Speed as a Ranking Factor: How Has it Changed & What is “Fast” in 2019

Speed as a Ranking Factor: How Has it Changed & What is “Fast” in 2019

Disha Sharma
Written by Disha Sharma
July 24, 2019

As users, we care a lot about speed. In 2006, we expected a website to load in under four seconds (as Forrester found). In 2009, we said two seconds were enough.

But today, even two seconds feel like a “long time”. In fact, the two-second page loading standard barely holds in 2019 as we all want fast to get the information we need, faster.

Google, too, has always cared about speed, even before it made speed a ranking factor or released the “Speed Update.”

And it cares just as much for its mobile users as it does for the desktop ones. That’s why the Speed Update that launched last year introduced speed as a ranking factor for mobile searches. Earlier, the use of speed as a ranking signal was restricted to just desktop searches.

Increasingly, both users and Google want webmasters to stop thinking in terms of seconds and look for ways to save every millisecond they can because it counts.

But this article isn’t about optimizing your website for speed (though you can find one here). Nor is it about the business benefits of a fast website. Most people now know and understand that fast-loading websites report lower bounce rates, offer better and more positive user experiences, and generate higher revenue among other things. Instead, this article is about how speed has evolved as a ranking signal, what speed is considered fast in 2019, and why mobile site speed optimization is critical for your 2019 SEO strategy (and for the future!).

But before we see that, let’s see how Google found every millisecond to matter when it comes to the web user experience.

Google’s Speed Experiment

Before Google introduced speed as a ranking factor in its search algorithm (in 2010), it carried out an experiment to understand the impact of speed on its search experience.

In its experiment, Google injected a server-side delay (in the range of 100 to 400 ms) so that the search results got fetched and displayed slower.

Here’s something that’ll help you put this in perspective: A second has a thousand milliseconds. And blinking your eye once takes about 300 milliseconds.

And yet when Google introduced delays that took about as much time as we take to blink, users noticed it. These “barely perceptible” delays  resulted in fewer and fewer searches. The slowing down of the search results page by 100 to 400 ms resulted in 0.2% to 0.6% fewer searches on average from the users.

Not just that, it was also found that the users who were exposed to longer periods of the delayed results experiment tended to do even fewer searches over time.

Those who experienced about half a second’s delay (400 ms) did 0.44% fewer searches  during the first three weeks and about 0.75% fewer searches during the second three weeks of the six-week experiment. Besides, users who experienced long delays took time to return to their pre-experiment usage level. The ones who experienced the highest delays of 400 ms performed 0.21% fewer searches on average in the five-week period post the experiment.

Speed matters… more so now, in 2019 — when Google recognizes it as a ranking signal for both desktop and mobile searches.

Speed: From Debuting as a Ranking Signal to Getting Its Own Update

Webmasters have always speculated speed to have some impact on Google’s ranking algorithm. But because Google never discloses its ranking factors, all the ideas around speed remained pretty much that: speculations.

But soon after its “speed experiment,” Google made it “official.” In 2010, Google introduced site speed as a new signal its ranking algorithm would use when deciding which websites to show for desktop searches:

You may have heard that here at Google we’re obsessed with speed, in our products and on the web. As part of that effort, today we’re including a new signal in our search ranking algorithms: site speed. Site speed reflects how quickly a website responds to web requests.

Webmaster Central Blog (Friday, April 09, 2010

And almost 8 years after introducing speed as a ranking factor for desktop searches, Google released its Speed Update targeting mobile searches:

People want to be able to find answers to their questions as fast as possible — studies show that people really care about the speed of a page. Although speed has been used in ranking for some time, that signal was focused on desktop searches. Today we’re announcing that starting in July 2018, page speed will be a ranking factor for mobile searches. 

Webmaster Central Blog — (Monday, July 9, 2018

Both updates established speed as one of the key SEO ranking factors for desktop and mobile searches.

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However, not all websites are impacted by speed:

When talking about speed, Google has repeatedly stressed that only a marginal number of websites — that are actually criminally slow — are impacted by the speed factor, and that even a slow page with excellent content can outrank a lightning-fast page.

