An SEO audit of your Web site can pick up many small indicators that can be signs of larger problems, like:
- high bounce rates on your Web pages
- low traffic levels
- low time-on-page statistics
While these clues can tell you that you have low user engagement, the solutions can be more nebulous. For example, should you change existing content? Create new, more detailed content better targeted to your audience? Or is it possible that you’re losing potential customers because your Web site is too slow?
A slow Web site can spell disaster for many Web site owners, especially those with e-commerce stores on their site, but many others too:
- For a new visitor to your home page, a quick-loading site helps make the best brand impression
- For image-rich sites, you want to deliver impressive image quality and still keep users engaged
- For Web sites using full-page background images, you want the whole page to render quickly
- For e-commerce sites, fast-loading pages increase sales
Especially since most visitors are probably new to your site and brand, you need to make a good impression, and part of that is fast response times. Load pages too slowly, and the user clicks away in frustration, regardless of the great copy on your Web site and the excellent products you’re selling.
There’s lots of data on this, but two fairly recent examples (from a Nov 2013 Moz study) are interesting:
- Intuit (Velocity 2013) reduced page load times and saw:
- +3% conversions for every second reduced from 15 seconds to 7 seconds
- +2% conversions for every second reduced from seconds 7 to 5
- +1% conversions for every second reduced from seconds 4 to 2
- With the Obama for America campaign site (2011), Kyle Rush showed through A/B testing that a 3-second page time reduction (from 5 seconds to 2 seconds) improved onsite donations by 14%, resulting in an increase of over $34 million in election contributions
The take-away? You enter into a space of diminishing returns, so you’ll gain the most from reducing 10- or 15-second Web page load times down to 2-4 seconds. Depending on the speed of other Web sites in your industry and niche, Web pages that load in a couple of seconds might be just fine, and search ranking improvements might be very minimal for even faster load times.
What is a “Fast” Web Site?
Let’s talk about what we mean by a fast Web site, because there’s at least two definitions:
- From an SEO perspective, what Web site qualities correlate with higher Google search rankings
- For an end-user, what they perceive as a fast Web site
Matt Cutts of Google said in 2010 that site speed was now a ranking factor for Google search. However, that’s just one of over 200 ranking factors, so many smart people have been trying to figure out just how important site speed is to rankings, and what aspect of site speed Google is focusing on. An Aug 2013 Moz study looked at three aspects of site speed:
- Overall page size
- Time to Last Byte (TTLB)
- Time to First Byte (TTFB)
In the Moz study, search rankings were not dramatically affected by overall page size, there were many first-page results that had both small and large Web pages listed. Also, the time to completely load all of a Web page’s data, surprisingly, did not seem to be the most important speed factor. However, the time it took for the Web page to start loading – the TTFB time – directly correlated with rankings for the pages studied. In other words, the time it took the Web server to serve the first piece of Web page data, the initial server response time, did correlate with better search rankings.
So those are two seemingly contradictory criteria: from the user’s perspective, they want the whole page to load quickly (which you can affect by reducing the amount of Web page data that gets served to the client) and from Google’s perspective, Google wants the page to start loading quickly (which is most affected by having a fast Web server response). You need to consider both perspectives when optimizing your Web pages.
Tools to Analyze Web Site Speed
So how do you ensure you have a fast Web site? Fortunately, there are many tools now to help you calculate exactly how fast your Web site loads for your end-users, and what you should do to improve response times. Here’s a list of six great tools to measure Web site performance:
- YSlow – The Yahoo Front-End Performance Team was a group of developers who came up with 13 rules for improving Web site performance in 2006. Later, they added more rules and created YSlow as a Firebug plugin. Today it’s available as an extension for many popular Web browsers. The YSlow interface and grading system has inspired the look of many other Web performance tools listed here.
- Google Pagespeed Insights – Google, of course, has an enormous interest in determining how to make Web sites perform better. PageSpeed Insights is available as a browser extension for Google Chrome
- Pingdom.com – The Pingdom Web tool has free and paid versions, but even the free version gives you very useful tools like a waterfall analysis, component analysis, and the ability to view how quickly each piece of your Web site content is loading and the response time of the domain from where that content is being served.
- Zoompf.com – Zoompf is another Web-based tool with both free and paid versions. The paid version claims analysis of over 400 site performance factors.
- GTMetrix.com – The Web-based GTMetrix tool combines some features of both PageSpeed and YSlow.
What to Fix First on Your Web Site
So what should you fix, when there are so many factors to consider?
The Yahoo developers and many others have suggested the Performance Golden Rule: 80-90% of the time spent loading a Web page is downloading Web page components from the server. For this reason, they advocate spending most of your time and energy reducing the amount of data needed on the front-end, rather than back-end components.
Here’s a super-short list of the biggest obstacles to a fast Web site:
- Get rid of data – First off, can you reduce the amount of data that the client is loading from the server? Try these strategies:
- Reduce the number of images on a page
- Reduce the number of teaser blog posts you’re showing on your home page
- Remove any unneeded graphic elements or widgets
- Reduce the size of the page itself
- Remove any unused plug-ins from your site
- Compress data – After you’ve stripped away whatever data you can, further reduce the size of server requests by ensuring your Web server is serving compressed data. Apache Web servers typically use deflate or gzip (using the mod_deflate and mod_gzip modules), enable these modules if they’re not already being used. Also, compress images – you can do this when you’re first creating images in Adobe PhotoShop using the “Save for Web” option, or with a variety of image optimization tools like the WordPress Smush.It plug-in, or the Kraken Image Optimizer.
- Allow browser caching – Both clients and Web servers can use caching for faster response times. Statistics show that the majority of Web users arrive at your Web site with their browser cache empty, typically first-time visitors who have caching enabled but have not yet accessed any of the pages on your Web site. An easy method with a WordPress Web site is to install a caching plug-in like W3 Total Cache or HyperCache, these will allow browsers to cache content from your Web server. With caching enabled, after the initial page load, a client can be served other Web pages without reloading any shared elements, greatly speeding up load times. You can control the caching configuration via the plug-in settings, and also using the Expires and Cache-Control headers, which enable fine-grained control of caching settings.
- Use a Content Delivery Network (CDN) – If you have traffic from many countries, or even from both coasts of North America, using a Content Delivery Network (CDN) may greatly improve the speed of your Web site for many end-users. A CDN ensures your Web site data can be served from several Web servers in different locations, so the data can be served to a user from the server nearest to them. There are many well-known companies like MaxCDN, Akamai, and CloudFlare. CDNs range in price – as of May 2014, CloudFlare had different monthly plans for US$20, $200 and $5000 (Pro, Business and Enterprise). CDNs are essential if you expect to have traffic surges (say from a well-publicized event or a story in national/global media) or have encountered Denial-of-Service (DOS) attacks.
There are many more items that could be on this list, but if you start with fixing these, especially if your site is very slow initially, you can expect major improvements in site speed.
More About Web Site Performance
There are plenty of good articles about how to improve Web site performance, including:
- Caching Tutorial for Webmasters
- Yahoo: Best Practices for Speeding Up Your Site
- Google: Web Performance Best Practices
- Quicksprout: How to Make Your Site Insanely Fast
- ConversionXL: Low-Hanging Fruit for Improving Web Site Speed