We've all been there. You click on a link and wait expectantly for a website to load.
You begin impatiently tapping your fingers on the desktop, and then you simply click back to your initial search results. Put it down to short attention spans, but when people click on a search result, they expect instant gratification.
The longer a site takes to load, the more likely it is for someone to hit the back button and choose another link from the search results. Slow loading times can have a disastrous effect. Not only on a website's traffic, but on its overall ranking in most search engines. When it comes to SEO and site speed, we need fast … about 2 seconds is the optimal speed.
Site Speed and Rankings
Google and other search engines use a wide range of signals to evaluate and rank any given website, and we know that over 200 ranking signals exist. While we don’t know for sure all the signals, we can get very close based on proven methods in SEO.
In 2010, Matt Cutts announced that site speed would soon become one of the metrics that Google used to evaluate a site's page ranking. Clearly, user experience was going to become an important part of the way that search engines assigned value and ranking to a given website. After all, user experience is directly tied to site performance.
Four years later, it seems that some webmasters failed to get the message, and they're seeing their slow loading websites diminish in the SERPs. Well, now is the perfect time to look at some easy fixes to help speed up your website's loading time and give it some upward momentum in search.
Lighten Your HTTP Load
For example, a given webpage might have a separate CSS file for your site’s framework, text, forms and main styles. If you’re using a framework like Bootstrap, and I highly encourage this, can you cut out some styles that aren’t being used, such as progress bars? Do you have a separate “reset” and “text” file? Try to optimize and combine as many CSS files as you can.
This goes for JS files also. Try to see where you can combine or only call what’s needed for that page. Do you have a carousel on the homepage? No need to call this same JS on interior pages.
If you’re using WordPress plugins, it might be difficult to combine some of these file assets. Don’t worry or over-complicate this process. Do the best you can. Combining your files will give the browser less round-trips to the server, and increase your site’s speed a substantial amount.
Image Size and Number
Images are a great way to engage with visitors to your site, but they can also affect a site's load time. The larger the image file, the longer it will take for the browser to process. You can optimize images in a few ways. The first is to definitely open the image in Photoshop and save it as a “progressive” JPG, or use PNG8 instead of PNG24. These options will reduce the image size.
Make sure you’re using the proper file dimensions and are not up-sizing or down-sizing the file to fit the target space. And, use image sprites where possible. I like to use sprites for the core imagery, such as social icons, logo and footer icons, etc.
Use a CDN
Using a CDN, or content delivery network, is really awesome. If you’re not familiar, it takes your static file assets (CSS, JS, images) and serves them from the nearest location to your visitors. CDNs have servers all across the globe that sync your files. If someone in London is viewing your site, it makes more sense to serve them a file near the U.K. rather than the U.S. I use Amazon Web Services for this, but other companies might work better for your specific needs.
Compression and Caching
The other parts mentioned will increase your site’s speed, but these two components will make it fly.
We’re all familiar with how Zip files will combine multiple files to reduce the overall size of each file. On web servers, it’s the same concept but Gzip is typically used instead. A 10K file might become a 5K file after compression. You can easily see how a 50% reduction in file size can have a huge impact.
Caching is also critical to reducing page load speed. There are two type of caching that are most often used: browser caching and page caching. With browser caching, your site tells the browser how long to keep the file on your visitor’s machine before checking for a new version. With most static content, this can be a large number such a year or much longer.
Compression and caching can also be accomplished through a WordPress plugin, such as W3TC. This makes everything much easier.
What Tools Help With Site Speed?
There are quite a few tools that can help you evaluate your site speed, which I discuss in more detail here. However, my favorite is WebPageTest.org for a great technical analysis. It’s important that you become comfortable with a few different tools, as they all work a little differently.
Site speed may not be one of the major signals that Google uses to evaluate a website, but it does have a definite impact on page ranking. Beyond what it means to the search engines, it is the beginning of the user experience. A slow loading web page will produce more bounces and fewer return visits, which is a metric that every search engine does take into account when evaluating a website.
Take the time to take a closer look at your website, and evaluate it from the perspective of an average online user. If it is slow to load, take whatever steps are necessary to increase its speed.
Dario Zadro is an SEO enthusiast, entrepreneur and passionate web developer. Feel free to reach out to Dario on Twitter or visit zadroweb.com for more SEO insights and tips. His last article for SEMrush was "How to Use Google Tag Manager for a Better SEO Experience."