The Importance of Site Speed and How to Improve It

In a tech age where everything is getting smaller and faster, it is important for companies to compete in the realm of speed. Why, you may ask? Because that is the direction the Internet is going — demanding even — and you don’t want to be left behind in a sea of sub-par slow-loading websites. There are 2 main reasons why site speed is so important.

1. Everything is better when faster, including user experience

This one is pretty obvious and is the main factor for user experience on any website. How many times have you visited a site that took 5+ seconds to load? You’re trying to browse content that you found interesting and you arrive at the site, but are immediately frustrated by sluggish load times and you promptly leave. Site speed has a direct impact on conversions, ROI, bounce rate, and search engine page ranking. and studies over the last 5 years shows how site speed directly affects metrics:

  • 47% of users expect page load times of two seconds or less.
  • 40% abandon a site with load times of three seconds or more.
  • 75% of users abandoned the site for competitor’s when suffering delays.
  • 64% of online shoppers will shop elsewhere if they have a poor experience on a site
  • 33% expressed disappointment to others about their site experience

In 2011, Amazon mentioned that for every increase in 100ms in response time they saw a 1% decline in sales. Considering, you can control how fast your site is delivered that just wreaks of opportunity.

2. Search engines rank for site speed

In 2010, Google announced that their algorithm will include site speed performance saying, “our users place a lot of value in speed — that’s why we’ve decided to take site speed into account in our search rankings.” While the public will never know the specifics of the algorithms behind search engines, it makes sense that the others would follow Google. Plus, if user experience is positive, it is that much more likely that authors will link to pages on your site, which also helps page rank.

Want to see how your page load times are affecting your site’s bounce rate? You can create a report in your Google Analytics that helps visualize how page load times affects your site. Yehoshua Coren has a great post on how to create the report using 2 advanced segments.

But enough about the importance of site speed. Let’s talk about how to analyze and improve it.

How to Improve Site Speed

There are lots of tools out there that can help analyze the speed of your site. Some of the more popular ones are:

  • Pingdom – great tool with waterfall analysis
  • Page Speed – open source Firefox plugin that evaluates the performance of web pages and gives suggestions for improvement.
  • YSlow – a free tool from Yahoo! that suggests ways to improve website speed.

These tools all break down a handful of factors to give your site a grade and make recommendations for how you can improve. Here are some of those factors:

  • Minimize request size
  • Leverage browser caching – specify an expiration at least one week in the future for static resources like css, javascript, images, videos, etc.
  • Avoid bad requests
  • Specify a cache validator – resources that do not specify a cache validator cannot be refreshed efficiently. Specify a Last-Modified or ETag header to enable cache validation
  • Specify a Vary: Accept-Encoding header – publicly cacheable, compressible resources should have a “Vary: Accept-Encoding” header
  • Remove query strings from static resources
  • Minimize redirects – remove redirect chain(s) if possible

Of the factors listed above, minimizing request size is probably the most important. Google has a ton of really good, detailed information on speed factors that can be found here. There are a handful of ways to minimize your site’s request size and the techniques are dependent on the hosting environment. GZIP compression is a must and is easily configurable on all the major webservers: IIS, Apache, nginx. A good tool to test before and after gzip compression metrics can be found here. Other top priority items are optimizing images and css delivery, minifying resources like css and javascript, using asynchronous scripts, and avoiding inline css and javascript.

Improving your server response time is also a major factor in improving your site speed and has tons of interacting components that can be looked at. From processor and RAM resources, to application code, database queries, and caching mechanisms, there are a lot of technologies and configurations that can be tweaked. We will dive in to these in more detail, as well as give our recommendations for a setup that has proven sub-1-second page load times.