It seems that web design has come full circle. Not too long ago web pages were designed to be compatible with slow dial up modems and needed to load quickly. A good design therefore kept images and code to a minimum so a user could access the page easily over a modem connection. With the advent of broadband connections page speed became less of a concern and developers were more at liberty to create pages with fancy animations, graphics, transitions and effects, all of which required substantial bandwidth due to the image heavy and code heavy requirements of this type of design. But then came mobile, with bandwidth limitations often similar to that of the dial up connections of yesteryear. Google now includes page load speed as a factor in its search rankings and that has received a lot of attention, with many SEOs saying that most sites do not have to worry about it. However, this ignores usability factors such as bounce rate and rate of page abandonment, and little attention has been given to the negative consequences in search rankings to pages with high rates of abandonment.
If you read the newsletter from www.fusionvegas.com, you know that google now factors in page load speed as one of its many considerations in determining the quality of a site to be listed in its search results. Google is not too picky about this, however, as only 5% of pages are claimed to be affected by this consideration. So as long as your site is in the top 95% of pages on the web with regards to page load time, the page speed factor will likely not be of consequence to you. A Google Page Speed tool is available online so that you may see how your page stacks up against all the others. The results are given in a score of from 0 to 100, with any score over 5 (representing 5%) considered acceptable.
The fact that only 5% of web pages are affected by the page speed ranking factor has caused many SEO professionals, while acknowledging the existence of page speed as a factor in rankings, to then advise clients that it is not something with which the client should be concerned. This approach, however, ignores other factors relevant to both users and Google itself, and is demonstrative of a tendency within much of the SEO community to focus on only one or a few factors when advising clients as opposed to considering the big picture.
The problem is twofold. First, a page that loads slowly will discourage users from using the page. A large amount of users leaving the page and returning to the search result is knows as the bounce rate or rate of abandonment (the opposite of this is known as stickiness, when a user “sticks” on a site and clicks through multiple pages). Second, Google considers bounce rates and rates of abandonment in its search rankings.
So let’s take the example of a page that scores a 15 on the page speed tool. An untrained SEO provider might state that this is acceptable. However, what this means is that the page in question, while acceptably exceeding Google’s minimum expectations, is still slower than 85% of the web pages out there. The the page is frustratingly slow, Google’s opinion notwithstanding. Now consider the fact that by some estimates over 50% of all search traffic now comes from mobile devices. What do you do when you are on a mobile device and it takes five, ten or twenty seconds to load a page? Most people return to the search results and try again.
The effect of this is that the site owner is losing a large portion of her potential customers. That is a problem. Focusing on rankings only without respect to usability and conversions is a topic for another article. Suffice it to say, however, that if somewhere around 50% of your users are on mobile and are never making it to your site because of your slow page load speed you have a problem.
So the site owner takes an immediate hit in the bottom line as a result of a high abandonment or bounce rate.
Now this is where the snowball effect comes into play. Google also tracks user behavior after the user leaves the search results and lands on a page. If the user bounces off that page, or quickly abandons it by clicking the “Back” button on the browser, then Google knows that. How would you interpret this if you were Google? If a user finds a search result, goes to a page, and then quickly returns, the most logical interpretation is that the page did not offer information relevant to the user’s search query. So Google considers that as Google is in the business of providing relevant results. The slow-to-load page is given a sort of relevance demerit, and its search rankings suffer.
Also consider the fact that Google looks out for nobody but Google. It has obligations to its shareholders. If Google got a reputation for providing results full of slow to load pages, Google users would defect and find an alternative that provided them with speed. Google can’t allow that to happen. To argue the point that page speed is irrelevant to search, or a minor factor in search, is to argue that user behavior is irrelevant to Google’s business model.
So the snowball effect of a page with a low but otherwise acceptable page load speed is this: a slow page load speed will result in higher bounce and abandonment rates. Higher bounce and abandonment rates are interpreted by Google as both (1) a sign that the page is not relevant to the given search query; and (2) a threat to its business model. Therefore, the slow page suffers in the rankings.
By: Matt Foster. Mr. Foster is an SEO consultant and the CEO of ArteWorks SEO in Austin, Texas. Mr. Foster can be found on Twitter @ArteWorks_SEO or on Linked In at /arteworks.