Google’s algorithm uses a myriad of signals and components to determine where pages should rank within its search results. Understandably, it keeps this formula tightly under wraps, and its engineers are making constant modifications to help the algorithm produce the most helpful and accurate results. All of which leads to speculation among marketers and SEOs as to what, if any, factors carry more weight than others.
Google publishes guidelines that outline what its algorithms are looking for in terms of quality content and what it will punish when it comes to spam. However, its executives rarely speak out about specific ranking factors, unless those items are part of a major algorithm update.
Site speed is one factor about which Google has spoken publicly. Google announced in 2010 that site speed would start to have an impact on desktop search rankings. This was notable because site speed is different from — and more nebulous than — more concrete onsite elements like copy, titles, headers and schema markup, or more well-understood factors like a backlink portfolio.
Eight years later, in 2018, Google posted on its Webmaster Central Blog that page speed would be a ranking factor for mobile searches. In response to questions from SEOs about how to measure how page speed would begin to affect ranking, a Google spokesperson told Search Engine Land, “This is completely algorithmic. There is no tool that directly indicates whether a page is affected by this new ranking factor.”
Page speed vs. site speed
The terms page speed and site speed are often used interchangeably, although they are not the same thing. Page speed measures the time it takes for a single page to load. This can be represented as page load time, which is the time it takes to fully display all page content, or time to the first byte, which is the time it takes for the browser to receive the first byte of information from a server. Site speed is an aggregate that represents the page speed for a certain sample of page views.
Why page speed?
A website’s speed affects search engine rankings because slowly loading pages deliver a poor user experience. When it announced the inclusion of page speed as a factor in mobile rankings, Google stated on its Webmaster Blog that website owners and developers should think expansively about website performance from a user perspective. Page load time is one piece of this puzzle.
Does page speed affect search results?
Bigger Law Firm (BLF) magazine dug into the analytics of two Custom Legal Marketing (CLM) clients, Steinberg Law Firm and Brill Legal Group, to see whether we could determine any correlation between page speed enhancements and positive movement in search results. Here are the results:
Steinberg Law Firm
Brill Legal Group
Brill Legal Group’s website saw similar improvements in correlation with increases in page speed. As a result of targeted efforts, the firm’s page speed score improved from 28/100 at the beginning of 2019 to 52/100 by December of 2019, and mobile rankings for all keywords also saw a considerable boost.
Correlation or causation?
Software company Moz performed a study in 2013, just two years after the desktop page speed update, in which it found no correlation between page load time and placement in Google’s rankings. While this finding is by now seven years old, it reflects both Google’s assertion that the update would affect only very slow sites. Moz also predicted at the time that page speed would become more highly valued as a ranking factor, as Google continues to push for better user experience across the web.
Should you care about page speed?
Yes. It can be difficult to quantify positive ranking outcomes as they are directly related to faster page load times. However, one ignores an element that Google has explicitly named as a factor in both desktop and mobile search at their own risk.
While CLM cannot claim that enhancements in page speed were the only factor in its clients’ positive ranking changes, the efforts to improve speed sitewide were a piece of a larger, and successful, strategy focused on creating a positive user experience.
Page load time is important to website visitors. Enhancements in bandwidth capabilities and compression technology have given users the reasonable expectation that pages will load quickly. Your visitors do not care whether your SEO company can claim direct causation between page speed enhancements and search results. They do care about finding the information they need quickly on any device. Failing to deliver information quickly could result in lost users and lost leads.
Page Speed Insights: Google offers tips on how to improve page speed. The first resource you should be aware of is its Page Speed Insights tool, which can be found at: https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/
When you visit the Insights page, you will be prompted to enter a URL, which Google’s tool will analyze. It will then give you scores for several factors, based on a scale from 1 to 100, which indicates how well your pages load. You can look at results for both mobile and desktop. In addition to speed metrics, the tool offers suggestions for increasing page speed.
Lighthouse: Lighthouse is an open-source tool that audits the quality of web pages. Google’s Page Speed Insights uses data from Lighthouse to generate its page speed reports. Lighthouse is an automated tool that is part of the Chrome Developer Tools suite.
Chrome User Experience Report: Google’s Page Speed Insights tool also provides a percentile score for the URL, as compared to other pages in the Chrome User Experience Report. This report is based on an aggregate of user experience data from across the web. If you have opted in to sync your browsing history and have usage statistic reporting enabled, your user data is part of this aggregate. Chrome is looking at how well pages are loading for you across the web and using the technical data associated with those page loads to create a broad report about page speed averages across the web.
Smush: Smush is a WordPress plugin focused on image compression. It offers lossless compression, and it can bulk compress up to 50 images at a time. An unexpected amount of data can be stripped from images without compromising quality. Smush helps improve page speed by helping your site only serve the data users need.
The sheer number of ranking factors, and the relative mystery surrounding them, make it difficult to directly link any improvements in search rankings on one specific thing. Because of this, it is always critical to stay focused on the big picture, which, for Google, is user experience. Since faster page load times are good for user experience, they are also suitable for your firm — in terms of rankings and conversions.