they had trouble accessing. Site speed is more important than one might think it is. Another study done by Gomez showed that 75% of online users would not return to a site that took longer than 4 seconds to load. This is a pretty big statistic, and should not be taken lightly by webmasters. Although speed may not be a factor in the quality of one’s website, it plays a significant role in search engine rankings and the amount of traffic that a website receives. Search engine spiders are programmed to access a site multiple times a day in some cases. Having a fast site speed will help the spiders to quickly and easily access and index pages. The reason for this is that the files on the page are the same as the last time the spider accessed them, so it does not have to download the page and the files again. This leads to a lower crawl budget for your website, as the faster a spider is able to crawl your pages, the fewer server resources it uses. This in turn can lead to a lower server load for websites, and it will not be a factor in the search engine algorithms, but has a great impact on the user experience.

Importance of site speed for user experience

A slow web page can be many times more frustrating than one which does not work at all. This is because slow pages still give users hope the page will work eventually, leading to them waiting around and wasting even more time before they give up and go elsewhere. This experience results in a dissatisfied user who is likely to view the site negatively and to tell others about his/her negative experience.

Today, most people in the United States have high-speed Internet access, enabling them to download complex web pages in a matter of seconds. Users have become much less tolerant of slow web pages in recent times. Numerous studies have shown that the majority of web surfers will quickly navigate away from a web page if it does not load within a few seconds. The exact threshold at which a user will leave a page varies based on the user’s expectations and the regular speed of the sites they visit, but the consensus is that it is somewhere around 10-20 seconds.

When the World Wide Web was in its infancy, it was acceptable for a user to wait multiple minutes in order to view a single web page. Websites were simple blocks of text linked together, and the concept of web-based multimedia was virtually non-existent. Most people accessed the web using extremely slow Internet connections. At that time, slow-moving web pages were more of a nuisance than anything else.

Factors Affecting Site Speed

Caching is the process of storing static files from a dynamic web page. Dynamic web pages need to be compiled and have database calls for every server request. This process uses up a lot of resources and can therefore be slow. If a page is cached, the server will serve up the cached file rather than compiling the PHP and making a database call, thus saving time. There are many great cache plugins available for WordPress such as W3 Total Cache and WP Super Cache. Gzip compression can also significantly reduce the size of your web page, and the smaller the page the faster it will load. This is because the time it takes to transmit the data over the internet is greatly reduced. Gzip is often enabled in CPanel and can be checked using this tool.

Image optimization can also play a significant role in site speed. Often times images on a website can be larger than they need to be. By reducing the size of an image, the color depth, and removing any unnecessary image data, it is possible to reduce the size of an image by up to 5 times without losing quality. A smaller image will allow for a faster load time. This can be done manually before uploading an image to a website using Photoshop or an image editing program, but this can be a tedious and time-consuming process. If using a WordPress-based site, EWWW Image Optimizer is an excellent plugin that will optimize images as you upload them to your site.

Site speed is something determined by a variety of factors. Often times your site will load slowly because of a few key variables. They have to do with the size of your site and the configuration of your server. Server response time can be determined by the amount of traffic on a server, the resources each web page uses, and the software the server uses. It is important for a site owner to understand the differences between shared hosting, VPS (virtual private server) hosting, and dedicated hosting. The latter will be the most reliable and therefore provide the best response time. A good plugin to install if your server response time is slow is W3 Total Cache. This plugin saves the rendered HTML of a page or post and serves it up next time a request is made, rather than re-rendering the PHP code.

Server response time

Responsive web design is more important than ever to ensure your website is optimized for smartphones and tablets. This is because server response time can be affected by the type of device used to access a website. A 3G connection is going to have a higher latency in comparison to a broadband connection. A smartphone has less computing power than a desktop computer. If your website is not optimized for tablets and smartphones, this can also affect your site’s server response time and increase it. In short, how well your server response time is can depend on what kind of quality the user will have visiting your site. SESC has a recent post outlining that it is important to optimize your website for tablets and smartphones during this day and age where more people are using these devices as opposed to the traditional desktop or laptop.

