Whether you pursue local or general search engine optimization (SEO), website loading speed will inevitably enter the discussion. Ranking higher in search engine results pages (SERPs) hinges on many factors, which is what SEO strategies cover. One among them, according to Google itself, is website speed. Of course, this may not come as a surprise to many, given our own experiences surfing the web. Still, it’s noteworthy even today that website speed affects search ranking. And because merely asserting it should not suffice, let us explore just how it does so.
Search Engines: Why Google Matters
Such discussions will most often begin, and sometimes end, with Google specifically. So before delving into further specifics, let’s address this point first.
As of October 2020, Google boasted an impressive 88.14% market share among search engines, according to Statista. This left the other major search engines with the following market shares:
- Bing: 6,18%
- Yahoo!: 2,51%
- Baidu: 0,59%
- Yandex RU: 0,26%
That alone should highlight just why Google takes center stage; it’s by far the most popular search engine. Moreover, Google’s algorithm may change over time, but it’s expressly built with the intent to provide a better user experience. A continued focus on semantic search, geo-location factors (that give rise to local SEO), and other such design concepts inform how the algorithm evolves. Not all search engines will have the exact same algorithms, of course, but they do have the same goal. Thus, what works for SEO for Google will most often work across the board. That said, knowing how search engines work and doing your due research should always be the safer bet.
Does Website Speed Affect Search Ranking?
Having explained why Google often monopolizes SEO discussions, we should more easily explain how website speed affects search ranking. Curiously, we might need to begin by asking whether it does so at all.
First and foremost, Google itself has stated that speed is a ranking factor for landing pages and ads. However, research – including a famous 2013 article by Moz’s Billy Hoffman – has produced questionable results. That is, they sometimes fail to draw a direct correlation between
website speed and search ranking. So, does website speed actually affect search ranking? And if so, how?
Website Speed is a Crucial SEO Factor
The answer is simple; website speed is a crucial SEO factor. While it may or may not directly affect search rankings by itself, depending on the research you choose to go by, it still affects plenty of metrics that do.
While quality content remains king in SEO, consider the following on-page and off-page SEO metrics:
- Bounce rates
- User experience
- Dwell time
These, as well as other metrics, affect how your website performs in terms of SEO. Specifically;
1. Referral traffic, engagement, and social signals
Increased engagement, social media shares, and higher dwell times all affect your website search ranking. Through such metrics, Google understands your website provides quality content to your visitors. On the contrary, high bounce rates, low dwell times, and low referral traffic send the opposite message. Website speed affects them all in either direction since it affects the user experience.
2. Mobile-friendliness and page optimization
Similarly, mobile-friendliness remains a vital SEO metric today. Given the trend of increasingly more people navigating the web through their mobile devices, it doesn’t seem likely to change. Google now provides a mobile-friendliness test for this reason and actually checks websites’ mobile version speed before their desktop counterparts. This is a clear-cut example of how website speed affects search ranking since mobile friendliness depends on it.
3. Google’s algorithm itself
Finally, SEO itself hinges on Google’s algorithm itself. Handling sudden drops in traffic does tend to start with checking for algorithm changes. Still, while many factors may change over time – considering the massive scale of such famous updates as Hummingbird and Penguin – website speed seems most unlikely to change. Put simply, website speed affects the user experience and will always do so.
How Website Speed Affects Search Ranking
With all of the above in mind, let’s begin to identify how website speed affects search ranking. The basic premise here is that website speed can enhance or hamper aspects of the user experience that impact SEO. That’s slightly oversimplified, however, so let’s delve into specifics.
#1 Website speed affects bounce rates
One of the most glaring impacts website speed can have on SEO is bounce rates. As visitors become increasingly demanding from websites, they now expect loading times of 3 seconds or less. Of course, the lower, the better, but the 3-second mark is explicitly crucial.
Consider how Google/SOASTA’s research highlights this:
- Load speed from 1 second to 3: a 32% bounce probability increase
- From 1 second to 5: a 90% bounce probability increase
- From 1 second to 10: a massive 123% bounce probability increase
So naturally, increased load times incur an exponential bounce rate increase. A 32% increase from 1 second to 3 may be manageable, but any higher and it becomes massive. In turn, higher bounce rates begin to send Google the wrong signals; visitors bounce; therefore, the website doesn’t offer value. This may even begin to affect your domain authority (DA) or page authority (PA) score if left unchecked, with severe consequences. In short, website speed affects search ranking by lowering bounce rates and preventing the issues that follow.
#2 Website speed affects landing pages and dwells time
On the subject of landing pages then, website speed affects search ranking in this regard as well. It’s no coincidence that improving load speed is among the safest ways to make them efficient; it demonstrably helps. Bounce rates aside, research has found that loading speed can even affect visitors’ dwell time and purchase intent.
Essentially, dwell time is what the name implies; the time a visitor spends dwelling on a page. This is also among the engagement metrics Google considers when ranking pages. Visitors dwelling for longer indicates that landing pages offer value and are thus more trustworthy and worth ranking higher.
Of course, purchase intent doesn’t affect search rankings in itself. However, the goal of ranking higher is often to drive more purchases, so this factor should be considered as well. Discouraging purchases may not impact ranking, but it does reduce potential revenue.
#3 Website speed affects mobile-friendliness
Next, as we’ve covered above, mobile-friendliness is also an essential SEO factor. Google itself tests the speed of websites’ mobile versions first, and that’s only projected to continue.
The algorithm itself takes note of the above trend of mobile users. In turn, mobile-friendly sites and pages are more likely to offer value since they build around a better user experience. What’s more, even if we exclude that it factors into SEO, it still has practical merit. Consider how many search queries are made from mobile devices and how that number continues to increase. Mobile-friendliness helps ensure more mobile traffic and more meaningful engagement, tapping into a larger potential customer pool. In turn, that too sends Google better social signals and helps boost your website’s authority score.
#4 Website speed affects engagement
To consolidate and expand on the above, website speed affects search ranking in a simple way; it affects engagement. Engagement is a vital signal to search engines that a website offers value, directly affecting its ranking.
This is arguably why most SEO discussions center on quality content. Engagement that quality content incites best, from dwell time to reactions and shares, is an invaluable metric. It affects search rankings, and it informs SEO strategies because it’s the most unambiguous indication that content offers value.
However, consider the above points on bounce rates, referral traffic, and dwell time; quality content alone doesn’t suffice. Even the most insightful, articulate, informative content won’t incite engagement if the website speed hampers its accessibility. Poorly optimized images, cluttered folds, and headers, and many other factors can increase loading times beyond what visitors accept. Thus, to ensure your content gets the engagement it deserves, you should absolutely keep in mind that your website speed can elevate it or sabotage it.
#5 Website speed denotes a better user experience
Finally, it’s equally crucial that website speed denotes a cleaner, better user experience. However, that doesn’t just boil down to the sum of the above; it’s a cornerstone of SEO itself.
Consider what slow speeds may denote, among other causes:
- Multiple HTTP requests
- A lack of HTTP compression
- 301 and 302 redirects
- A lack of cached page versions
- A poor content delivery network (CDN)
In contrast, faster website speeds denote cleaner off-page and technical SEO. Images and other on-page elements aside, website speed can ensure a better user experience in such ways as well. And, having discussed all of the above, it should be clear why the user experience should always take priority.
In conclusion, website speed affects search ranking in multiple ways. Google’s algorithm aside, it also does so in practical ways, by inciting engagement, reducing bounce rates, and ensuring mobile-friendliness. Website speeds help denote a better user experience across the board, which SEO rightly focuses on more and more.