As reported in November, Google's Matt Cutts indicated that page load time may make its debut as a search ranking factor in 2010.
And now there's a new hint that page load time could become a ranking factor next year: Google has added a new section called Site Performance to Google Webmaster Tools.
Site Performance is, as the name suggests, designed to help website owners track how well their sites perform:
On Site Performance, you'll find how fast your pages load, how they've fared over time, how your site's load time compares to that of other sites, examples of specific pages and their actual page load times, and Page Speed suggestions that can help reduce user-perceived latency. Our goal is to bring you specific and actionable speed information backed by data, so stay tuned for more of this in the future.
Site Performance data is culled from Google Toolbar users who have enabled enhanced features, which means that for websites with minimal traffic, data may not be available.
Many of the suggestions Site Performance provides are identical or similar in nature to those provided by Google's Page Speed add-on for the Firebug Firefox plugin, which is already a popular tool used for testing load times and identify certain types of performance bottlenecks.
But even though Site Performance may not really be necessary for those who are already using tools like Page Speed, Site Performance does have one notable advantage: global data. Because Site Performance tracks the 'experiences' of a wide range of users around the world who are using the Google Toolbar, the data may paint a more useful portrait of average performance, likely making it useful to every website owner in some fashion.
The real question, of course, is whether Site Performance is a prelude to Google adding page load time as a ranking factor. Much of what's offered in Webmaster Tools gives website owners information related directly or indirectly to their place in the SERPs, so it would make sense for Google to offer something like this if page load time is going to become a ranking factor. For now, however, Google is only saying that "a small step in our larger effort to make the web faster".
Ranking factor or not, website owners can themselves benefit from helping Google make the web faster, and if Site Performance helps encourage more websites owners to do so, all the better.
Photo credit: dodge challenger1 via Flickr.