When evaluating search engine optimization (SEO) tactics, it’s important to balance the technical side of understanding how search engines work with empathy and understanding for the people who use search engines as tools to find what they’re looking for.
For better or worse, when we think of website optimization, we’re usually referring to the ways your page content and on-page metadata can affect site performance. But another key component to the success of your website's SEO performance is your website load time or page speed.
In this post, we’ll break down a few important factors related to site speeds, including:
How site loading speed impacts your website’s user experience
How search engines weight site speed in determining search rank
Site speed optimization best practices, and
A few free tools that can help you test, monitor, and optimize your website speed for SEO
The SEO Impact of Site Page Speed
We live in a fast-paced, speed-obsessed world — especially on the web, and even more so when it comes to finding what we’re looking for. Now that fast internet connections and increased download speeds are the norm, users are accustomed to web pages that load fast. Think about the last time you had to wait more than a couple of seconds for a page to load. What did you do?
Increasingly, users don’t wait; they move on.
Google and other search engines recognize that speed is a relevant quality to internet searchers. So when search engine crawlers get held up dissecting a website’s content because of page load speed, it works against the page’s overall rank in search. That’s because the search engines’ goal is to deliver searchers the most relevant content, and quickly. Page load speed contributes to your site’s relevance because searchers expect things to be fast.
Site Page Speed Best Practices
Once you understand the importance of page speed, you’re likely wondering whether there are a few easy ways to improve yours. Well, as with most subjects related to SEO, things can get complicated pretty quickly. But, setting aside all the techy geek-speak on the best programming languages and coding tricks, here are six reliable best practices that the rest of us (OK, the rest of you) can easily implement to begin improving your site speed.
1. Optimize Image Sizes
Images are the worst culprit for slowing down page loading speeds. Large, high-resolution images are ideal for printing, but not for the web. So before you upload that beautiful new photo to your website, first be sure to optimize it for web use.
Using the main editor on your computer — or a free tool like squoosh.app — change your image’s compression rate and pixel dimensions to the approximate size you need for your site. It’s important to understand that, using the HTML editor to adjust your image width from 1,000 pixels to 300 pixels only changes the on-screen appearance. When the page is loading, your browser still has to load the full image’s data, which is three times the size of what you see.
If you’re using a content management system (CMS), you most likely use responsive design templates, and that’s a good thing. Users don’t just want a seamless desktop and mobile experience as they shift from one device to another; they expect it, and anything less is a disappointment.
2. Use the Correct Image File Formats
In addition to optimizing images for size, it’s vital to use proper file formats for various web uses:
JPEG: For most images, JPEG — a compressible format that all browsers support — is the correct file format. Photos and graphics should be JPEG image files.
PNG: For simple graphics like call-to-action (CTA) buttons or areas where transparency is required, use PNG format. Be careful with PNG files, though. They can become quite large if used incorrectly. A PNG with the same dimensions as a JPEG can have a file size that’s ten times larger.
SVG: Use SVG files for company and product logos, and for icons. SVGs are very small files, and they scale infinitely, as they’re defined by vectors. The trade-off is that they’re rather limited to relatively simple images.
WEBP: This is a new file format. WebP can replace both PNG and JPEG. But it’s only supported by the latest web browsers — so if you decide to use a WebP image, it’s important to provide a fallback JPEG or PNG in place for legacy browsers.
3. Avoid Text as Graphics
In rare cases, you may need to rely on a custom graphic to display specific, stylized text. But the more you can leverage CSS to display specific fonts, the faster your web pages will load. Keep in mind, text graphics have less value in SEO terms than actual text on the page. So if you absolutely must use a graphic for text, don’t forget to include alt text for SEO.
4. Don’t Overuse Plugins and Scripts
Site plugins are great for adding features to your site, especially when they’re free. But too many on one page — on your blog, for example — can drastically impede your page load speed.
5. Lazy Load Below-the-Fold Images
Lazy loading images allow the rest of your page elements to load before all the images finish loading. This enables visitors to your site to start reading your content faster. This is a great option, but remember you only want below-the-fold images to load this way. Otherwise elements like page headers can pop in while users are reading, shifting contents on the page, disrupting their engagement, and creating a poor user experience.
Certain social sharing site plugins can cause website administrators headaches, because they can slow down a page’s load speed, too. At the same time, avoiding this type of plugin limits how easily your content can be shared on social media. And that limits your ability to benefit from the valuable social signals that have a positive effect on your SEO.
Most content management systems (CMS) have built-in social sharing features on their platforms, but if you have to add your own, be sure to read reviews for load speed feedback, and benefit from others’ experiences.
Marketers and C-level executives tend to like (and respond to) data, so it can be tempting to try to grab as much as possible from every corner of your website using a variety of trackers, including tools that track and measure:
Unfortunately, each script requires additional traffic and processing. So, tempting as it is, first consider the benefits of each script — and then only add the ones that will provide actionable, valuable data.
Free Tools to Monitor and Optimize Site Speed
Fortunately, you can access free tools to run your own page load speed test and uncover areas where you can make improvements. Here are a few tools to check out:
Google Analytics is great to have on hand regardless; once you’re set up, you can quickly get a glance at site speed performance over time.
SEOquake Browser Plugin: In addition to gauging site speed in your browser toolbar as you crawl your site page by page, this handy toolbar also offers many other SEO metrics.
No doubt, page speed is one of many factors to balance when optimizing your website in order to rank higher in search engine results. But slow site loading can drag down other metrics, limiting conversion rates and dampening your website content’s overall performance. On the other hand, faster page load time could pave the way to higher conversions — and a website that generates more qualified leads is a site that may also get better support from more levels of your organization. You can get a handle on your SEO big picture with our SEO Survival Guide. Just click the link below to explore the full guide, or download a PDF to take along with you.
Posted by Jonathan Stanis An engineer by training, Jon focuses on the technical delivery of an effective inbound marketing program. He builds client website plans that solve for conversion potential and utilize smart user experiences. He is also responsible for analyzing and monitoring the success of inbound projects. Jon fits the definition of being a "whole brain marketer" because he is both a strong writer-designer and a deeply analytical thinker.