Short answer: somewhere between “completely irrelevant” and “so crucial that you should slash and burn your site’s best features if it speeds loading time by a few milliseconds.”
That’s hyperbole, of course, but it speaks to the confusion over this issue and the contradictory arguments from experts and even from Lord Google (and Archduke Bing) themselves.
As academics like to say, let’s “unpack” this challenge, figure out what really matters and why, and tour the most effective tools out there for transforming your site into something The Flash would be proud of.
What Google and Bing Are Telling Us
Way back in the dark ages of 2010, Google graced us with the following POV, which roughly also applies to 2015: “we’re obsessed with speed, in our products and on the web… Site speed reflects how quickly a website responds to web requests… Faster sites create happy users and we’ve seen in our internal studies that when a site responds slowly, visitors spend less time there. But faster sites don’t just improve user experience; recent data shows that improving site speed also reduces operating costs. Like us, our users place a lot of value in speed — that’s why we’ve decided to take site speed into account in our search rankings. We use a variety of sources to determine the speed of a site relative to other sites.”
For what it’s worth, Bing also has a perspective on the matter: “Page Load Time (PLT)… has a direct impact on the satisfaction a user has when they visit your website. Slow load times can lead to a visitor simply leaving your website, seeking their information elsewhere. If they came from our search results that may appear to us to be an unsatisfactory result that we showed. Faster is better, but take care to balance absolute page load speed with a positive, useful user experience.”
The “Does Page Speed Matter?” Debate – Competing Points of View
Citing Akamai and Gomez.com surveys that found that apparently our whole society has become as ADHD as an Ed, Edd & Eddy episode: half of web users expect sites to load within 2 seconds, and people will abandon a site within 3 seconds if it doesn’t. The smart folks at Kissmetric breathlessly continue: “79% of web shoppers who have trouble with web site performance say they won’t return to the site to buy again and around 44% of them would tell a friend if they had a poor experience shopping online.
This means you’re not just losing conversions from visitors currently on your site, but that loss is magnified to their friends and colleagues as well. The end result – lots of potential sales down the drain because of a few seconds difference.” [bold in original]
These warnings certainly stimulate the reptilian parts the brain and get people panicked. But is it really fair to extrapolate like this? Have you ever told a friend “don’t use XYZ site. It took 3 seconds to load, not 2. I hate them now and will never buy their stuff, and you shouldn’t either. Burn it to the ground!”?
There’s no need to get hysterical.
As this blogger notes: “UX simply isn’t the only reason why users come to you. Think about it. When you are building an app or website, you are building something that helps users with their needs or wants. I tend to look at it this way: If users need you enough, they wouldn’t mind dealing with kinks and flaws in your UX. On the other hand, if your services are not relevant, needed or wanted, even the best UX designer cannot rescue you from that inevitable pit of failure.”
Many SEO mavens also like to cite research done by Microsoft analysts Ron Kohavi and Roger Longbotham, who found that a 0.1 decrease in page response times led to a 1% decrease in sales. Scale that up, and that statistic works marketers into a lather. For Amazon, people have calculated that a 1 second decrease in loading time would translate directly into $1.6 billion in lost business… (all things being equal of course, which they’re not.)
Kohavi and Longbotham published their paper back in 2007, which, while only 8 years distant from today in real time, might as well be the Hadean Era given the speed of change in our industry. And as Kohavi and Longbotham themselves noted in their paper: “We reserve the most important lesson for the end, and it’s called Twyman’s law: Any statistic that appears interesting is almost certainly a mistake. Make sure to double-check your data and computations.”
Extrapolating, their point makes a helluva lot of sense. Theory is nice. But rather than obsessing over speed (possibly pointlessly) or ignoring it (possibly at your peril), why not test?
Some nice folks have done just that for us.
Geoff Kenyon, writing for Moz back in 2011 (again, effectively an aeon ago, but still relevant to the 2015 game…) ran an interesting experiment and concluded in measured fashion: “site speed will affect only queries where other ranking signals are very close or when the load time is exceptionally poor. If competing pages have high relevancy scores and close link metrics (which isn’t probable), page speed may come into play. Additionally, I believe that site speed could negatively hurt you if your page takes an excruciatingly painful amount of time to load.”
Matt Cutts has also argued that page speed is a “small-impact” consideration, “so you don’t need to panic.” At the same time, he emphasizes (and this is of course true) that “speeding up your website is a great thing to do in general. Visitors to your site will be happier (and might convert more or use your site more), and a faster web will be better for all.”
Backlink also offered a measured take, discussing speed in the context of 200 SEO factors in October 2015: “Both Google and Bing use page loading speed as a ranking factor. Search engine spiders can estimate your site speed fairly accurately based on a page’s code and filesize.” Also, “Google may also use Chrome user data to get a better handle on a page’s loading time as this takes into account server speed, CDN usage and other non HTML-related site speed signals.”
Tools If You Feel the Need for Speed
Google tells us the following: “Monitor your site’s performance and optimize load times… Google strongly recommends that all webmasters regularly monitor site performance using Page Speed, YSlow, WebPagetest, or other tools. For more information, tools, and resources, see Let’s Make The Web Faster.”
Some things you can do to speed things up:
- Avoid redirects that violate responsive design best practices
- Save bytes by optimizing and compressing your images
- Load the key content (“above the fold”) first
- Get rid of unnecessary unused code and formatting
- Watch your plugins
- Allow gzip compression to improve first render of your page and consume less data usage
Some tools you can use to speed things up:
Page speed is marginally important as one of the many design and SEO factors you want to tune into. But don’t get tunnel vision or get freaked out by misleading doomsday statistics that say a fractionally slower site will kill your business and profits. Marketing fundamentals still apply, just as they did in 2014, in 2013, in 2012 and so on backwards in time to the beginning of human commerce.
Use tools to measure and improve your speed. Stay alert to best practices (or hire someone who will do that for you). Run experiments and tests as needed. And move on. To clumsily paraphrase Mahatma Ghandi, There is more to building your online business than increasing the speed of your website.