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by Chris Simmance on 2nd November 2012
In recent years there has been a boom in internet speeds available with fibre optics and 3G, 4G and in some countries talk of 5G is giving mobile users access to sites at blistering speeds; but even now there are sites out there that have such slow site speeds that to load them, even on a fast cellular network, is hugely frustrating . People have been heralding this as the answer to all your speed needs on the web. However, I don’t think that faster and faster internet speeds are the only solution.
There needs to be an improvement in site speeds to fully reap the benefits of these faster speeds.
Cable broadband and now fibre optic broadband could potentially be bringing speeds of up to 1.5Gb/s soon and this is currently being tested by Virgin. The average speeds are around 6Mb/s in UK homes, which should be more than fast enough for normal internet browsing on your desktop. It’s when the site you are visiting is slow to load that even having a fast connection isn’t going to completely resolve.
In 2011 the average page loading time was 5.94 seconds and this year that speed has increased by 9% to 6.50 seconds. This is not good considering the advances in connection speeds. Site owners need to start looking into the speeds of their sites and stop relying on the connection speeds to counter the issues.
Having a fast site speed has many benefits to both the site owner and the end user. Google openly said that as they are obsessed with site speed they will be using the speed at which your site responds to web requests as a Ranking factor.
Google have also revised their Webmaster Guidelines recently with more emphasis on site speed. It’s worth a read, especially for the SEO people who haven’t read it all yet. In this post I will explain some of the benefits of having a faster site speed and some ways in which you can manage your site’s speed as well as ways to improve it; so sit back, strap yourselves in and prepare to get your site speeding!
The benefits to the site owner:
Some studies have shown that having a more efficiently (fast) running site can reduce operating costs; equally, with a faster page load times, users are likely to spend more time on your site and are more likely to come back and more likely to spend their money. You can find more details of this study here.
Having visitors remain on your sites will decrease bounce rates and if your users visit your site through Organic search and like the site they have visited before your Click through Rate will be higher. All of these benefits can help a site to increase its rankings in part due to having a better site speed.
The benefits to the site user:
Fast site = Happy users!
These happy users are more likely to keep coming back, spend more time and, if your site sells things, spend more money with you. They are also more likely to share the site with their friends by word of mouth and where your site allows (and all sites should) sharing their favourite pages and purchases on their social profiles. Increased social signals from naturally occurring traffic will have the added advantage to the site owner too as it will enhance their link profile!
Ways to manage your site speed:
The Site Performance tool in Google Webmaster Tools stands as a good indicator of how your site is performing on an on-going basis. It is really simple to read. If the line is in the red section saying slow, the site is slow. In much the same way if the line is in the green section saying fast…Guess what?!…It’s fast! There is also a section on the top with some average data on your site’s performance and an average comparison to the rest of the web. It isn’t the most accurate way to manage your site speed but it can be a good way to see if the site is maintaining its performance over time.
PageSpeed Insights tool for Chrome and Firefox browsers is a great tool as it analyses your site in real time and presents its results with recommended actions on how to speed up load times. Although it is a good tool to give you a ‘Google eye view’ on what might be slowing your site down, it is always important to check that some of the recommended items to speed up your site aren’t already in place. For example at times it tells you to ‘Use Image Sprites’ or ‘Enable Compression’ when this has already been done.
What! Google aren’t infallible? Sadly not in this case. You will have to make sure check your site over before scaring your Developer half to death when you ask him or her to .Gzip your site if it has already been done! Unfortunately this tool isn’t available on IE but then again most grandmas don’t need to check site speeds.
The Audits tab in Chrome is a great tool in much the same way as the Pagespeed tool as it audits a page and shows the recommendations in a nice traffic light system. Its part of the developer tools section to Chrome and similarly to the PageSpeed tool, you need to investigate further before making changes.
The Network tab in Chrome and the Web Console tab in Firefox are excellent ways to see what elements of a page are loading first and also how long each element takes to load. This can be used to see if there is one particular feature slowing a site down and this can then be repaired or replaced rather than make changes to the entire site.
What can be done to improve your site speed?
There are loads of ways that you can improve your site speed, so I won’t list every possible combination of methods and actions in this post. Instead I’ll just give you a few ideas and open the floor to others if you know of any that I have missed.
1. First and foremost you can have the fastest and most efficient site on the planet, but if your hosting server is slow your site won’t respond to web requests as fast as sites on a fast server. It is important that if your site relies on user interaction or you plan to have thousands of visitors daily, with them all spending their money, you need to have your site hosted on a server that can handle it without concern.
2. Ensure your site meets W3C standards. If your site has incorrect syntax or errors in the HTML coding, it can make it harder for browsers to decode and thus impacting on the usability side of the site speed. Additionally, ensuring that the site meets the W3C standard means that your site should work properly and improve the user experience. To test your site you can use the W3C Validator tool and make the necessary changes.
3. Enabling compression on the site in the form .Gzip compression is a great way to allow your pages to load faster. Making the files smaller and allowing decompression at the browser level means that more work to load your page is given to the browser and the computer which will work at a faster speed, thus giving you a faster loading page. For more information take a read of the Google article on enabling compression.
4. Leverage Browser Caching is another method that you can use to give more of the work to the computer loading your pages. With browser caching you are able to allow the user’s computer to store elements of your pages so they don’t have to be downloaded later. This won’t speed the site up initially but it will make sure that for return visits the pages load a little faster. It is important to set this up properly and isn’t advisable if you make lots of page changes to your site. More info can be found here.
5. Combine images into CSS sprites can reduce the request overheads on the site and allow the browser to load as few files as possible at one time. This is usually a good idea on sites that have a rich image content and for big sites it can make a noted difference to site speed. This is also one of those things that are often already taken care of at the build stage of a site, so investigate before making the developer mad (or just ask anyway for the fun of it). More info can be found here.
6. Externalising Java script and CSS files will mean that a browser is not reading the same Java or CSS information on each page to determine what the site should do or look like. This means that the code on each page is slimmer and takes less time to download. You can do this very easily and more information can be found here for CSS and here for Java script.
Like I said, there are many more ways to speed up your site and although site speed is a ranking factor for Google, with all the other factors that they use to rank sites it won’t equate to huge ranking gains. It’s just another tick in the box and is more beneficial for your site from a usability point of view.
As browsers develop they will undoubtedly be faster at rendering a page for the user and helping to increase their experience on the web.Unless they use IE because that won’t’ help matters.