Search engines consider hundreds of factors to determine search engine rankings. Many of these factors are related to a website's content, such as its text and titles, or to the authenticity of the site itself. Several years ago, Google announced yet another consideration regarding ranking; the speed with which site visitors can view the pages.

Unfortunately, a significant amount of speculation remains regarding what constitutes sufficient speed, and just how much site speed affects rankings. Concern is heightened now that slow mobile sites can also be penalized. It is ultimately important to remember that a website performing poorly will lead to poor user experiences. Negative user experiences, therefore, warrant less recognition in search results than their more efficient counterparts.

How Speed Affects Rankings

Back-end performance and infrastructure are the most critical determining factors regarding site speed. Research has found a connection between ranking and speed; possibly because Google and other search engines can quickly and easily detect these metrics. Improving visibility via speed, then, largely depends on the quality and capabilities of particular servers. That's why it's crucial to select a hosting provider that can provide excellent website loading speed. 

The details of one study, conducted by Matt Peters, a data scientist at Moz, are outlined below. With the assistance of Zoompf, a website auditing firm, this is what he found:

·         Methodology. The team compiled a list of 2,000 random search terms and identified the top 50 search results for each one. This resulted in a list of 100,000 pages for evaluation. The next step was to launch 30 EC2 instances, which ran in the Northern Virginia cloud. Each of them included an identical open source tool (WebPageTest). This tool utilizes the same web browsers as most consumers to collect more than 40 performance measurements. Chrome was utilized to test each page in this investigation.

·         Page load time. This term often refers to two different measurements - either the "fully rendered" time or the "document complete" time. The "document complete" time is the time it takes a site to load for the user to begin typing or clicking - even if the content is not completely visible. The "fully rendered" time is the amount taken for a full download, including images, analytic trackers, and advertisements. Representatives at Google have not clearly indicated specific expectations regarding load time, so the effects of each concept of time were examined. Results suggested no clear relationship between either of the times and rankings.

·         Time to first byte. Because no clear correlations were detected at this point in the study, the investigation was extended to test the Time to First Byte (TTFB). This term refers to the length of time it takes a browser to receive the first byte of response from a server when a particular site is requested. Essentially, it is the time the server spends processing and generating information.

·         Page size. Page size refers to the full amount of all bytes downloaded to completely render a page. Such information includes ads, images, fonts, and third party widgets. After graphing the data, the team found a relationship between decreasing page sizes and decreasing page rank. They developed a theory based on these results, speculating that the lower ranking sites likely belonged to small companies with little resources, and therefore had minimal content and complexity on their pages. As rankings increased, complexity generally did as well.

·         Conclusions. The lack of relationships between page load times and rankings applies to both generic and long tail searches. There was no consistent evidence of pages with fast load times ranking higher than those with slower load times. It can be assumed that if page load time does influence ranking, it is lost in the mix of other influential factors.

There does, however, seem to be a correlation between TTFB and higher rankings. Sites with servers and quality back-end infrastructure capable of efficiently delivering content were ranked higher. Ultimately, it is back-end operations that directly affects ranking. This is because Google's crawlers can easily capture these measurements. Because "page rendering" time directly relates to user experience, however, it will probably also factor in to rankings in the future.

TTFB is a useful metric with which to gauge performance because it is affected by how heavily loaded the server may be, how quickly the site's back-end can produce content, and the network latency between server and visitor.

Back-ends include network connections, the use of content distribution networks, web servers, and database and application servers. Website owners can improve rankings by optimizing application code and database queries, employing content distribution networks, and ensuring responsive and effective servers. VPS and dedicated hosting servers are becoming more popular as webmasters are beginning to realize the importance of site speed on their brand's overall visibility and user experience.

Fast websites tend to have visitors who are more likely to click on ads and purchase products. These visitors have the best user experiences, and are apt to link and share site information. All these factors contribute to rankings. Front end interactions such as these are easily as important to high ranking as back end structure and speed.

There are hundreds of other factors that influence SERP visibility, some of which are listed here:

·         Keyword is the first word in the domain. Domains that begin with a targeted keyword are slightly more beneficial than those with keywords in the middle or at the end.

·         Domain registration length. Legitimate domains are usually registered and paid for several years at a time, while doorway domains aren't typically in use for more than one year.

·         Exact matches. For quality sites, domains with exact matches to keyword phrases are beneficial.

·         Previous penalizations. If Google or other search engines have already identified a website as illegitimate or in some way low quality, it may continue to be scrutinized.

·         Country codes. Domains that include country codes receive favorable SERPs for their particular countries.

·         Duplicate content. Content that appears identically within the same site can negatively influence SERP and result in penalties.

·         Recent updates. Google and other search engines prefer sites that have been reviewed and updated recently or routinely. The magnitude of the updates is considered as well.

·         Quality of outbound links. Content that links to reputable sites are considered more trustworthy.

June 19, 2014

Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.

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Search Engine Guide > Jayson DeMers > Is Your Hosting Coasting? Here's How Site Speed Affects SEO