Site Speed, User Experience, and SEO

It was a common story a few years ago. You search for something on your phone, click on what looks to be the best answer, and the page loads so slowly you exit back to your search results. Did this page deserve its place at the top of the list in Google? It may have had the information you needed, but it loaded so slowly that you didn’t want to wait for what it could tell you.

More recently, Google has stated that site speed is a major factor in user experience, and has done its best to reflect that in its search engine rankings (SERPs). Up until now, it has been little more than a ranking signal, but the future of site speed, user experience, and SEO are bound to come together more forcefully in the near future.

Site Speed and User Experience

Nobody wants to wait for a slow loading web page, that’s just a fact. If you are on a website where you need to get to the next page for specific information, fill in form data, or have any specific needs from that page, you will wait because you need to. You don’t want to.

Many studies have been performed on the number of users who leave a page before it has fully loaded. Unfortunately, data on this is limited by the tools available. Bounce rate, available in Google Analytics, is the most likely metric to look at when trying to determine if a visitor is leaving the website because the loading time is too high.

Section.io performed an excellent study on how site speed affects bounce rates. Here is an infographic from that study:

An infographic of how site speed affects bounce rates from Section.io

As you can see, the faster the site speed, the better user experience, hence the better retention. Since user retention applies to conversions, it can be extrapolated that faster site speed can create a higher conversion rate.

Site Speed and SEO

Google has announced in increasing frequency that page speed and site speed is a ranking factor in search engine rankings. An exceedingly fast site will not necessarily be the top-ranked of all pages, but an extremely slow site will lower its chances of being ranked highly. This has borne out in tests on-site speed vs. rankings

Let’s review some of Google’s official announcements over the past few years.

Mobile First

If you’ll notice, 2018 and 2019 specifically called out mobile search. As early as 2016, over 50% of Google searches were performed on mobile devices. Because mobile usage has increased, and in general is much slower than the typical desktop or WiFi connection, these numbers come into play on defining whether or not a site or page load quickly on all devices, not just the computer you have in your office.

Example of how Mobile First Indexing works

With Google’s ongoing crusade to make sure that it serves the best quality pages with a good user experience, they have pivoted toward a model that puts mobile first in both its search results and Google Search Console data, regardless of what device the search was made from. 

Since mobile devices have a generally slower connection to the internet than desktop devices and a different user interface, building a more search-friendly site is dependent on newer, more responsive design.

Common Site Speed Issues

At 201 Creative, page and site speed are tops on our list of things to check in a client’s site audit. Here are some very common issues that we have seen that can throttle website performance.

Image Size

The most common speed roadblock that we see when a site load is the size of images on the page. When a server attempts to load 10MB of images along with all the other page data, it will do so very slowly, especially on mobile. Primary culprits are hero images on the home page, but unlikely images like a picture of the engineering team taken with a phone camera and directly uploaded can go over 2MB.

Checking stored image sizes for optimized sizes for faster site speed

Our general recommendation is that images stay under 100kb each, but that can be difficult when trying to account for pixel density on a retina display. If you find you need higher resolution or high PPI images, be sure that they are used sparingly, only when necessary, and kept as small as possible.

There are some automated options for websites with a number of high file size images. Google’s dev team has published excellent advice for server-side solutions and other actions you can take to optimize image sizes on your website.

Render-Blocking Resources

Javascript and CSS files can be a necessary part of many websites, especially those built on WordPress. Since the resources are generally located off-page, the browser needs to make an additional call to another file and wait for it to load. This creates a roadblock that stops the information after, generally the main page content, from rendering (appearing on the page).

This increases an important Google metric, First Contentful Paint. This means that at the beginning of the page load there is not content displayed until those resources load. 

Do your best to remove these resources if they are not absolutely necessary, or defer their loading to later in the process. If it is possible to load the offending files after the main content, it will be viewed more positively by search engines in regards to site speed loading.

Here are some more helpful insights into mitigating render-blocking resources.

Unnecessary WordPress Plugins

When you build a site in WordPress, it is very easy to add new toys for increased functionality, or even to just make the site look cooler. Plugins that do this may seem like they will give your website more features, but they often do this at the expense of site speed, usually by adding even more render-blocking server calls.

Wordpress plugins options

Be sure that all plugins are actually necessary, and not just added because they “might” benefit you.

Wrapping Up

Site speed has become a very important metric viewed by Google, establishing the quality of your site, which in turn helps define the ranking for your site. Focus on the mobile numbers from PageSpeed Insights, as well as more technical speed tests such as Pingdom and WebPageTest to help find out where your website loading issues may stem from.

Zach Good
 

Zach Good is the Technical Director of 201 Creative, LLC. He specializes in search engine optimization including technical, internal, and local SEO.

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