Speed Update: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How

First, the who: here’s who announced it and whom it will affect.

On January 17, 2018, on Google’s Webmaster Central Blog, the internet giant announced that page speed will soon be an official ranking factor in mobile searches. What does this mean for your site?

Well, page speed has been a ranking factor for desktop searches for nearly eight years. So, if you’ve already been focused on speed for desktop and, at the same time, have been speeding up your mobile pages, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. The Speed Update is said to “only affect pages that deliver the slowest experience to users and will only affect a small percentage of queries.” Google also states that:

  • The same page speed standard will be applied to all pages, no matter what backend technology you used to create them
  • Search query intent remains a “very strong signal,” which means that a slow page with “great, relevant content” still can “rank highly”

Our perspective is that everyone should keep page speed considerations front of mind because, if you have slower-loading pages (or perhaps even average-loading pages), the impatience of site visitors will cause a percentage of your prospects (and even your customers) to flee to your competitors that have faster load times. If you also fit into the category described by Google above (pages delivering the slowest experience to users), then you’ve got a doubly-important reason to make boosting speed a top priority.

Defining Page Speed

On the one hand, the definition is very simple: page speed measures how quickly a page of content on a website loads. On the other hand, as Moz.com explains, this concept is often confused with “site speed,” which refers to the speed in which a sampling of your pages loads. And, even when you focus on just one page on your site, there are different ways to define page speed. There is “page load time,” which is how long it takes for content to be fully displayed for a particular page. There is also “time to first byte,” which measures how quickly your browser receives the first information byte from the server. The experts at Moz believe Google is using the latter definition (time to first byte) when measuring page speed. But, both are important.

When the Speed Update Will Roll Out

Estimated time of arrival: July 2018

Where to Evaluate Page Speed

Google recommends numerous resources to evaluate page performance, highlighting PageSpeed Insights where webmasters have been being provided performance optimization suggestions and fixes after entering in the domain name.

Sites with a high enough degree of popularity are also being provided with speed ratings (both mobile and desktop) with that tool: fast, normal or slow. For example, mobile pages on Amazon.com have received the following ratings:

Overall, the mobile pages are receiving a rating of “Fast” with a 1.3 second FCP rating and a 1.5s DCL rating.

FCP stands for “First Contentful Paint” and this metric measures how quickly a site visitor would first see a visual response from the site; the faster this happens, the more likely the visitor will remain engaged with the site. DCL stands for “DOM Content Loaded” and this measures how quickly the HTML has been loaded and parsed; faster times correlate with lower bounce rates.

The New York Times’ website is an example of one with only average mobile loading times (1.7s FCP and 2.5s DCL):

Its page loading distribution pattern looks like this:

PageSpeed Insights’ data comes from the Chrome User Experience Report that “provides user experience metrics for how real-world Chrome users experience popular destinations on the web.” Data is gathered through usage patterns of people who opted-in to browsing history syncing without a Sync passphrase, those who also have their usage statistic reporting enabled.

If you are not able to access information about page speed on your website through PageSpeed insights, Google recommends you run a synthetic performance audit through Lighthouse. This open-source tool allows you to estimate page speed. And, even if you don’t get rated from the PageSpeed Insights test, you will still receive information about which page elements are keeping yours from quickly rendering. The critical rendering path, for example (formed by CSS and JavaScript and the like), must load before site visitors can see your content.

You can find numerous other open source tools to help at ModPageSpeed.com. You can also test your site speed at TestMySite, another Google site. This will tell you how quickly your site will load if a site visitor has a 3G connection. Your results will also tell you, on average, how much of a page bounce percentage you will experience because of your load time, and you can also download a free report with recommendations to fix problems. Yet another site with free page speed tests: GTMetrix.com.

Remind Me: Why Are We Doing This?

Two main reasons: to keep your site visitors (prospects and customers) happy and to keep Google happy.

People browsing the web are impatient. “Shoppers,” Google says, “expect brands to deliver fast, frictionless mobile experiences. And those expectations keep rising.” Plus:

  • 30% of all online shopping purchases now take place on mobile phones, making slow speed especially costly for retailers.
  • As of July 2016, the average mobile site in the United States took 6.9 seconds to load; since data shows that 40% of consumers will leave a page that takes more than three seconds to load, that’s problematic.
  • When comparing mobile website load times that resulted in bounced sessions versus those that resulted in non-bounced sessions, it isn’t surprising to note that load times were about 2.5 seconds slower on average for non-bounced ones.
  • And, when a shopper is dissatisfied with site performance, the effect is much more profound than one lost sale; 79% of shoppers who experience this type of dissatisfaction say they’re less likely to purchase from that site again.

And, when speed becomes a ranking factor for mobile pages, your page speed can help or hurt your rankings. On the one hand, yes. Google has hundreds of ranking factors that blend to make their algorithm. And, yes. Google is saying that page speed for mobile will be a relatively small factor (for now, at least). But, when experts at SearchEngineJournal.com focused on identifying the top four ranking factors, one of them was the mobile-first user experience (and that was determined BEFORE the Speed Update was announced).

Late in 2017, Google began rolling out its mobile-first search index on select sites, with the overall goal (announced about a year earlier) to shift its search index, overall, to favor mobile versions of websites over desktop options. This change will more or less force webmasters interested in ranking well to ensure their mobile sites and desktop sites contain the same information. More information can be found at TechCrunch.com.

