Site speed: a user’s perspective

I work for Google, but this is a personal blog post.

Google’s corporate site has a page listing “Ten things we know to be true.” I’d like to highlight two of them:

1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.
3. Fast is better than slow.

I’m a user, and I like the Internet to be fast. Other technology is fast. It takes a second to start a car (even if traffic is slow). You can flip through TV channels. A lightbulb turns on and off at the flick of a switch. Why should the web be slow?

Sometimes I experience the web at slower speeds than I’m used to, and it frustrates me. Checking out a video is not like turning on the TV. There’s a lot of wasted time.

So, what can you do to make things better? If you have a website, please make sure that it’s fast. Think of speed as a feature. If you wanted to view one of my albums with over 100 photos, would you rather use Picasa or Flickr? I’ve been a longtime fan of Flickr (I joined in 2004), but if I want to scan someone’s photo album, I prefer Picasa.

I’m not the only user who values speed. Mozilla (the makers of Firefox), has been gathering hard data about the effect of speed on user behavior and they’ve published the results on their Blog of Metrics. They learned that by cutting their page load time by 2.2 seconds, their conversions (visits resulting in a Firefox download) increased by 15.4%. In case you’re not used to thinking about conversions, put another way this means that since they reduced their page’s loading time, visitors are 15% more likely to download their product. You probably knew you could increase conversions by lowering prices, buying more advertising to send people to your site, making your pages easier to navigate, and trying different product descriptions, but have you ever thought about how fast the page loads? Looking at Mozilla’s study, speed probably isn’t something you want to ignore.

Earlier today, Google announced that it’s now using site speed as a signal in search ranking. If you’re new to thinking about how Google works, here’s a quick overview:

  1. Google’s computers get online and download a good portion of the Internet.
  2. A user visits Google, types in what he or she is looking for, and clicks “Google Search.”
  3. Google’s computers do a bunch of math to figure out which pages to return and in which order. Over 200 factors can be involved in the calculation of where each page should be listed, such as what words are on the page and which other pages have links to that page.
  4. Google presents the results to the user.

What today’s announcement says is that the speed of a site is now one of the over 200 signals mentioned in step 3. Why? Well, we want our users to be happy. If they’re happy, they’ll keep using Google and Google will stay in business. Users are happy when the search results are relevant and high quality. As illustrated by the Firefox example above, speed is one aspect of quality that users value, whether they consciously notice it or not.

One final thought though: If you’re a webmaster and are worried that your site’s ranking in Google is now going to plummet because you haven’t had time to make it faster yet, don’t panic. Just think about how much happier your users will be after you get around to making those improvements.

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