Server response time is the amount of time it takes for a web server to respond to a request from a browser. Regardless of how fast the users’ internet connections are, a slow server response time can make your site load slowly. A 2009 study by Akamai and Jupiter research found that 47% of people expect a web page to load in 2 seconds or less. 57% of visitors to a slow loading site will leave that site and purchase from a competitor. Not only that, but it has been found that Google takes server response time into account when it ranks websites. Google wants to recommend sites that provide a good user experience and server response time is an indicator of this. A site that is often down or has slow server response time could indicate unstable hosting, or a site that is underpowered. This can lead to lower rankings in search engines. In short, making sure your web server is fast is critical to ensuring your site ranks well and provides a good user experience.

Image optimization

Image optimization should be a top priority for your SEO. Often, we on web hurriedly compress an image file by simply lowering quality settings in programs like Adobe Photoshop. This may be a satisfactory method worthy of printing; however, images on the web need to be much lower in file size while still maintaining quality. According to SEO Moz, the biggest factor in page speed is the amount of HTTP requests that are made. These can add up quickly due to scripts, stylesheets, Flash, and images. High quality images are a main culprit for slow loading pages. Resizing and formatting images to match the exact size they will be displayed on your site can positively effect load time. By simply using the height and width attributes, you can avoid any awkward page reformatting as the images load. Although resizing images is a good way to keep the image within an acceptable file size, it’s not always acceptable for the end user as they may require a higher resolution version of the image. This is where the ‘srcset’ attribute introduced in HTML5 can be used. This allows a responsive image to be delivered on modern browsers – serving the user a version of the image that matches the size of the display or the density of “pixel display”. Although srcset has its downsides, it’s the best method to deliver a responsive image to date. If you have to add another plugin to your site, you can try the “EWWW Image Optimizer”. This will automatically optimize any image you upload on WordPress, as well as any image already in your media library. This method of optimization will not affect image quality while still greatly reducing file size. Another method to perform this type of optimization is to use image optimization web services or online image optimization tools, this is a quick and easy alternative to the plugin method. With methods and tools like these it’s an easy win to keep images looking great and quickly loading.

Caching and compression

Passive caching is when stored files are automatically stored in the cache or are stored due to a browser setting such as Internet Explorer’s “Check for newer versions of stored pages: Never”. Dynamic files are more difficult to store in the cache and therefore require different methods of storage in comparison to the caching of static files and cached data may also require the need for versioning due to changes of data. Cache simulation can be used to test the effectiveness of caching before it is implemented in a web environment and cache plug-ins can be used with web servers and software such as Drupal and WordPress.

Active caching is a type of caching where developers write specific code to store items in the cache, for example using methods in programming languages such as put() and get(). When a file is stored in this manner, the only way it can be retrieved is when the specific code is called. A beginner to web programming and/or cache programming should consider caching data in this way because it is relatively easy to do and you can quickly see the benefits of caching.

Caching is the process of storing files in a cache, or temporary storage location, so that future requests for that file can be served faster. When a website is visited, certain files have to be downloaded and stored, such as HTML pages, style sheets, JavaScript scripts, images and other multimedia content. Web browsers can then store these files so that when a visitor comes back to that website, the resources do not have to be re-downloaded. This will result in faster load times and an overall better user experience. There are numerous different types of caching.

Minification of code

Minification is the process of reducing code and markup in your web pages and script files to the online length. This function can be all of the above. Using this tool is beneficial in many ways on a project, one of the most noticeable is the reduced bandwidth consumption. Minification is the process of removing all unnecessary characters from source code, without changing its functionality. These unnecessary characters usually include white space characters, new line characters, comments, and block delimiters, which are used to add readability to the code but are not required for it to execute. Minifying the code using a specialist tool means that the file size is reduced and is quicker to load into the browser. The minified script is the same as the original script, just the file size has been reduced. This is advantageous for websites looking to speed test, optimize, and load times. File size is a key factor regarding bandwidth and, of course, cost. By reducing the file size, effort can be saved on the cost of bandwidth usage. Bill savings can be made throughout the minified file’s lifespan. Using a specialist tool that automatically minifies the code is often a solution preferred by business stakeholders as it is a one-time implementation with little to no ongoing resource requirements. This contrasts with enforcing coding standards and developers manually minifying the code throughout its natural development cycle, which is an ongoing cost. Code minification is an automated process that benefits all parties participating in a web project ranging from hosting providers, who will save on bandwidth costs, to end-users who experience faster load times, and all that goes on between.

