Speed up your Google ranking Image

Will your site speed its way up the Google rankings or will its position in the results be held back by slow performance? See how slow site performance can be a double whammy on both your search engine ranking and conversion rates.

Back in April, Google announced that it had included site speed as a factor in its ranking algorithm and that some sites were already being penalised in search results because of slow site speed. Whilst it was just English searches on the .com site that were affected at that time, if we follow the usual Google trend, this is likely to be released across the rest of their sites including the Google.co.uk site shortly.

Getting visitors to your site via search engines is only part of the picture though, what happens once they arrive on your site? Back in 2001 research showed that users were willing to wait 8 seconds for a page to load before they started to move away to other sites. This dropped to just 4 seconds in 2006. With broadband widely available and plenty of sites offering the same products, this figure has halved again and current research shows that it now stands at around 2 seconds before you start to lose your visitors.

There are many ways to help improve the speed of your site which range from changes to the server platform through to simple updates to your website or design. Obviously the impact of any particular change will vary depending on how your specific website performs and where the bottlenecks currently lie.

Follow the 5 I’s action plan to improve your site’s performance:

Identify

You need to identify what is causing any performance bottlenecks on your website. These results are likely to be different for each site, however there are some very good free tools available to help you. Here are two of them that we use, both will also require the firebug add-on to display their results:

  • Page Speed – A Firefox add-on which covers many common issues
  • YslowYahoo‘s Firefox add-on which also covers many potential issues

If you use Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) there is a labs feature called “Site performance” which shows you information about how fast or slow your site has been over recent months in the form of a nice graph and also includes some suggestions to speed up your site.

Investigate

You need to do a cost / benefit analysis of the identified issues. This will ensure you are making the biggest impact for your budget and prioritising the biggest improvements over the smaller ones. For instance, it may take next to no time to save a second in one area whilst taking days to save 1/4 of a second in others.

Implement

Implement the changes you have identified as offering the best cost / benefit ratio then, after rigorous testing and QA processes, put these changes onto your live website.

Inquire

Allow a week or two to build up a picture of the effect that the changes have made on your site and then make use of whatever analytics or analysis methods you use to see what differences there have been in visitor behaviour. Then you can evaluate what action you can take to further enhance the user experience.

Invigorate

Enjoy the benefits of invigorated site performance. Firefox found that by reducing the page load time by 2.2 seconds they increased their conversion rate by an amazing 15.4%.

Here are a few things to bear in mind during your investigation stage:

Enable gzip compression on the web server. This will shrink the page before it is sent and the visitor’s browser then re-expands the code without the visitor ever knowing it was compressed. It is quite normal to reduce the size of downloaded code by 70% or more by using this change. whatismyip.org offers a really useful tool to see the difference this can make to your site. Remember to check compression rates on css files as well as html pages.

Consider using a Content Delivery Network (CDN) for static content e.g. images. This can have a dramatic impact on visitor page load times as they load images directly from high performance servers which are usually located much closer to the visitor than your own server. As Google uses the full page load times including images to calculate site speed, the delay introduced by slower image serving does impact your performance.

Make use of Google code to host any of the popular open source javascript libraries you may be using. You will immediately benefit from faster code loading and compression as Google hosts these for free on its own CDN.

Whilst image size is not the major bottleneck that it was before the widespread adoption of broadband, loading a full size image and then resizing it to a thumbnail in html is still common on many sites even though it has a definite impact on bandwidth and page load speeds.

Shrink or minify your Javascript and CSS files to remove large amounts of unnecessary characters in your code which has to be downloaded by visitors.

Use asynchronous scripts wherever possible. There is nothing worse than visiting a site and waiting 10 seconds for anything to be displayed due to a slow loading Javascript or advert still loading and the browser having to wait for that to complete before it will show any content to the user. This can be especially annoying to the end user if the delay is caused by analytics or advertisement content that has very little value to the end user.

These are just a few of our top tips, we would love to hear what things you have done to help with your sites.

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