How does a slow website affect your organic search engine rankings?

Ever heard the statistic: “75% of people never make it past the first page of Google.”?

How about the fact that the first 5 organic results take up over two-thirds of all SERP clicks?

With millions of searches handled by Google every minute, ranking high in Google is a matter of millions of dollars for an online business. Knowing this, you probably already have an SEO strategy in place.

However, if you’re solely focussing on content as well as on-page and off-page SEO – you’re missing a trick that could be the difference between you and your competitors: website loading speed.

Why and how Google uses website loading teams in search engine rankings

As a search engine, Google’s primary mission is to point users in the direction of the best content on the web according to their search. The general misconception has been that this only means finding the most relevant pages, articles, etc. online with content relevant to the users’ search terms.

However, according to Google, as many as a third of users abandon a page that takes between 1 to 3s to load. In contrast, more than half abandon a page that takes over 3s.

Clearly, what’s on your website pages isn’t the only thing that matters – a visitor might never get to experience it out of sheer frustration with slow loading pages.

For that reason, Google has started to incorporate user-experience into their SERP ranking algorithms. As loading speeds are one of the most telling and quantifiable user-experience metrics, it’s taken a front seat.

Google uses several measurements – what they call “user-centric performance metrics” – to see just how fast a website loads. These metrics used to be pretty straightforward:

  • Speed Index (SI): The total time for website content to load.
  • First Contentful Paint (FCP), Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Meaningful Paint (FMP): The time it takes for the first, the largest, or the “most meaningful” piece of content to load.
  • Time to Interactive (TTI): The moment when the user can interact with a control on the page.

However, as Google’s understanding of user experience has evolved, so has their metrics. Via their new “Core Web Vitals,” they are now not only able to measure how fast a website loads but also to quantify how a user perceives the loading speed. These CWV metrics are:

  •  Largest contentful paint (LCP): The largest visible item on a page is usually one of the most important and gives the user the most information. For most pages, this is a large hero image or video.
  • First input display (FID): This is a more nuanced version of TTI, which takes into account when an item (button, slider, etc.) first loads. It helps determine if there are unresponsive interactive elements on the page while it loads.
  • Cumulative layout shift (CLS): This is used to determine how visually stable a page is. If elements keep moving around while it loads, it can lead to frustrating interactions, like clicking the wrong link.

Although this has enabled Google to more accurately predict whether a user will enjoy their experience on a web page, it has also made the job of optimizing website pages for SERPs more complex.

A mobile-first future?

Another big, but justifiable, shift has been towards prioritizing mobile devices. Mobile internet traffic now accounts for a larger share of total internet traffic than desktop computers. From social media to e-commerce, many industries are also trending more towards mobile devices. Google itself experiences more search queries from mobile than desktop nowadays.

So are younger generations, like millennials and Gen Z, who are just as comfortable with mobile devices as their PCs – and who will be the dominant market in the near to medium-term future.

Always on top of the latest trends, Google already announced mobile-first indexing back in 2019. Since 2018, mobile search results have also used mobile loading speeds as a ranking factor. This basically means that the mobile version of a page will be evaluated first for ranking signals unless it’s not available.

Mobile users also tend to be more sensitive towards irritations like slow-loading pages.

As the importance of mobile is likely to keep growing, so will Google’s prioritization of mobile devices. However, this makes the problem of optimizing performance even more complicated. There are thousands of different combinations of mobile devices, screen sizes, operating systems, browsing software, etc. to optimize for.

Still, with a growing share of internet users, it’s hardly an aspect of your website optimization that can be ignored.

How can website loading speeds be improved?

Optimize your images, video, and other media assets

Simply put, content with larger file sizes take longer to download – slowing down your overall loading times. According to Google, images are the largest contributors to page weight today.

While high-quality images and videos are important for aesthetics, you need to strike a balance between file size and quality. Optimizing content can take place in a number of ways:

  • Using responsive image syntax
  • Using next-gen image formats and compression
  • Optimizing images/videos using design software by adjusting quality, dimensions, etc.
  • Using content type-specific CDNs, such as an Image CDN

Develop clean code that adheres to modern standards

According to the same talk by Google, JavaScript is the second-highest contributor to page weight, while CSS and HTML are also culprits. That shows the importance of developing clean, structured code that’s not bloated by unnecessary scripts, libraries, or repetitive algorithms. It also means using optimal languages to solve specific problems as well as loading scripts and libraries at the right times.

Use a CDN (Content Delivery Network)

A content delivery network does precisely what the name implies. A CDN uses a network of data centers across the globe to cache website content and deliver it faster to users who are located geographically close to each server. Cloudinary is probably the most popular CDN out there for most websites, while there are also specific use-case CDNs.

A high-performance hosting service

Of course, the actual servers your website is hosted on can have a massive impact on how fast it is delivered to visitors. High-performance infrastructure with SSD storage, low-pop servers, high-speed/high-bandwidth internet uplinks as well as optimal global positioning is preferable for growing or ambitious online businesses.

Test, test, and test

Optimizing a website’s performance is not a one-off job. Each website is unique with different types and amounts of content,  markets, technical and functional requirements, etc. While maintaining industry standards and best practices in development will go a long way, it’s still an iterative process that requires testing, re-evaluation, optimization, and then testing again.

This same cycle needs to be repeated whenever a website goes through a significant update or content change. Never mind the fact that it might need revisiting as SEO ranking criteria and standards shift with time.

In conclusion

Google is tight-lipped about precisely what share of your ranking is determined by website loading times. However, as a direct ranking signal, it’s bound to have a tangible effect on where you end up on SERPs. With thousands of competitors and millions of potential customers hanging in the balance, you can’t overlook any possible advantage.

That being said, website performance optimization is a complex, multi-disciplinary problem that requires a holistic approach to solve. For online businesses operating in ultra-competitive spaces, it’s a task best left to professional services that can tackle it from every angle.