Returning to the notion that the mobile-first user experience is one of Google’s most important ranking factors, SearchEngineJournal.com notes that page speed is an “important ranking factor that ties heavily into a good user experience.”

So, to sum up the “why” of it all: this will help to keep everyone that you want to be happy in order to have a thriving online business . . . happy.

How to Boost Page Speed

Google has been focusing on page speed on mobile pages for a while now, with pages using Accelerated Mobile Page (AMP) technology first being highlighted in search results pages in February 2016. AMP-enhanced pages are stripped down versions of pages that come with both advantages and disadvantages (here is an in-depth look at the good, the bad and the ugly about AMP). One clear and undisputed advantage: these pages are lightning fast.

Note that, officially, AMP is not a ranking factor but, because it plays such a crucial role in page speed – which is now becoming an official ranking factor for mobile – that distinction has really become a matter of semantics. Also note that you don’t absolutely need to use AMP to get super-speed loading times, but it’s certainly a method to consider.

Here are recommendations by Google to boost page speed, with links to specifics for developers:

Taking a more in-depth look at the first recommendation, image optimization, Moz.com suggests that, when optimizing bytes for pixel, you keep all images at or below 75 kb. The Moz.com article also walks you through one methodology of image optimization, starting with using ScreamingFrog.com to create an image inventory. After determining which images you no longer need (remove those!), you can then diagnose optimization issues through Screaming Frog. Compression tools they recommend include the following:

If you’re looking for image compression plugins, WordPress has a free award-winning one called Smush. And, here are more recommended image compression tools for WordPress.

You can also take advantage of a CDN (Content Delivery Network or Content Distribution Network). CDNs are highly-optimized servers located around the world; when you use them, you’ll “always hit the server that’s closest to you. This leads to huge performance improvements for sites that have visitors from all across the world.” That quote is from Yoast.com, and the article goes on to describe how, with a CDN, you can choose a directory on your server to pull all files, and then they are served up from the CDN.

Also optimize your cache. Text found at the download page for one such plugin (WordPress’s Super Cache) notes that, with their methodology, 99 percent of site visitors will be served static html files. One cached file can then be served thousands of times. If you have a WordPress site and choose to use this plugin, cached files will be served up in three different ways, with the fastest method using Apache mod_rewrite for “supercached” files; if your web server doesn’t support Apache mod_rewrite, you can use a similar module that it does support. This option is extremely quick because it bypasses PHP. As a second method, the one recommended by WordPress, your supercached files can be served by PHP. And, for known users, there is a WP-caching option. Find more details here.

When Am I Done?

You probably already know the answer: never. Site visitors are demanding increasingly faster load times and, as your competitors find more and better ways of doing that, you need to keep apace.

Continually monitor site performance. To help, Google offers the RAIL Performance Model. This is a user-centric model, Google states, that “breaks down the user’s experience into key actions . . . By laying out a structure for thinking about performance, RAIL enables designers and developers to reliably target the work that has the highest impact on user experience.”

RAIL looks at the user experience as a “journey composed of distinct interactions,” providing webmasters with tools to better understand how users experience a particular website. This allows the webmasters to set performance goals that offer the greatest user experience impact.

With speed in mind, here are just two sets of RAIL guidelines to illustrate what insights are being provided there. If using animation on your website, RAIL recommends that a frame is produced in 10ms or less. That’s because the maximum budget for each frame is 16ms, but browsers need 6ms for rendering. In animation, “the key is to do nothing where you can, and the absolute minimum where you can’t.” Use Rendering Performance whenever needed.

As part of RAIL guidelines, webmasters should maximize idle time; for initial page loads, as just one example, load as little data as possible. During idle time, load the rest. If a user interacts with a page during idle time work, the user should be your highest priority.

Google Clarifications (Plus Our Clarifications)

After Google made its announcement about page speed becoming a ranking factor for mobile pages, digital marketers naturally began having questions about what that really meant. Here are a couple of areas where this has occurred, along with answers gleaned from Google. This will be an ongoing process, as it always is when Google makes a significant change that affects rankings.

Confusion already exists about the role of the Speed Update and its connection to Google indexing. So, note that this update only affects the ranking of mobile pages, not their indexing. Here’s more. Having said that, we have our own clarification to add: slow page speed means that Google’s spiders will crawl fewer pages during your site’s allotted crawl time—and that can have a negative effect on your indexing. With so much with Google, there is a fine semantic line to observe and interpret.

Here’s the second clarification from Google. Webmasters who see rankings drop will naturally try to reverse engineer what happened. According to Google, the Speed Update is “completely algorithmic,” which means that no tool exists that can directly indicate whether this new ranking factor is affecting a particular page. Here’s more. That said, here is our clarification: you can use Search Console to analyze your site’s usability, which includes crawl errors that may be cramping your site’s style. The Mobility Usability report will target the specifics of any mobile usability issues, and these are ultra-important to fix.

Stay tuned! We will continue to monitor the news and impact of this Google update.

Chris Gregory

Chris founded DAGMAR Marketing and directs all of the agency's SEO strategy development and implementation. He is a Certified Master SEO by Market Motive and OMCP.

Chris founded DAGMAR Marketing and directs all of the agency's SEO strategy development and implementation. He is a Certified Master SEO by Market Motive and OMCP.

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