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One of the first things I was taught when I started out in SEO a few years ago was that “your site speed is part of Google’s algorithm and can affect ranking performance.”
My reply was something like “Google has algorithms?”
Being new to SEO, I had many questions, but as this was one of the first things I was told, I thought it would be best to take a keen interest in it, and try to understand exactly how your site speed effects performance.
Cue my head exploding.
Yes, site speed can be a difficult thing for a newbie to get to grips with, especially when you consider every possible factor – images, style-sheets, flash, scripts – the list goes on and on.
As my knowledge of site speed grew, I began to understand that it’s more than just how fast your pages load.
We know that user experience is a ranking factor. How fast (and well) a page loads will come under this, but I think we need to stretch site speed a little further than this.
I realised that yes, there are a number of practices you can follow to make sure your site loads as quickly as possible for the user, but how they interact with your site once the page has loaded is just as important – perhaps even more significant.
On site content, another confirmed ranking factor, is the best example of this.
Yes, you can have a page that loads in less than a second, and checks off all of the boxes in Google’s PageSpeed Tools, and is technically the best damn page out there, but if you’re presenting the wrong content, then what’s the point?
If you’re ranking for a query along the lines of ‘Who is the all-time top goal scorer in the MLS?’, and your returned page is a three-hour read on the history of soccer (or football, as we call it here in the UK) with one sentence on who the top goal scorer is near then end, then you’re not really providing great user experience, which we’ve already established as an important ranking factor.
It’s California’s own Landon Donovan, by the way.
Now, if the above scenario really is happening (or something similar) then it’s not going to be long before search engines take notice.
Your bounce rates will increase, users time spent on your page will be very low, and people won’t interact or share your page – it’s bad news.
Whilst search engines might not use data straight from analytics, they’re smart enough to recognise a poor page when they see one.
If your page isn’t useful to the users, then it’s not useful to search engines.
Technological advancements have not only changed how we access the internet, but also how we interact with it. The more options we have for finding online content, the less time we spend looking at it, seemingly.
Generation Z spend up to 25% less time on your online content, and according to CMO.com, by 2020 this generation will make up 40% of your market. That’s a drop in market-share that you shouldn’t ignore.
People are becoming quicker, so to speak. They’re always in a rush, they’ve always got something to do.
They don’t have time for the aforementioned three-hour read on the history of soccer, especially when what they were looking for could have been presented in less than a paragraph.
This fickle generation needs instantaneous assurance that they’ve come to the right place.
So, what can you do? What are the biggest ways of improving your site’s speed, and your visitors’ recognition of it being exactly what they are looking for?
Below is a selection of both technical actions and content advice that can help you on your endeavours.
Using the right images
Now, this might seem very obvious and some might reply “yeah, we always use our own images” or “we always credit our image sources correctly.”
This is great, but there’s a little more that you need to think about.
Both image size and image formats can make a difference to your page load times.
If you’re using a picture that can only be viewed at a maximum of 500x500 pixels, then don’t upload the picture as a 1000x1000 pixel image. That’s just giving your page more to think about, when it really doesn’t have to.
Additionally, look at the type of picture you’re uploading. Is it a bright, vibrant and colourful picture? If it is, use a JPEG.
If it’s more saturated, black and white, or even transparent, use a PNG.
Image formats are better suited to specific picture types, and this can again make a small but noticeable difference.
Redundant scripts and code
If you’re an internet user, there’s a fair chance that you’ve visited The Oatmeal’s website.
There’s also a fair chance that you’re aware of the pterodactyl that lives in the site's source code. Pretty cool, huh?
Well, as cool as it is, this will be slowing down the page load time.
Okay, it’s not a lot of code, so it won’t be slowing down the loading time by much, but it acts as an example of the point I’m trying to make.
If your site doesn’t need it to function, then it shouldn't be there. It’s as simple as that.
Style and layout sheets also fall in the same category. These need to process before the page can be rendered. If you’ve got redundant sheets on your page, then this will also be slowing down your load time.
You can inline small resources, if applicable of course, and this can shave off some time. But, the important thing to remember here is that if something can be minimized or cut down, then do it!
Understand your audience
Now, you’ve looked at the technical aspects of your site speed, what’s actually presented on the pages should be your priority.
You can have a page that loads super-fast, but if it isn’t useful to the user, then they’re going straight back out of there.
A mistake that a lot of content creators make, is that they write content that they think is going to do well in the rankings. This isn’t necessarily good practice.
People are writing content that they think the search engines want to see, when what they should be doing is writing for their audience. Knowing your audience inside out will help you do this effectively.
Web psychologist Nathalie Nahai is a staunch supporter of this, and has much to say on the case.
Nahai states that “to succeed online you have to understand and leverage the hidden psychology of your users.”
While this might sound obvious, it’s a really good point to make as if you don’t truly understand your users, then they’re not going to be interested in what you have to say.
If you do have a proper understanding, then you won’t have to worry about trying to write for your audience.
It will just come out naturally, and that is exactly what search engines want.
Present the right information
As previously mentioned, users are becoming less engaged with online content, hence they’re spending less time looking at it.
This is usually caused by poor content targeting.
While we can say that users are more ‘fast paced’ than ever before, this doesn’t mean that your content needs to be fast as well.
It’s the quickness of the user recognising its usefulness that is essential.
While we have talked about not presenting a three-hour read for certain queries, that’s not to say you should avoid in-depth content.
If the subject calls for a three-hour read, then definitely do that. But, if it calls for something snappier that is easy to digest, then create the appropriate content.
Can you present your information in a user-friendly table instead? Would a user benefit from a list of bullet points?
It’s about presenting the content in a way that the user needs it, not what you think looks best.
Putting it all together
Everything discussed above can find its way into all aspects of SEO.
The ‘fast content’ idea is definitely taking off in mobile with the introduction of Accelerated Mobile Pages project, for example.
Even Facebook has introduced its Instant Articles to compete. The social network recognised that this would be a great way to present content to their users, and acted on it accordingly.
The axiom rings true - Fast content for fast users.
Site speed can definitely make a difference to your revenue too. A few years ago, Walmart found that for every one second that its load time improved, it registered a 2% increase in conversions.
Those numbers might not seem that impressive, but Walmart made $13.5bn in global online sales in 2015, so a 2% increase in conversions equates to a lot of money.
You might not see improvements on a scale that large, but you will see a difference. And your users will also notice it too.
The above might seem straight-forward, and even rudimentary to many of you.
However, something that I’ve found in my time in SEO is that quite often, we can forget the basics. There’s a desire out there to excite.
Many feel that impressing and standing out from the crowd with something flashy and out-there is the most effective approach.
You’ll get no argument from me that this isn’t a good attitude to have, but don’t forget the basics, and above all don’t forget the users.
For more on this topic, check out these resources: