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How to Rank Higher By Improving Site Speed

Jeremy Moser
Jeremy Moser

Ranking in search engines requires a fast, optimized website.

Slow and steady might win the race in all other areas of life — but not when it comes to search engine rankings. Site speed and page speed are metrics that matter — and, yet, many individuals are leaving significant ranking points on the table by failing to address this. Some site owners feel that it’s far too technical and they don’t know where to start. Others feel that site speed is something they can "leave for later," once they're finished optimizing every other aspect of their SEO strategy. 

But this is a serious mistake. Ranking higher by improving site speed is one of the most impactful and instant ways to boost your position on Google’s search results page. In this article, we’ll discuss the most important actions you can take to improve your rankings through site speed, how to implement these right away, and what a desirable load time looks like. 

What is site speed?

The speed of your website affects more than just user experience. At this point in the game, it can make or break related key metrics that you use to measure your business, including:

  • Bounce rates

  • Search rankings

  • Conversions

  • Pageviews and return visitors

  • Sales (and revenue)

If you haven't already seen the results of Google’s latest findings on the newest benchmarks and expectations for page and site speed, consider this: 

"More than half of overall web traffic comes from mobile…" But, it still takes about 15 seconds for a page to load. Mobile conversion rates are lower than desktop conversions, which means that "speed equals revenue." 

So if your site takes up to 10 seconds to load, the likelihood that your visitors simply become impatient and leave goes up by 123%. That's more than a probability, that’s a certainty. And if you’re tempted to attribute slow load times to 3G performance versus 4G networks, think twice. In a survey of automotive, retail, and technology websites, Google reports that these businesses have "some of the most bloated pages on the web."

And therein lies the most accurate definition of site speed: It's the average load time of your website and, specifically, of a single page. As you read on, you'll learn why faster is better and less is more for your site speed — and how to make those changes yourself.  

Metrics related to speed performance and page load time

So here’s what you have to understand about site speed — it sits on a spectrum. And that’s because of two reasons:

  • Today's webpages are a hodge-podge of scripts and elements that interact with each other. So a website loads element by element, rather than loading at once.

  • In an ideal world, everyone would access the Web from one browser, through a stable and powerful connection, and on a capable device. But, we don’t. These small but significant areas can make a difference in speed and accessibility.

Your analysis can only be meaningful if it's definitive. For clarity, we recommend measuring six key metrics, which can then guide your efforts at site speed optimization.

1) Time to first byte 

This is the amount of time it takes for your hosting server to send that first little bit (or "byte") of website data to your browser. The communication should be seamless and instantaneous. TTFB, as it’s better known, is a significant sign of "good things to come." But it also depends on quite a bit on the quality of your website's host and performance. 

In a study conducted of 15 web hosting companies, there was a distinct correlation between Time-to-First-Byte and monitored hosting speed. The study found that "the greater the TTFB, the slower the hosting."

Later in this piece, we’ll show you how to address this issue. Generally speaking, however, best practices are that you should aim for an uptime of 99.94% for hosting performance to maximize site speed. 

2) Start render

Once the first bytes of data hit your browser, your computer translates the incoming code into the visual display on your screen. So Start Render measures the time it takes for the first visual aspects of a website to translate and be displayed. It's a highly relevant metric that takes into account the website’s ability to crunch and display all that code. 

3) First contentful paint

It's a mouthful, but don't be confused. All First Contentful Paint (FCP) marks is the time it takes to see the first piece of content on a website after the user lands there. That's why you might see some parts, such as the top half, loaded, while the bottom half is still working on appearing.

Now, this might sound like Start Render, but it's not. First Contentful Paint includes all the non-visible processes running. Start Render is visible to the visitor/user in the viewport. In other words, something is happening and you can see it.

4) DOMContent Loaded 

Because all parts of a webpage load separately, DOMContent Loaded (DCL) measures the time it takes for every bit of include, including everything in FCP, and every subsequent element, on the top and bottom of a webpage to load. 

5) Fully loaded page

Fortunately, this metric is not part of the page load time. However, it does factor into Google’s recommendations that a web page not take more than two seconds to load. In that way, it's still significant. 

After a document completely loads, there may be other items of code that run and load extra parts. However, these elements don't detract from the user's experience of a completed page, so it's only measured once all loading activities stop for two seconds.

6) Number of requests

And, finally, the "number of requests" is a crucial metric that literally takes into account the number of times a site requests multiple files (CSS, JS, and image files). 

Even if they're small, these requests add up and are expensive — for your ranking, that is. Too many of these will slow down your page or site load time and take a toll on your site’' speed.

Hint: Some of the improvement methods you'll be using rely on optimizing these six key metrics. 

Though these metrics are analyzed through numbers and percentages, one thing should be very clear to you. If user experience is designed for web behavior, then site performance runs the mechanics of that web-behavior. 

Page speed v.s. site speed

A common question site owners new to the practice of SEO ask is, "What’s the difference between page speed and site speed?"

