Site Speed: the Next Frontier? Interview with Strangeloops’ Joshua Bixby

So as you're probably already aware, site speed is officially a ranking factor for your sites in Google, as of April this year.

Google is currently measuring page speed by Googlebot, and also by load time in the Google Toolbar.

Speed of Light by jpctalbot

You also might have noticed that realistically speaking, not a lot has changed since the announcement - it's basically business as usual in the SEO world (whatever that means!). That's probably because as Matt Cutts reassured people, "fewer than 1% of search queries will change as a result of incorporating site speed into our ranking", and "this is actually a relatively small-impact change".

This all being said, if Google and the other engines start focusing more on user experience as a ranking factor, it makes sense for speed to be an important way of quantifying that experience. Therefore, site speed is something worth thinking about during your next relaunch or landing page design. If the effort is minimal, you might as well take advantage of a possible boost, and it could help prepare your site for possible incremental increases in the importance of such user engagement as a ranking factor.

I chatted with Joshua Bixby, co-founder and President of Strangeloop, "a web acceleration company whose products automatically increase site speed by up to 400% with no code or infrastructure changes", about how page speed can affect user engagement with the site. He was kind enough to take the time to respond to all my questions.

Are you seeing more businesses becoming concerned about their site speed?

Site speed is probably one of the biggest new issues of 2010. In the past two years, a quickly growing body of research has emerged that shows the relationship between speed, conversion and revenue. And now that Google has announced that they are now factoring site speed into how they rank search results, it's clear that performance is no longer something that can be ignored.

How concerned should businesses be about the speed of their site?

Site speed has a direct connection to the bottom line. For example, in 2006, the average online shopper expected a web page to load in 4 seconds. Today, that same shopper expects pages to load in 2 seconds or less, and up to 40% of shoppers will abandon a site after waiting 3 seconds. Nine out of 10 visitors will not return to a site after a single disappointing experience, and of these, 3 will go on to tell others about their negative experience.

None of these behaviors are new. What's new is that now we have hard data to illustrate what we've known intuitively all along: that slow websites turn off users.

What effect can a slow site have on visitors and profitability?

There was a recent study by the Aberdeen Research Group that found that, on average, just a one-second delay in page loading time reduced conversion rates by 7%. That's a huge number. Put another way, for an ecommerce site accustomed to earning $100K per day, that's a $2.5 million loss of revenue per year.

Microsoft's Bing did a bold experiment to see what would happen if they slowed parts of their site by 2 seconds. The result was a 4.3% loss in revenue per visitor. The losses were so high that they cut off this experiment early.

On the flip side, the massive shopping site Shopzilla did a massive engineering overhaul of their site to improve its speed. After launching the new site, their conversion rate increased 7-12%.

Do you have a case study or example of a site ranking better after speeding up their site?

Because Google's addition of site speed to their search algorithm is still relatively new, and because they haven't divulged the exact details of the algorithm changes, it isn't possible yet to point to any specific examples of site speed improving search ranking.

We do know, however, that Google only considers a site fast is if its speed is in the top 20% of its class, and there's a general assumption that any site that performs at the top of its class will get some kind of boost in the rankings. There's another assumption that sites that perform in the middle of the class - 20% to 60% - will probably not see any change in their ranking. And sites that perform at the bottom of the class - 60% and lower - will probably be penalized somewhat.

So for site owners, this is the time to take a critical look at their site's speed - alongside their competitors' - and figure out where they rank and what they need to do next.

What are the major factors you tend to see that cause sites to slow down?

The single greatest issue affecting website performance isn't the size of the files being sent: it's the total volume of server requests required to render a web page. Any given page of a website can require 100 or more roundtrips to retrieve various files - images, HTML, Javascript, and more - from multiple servers. The result is pages that load slowly and inconsistently.

Can you share a quick tip on how a site owner can speed their site up?

Yahoo and Google have developed comprehensive sets of best-practice rules for developers to follow in order to speed up web pages. These rules have become the industry standard for web page optimization. But there are a few problems with implementing these rules. The nuances of the rules vary from browser to browser and are constantly evolving, so tweaking a website's code to implement the rules is time-consuming and never-ending.

That's why we invented the Strangeloop AS1000, a device that automatically implements performance rules across a website, ultimately reducing the number of server round trips and optimizing browser rendering.

About the Author: Helen M. Overland

Vice President at Search Engine People, helping clients with Conversion Optimization, Analytics, and On-Page SEO. Online Marketer since June 2000, Internet geek since 1994. Follow me on twitter at @semlady to see what I'm reading now.

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