Google’s “Speed Update” (And What You Need to Know For Tech SEO)

Google’s been talking about the importance of page loading speed for years but had yet to make it an official ranking factor for mobile, until now. Back in January, Google announced their so-called “Speed Update” which will officially factor in page speed when ranking for mobile search. So just to be uber-clear on the implications of that move, this “Speed Update” is a change to Google’s algorithm to factor in the loading speed of a webpage, along with all the other factors we talk about, when ranking for mobile. In other words, it only really applies to mobile searches, not desktop. Additionally, it isn’t directly tied per se to Google’s shift to a mobile-first index. The latter is really just about Google’s index being built from mobile versions of webpages versus desktop. That is, of course, another big deal that you should know about because it will affect what content of yours is added to Google’s index. If the desktop and mobile versions of your website are different and/or you have content on your desktop site that you want indexed, and that content doesn’t reside on your mobile site, you will want to re-think that approach with respect to optimization for the mobile-first index. Now what the Google Speed Update is about is the speed of your mobile pages either helping or hurting you when it comes to mobile search. If your pages are slow and bloated, then they may very well be pushed down in the mobile search rankings. There is, however, a common denominator between the Speed Update and the move to a mobile-first index, and that’s the quality of user experience (UX) for mobile web users, which at the moment, leaves a lot to be desired. Google is well aware of that reality and, in fact, feels at existential risk by it. Concern for that existential risk is at the heart of these two moves my Google. I’ll go into that some more in this post.

Why now and why the urgency?

Well in case you missed it, 2016 became the year that mobile traffic officially passed desktop. Mobile is now far and away the primary channel for using the web, yet the mobile web is rife with usability issues. From my own browsing experience, there’s little that can degrade the satisfaction of using a site more quickly than waiting an exceptionally long time for a page to load and, from the findings of recent studies, it’s clear users probably feel the same way. In fact, according to SOASTA’s State of Online Retail report:

  • 53% of mobile visitors will bounce if it takes longer than three seconds for a mobile page to load.
  • As page load time goes from 1-10 seconds, the probability of visitor bounce increases 123%
  • As page weight gets heavier and the number of page elements increases from 1x to 15x, the probability of conversion drops 95%

So what conclusion might we draw here? While it’s clear a bad mobile UX results in a loss of revenue, the fact remains that the current state of the mobile web, on average still sucks. We’re talking about real revenue left on the table. For site owners. For Google.

Google’s own research, leveraging data gathered from their network of advertising partner websites (arguably the largest such network in the world), found that for the average mobile webpage it takes about 5 seconds for the above-the-fold content to display and about 15 for the page to fully load. Now remember half of users (53%) will drop after 3 seconds!

The study comprised a broad spectrum of industry types (finance, travel, automotive, retail, technology) and online business models (ecommerce, ad-supported content, B2B, B2C etc), yet the findings didn’t indicate that any one sector was the worst or worse than others. The study, in essence, said: ALL are bad. That is, the findings spoke to a consistent and widespread problem with mobile webpage latency.

Now contrast that reality with those aforementioned tidbits gleaned from SOASTA and you have a Google that’s laser-focused on fixing the state of the mobile web experience. For Google, as I already mentioned, the problem is existential, because upwards around 90% of their revenue comes from search. Google has a (heavily) vested interested in ensuring that the mobile web works. Hence, I give you Google’s so-called “Speed Update” (as well as, its mobile-first index).

Will Google’s Speed update hurt you?

So will Google’s Speed Update really hurt you? While Google has not quantified how fast your site must be, nor said, how slow is too slow, they have stated that sites that “deliver the slowest experiences” will be impacted. So the answer, like a lot of guidance coming from Google, is murky. Yet they have stated unequivocally that mobile page speed is a ranking factor so it behooves every site owner to optimize for speed. But whether or not you’ll be hurt in search rankings, while important, does seem to be a little beside the point in light of the other findings indicating the substantial, adverse business impacts of a bad site experience. Clearly, there is a lot of user frustration relating to slow mobile webpages, and, in my experience, if you take care of users (like offering a mobile site that performs well), Google will take care of you and your ranking.

Impact on Your Business

So, beyond just organic search, let’s discuss a little more what the real business impacts are of slow loading webpages. Consider this, according to Google, most mobile sites lag behind their desktop counterparts in key engagement metrics like time on site, pages per visit and bounce rate. Admittedly, some of that is because mobile sites are used differently than desktop sites. Mobile sites are used by mobile people, and what mobile people—people on the go—generally need are quick bits of information, like directions, phone numbers and so on, and thus, behaviorally-speaking, aren’t likely to spend long periods of time on a site. Nevertheless, the fact that the context of, and behavior relating to, mobile site users is different, doesn’t negate the fact that these days mobile site experiences are just not measuring up. Today, mobile visitors expect speeds equivalent to those experienced on their laptops, while mobile phones commonly have slower processors and are connected to slower networks. In short, the two realities are at odds. Mobile users expect great experiences, whereas, the current infrastructure, to deliver them, is more challenging. We should be approaching the design of our mobile sites with those two truths in mind to deliver on what the common mobile user wants and demands. But what we actually have is a mobile web that’s generally slow and bloated. Like a tick.

And user experience with your website, without question, affects your audience’s impression of your brand, which, I know, is hard to quantify. But, according to a study, page speed might be hurting more than “brand awareness” or “brand recall” (or any other terms brand marketers like to bandy around while small business owners and direct marketers roll their eyes). It might actually lead to consumers disliking your business. In truth, a brand can be negatively impacted by bad site performance. Per that same study, nearly 2/3 of users say that a poor experience on a brand’s website adversely affects their loyalty to that brand and that those feelings may even prompt them to recommend against the brand when asked by a friend or colleague.

If you sell things online, bad performance is invariably hurting your bottomline in more quantifiable ways. Both Akamai and have reported findings that strongly suggest that the vast majority of online shoppers will not return if they have a bad experience with a website. Additionally, Google research shows that a few seconds can make all the difference between success and failure with an online strategy. Maybe you think Google has a reason to skew the data. You may be right. So instead consider this, in a separate study, Walmart found that conversions increased 2% for every one second increase in page speed and incremental revenue grew 1% for every 100 millisecond improvement. Small changes can certainly have a big effect. Page speed can have a profound impact on the health of your online business. Namely that users are more likely to stay on your site (obviously) and, if they do, they’re, of course, more likely to become customers. If you sell products online, fast loading pages mean your visitors will more effectively browse and checkout. If your business is supported by advertising, fast loading pages mean visitors more efficiently navigate, find and consume content, staying longer to log more pageviews and impressions.

What to do about it

There are a handful of tools out there that help you test your page speed. Google’s is called PageSpeed Insights. Go check out how your site stacks up. Then research ways to improve where you’re dragging. Here’s a quick list to get you started:

  1. Size-down and Compress Your Images.
  2. Minify Your Code.
  3. Limit The Loading Of External Scripts and CSS, and Include In-Line Wherever Possible.
  4. Implement Page Caching.
  5. Leverage a Content Delivery Network (CDN) or Google AMP.

Good luck!