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The continued importance of mobile page speed

It goes without saying that of the hundreds of ranking factors that Google looks for when it comes to the positioning of websites on the search engine results pages (SERPs), some have more prominence than others

The importance placed on factors like mobile optimisation, keyword optimisation and the quality of links vary greatly, but all are considered to be hugely significant. The challenges that most businesses face, in terms of these metrics, are that some of these can be difficult to track and it can take varying lengths of time for the changes to yield results.

One area that can make an impact and that does make an instant difference is page speed, specifically mobile page speed. This metric is one of the single biggest decision makers that users have if they are to stick around, continue reading or come back to your website because it has one of the greatest bearings on user experience (UX).

It’s funny really; that the two ends of the search experience, the business (website) and the searcher (user) have such different goals despite their seemingly similar habits. The user wants UX in abundance – they want to be able to find the product or service they are after, in a way that is quick and relevant. In truth the user has little interest in who offers the result to their query, as long as they get the result.

The business behind the website wants to be number one. They want to sell and to do that they want rank as highly as possible for the most relevant terms. They target their buyer based on audience profiling and they know that one of the factors that is going to guarantee they retain their lead and encourage them to return it positive UX – and speed is a part of this. Searchengineland.com backed this up saying: “Speed is big. Not only is it a ranking signal; it’s a major UX factor. UX, in turn, impacts rankings. It’s a loop.”

The above covers to some degree the importance of speed, especially page speed, but what defines fast and why is the industry putting such a focus on it?

According to Google, it is expected that any page will load, in full in under three seconds. This is its benchmark for what correlated with a positive UX and it is these pages that are performing best on SERPs.  In their latest post on the Adwords blog, Google said: “Consumers’ expectations for faster and better digital experiences are on the rise. The mobile web is no exception. But the thrill of the hunt, whether it’s researching the best hotel deals for spring break or buying a new pair of sneakers, is often hindered by slow mobile sites.

“We’ve all been there: eagerly anticipating a mobile site to load and then abandoning it out of frustration.

“It’s a challenge most businesses struggle with. In fact, 53% of visits are abandoned if a mobile site takes more than three seconds to load, according to our data.”

In fact they have placed so much emphasis on page speed that at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the search giant announced two new tools: the Mobile Scorecard and a conversion Impact Calculator.

It is thought that the idea behind these releases was to ‘give marketers clear, visual tools to help them get buy-in from stakeholders for investments in mobile site speed’.

So what is the Speed Scorecard?

The Speed Scorecard shows the speeds of thousands of sites from 12 countries across the globe. It’s powered by Chrome User Experience Report, the largest database of real-user latency data for how Chrome users experience popular destinations on the web.

When it comes to mobile speed, Google recommends that a site loads and becomes usable within five seconds on mid-range mobile devices with 3G connections and within three seconds on 4G connections. But they also add that there’s a lot to gain by taking small steps to improve your site speed – even a one second improvement could increase conversions.

When you visit the ‘think with Google’ site and navigate to the speed scorecard you are greeted with the following table. The process to check and compare your site to the competition is easy and can reveal quite a lot about current performance and potential areas of improvement. When we reached the below screen we decided to populate it on the back of a particular product.

The chosen product was a tennis shoe and as a result we looked at the top level pages for the six main providers of such shoes. Inserting the domains of Nike, Adidas, Slazenger, Asics, Wilson and Puma into the tool produced the following results:

We then looked at the top level domain, based on searches in the UK and on mobiles with a 4G connection.

It is perhaps a little surprising that the span on these sites ranges from 2.4s to 4.5s as all of the URLs in question are for some of the top ranking sites in the sports and leisure market.  What is perhaps more interesting is that the gap between Adidas and Nike is 2.1s. When you think that Google is looking at a page speed of 3s in total, to meet the recommended optimisation for SEO, it is quite a difference.

Impact on revenue

Sticking with the tennis shoe theme and the URLs above, we decided to run a little test and looked at first of all the amount of time needed to be shaved off to show any sort of monetary gain. For those sites where there was a page load time of over three seconds (the amount of time recommended by Google) we’d look at that also and assess the impact.

For this to work we would use real data but there would have to be some constants in order to make it a fair test. Nike have a huge monthly audience in terms of their organic website visits (11.4m) compared to that of Wilson (340K) yet they both rank well for the key term ‘tennis shoes’.

The constants that were implemented in the study were the AOV – which equates to $40. This is the average fee paid for a pair of ‘run of the mill’ tennis shoes. The conversion rate also remained the same at 4.5% for all of the brands.

For Nike.com the tool shows that if they were able to bring down the page speed from 2.4s to 2.2s, just 0.2s then the revenue based on the Impact Calculator could improve by over $1.1m.

Carrying on the analysis Adidas.com showed some incredible potential for their homepage if it was fully optimised for mobile page speed. Bringing the page speed down from its starting point of 4.5s to 4.3s – again just 0.2s – the potential for extra revenue rose by $354k. When you take the page speed down the Google recommended speed of 3.0s, the potential increase was an eye watering $5.9m. These are all missed sales.

Of the remaining four URLs all showed the benefits of reducing the page load speed with Asics.com showing a potential improvement of $1.03m, Puma.com +$899k, Wilson.com +$18.4k and Slazenger.com by +$1.6k.

The key learning here is that the size of the business has little to do with the impact on performance. It is all relevant and regardless of the number of organic visits you have the speed increases show potential across the board.

A slow mobile site doesn’t just frustrate your customers, it can limit your business. In retail, Google sees that for every one second delay in page load time, conversions can fall by up to 20%.

When it comes to these changes Google developers recommend a few quick, yet essential wins:

Avoid landing page redirects

Redirects trigger an additional HTTP request-response cycle and delay page rendering. In the best case, each redirect will add a single roundtrip (HTTP request-response), and in the worst it may result in multiple additional roundtrips to perform the DNS lookup, TCP handshake, and TLS negotiation in addition to the additional HTTP request-response cycle. As a result, you should minimize use of redirects to improve site performance.

Here are some examples of redirect patterns:

example.com uses responsive web design, no redirects are needed – fast and optimal!

example.com → m.example.com/home – multi-roundtrip penalty for mobile users.

example.com → www.example.com → m.example.com – very slow mobile experience.

Improve server response time

Server response time measures how long it takes to load the necessary HTML to begin rendering the page from your server, subtracting out the network latency between Google and your server. There may be variance from one run to the next, but the differences should not be too large. In fact, highly variable server response time may indicate an underlying performance issue.

Optimise images

Images often account for most of the downloaded bytes on a page. As a result, optimising images can often yield some of the largest byte savings and performance improvements: the fewer bytes the browser has to download, the less competition there is for the client’s bandwidth and the faster the browser can download and render content on the screen.

Reduce the size of the above-the-fold content

If the amount of data required exceeds the initial congestion window (typically 14.6kB compressed), it will require additional round trips between your server and the user’s browser. For users on networks with high latencies such as mobile networks this can cause significant delays to page loading.

To make pages load faster, limit the size of the data (HTML markup, images, CSS, JavaScript) that is needed to render the above-the-fold content of your page. There are several ways to do this:

  • Structure your HTML to load the critical, above-the-fold content first
  • Reduce the amount of data used by your resources

The two new tools from Google and a wide range of other blogs and resources available, highlight the importance of speed as a ranking factor. Regardless of the keywords you are targeting, the competitiveness of your marketplace or the number of brands that you are battling there are always improvements to be made. Get on top of mobile page speed and you’re in with a chance!

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