How Site Speed Affects SEO, SERP and User Experience

It has been years since Google announced that page load speed would be a ranking factor for desktop search queries. In 2018, the company expanded this practice to mobile queries. It’s no secret; the entire internet was abuzz with news about this for the better half of 2018.

How Does it Work?

The idea is simple.

Google is pushing for websites to get faster and provide a better user experience. If your website is slow, it gets penalized by Google’s search system. Your pages appear lower in search results, and in return, you get less traffic to your site.

This is no secret. Google has confirmed it, and extensive testing has proved it to be true.

You can even check for yourself. Type anything in the search bar. The top-ranked website is almost always faster than the website in the tenth spot, let alone those on the second or third pages of the search results. You can also use a tool like GTmetrix to look at exact load time numbers.

However, we are not here to talk about old news. Instead, we want to address the intricate relationship between page load times, user behavior, and SERP. It is much more complex than most people think.

Now, website speed is not just a flat number that the Google search algorithm uses to calculate page rankings.

In fact, load times influence SEO in more ways than one.

That’s why we’ll consider exactly how else speed factors into SERP.

Google’s Mission

Let’s first consider what Google’s goals are. What do they want, and how can they best achieve it?

It doesn’t take much thinking to see what a Google search does. Users type in one or several keywords, and Google comes back with the best fit for that query.

The sole goal with searches and modifications to the search algorithm is to provide results that will answer not just a searched keyword but the users’ intent. That means boosting any websites that provide a positive user experience and penalizing the ones that don’t.

This is where website speed comes into play. Today, almost everyone is used to websites loading practically instantly.

Therefore, if a site is slow, it elicits a negative user response.

In fact, users hate slow websites and bounce rates can be very high, more about that later on the article.

Alright, you might say, users hate slow websites, and Google’s search algorithm penalizes them.

So what does that mean, really?

The repercussions are plenty.

See, Google tries to weed out all websites that provide a poor user experience. Sites with poor content, that aren’t aesthetically pleasing, or are disliked by users for any other reason (like speed) are constantly analyzed by Google, it sees exactly what’s going on with your site.

Don’t just take our word for it. We’ll explain exactly how load times affect user behavior and what impact that has on search rankings.

Bounce Rates and Time Spent on Site

High bounce rates are probably the clearest indicator that there’s something wrong with a website. People navigating swiftly away tell Google that a particular page does not deserve its spot in the search results.

Here’s what bouncing is:

When a visitor finds a page in the search results, opens it, and leaves without interacting with the website any further, we say that they “bounced”.  This can happen because they don’t like something about the website or the website doesn’t have what they’re looking for.

All websites have some portion of the visitors bounce by default. Even the best of the best sites have a bounce rate of 25% to 40%.

You can’t make everyone stay on your site.

But you can probably guess where this is going.

Long page load times don’t only exacerbate bounce rate; they make them skyrocket!

If your load times increase from one second to three, the bounce rate increases by 32%. Bump the load times up to six seconds, and the bounce rate is 106% higher. And it only gets worse from then on.

Slow speeds can easily bring the bounce rate above 90% even for websites with great content and layout.

Now, imagine how this appears to Google’s ranking system. The search engine doesn’t know exactly why 90% of users leave after opening just one page. The high bounce rate only indicates that your page is not a result that meets (and resolves) the searchers’ queries in a satisfying manner.

The same goes for the time spent on site. If a user opens a website but doesn’t show much interest in it (leaves quickly or skims only a page or two), that website is likely a bad search result. Google’s search system is bound to penalize it.

Rand Fishkin of Moz proved this in a Twitter experiment. He was able to manipulate where web pages show up in search results by having his followers bounce from one page and spend time on another.

As you can expect, website speed also impacts the time spent on site and page views per visitor.

In fact, if your website takes two seconds to load, you’ll likely have an average of 8.9-page visits per user. If the load times are eight seconds, this number falls to an average of 3.3 pages per visit.

Not only are fast load times good for keeping users interested in your site, but they stop your website from suffering drops in traffic and conversions.

Click-Through Rate

Probably the best indicator of a good search result is a result that users click on.

Admittedly, people are rarely overly careful when choosing which sites to open. However, they tend to skim the results on SERP for the best one, and that counts for something.

Therefore, if one web page in the search results gets disproportionately more clicks than the others, Google notices. Pages with a higher CTR quickly reach the top of the search results, while the ones that get no clicks fall further behind.

Udi Manber, Google’s former chief of search quality, confirmed this. It’s also evident when you take a look at Google’s patents. Google definitely uses the data on how users interact with search results to modify results for future queries.

Again, page load speed plays a part here, even though it might not be obvious from the data at first.

Your load times can impact how users interact with your pages when they show up in search results.

Namely, 75% of users avoid returning to a website that takes over 4 seconds to load. That load time might not seem like much, but it’s still enough to make three-quarters of users stay away from your pages. That means they skip them if your content shows up in the search results.

Obviously, this hurts rankings.

Polls studying e-commerce sites show fast load times are important for site loyalty for 52% of users. This only goes to further show how long load times can affect search rankings.

Last but not least, users talk to each other.

They share experiences, both positive and negative.

In other words, if users wait too long for your site to load, they might just share their bad experience with their friends. In turn, their friends might skip your website if it shows up in the search results.

The process is very subtle, but it can compound the consequences of slow loading speed.

Here’s the bottom line:

If your pages take long to load, you’re walking on thin ice. Even if you improve load times, many users might carry on avoiding your site. After all, it’s not their job to check if speed has improved.

Such user behavior will elicit penalties from Google’s ranking system, even if your site has great content, catchy design, and a well-structured user interface.

Conclusion

All in all, speed affects search rankings in many ways.

Google has done practically everything possible to get webmasters to make their sites faster. The trend will definitely continue as site speed improves user experience and Google continues to act as a warden who wishes to make the internet a better place.

Plenty of website owners have already acted and many pages significantly improved load times in 2018. Sooner rather than later, there will be no more room left for suboptimal websites.

That’s why you should get ahead while you still can and improve your own website.

What’s your next step, then?

Familiarize yourself with speed optimization techniques and apply them to your website. If nothing else, at least cover the basics like image optimization, GZIP compression, and quality website hosting.

Ideally, keep load times under 3 seconds. This should keep you clear of any direct and indirect penalties. Users will enjoy your website and will be happy to pay you a visit when it pops up in their search results.

Google will have no reason to punish you. Instead, if visitors spend a long time on your site it will help with your SEO rank. You might just end up at the number one spot on the first page of Google.

Work on your speed optimization as soon as you can, and you will be pleasantly surprised.

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