Live From SMX Advanced: Breaking The Speed Limit: Faster Sites Win!

By Chad Rhodes | Jun 5, 2012
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The final session of day 1 at SMX Advanced is about to begin. I am sitting in on Breaking The Speed Limit: Faster Sites Win! where speakers will be covering the benefits of having a fast site, as well as some tips to help speed up your site and the sites you work on.

Jonathon Colman, Internet Marketing Manager, REI (@jcolman)

Site speed is your “silver bullet” for search marketing. It is important for both organic and paid, and affects user experience. Conversion rates, customer satisfcation, bounce rate, organic traffic levels, overall competitiveness, and site costs, are all effected by site speed. Site performance isn’t just about SEO. It is about the user experience.

Make the case for web performance optimization.

  • Google says speed is an organic search ranking factor for the top 1% of competitive queries
  • Customers usually expect a site to load within 2 seconds
  • 40% of customers will abandon a site if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load
  • a 1 second addition to load time = 7% increase in bounce rate
  • User satisfaction also drops 16% for every 1 second of load time
  • A faster website can reduce infrastructure and release costs by 50% or more

Fast websites make people feel good, and let users feel in control. That feeling translates to happiness.

5 Key Steps For Optimizing Web peformance
  1. Set a far-future expires header. If you have static content that won’t change a lot, this will allow your users to cache these items and can increase your performance for returning visitors.
  2. Do not duplicate your JavaScript, and remove unused CSS. These items can create a lot of repeat HTTP requests and can add a lot of time to how long it takes your site to load. Do an audit and get rid of all this unneeded code.
  3. Link your CSS and avoid @import. This can help avoid delays by allowing parallel downloading.
  4. Avoid redirects. Redirects can increase the wait time a user experiences while your site is loading. This issue is only multiplied by redirect chains. It isn’t that 301’s should not be used, it is that they should be avoided if they are not entirely necessary.
  5. CSS sprites can be used to reduce HTTP requests. What this means is that a lot of small images on a site can be combined to be treated as one large file. The reason is that each small file would each require their own series of HTTP requests, which overall increase load time compared to one large file.
Look at studies and resources from Google and Yahoo. They offer approachable best practices for optimization. Free tools can help get you started. Take a look at Fireburg, pingdom, webpagetest and many others to help assess your own site. Some of these tools can even help you look at the statistics of your competitors’ site performance as well.

REI’s Results

  • 50% decrease in the time it took Google to crawl a single page on the site. This correlated with a 100% increase in the number of pages crawled
  • Customers saved a combined total of 22 years of load time

Tim Mayer, Vice President, Marketing, (@timmayer)

One of the biggest challenges with increasing site speed is deciding what to remove from a page. There will likely be somebody who defends each part of the site, regardless of how it affects performance or revenue.

What Tools Do I Need?

  • Optimizely is for A/B testing of existing pages. There are also other tools that are useful for testing against new pages
  • Webpagetest
  • Y!Slow and Google PageSpeed. You have to be careful with these tools because a slow page can still score well if it is optimized
  • Eye and click tracking tools can be helpful to decide how far people are scrolling down the page, what is getting the most visual attention, and what is being clicked the most

Speed A/B Testing Tips

  • Be aggressive with the test. This will help you gauge the level of potential lift. This helps set a goal at the beginning and will also allow help decide which items needed to be added back to a page quickly
  • Assign the links on your page a real or fake value. This can help you decide what is worth keeping and what can go to improve speed

It can also be difficult to decide how fast your site actually needs to be. Do you aim for the magical 2 second mark, or just try and match your competitors? Should you just be satisfied if a speed tool gives you a good score? An extreme test can help decide if increased speed is worth the loss of features on your site and can help you set your speed goal.

User perceived performance also needs to be considered. Look at the “time to first byte”, which is how long until your site responds. Even if your entire site doesn’t load instantly, if it starts loading quickly a user may perceive it as speedy. Users who perceive that site as fast, even if it really isn’t, will bounce at a lower rate.

What Can You Do?

  • Make fewer HTTP requests
  • Use a content delivery network
  • Gzip components
  • Put stylesheets at the top of pages
  • Put scripts at the bottom of pages
  • Reduce the number of DNS lookups
  • Avoid redirects

Case Study:

The goal was to keep the visual as close as possible while still increasing site speed. Using the tactics described above, visual load time decreased from 1.2 seconds to 0.7 seconds. Full load time went from 5.5 seconds to 2.6 seconds. The number of calls was reduced from 55 to 27. The heat map stayed virtually unchanged, while click-through-rates increased on many of the on-page links. This suggests that the changes had no negative affect on user experience.

Jonathan Hochman, Founder and President, Hochman Consultants (@Jehochman)

Good service means responding quickly. Jonathan used the example of if somebody doesn’t bring a glass of water quickly at a restaraunt, he gets up and leaves. This same idea can be applied to websites.

  • Faster responses generate more revenue
  • A 1% decrease in sales occurs for ever .1 seconds in load speed

Pingdom is a free tool that offers a load speed analysis. This tool givfes and overall performance grade, which Johnathan ignores for the most part, but the other items are more valuable for analysis. The requests section shows the number of HTTP requests that go back and forth between servers while the page loads.

Speed Benchmarks

  • 1.5 seconds is acceptable
  • loads in 300-500 MS

Using a content delivery network can decrease load time significantly by caching parts of your website on various servers around the world.

Hosting is also and important factor. The difference between using a quality server vs a lower quality one can also make an extreme difference. Talk to your provider and make sure you are getting the performance you are paying for.

HTML code can have a huge affect on load time. It isn’t the number of lines of code, it is the number of requests that seems to correlate the most with load time.

Content Management Systems can help you cache and store script. This cuts response times, which can be valuable for increasing perceived speed as discussed before. Some of these tools help compress and merge files to provide these better results.

Web and video speed can impact load speed as well. Asynchronous video and AJAX impact site speed very little. It is the larger streaming videos that slow things down.

It is worth noting that speed tactics are cumulative. Working with all of these simple tips can add up and improve your site speed greatly.

Summary of Best Practices

  • Good hosting
  • Content delivery network
  • Simplify design
  • Cache plugin for CMS
  • Appropriate use of asynchronous content

However, the speed of light is the biggest factor in page load time. This speed is 186,282 miles per second. That means information can never move faster than this speed, regardless of technology increases.

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