So let’s now see what Google thinks about your website’s loading time and if it considers your website fast, okayish, or slow.

How Google Measures Page Speed

I’m not sure if you’ve experienced this but a lot of times, you’d find your website to load within seconds or even instantly.

But the speed insights inside your Google Analytics account would tell a different story.

This is something that has consistently bugged users.

A user’s question on the speed anomalies they found in their Google Webmasters Tools (Now Google Search Console)

Back in 2011, Matt Cutts who headed Google’s webspam team explained this by sharing how Google used its toolbar data to estimate the real world load times for a website. In fact, if you go over to Google Toolbar’s data usage policy, you’ll find a break-down of how Google has been measuring a website’s speed:

One way we measure this is by using the Google Toolbar as a page load timer. For example, when your browser sends out a request to fetch Google Maps, we start the timer. When the page is finished loading, we stop the timer and send the elapsed time back to Google along with the Google Maps URL request. By aggregating these response times across many users, we can accurately measure the load time of most websites as well as make our sites faster.

So essentially how you experience your website isn’t the same as how your users (and as a result, Google) experience it.

To find out how long your pages take to load, log into your Google Analytics account and drill down to Behavior > Site Speed > Page Timings.

Oh and if you happen to be one of those webmasters who find the loading time reported in Google Analytics to be inaccurate, there are plenty of other tools as well to help you test your page/website loading times.

Here’s a page with an average loading time of 8.5 seconds:

Further, you can apply the “Mobile” traffic only segment to understand the loading times for the mobile version of your page:

I know you can’t stop thinking how slow this mobile page is, with an average loading time of 10.3 seconds.

But the mobile page loading speeds are in this range for most websites. In fact, a recent (2018) Google study found that the average mobile page speed lies at a good, high 15 seconds. So you see, this page isn’t even that slow.

Let’s crunch some numbers to give some context to speed.

Is Your Website Fast, Okay or Slow?

Although the 2-second load time standard has been around for years, most websites don’t meet it.

Based on the tests performed through 2018, Pingdom (a tool that powers millions of website/page speed tests every month) shared that the average load time for a webpage lies at about 3.21 seconds.

Mobile pages do much worse.

When Google studied mobile page speeds in 2017, it found that it took an average of 22 seconds to fully load a mobile landing page. Google’s analysis of 2018, however, showed a noticeable improvement in the mobile page speeds bringing down the average to 15 seconds. This research that included studying 11 million mobile ads’ landing pages found that 70% of the pages took longer than 5 seconds to display visual content in the fold area, and more than seven seconds to display the page’s full content (within and below the fold area!).

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Even though many mobile users have upgraded their network speeds from 3G to 4G, mobile websites continue to be bloated and slow. And given that 53% of mobile site visitors abandon a page that takes more than three seconds to load, a mobile page speed of 15 seconds (or even 7 seconds) isn’t any good.

Everyone talks about building fast websites, but how fast should a website page be?

This question is, understandably, a little difficult to answer as the benchmarks of “fast” change fast.

But all that said, as of now, for Google, a fast website starts to load in under 1 second.

An average website starts to load in 1 to 2.5 seconds.

And a slow website, on the other hand, starts to load in more than 2.5 seconds.

And for mobile traffic, a load time of 5 seconds or less (for 3G connections) is the sweet spot to hit.

Site Speed Improvement: Here’s How to be Google Fast (on Mobile)

Growing mobile usage, faster mobile network speeds, and the increasing expectations of mobile users are all pushing for a faster mobile web. And Google with its algorithm updates wants to ensure that.

Take a look at a few of the recent Google ranking algorithm changes and you’ll see that they’re all geared more and more toward mobile users.

If you’d recall, early in 2015, Google announced that it was going to adapt its algorithm to match the changing usage patterns of people —  as more and more users started using mobiles to perform searches. Later that year, Google released its mobile-friendly update and introduced mobile-friendliness as a ranking factor. It also launched tools like the Mobile-friendly test to help webmasters create mobile-friendly websites.

