Site Speed’s Role in Google Rankings

Reproduced from my April 19 article on Practical Ecommerce:

In its continuing quest to provide searchers with the best possible search experience, Google announced last week that site speed is now a signal in its search ranking algorithms. Along with the hundreds of other signals, like link popularity and keyword relevance, Google is now factoring site speed (i.e., how quickly a website responds to web requests) into its rankings on search results pages.

Why Does Google Care About Speed?

Searchers presumably associate the quality of the page they land on with Google’s brand. If a page that Google ranks isn’t topically relevant, the searcher’s Google brand experience is negative. Google is taking that a step farther with this algorithm update, implying that a site that is slow to respond or load will also result in a negative search experience that reflects poorly on Google.

It is true that bounce rates are higher on slow sites, indicating that searchers find the experience less acceptable. And Google is thought to factor bounce rates (quick returns from a search landing page back to Google) into their algorithms. Site speed, then, would just be an extension of that logic.

What About the Ugly Factor?

As a search user, I’m all for anything that encourages increased site speed. But, as a marketer and SEO professional, this feels like a slippery slope. Ugly sites also experience higher bounce rates – perhaps there should be an “ugly” factor in the algorithm. Obviously, I jest. “Ugly” is impossible to define empirically and quantify outside of the bounce rate data that “ugly” would theoretically increase.

Regardless of how marketers feel about the site speed addition to the algorithm, it’s live now. Google has introduced the site speed factor to only approximately 1 percent of the search queries performed today, so the likelihood that any one site will notice a dramatic shift today is extremely small.

Google rolls these changes out slowly to avoid the sudden massive shifts in rankings that we used to see several years ago. While this is a welcome change, it does make it harder to pinpoint source of the bounce issue, if there is one. As a result, a site with major site speed issues may have trouble discerning that speed actually is the issue. Impacted sites will more likely notice a gradual decline in rankings and organic search-referred traffic and sales as the site speed factor gradually impacts higher percentages of search queries.

Test Your Site Speed

Google Webmaster Tools recommends an assortment of tools to test site speed to determine if there is an issue, including Google’s Page Speed, Yahoo! YSlow, and WebPageTest. If site speed is indeed an issue according to these tools, a host of business or technical challenges could be contributing. Ecommerce sites tend to include a multitude of analytics and usability feature scripts that can contribute to slow response times, as well as hosting configurations that limit bandwidth available for a site.

These business and technical challenges tend to be the most difficult to resolve, especially for sites without dedicated IT resources. But, don’t panic – test first. If site speed is not an issue today, then file this away for discussion in the future as new features and technologies are added to the site. If site speed is an issue, then it’s probably something the business has been discussing already, since it impacts overall user experience. SEO revenue is yet another reason to prioritize the discussions around site speed and to make technical upgrades that could improve SEO as well as user experience.

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Originally posted on Web PieRat.