Google’s algorithm looks at a significant number of ranking factors when it decides where a site should be in the SERPs. These ranking factors, and the weight they’re each given, change over time.

Last week at PubCon, Google’s Matt Cutts revealed a new ranking factor that may debut in 2010: page load time.

This would have potentially significant implications in two areas:

  • Hosting. Those with subpar hosting could suffer if load time becomes a ranking factor. A website’s load time is, of course, impacted by the quality of its host’s connectivity and not all hosts are created equal in this area. Additionally, in the case of database-driven websites in particular, a slow server can have a significant effect on load time. This is especially true in shared hosting environments. To turn a profit on the ultra-cheap shared hosting that is still very popular, hosts cram hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of customers onto a single server. One poorly-written script on a site that gets a sudden surge in traffic can hurt every other customer on the server.

    If load time becomes a ranking factor, there may be added justification for spending more money on a host with quality connectivity and for leasing a virtual private server (VPS) or dedicated server. The location of your host could also be a consideration. An offshore host, for instance, might be at a disadvantage here, especially if it doesn’t have good peering.

  • Development. Even with the best hosting in the world and a server with ample resources, slow page load times are often the result of poor development practices. Thanks to scripting languages like PHP, it’s easy to learn how to build dynamic websites. Unfortunately, not everyone who can build a dynamic website has the knowledge, training and skill to develop high-performance websites. Poor coding practices and inefficient SQL queries run rampant.

    If Google takes into consideration load time, it will be yet one more incentive for website owners and developers to focus on the basics. From optimizing the configuration of your webserver to implementing caching, for instance, there are a lot of ways you can achieve significant or incremental performance boosts that will decrease page load time.

Improving Load Time: Tools of the Trade

There are a lot of tools that you can employ to identify load time bottlenecks. If you’re a Firefox user, the Firebug plugin with the Google Page Speed add-on is hard to beat. It will test not only the load time of a page, but breaks down all of the requests. It also provides warnings and suggestions. If you’re not a Firefox user, free online services like the Web Page Analyzer from WebSiteOptimization.com can also display some of the same data and suggestions.

Hosting-wise, services like Network-Tools.com can be useful in determining the quality of your host’s network.

And finally, the best tool of the trade when it comes to decreasing page load time in practice: a competent developer. After all, knowing that your toilet is backed up really doesn’t help when you don’t have a competent plumber to fix it.

Just How Much Weight Will Google Give Load Time?

The big question you’re probably asking is: just how much weight will Google give to the load time ranking factor? To start, at least, it will probably be quite modest. As mentioned, there are literally hundreds of ranking factors Google takes into consideration and with page load time, Google will probably be looking for extremes (e.g. the page that takes 20 seconds to load). A fraction of a second is (hopefully) not going to make a difference.

Given that, the possibility that load time will become a ranking factor isn’t worth fretting over if you already have a website that loads pretty quickly. But that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Two points:

  • SEO success is often dependent upon paying attention to the little things. Page load time might be one more minor ranking factor, but it’s one that you can exercise control over, making it worth your while to ensure that you’re taking advantage of it and not getting penalized.
  • Like other ranking factors, page load time is an important metric to be looking at anyway. If your website is a tortoise, chances are you’re already losing out in the form of reduced user loyalty, suboptimal conversions, etc. So whether or not Google makes load time a ranking factor and no matter how much weight it gives it, the possibility alone is a good reminder that page load time does matter.

Photo credit: wwarby via Flickr.