Is Your Site Fast Enough to Be Noticed?

Google, others factor site speed into search rankings

By Margaret Kuchler, mkuchler@akamai.com

Have you ever searched for a website to buy an item, only to have a frustrating experience with the site due to slow performance? You’re not alone. And now, Google is on your side. Just over a year ago, Google announced that it would be taking site performance into account when ranking search results. This was -- and is -- great news for online searchers and shoppers, because it increases the likelihood that top-ranked sites returned in search results will also offer a relatively fast, efficient shopping experience.

Consumers feel the pain of slow performance
Google’s assessment of the situation makes a lot of sense. Ultimately, site speed impacts virtually every aspect of the online experience, especially as content and applications become more dynamic and interactive. Consumers feel the pain of slow page loads throughout their browsing and shopping experience, from searching for products to consuming rich media to checking out. Clearly, consumers should benefit from Google’s new approach to search ranking.

Site speed grows as competitive advantage
For retailers, this move by Google created a real incentive to address site performance issues -- and a significant penalty for allowing poor site performance to continue. Almost overnight, site speed became a competitive advantage and true differentiator that could help grow site traffic and bring in more customers. To achieve the speed gains necessary to move up the search rankings, many companies chose an outsourcing model that would enhance speed and availability with a single relationship.

Real-world improvements in search rankings …
Smartfurniture.com, a leading online furniture store, is one such retailer. Recently, Smartfurniture.com adopted an outsourced model for site enhancement that increased site speed while improving the company’s search engine rankings for its top ten competitive keywords and best selling products. Seven of the top ten keywords increased an average of two positions. One term went from lower than 50th in rankings to third and one term claimed the number-one position.

… And sales!

Perhaps even more telling is the impact this evolution has had on Smartfurniture.com’s sales. According to T.J. Gentle, Smartfurniture.com’s president and CEO: “After years of focusing on content and SEO fundamentals, we discovered we could make a quantum leap in search engine rankings simply by increasing site performance. Across the board, we’ve seen sales increases because of our improved ranking, with 20% more organic traffic being driven to our site and 14% more page views.”

It’s clear: Directing consumers toward high-performance sites leads to stronger, more satisfying relationship with online retailers. Speed is a very real measure of site utility for the person conducting the search. No matter how relevant the site is to the search, if it doesn’t perform well, it won’t be as useful to the user. The click-through numbers support this: More than 42% of users who search on Google click on the first (top) link provided in the organic search results. The number drops to 11% for the second link, and 8% for the third link.

Five steps to a faster site
When thinking about the above areas for optimization, here are five questions to consider as you determine which techniques to add to your arsenal for improving page speed:

1. Will the page be the same for all users?
Is this a marketing or landing page that will be the same for all users? This makes the page a good candidate for full page caching even if you plan to have the page update every 15-20 minutes. Perhaps the page will be the same for “anonymous users” with nothing in their cart (versus logged-in users) or for all international users versus those coming from the United States? This makes the page a good candidate for dynamic page caching which can tell the difference between various types of users and serve several different cached pages as appropriate, or not, in cases where a truly unique page needs to be served from your site origin. Even if the first hit from end users “needs” to go back to your origin to set cookies -- some cookies can actually be set at the edge of the cloud.

2. How often is the content on these pages updated?
What is the publishing cycle? Once or twice a daily? What is the business commitment to end-users? Is content more than an hour old? These are good ways to ask yourself to determine, and take advantage of, the maximum Caching TTL (Time To Live).

3. What objects within these pages have high volume or request rates?
Given today’s rich interactive, ajax heavy pages, many CSS and JS files are as large, if not larger than, the images and are often shared across different elements of the site. Those objects should be tweaked for the best TTL and cache hit ratio -- even if the rules for those objects need to be specified for pages or directories.

4. Do these pages redirect to a deeper link or to alternate content based on logic such geographic location of the end user?
Those redirects might best be handled from the edge of the cloud to increase performance and decrease load on your origin.

5. Does your company maintain multiple host names for different countries?

They should all be “c-named” to unique CDN host names in order to avoid being tagged as suspicious by Search Engines

It’s a fact: Increased speed costs less than poor performance
Perhaps the biggest “Aha!” moment for online retailers has been the realization that increased speed costs less than poor performance. The cost of working with 3rd party companies to enhance their site performance is more than offset by the improvement in both search rankings and overall sales. Furthermore, with search sites like Google incorporating site speed into search ranking calculations, sites that don’t perform to customers’ expectations will start to slide into the background, while high-speed sites that offer a better customer experience become more successful and profitable.

Margaret Kuchler, is senior industry marketing manager, Akamai Technologies, which provides cloud-based services for optimizing Web and mobile content and applications, online HD video, and secure e-commerce.  She can be reached at mkuchler@akamai.com.

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