Fast-forward to 2018: Google announced that it would now use mobile-first indexing. Which meant Google would start using the mobile versions of pages for indexing and ranking:

To recap, our crawling, indexing, and ranking systems have typically used the desktop version of a page’s content, which may cause issues for mobile searchers when that version is vastly different from the mobile version. Mobile-first indexing means that we’ll use the mobile version of the page for indexing and ranking, to better help our – primarily mobile – users find what they’re looking for.

Webmaster Central Blog (Monday, March 26, 2018)

This announcement was followed by the Speed Update mid-2018. As mentioned above, now with this update, Google sees a website’s mobile page loading speed when ranking it for mobile searches.

If these developments tell you something, then it’s this:

SEO is going mobile-first, with a special focus on speed.

Google is also investing heavily in it. Take its AMP initiative, for example. With AMP, Google wants webmasters to be able to build websites that “load near instantly – across all devices and platforms.

Also, with its official AMP plugin for WordPress, Google wants WordPress website owners to build even faster mobile websites. Three years of solid development and testing have gone into creating the first version of this plugin and it amply shows that Google wants you to use AMP, and wants to make its adoption easy and seamless as well for you: “The official AMP plugin for WordPress provides essential tools and functionality for AMP content creation, the WordPress way.” More and more plugins and themes are also expected to offer full-blown AMP functionality right out-of-the-box. This plugin has already crossed the 300,000+ active installs mark.

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Some SEO influencers are even predicting that AMP could  be a ranking factor for mobile searches in the future. As of now, it isn’t one.  For instance, Backlinko’s Brain Dean — has (almost) included the AMP factor in his list of SEO ranking factors for 2019. He notes: “Use of AMP: While not a direct Google ranking factor, AMP may be a requirement to rank in the mobile version of the Google News Carousel.”

At Convert.com, where we help website owners do A/B tests, we’re already starting to get queries from our WordPress users about our support for AMP. We understand that as a third-party service that adds code to our clients’ websites, even we are responsible for our bit to maintain their site speeds.

Come to think of it, optimizing your mobile pages for better loading times is also the most natural thing to do. I think if you dig into your Google Analytics and compare your mobile search traffic for the last month with the same period from two years ago, you’ll notice an increase. And you can assume the trend to hold. And if your mobile traffic isn’t search traffic and comes from, say, your email blasts or PPC ads, even then you can’t retain them if your mobile landing pages are slow to load. Mobile traffic is an impatient lot and is quick to bounce if you aren’t quick enough.

Summary

As you can probably tell, you can’t solely focus on optimizing your website’s speed for desktop searches. You’ve to take into account mobile website speed optimization as well. What you need is a two-part strategy for optimizing your WordPress website for speed in 2019 while catering to both desktop and mobile searches.

One part needs to focus on desktop searches. Here’s an epic WordPress speed optimization guide for steps on how to create websites that load in a second and win the desktop SEO leads!

And the other needs to optimize your mobile website for better search ranking. When you work on this part, you’ll have to think about or consider using Google AMP. And while it’s true that AMP is a great way to build blazing-fast WordPress mobile websites, you don’t HAVE to use it. Because if you do a poorly “AMP”ed page that loads slowly, you’ll still fail to get any SEO advantage. Google has made it clear that it cares only for fast pages, and not necessarily about the technology used to build them. That said, “AMPing” your way to a speedy mobile website might make sense, given that it offers so many other advantages as well and can be used seamlessly with WordPress. Oh, and here’s an in-depth guide on using Google AMP with your WordPress website.

So tell us: What is your speed optimization strategy for 2019? Also, while we’re still at it, why don’t you head over to Google’s mobile site speed testing tool and calculate how much more revenue you could earn by bringing down your site load time to 1 second or maybe 2.5 seconds? Yes, you can actually put a number on your “speed impact.” Tell us your findings in the comments below!

Originally published July 24, 2019 - Updated September 13, 2019
Disha Sharma
Disha is the content crafter at Convert. She's passionate about CRO, invested in learning more about marketing and committed to at least 2000 words of great writing, every day.
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