Benefits of Improving Site Speed

Site speed has been a part of Google’s search ranking algorithms for quite some time. As of 2010, Google has made it quite clear that site speed is included as one of the over 200 signals that go into their search ranking algorithms. So in other words, if your goal is to optimize your pages to rank well in search engines and you are not working on improving your site speed, you may want to think again. You’ve probably heard the phrase “Content is king” when it comes to SEO service. All great content aside, if your page loads so slowly that no one will stick around to read it, it’s a pretty safe bet that content won’t be going very far up in the search rankings. High site speeds also have the ability to help crawlers index your site more effectively. This is especially important for new websites trying to get listed in search engines. Another one of the huge benefits of increasing site speed is the level of improved user experience for your visitors. Load time is the first impression that a visitor will get about your site. It’s no secret that slow load times can harm conversions. Studies have shown that many users will leave a site if the page does not load within a certain amount of time. This figure varies, but in a recent report, 47% of consumers expected a web page to load in 2 seconds or less. So of course the faster your site, the better the user experience. This will in turn lead to higher engagement and conversion rates on your site. High load times can lead to unstable user sessions, because it takes longer to move between pages, often leading users to abandon their site visits. A 2009 study by Akamai Technologies found that 47% of visitors expected a web page to load in 2 seconds or less, and that 40% of visitors would leave the page if it takes more than 3 seconds to load. This definitely puts things into perspective when thinking about the effect of web performance on user retention.

Higher search engine rankings

Time is money, right? Don’t expect anything different for search engines. It’s already not a secret that search engines value the user experience the most. And the load time of your website is an important factor to users’ experience. This is shown in a statement at Google Webmaster Central, when they announced that page speed was included in the ranking algorithm: “people prefer sites that load faster: In a Google TechTalk, Maile Ohye mentioned that users who land on fast pages view 70-80% more pages. Also, a test on the Yahoo! home page increasing page load time by 400 milliseconds decreased traffic by 5-9%. Furthermore, tests at showed that by speeding up their page load time from 6 to 1.2 seconds, they saw a 25% increase in page views and a 7-12% increase in revenue. Considering these statistics, it’s important to make sure the relevancy algo does not compromise the speed algo because fast sites encourage users to search more and visit more page.”

Increased organic traffic

Google’s prerendering and page indexing systems will be able to more quickly find and index the site’s content. While prerendering/site caching by search engines is always a helpful tool for ensuring that all of a site’s content is indexed, it’s really not a replacement for simply having a site that is as fast for search engine crawlers as it is for human visitors. Faster crawling and indexing can result in more of the site’s pages getting indexed and getting indexed as quickly as possible. On a similar note, for larger sites in particular, it’s very possible to start outranking deep-linked internal pages with the site’s general purpose/category pages, due to these being the only pages whose partial content has been indexed. This can be a quality problem in the big picture, but if a site is producing revenue on a per-page-visit basis, ensuring fastest indexing and page-level rankings may still be the primary goal.

Improved site speed can make it more likely that the site will achieve its business goals. Specifically, faster sites can expect to benefit from the following in terms of organic search:

Less visitors on your site can mean less revenue, assuming the revenue model on your site is either sales or advertising. But even if you’re not monetizing your site, or even if you’re monetizing through means other than ads or sales, it’s quite likely you’re seeking to draw a certain number of visitors to your site.

From a practical and bottomline standpoint, for Google, traffic = revenue. As Gary Illyes, Webmaster Trends Analyst for Google, mentioned in his keynote at the 2016 State of Search conference, “40% of users will abandon a website if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load.”

Improved user engagement and conversion rates

One key aspect of a web site is the user experience. This encompasses many things, such as how easy it is for the user to find what they are looking for, the appearance of a site, and the overall utility of a site. A study done by Gomez tested users on how different web page response times affected their attitudes and perceptions of a given site. This study included a sample of 1500 people and 60% of them were somewhat or very dissatisfied with their site visit when the page was slow. A negative reaction to a slow site was shown to be detrimental to a site in the long run. Users experiencing a slow site were less likely to buy from the site or even visit the site in the future. A decrease in customer retention can be very harmful to a company, and it has been established that users will have a more positive attitude and perception of fast sites. This in turn means that they will have no problem returning to the site or even recommending it to others.