Site speed is a ranking factor for Google. Back in 2010, Google announced that this "ranking signal" would evaluate the average time it takes for a website’s pages to load. In 2018, they also added mobile searches to the ranking factor. 

So page speed is the microcosm of site speed. In order to improve site ranking, you need to address overall site speed. And to optimize this experience, you need to be making tweaks to the specific pages that create a website. In other words, page speed feeds into site speed. 

Why does site speed matter for rankings and SEO?

According to data compiled by Google, 'Users want to find answers to their questions quickly and...people really care about how quickly their pages load.' 

It’s not just that people are impatient. You should reject this explanation because, frankly, it's just plain lazy and condescending. Consumers are sophisticated and they’re voting with a very specific kind of currency: Attention. 

Businesses are trading, and relying, on their customer's attention to achieve their goals online. And, quite honestly, users have options for where they can pay attention. 

And, yes, they are literally paying. That’s why sales, customer experience, revenue, and conversion rates are the first areas to see the impact of a user’s attention.

How to optimize site and page speed

Method #1: Compress your images

If you've ever been on a website, waiting and waiting for high-res images to load, you'll feel the pain of your visitors acutely. Luckily, our first recommendation is also the easiest to implement. Images take up 60-90% of a website's content — and, therefore, its size. The higher the resolution, the longer the load time. 

So how do you compress your images? It’s simple: use a compression tool. There are quite a few popular options available, and you don't need to process the images one by one. Instead, you can use tools like Mass Image Compressor, Smush.It (or WP Smush Pro, if you're on a WordPress site), and RIOT, to name a few. 

Method #2: Clean up your site's code

Speaking of compressing things, you may notice a trend here. Simplify your site, cut down on the fluff, and minify where you can.

And that goes for your code as well. Basically, you want the Ernest Hemingway version of code: clean, brief, and functional. 

Bloated code is one of the main reasons for slow site speed. In an ideal, your developer would address these issues before going live. But you can use tools like GZip to clean up code on elements like:

  • Javascript

  • HTML

  • CSS

  • Any other external code

Method #3: Setup browser caching for past visitors

Browser caching is a nifty tool and an experience that rewards return visitors. When you activate browser caching, what you're doing is allowing users to store parts of your page’s code in their browser cache. 

So how do you set up browser caching? By accessing your .htaccess file. The cache literally holds a memory of the code, which means that it won't need to reload these particular elements again. The best part about caching is the level of granular control you have over the kind of cache activity. 

These cache requests are called directives, and they include:

  • No-cache: Content can be cached but must be revalidated. Checks for freshness, but if there's no change, there's no need to re-download.

  • No-store: As the name indicates, the element will not be stored or cached. Good for sensitive data or changing resources.

  • Public: Content can be cached by the browser and any intermediate caches.

  • Private: Content can be stored by the user's/visitor’s browser but not by any intermediate caches. Good for user-specific data.

  • Max-age: The maximum time that content can be cached (from seconds, up to a maximum of one year) before it must be revalidated or downloaded again from the server.

Method #4: Choose hosting based on performance

As you begin to connect the dots between all the moving parts involved in site speed, perhaps the most overarching of these is your web host's performance. There's almost nothing more impactful than choosing — and vetting — the right hosting provider. 

Performance in the back-end comprises of:

  • DNS time

  • TCP connect time

  • TLS connect time

  • Time to first byte

It's only once these actions have occurred that the user-facing front-end metrics begin. These are phases in downloading like: 

  • Start render, 

  • First contentful paint, 

  • Load time, 

  • Time to interactive, and 

  • Fully loaded. 

That's a lot of steps. On a good day, it happens in mere milliseconds. 

But poor host performance — such as consistent server downtime or poor uptime (anything less than 99.94%) — is painfully noticeable. Like a series of dominos, your customer's experience will be less than ideal because a stall on the backend affects the performance of the front-end. 

Many focus on how optimizing site and page speed reduces bounce rates. But we'd rather you focus on far more positive and motivational levers at play in your visitor's psychology. 

Firstly, the better your site speed, the more frequently you show up in rankings. You're likely to earn better positions (such as the coveted first-page-results, or even “position zero”) for your keywords. That means visibility. 

Secondly, fast load times equal happy visitors. Don't underestimate the goodwill that transfers from your user's experience of your site to that of your brand or business. They'll understand that your website is a go-to for multiple reasons. And this translates into authority.  

So if you could do with visibility and authority in boosting your business goals, implement these four methods of site speed improvement. 

 

Image Credit: metamorworks/Getty Images
Jeremy Moser
Jeremy Moser
business.com Member
Co-Founder of uSERP, a digital brand building agency, and the Chief Marketing Officer at Wordable, a tool that converts Google Docs to WordPress. My content is featured in Search Engine Journal, Entrepreneur, Foundr Magazine, and hundreds more.