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BACK TO BASICS: The Case for Page Speed Optimization

by Virginia Nussey, March 16, 2010

Speed. The word conjures up images of action, readiness and power - all qualities most webmasters would love to attain on their sites. In the last year, Google has been at the forefront of an effort to speed up the Web. Webmasters and SEOs would do well to take notice.

The immediate response of an SEO hearing Google's vocal drive for change is, "Will speed affect a site's organic rankings?" Google's senior developer programs engineer, Maile Ohye, addressed this concern at SMX West this month with a nudge and a wink. From paraphrased liveblog coverage of the conference session The Need For Speed: Google Says It Matters:

"As of today, performance is not a factor in organic ranking. If performance becomes a signal, we expect to notify webmasters. But, hint: Google is pushing the importance of speed."

So Why the Interest in Page Speed?

The numbers prove that a site's responsiveness and speed has a direct effect on a user's willingness to use and return to a site. Research has shown that faster performance results in more satisfied users, whereas slow performance not only leaves users unsatisfied but turns them away from using a site again in the future.

According to research by Google, slowing speed by less than half a second resulted in .2 percent to .6 percent fewer visits by users. This dampened use persisted past the point when faster page load time was reestablished. Bing.com did a similar experiment and found that a two second delay resulted in a 4.3 percent drop in revenue.

As part of its initial push for speed, Google released a video of its top engineers, directors and executives making the case for a faster Web:

Points of interest:

  1. The Web is the dominant computing platform of our time.
  2. By making Web faster, all applications will perform better.
  3. A faster Web will result in greater adoption of Internet connected mobile devices, through which users can make purchases and interact online, on demand.
  4. People are increasingly using the Web for watching videos, uploading pictures, watching high-definition movies, and running complex JavaScript-based apps.
  5. In order for information to be useful, it has to be delivered in a timely fashion.

Speaking to the third point, consider the effect of a mainstream Internet user base that makes purchasing decisions on the go, instantly, and as the need arises. A fast Web will be needed before the widespread adoption of mobile computing is ever to live up to its promise.

And the last point brings up a debate in the Web world around the role of SEO, usability, and conversion rate optimization. These three aspects of running a Web site are at once distinct and intertwined. SEO is the practice of getting users to find a relevant site when using a search engine. Usability focuses on optimizing a site's interface and messaging so that a human user can do what they hope to do on a site. And conversion rate optimization hopes to make the conversion process as simple and intuitive as possible so as to remove any obstacles to performing a conversion on a site. A page's load time falls squarely into all three categories and is good for a site all around.

Tips and Tools for Optimizing Page Speed

Steve Souders, author of High Performance Web Sites and chief of performance at Yahoo! explains that more than 80 percent of the time needed to deliver a Web page is spent on the site's front end. It follows that the front-end is the place to start when fixing potential issues with page speed.

The Yahoo! Developer Network Blog lays out three reasons why addressing front-end performance issues is the best place to start:

  1. There's higher potential for improvement when you focus on speeding up the front-end.
  2. Improvements on the front end usually require fewer resources and less time than back-end projects.
  3. Yahoo! has seen ample proof that front-end performance tuning works with great results.

With this in mind, the Yahoo! Developer Network published 35 best practices for optimizing page speed. From minimizing HTTP requests to externalizing JavaScript and CSS to avoiding scaling images in HTML, the list is a clear and straight-forward guide to keeping load time of a page to the minimum.

Along with knowing the best practices of developing for optimal speed, there are tools available that help webmasters, developers and SEOs identify a site's specific speed-inhibitive issues.

Google Page Speed Add-on for Firefox/Firebug

By downloading a simple Firefox/Firebug add-on, webmasters and developers will be notified of a page's performance. The tool tests both Web server configuration and front-end code in order to prioritizes those improvements that would enhance page speed.

Yahoo! YSlow Add-on for Firefox/Firebug

This easy-to-use Firefox/Firebug add-on grades a page's speed based on 22 best practices of page performance. The report orders recommendations from highest to lowest priority, with a letter grade given to each component's current implementation. Also provided are suggestions for improvement and a list of those components that hinder page load time.

Web Page Test at WebPagetest.org

This free tool analyzes the speed factors of a submitted URL and reports back on the results. Included in the test results are a page's load time and required bandwidth, a grade rating on the page's use of compressed text, images, cache static content, optimized JavaScript and CSS, a break down of load time by content type, and a speed optimization checklist for the page.

Google Webmaster Tools' Experimental Site Performance Tool

At the moment, Google is testing a resource available to Webmaster Tools users which reports a site's latency information. Reported info includes the average load time for individual pages, page load trends on a site over a period of several months, and suggestions for making pages load faster.

The Future of Page Speed

As explained by Google reps in the video above, a faster Web is the future. Speed online will encourage more people to access to information and could thus raise the standard of living around the world. A faster Web will enable greater interaction online, pushing technology and information retrieval to new heights. Furthermore, if the future of technology as imagined in the media is to ever come to fruition, a faster Web will be required for the development of new platforms, applications and devices. But most importantly today, a faster site means a happier visitor, and a happier visitor means higher conversions. Improving the speed of the Web today holds benefits for businesses today and in the years to come.


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