Your website’s need for speed

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If it seems like life has been getting faster every day, that’s because it has. And if it seems like the Internet is getting faster every day, that’s because it is. We’ve moved from pedal boats to rocket ships.

As the Internet speeds up, your competitors speed up, too. And that creates expectations on the part of your two most important audiences – your customers and visitors, and the search engines on whom you probably rely to bring you customers and visitors.

Public expectations are pretty harsh these days. With life so fast-paced, is it any wonder that 47 percent of the public expects your web page to load in two seconds or less? Or that 57 percent will abandon your website if it take three seconds or more to load? Or that the reason half your customers don’t complete their purchases, but rather abandon their shopping carts, is due to impatience with load times:

“Roughly 70% of online shopping carts are abandoned before checkout, and new findings suggest that slow load times are the number-one culprit.”

As long as people can get what they want at the speed they want elsewhere, they won’t put up with a slow shopping cart. Slow pages cut conversions. They also increase bounce rates…and that can affect your search engine rankings.

Does your website have enough speed?

Your website has to keep pace. So…is your website keeping pace? You can test your website speed with WebPageTest or with Google’s PageSpeed Tools.

What Google sees is important, because page load speed has been identified as a factor in its rankings, and its US 8645362 B1 patent is all about load times and rankings:

“A search result for a resource having a short load time relative to resources having longer load times can be promoted in a presentation order, and search results for the resources having longer load times can be demoted.”

How does this work in practice?  That’s an interesting question.  A MOZ study two years ago found that there was no correlation between rankings and overall page load speed, but that there was a correlation between rankings and “how long it takes your browser to receive the first byte of a response from a web server”, or Time to First Byte (TTFB).

This result was confirmed in a more recent two-stage study by researchers at Poznan University of Technology last year. Lead researcher Jakub Marszalkowski reported that:

“Yes, we indeed found that crawl time and its variability are correlated with SERP position, while page load time seems to be uncorrelated.”

Top ways to speed up the load times of your website

If you are concerned about the load times of your pages, here are a few ways you can speed things up, and turn your pedal boat into a rocket ship.

Change servers. If the factor that effects the search rankings most is poor server performance, then changing servers is the most obvious step to take. If you are on a dedicated server, it might be time for an upgrade. Or you might just need to change web hosts, especially if your website is on a shared server – or you might find it is worth the investment to upgrade to a dedicated server.

The MOZ report identifies three factors that affect TTFB:

  • The network latency between a visitor and the server.
  • How heavily loaded the web server is.
  • How quickly the website’s back end can generate the content.

Changing servers could mitigate all three factors. A faster server has been proven to reduce bounce rates and increase visitor time on the site.

Adopt a CDN (content delivery network). A content delivery network can also help with network latency, because the size of the network can accommodate an individual website’s ebb and flow of traffic.

CDNs also help speed up page load times in part by delivering the page code to a user’s browser from a geographically close server. That is why a large, dispersed network is critical to the effectiveness of a CDN. For instance, here is a map of Incapsula’s content delivery network:

Content delivery network map

Web developer Dan Steiner says:

“I always recommend a CDN (content delivery network). For WordPress websites, I also recommend pairing it with a good security cache plug-in, such as Wordfence or W3 Cache.”

Lose the ads. Because ads are delivered from other servers, they take extra time to load. And because there is often a lot of tracking involved, that slows down the process. The more ads, the slower the process is likely to be. Considering that too many ads are more likely to make your visitors cranky in two different ways, it pays to keep ads to a minimum.

Host your own videos. If you embed videos from other websites, once again you are relying on another server to deliver your media files for you. And that means delays. If you can, host videos locally on your own server. If this is not an option – a Youtube video is a Youtube video, after all – try reducing the number of videos.

Optimize images. The most frequent on-page culprit is unoptimized images. Images should be compressed for web-based quality, and scaled properly for your website (so that servers don’t have to waste time scaling them to the space available).

If you have several images that form a larger image, such as in an image-heavy website design, you can combine them into a CSS Sprite – one large image composed of all the smaller images. Browsers then have just one image to load, instead of several.

Stop code bloat. Sometimes when we speak, we can use twenty words to say what could just as easily have been said with seven words. The same thing happens with your website code. This can be especially true when a site has been tinkered with over the years. The code can resemble a wall that has been nicked, then patched and repainted and nicked and patched again, and has had nails and screws put in, then taken out, and…well, you get the idea.

You can use YUIcompressor to deal with CSS and Javascript code bloat. But maybe it’s time to have a good programmer check your code to see if any of it is redundant or could be made more efficient.

Reduce Flash. Yes, Flash can do some cool visual tricks, but if you don’t need it, get rid of it. It can slow down your website and even make viewing on mobile devices challenging.

Maybe it’s your theme. After mentioning images, code and Flash, it might be worth asking about your theme. If your website has an out-of-the-box theme for WordPress or some other content management system, it could suffer from code bloat and unoptimized images, and possibly even Flash. Check it out and if there are speed issues in your theme, perhaps it’s time to change the theme.

Reduce your plugins. If your website is based on a CMS that uses plugins, such as WordPress, reduce your plugins. Matthew Ogborne discovered that the FaceBook “Like” button was dragging his page load time by 1.34 seconds. His experience shows that it is not just the number of plugins, but more importantly, the type of plugins. Programmer Deborah Anderson says:

“If you have a plugin that is constantly connecting to another service, that is going to slow down your website. What you can do is turn that plugin off and only turn it on when it is used. My top tip is to look at turning off as many plugins as possible. If you are really attached to a plugin, you don’t have to delete it today. Disable it.”

As you can see, there are many things you can do to increase website performance. For SEO purposes, it clearly is the time to get that first part of the page that counts, so the speed of your server and the quality of your CDN are the most important things to work on.

But for user experience and conversions, it is the total page load time that counts, so it is critical to reduce the number of actions the server and browser must take to deliver a fully loaded page to your users.

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