Fast websites are highly appreciated by internet users. In fact, in a 2008 study, Forrester Research found that 47% of users expect a web page to load in 2 seconds or less, and 40% of users will abandon a web page if it takes more than 3 seconds to load. The 2016 study by Google mentioned earlier showed that 53% of visits are abandoned if a mobile site takes longer than three seconds to load. Site speed clearly affects conversions, because people do not want to wait. High-performing sites convert better than their slower counterparts. A case study done by Strange Loop Networks showed that moving from a slower loading site to a faster site can result in a 9.2% increase in conversions rates. The study concluded that “an increase in performance by 1% results in an increase in conversion rates of 2.7%”. Fast sites are more efficient at getting users to do what they are there to do, and conversion rates for a call to action whether it is filling out a form, making a purchase, or signing up for a service are all improved with faster load times. Loading time is so crucial to conversions that Pat Grady, a partner at Sequoia Capital created a site called The Need for Speed, where statistics show the correlation between speed and various aspects of business.

Enhanced mobile experience

It’s clear that an optimized mobile site can lead to higher search rankings and more organic traffic. This is because mobile optimization leads to increased use of your website. A fast mobile site, coupled with the convenience of using the internet on the go, can result in more engagement and conversions.

Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool shows that most desktop websites are two to three times faster than mobile websites. Considering that more people are using their mobiles to search the internet, this means that website owners are missing out on a huge number of potential visitors. It also goes to show that Google’s indexing system is still tailored for desktop sites, considering that a mobile website will not be indexed separately from the desktop site. This is something that Google is looking to change, with their upcoming “mobile first” index. This is a fundamental shift in their crawling and indexing, as they will prioritize the mobile version of a website over the desktop version. This is because more people are accessing Google through their smartphone. Failure to have a mobile-friendly website could result in a significant drop in site visitors once this change is made. Given that Google is the number one search engine, this is a very important reason to improve the speed of your mobile site.

Mobile internet usage has taken off over the last nine years since the introduction of smartphones. Since more people are starting to use their mobiles for accessing the internet, it’s only natural that they want to be able to use their phone to do everything they’d do if they were at a desktop computer. That includes waiting for a slow website to load. However, the reality is that most websites are still built for desktop and are slow to load on mobiles. This can be very frustrating for someone attempting to access your website on the go. The high speed at which mobile internet usage is increasing means that it is important to cater to mobile users if you want your website to be truly accessible.

Strategies for Optimizing Site Speed

When you are looking to build a new site, or you want to improve your search engine rankings with our SEO tips, then the first place to start is with your host. Often they will not boast about their server’s speed, but it is certainly something you should look into. We spoke to Dave Collins, the CEO of Software Promotions, who had this to say on the subject: “If you are seeking to achieve great search engine rankings, ensuring that your site loads quickly is essential. Not only does this affect your bounce rate, but Google has publicly stated that they take site speed into consideration when deciding where to place your site in their rankings.” If you are unsure about the speed of your host’s servers, Dave recommends asking them to move your site to a different server – a faster one – or if that’s not possible, it could be time to consider a change in provider.

Choosing a reliable hosting provider

Several things need to be taken into consideration when choosing a hosting provider. Certainly, you may be swayed by the fact that “you get what you pay for.” But as it turns out, cost should not be a primary influencer in your decision. While the most economical decision may seem like the best at the time, over time it will cost you more in terms of site speed and possibly in your own man hours. Take note that most “shared hosting” provider package prices are similar. Do some thorough investigative work and look for actual numbers and references from review sites. As a site speed advocate, it’s good to shun shared hosting as its performance can be erratic. Your goal is to find statistics or research concerning the speed of servers. This is a tough task as the hard numbers are difficult to find – but not impossible. A good start would be to find which company hosts the websites with the highest traffic in your niche. Remember that your server speed compared to your competitors is a relative measure of performance. Contacting each prospective provider for a database-free site to test server response time is also a constructive idea. Your basic criterion here is the provider which has the fastest server, regardless of price. The logic is that faster servers consume fewer resources and therefore you should obtain better performance with the same server package. Note down the server type, location, and speed for comparison. This should be the basis for choosing your hosting provider and server type. Also, some curious questioning about what sort of hardware your server would be hosted on is trumped by the question “what other websites will my server be hosting?” This is because shared hosting performance is relative, and even a fast server can be hindered by other high traffic sites on the same hosting.

Optimizing images and multimedia content

With the technological advancements, the usage of multimedia has become more common leading to more complex website designs. This has had a notable impact on website performance, also known as site speed. Images and multimedia content are often the heaviest elements of a webpage. While a picture might be worth a thousand words, it can also be several megabytes in size. That picture of 2000 words might only need to be 500 KB, and this can be accomplished without loss of visual quality. While bandwidth and download times are reduced, the server will spend less time processing the image. You do not want to use an image editor to scale an image if your browser does it automatically. Web page designers should also use CSS for layout and to create special effects because these tend to be faster to download than images. Flash is another form of multimedia that is often overused. While Flash intros might look great the first time you see them, most of the time they are an annoyance and are swiftly skipped through. A large majority of Flash and multimedia content is unnecessary and does not provide any functional benefit to the page. This is a case of less is more.

Implementing caching and compression techniques

Web servers use caching to store resources in the visitor’s browser. Doing this can have a massive effect on page load times. If a resource has been downloaded before and the resource hasn’t changed, the cached resource will be used. This means fewer requests are made and load time is reduced. To enable caching, a Cache-Control header can be used in a HTTP response. It defines the resource valid lifetime in seconds, if the resource is public or private and if the resource must be re-validated after it’s expiry. There are a few different directives that can be used with Cache-Control and it’s worth understanding each one and how they work. Alternatively, a HTML meta tag can be used instead. Using these methods, it is possible to control exactly how resources are cached and for exactly how long. Using a cache validator will reduce the amount of bandwidth used by a server; this cuts server costs. Compression is another effective way to reduce bandwidth. By compressing resources using a program like GZIP, the size of the resource can be drastically reduced. When a browser that supports GZIP downloads a web page, the page serves as normal with a HTTP request, but then the server uses mod_gzip to compress the page before it’s sent. The browser then automatically decompresses the file. Compression can reduce download time and data usage considerably and is a standard requirement of many corporate websites. In tests shown at Yahoo’s Best Practices for Speeding Up Your Site, the use of GZIP compression reduced page size to a quarter of the original. This is a significant reduction and will obviously have a big effect on page load time.

Minimizing HTTP requests

Combining files is one way to reduce the number of requests. CSS files can be combined into a single file, and likewise, JavaScript files can be combined into a single file. This works quite well; however, if you update a certain part of your CSS, you will be required to download the entire new CSS file. This can be avoided using CSS sprites.

Hence, the best way of speeding up the page load time is to make the 80% more efficient. This can be achieved by reducing the size of the files on the page or the number of requests. Reducing the size of a file will require a different optimization technique, so here we are concerned with reducing the number of HTTP requests made for a page.

On an average web page, 80% of load time is spent downloading the different parts of the page, with the remainder of the time spent parsing the HTML and rendering the page. If we assume that the entire load time process takes 100 time units, we can consider the fundamental law of load time: 80/100 time = downloading 20/100 time = everything else.

An HTTP request is made for every element on a webpage, including images, style sheets, scripts, and other embedded objects. This makes loading a page quite slow because each element involves a round trip from the browser to the server and back. A round trip takes more time than a simple retrieval, and more elements require more round trips. So, by reducing the number of elements on a page, you can effectively speed up load time.

Utilizing content delivery networks (CDNs)

A Content Delivery Network (CDN) is a system of servers that deliver web content to a user based on the geographic location of the user, the origin of the webpage, and a content delivery server. Utilizing CDNs can greatly accelerate a website’s load times and decrease latency. In a global market where website users can be accessing your site from all corners of the world, it is important to serve your content as fast as possible, and using a CDN is the best way to do that. CDNs also offload the amount of requests made to your own server, reducing the amount of bandwidth required to complete those requests. While CDNs are the best way to serve static content, it is important to also make sure your CDN is able to serve dynamic content as fast as possible. With the increase in Web 2.0 and AJAX-based websites, there is much more dynamic content that could potentially be slowed down by a CDN’s latency, but with proper configuration, a CDN can also be utilized for faster dynamic content delivery.

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