Slow-loading websites: we’ve all been there. In truth, most of us are there every day – several times over.
With expectations rising all the time thanks to faster broadband and mobile speeds, it means greater inconvenience and annoyance for the end user. And for many website owners, that inconvenience and annoyance means poor customer service and, ultimately, lost revenue. It’s an issue for all e-commerce concerns, from Amazon on down – and all the more so now that Google have factored page speed into their all-important search algorithm.
So how to go about making your website’s performance sleek and slinky, rather than slow and slovenly? A good place to start is Google’s PageSpeed family of tools.
How does Google PageSpeed work?
Google PageSpeed, or Google PageSpeed Insights (PSI) to give it its full title, is a simple enough tool to use. Visit the page, simply enter the relevant URL and hit the ‘Analyze’ button. In a matter of seconds PSI will report on the page’s performance:
Performance is measured between 0 and 100 and a traffic-light colour notation indicates where the page in question ranks.
Delving deeper into the data, PSI offers two different sets of metrics: Lab Data and Field Data. The former is collected in a controlled environment and used to debug performance issues. Field Data, meanwhile, captures the real-world user experience, but with more limited metrics.
One important metric you will notice is ‘First Contentful Paint’ (FCP) which is a measure of the time taken before the user actually sees something as the page loads. Others include ‘First Meaningful Paint’, ‘Speed Index’, ‘First CPU Idle’, ‘Time to Interactive’ and ‘Max Potential First Input Delay’.
PSI can also present a distribution of these metrics in graphical form, split into fast (green), average (orange) and slow (red) for a particular page each time it was loaded over the previous 30 days.
As you can see, green is good! But what makes PSI better is how it offers suggestions on improving performance.
How do I increase my page speed?
Scroll down the PSI page and you will see how the audit is split into 3 sections:
- Opportunities (suggestions of how to improve performance);
- Diagnostics (how the page adheres to web dev. best practice);
- Passed audits (that the page has passed).
The audits that have passed are listed. An important one is the server response time (aka the ping). Google wants a speed of 600ms or less to earn a green tick, but this speed will be slower if you have shared hosting. A Virtual Private Server, therefore, means quicker pings.
Here’s a few other ways to speed things up:
- Optimise image sizes. Make them smaller, without sacrificing (too much) quality. Select the ‘Save For Web’ option. Think about lessening the number of images on a given page. Think about using ‘lazy loading’ which loads images as the user scrolls down a page (and which Chrome now supports).
- Your website/domain name might well be hosted/registered by different companies. If so – and if one company has a server that lags behind the other – then the loading process will be slow from the outset.
- Websites use tracking pixels: HTML snippets that are used to acquire data for online/email marketing and assorted analytics. Using Google Tag Manager can speed this process up.
- A website can, in fact, be hosted on many servers via a Content Delivery Network (CDN). Using such servers (if they’re high-performance) can help load, for example, WordPress themes.
- Consider Google Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), which was launched with the intention of boosting the performance of the mobile web. More users use mobile rather than desktop now (this is important, as you will see later).
- Cache pages using a plugin like W3 Total Cache
What’s a good page load time?
A recent survey stated that 47% of consumers expect a web page to load in two seconds or less, while 40% of consumers will wait no more than three seconds before heading elsewhere. Five seconds might start testing the patience of the best of us – the point being that five seconds can seem like five minutes in a world where dial-up is a much a relic nowadays as the Model T Ford. Any longer than that, and most of us will be looking over at the router to see if the lights are flashing like those on a Christmas tree.
Does PageSpeed affect Google ranking?
Yes – this is important. In March 2018, Google announced its ‘mobile first’ approach to website ranking, meaning that the speed and performance of your mobile site (as opposed to your desktop site) helps determines your overall ranking in search results. This is, of course, because mobile usage is becoming ever-more popular.
A degree of emphasis, therefore, should be placed on boosting the mobile score – added motivation coming from the fact that this score tends to be lower than the corresponding desktop one. This is because PSI emulates a 3G mobile network connection.
So how fast should a website load in 2019?
The simple answer to that might be: ‘As fast as you can possibly make it without making too many compromises on appearance and functionality’. Achieving the best results will require a disciplined approach, with constant checking and tweaking as both the site’s content and the technologies which support it develop over time.
But, as a rule of thumb, about four seconds is a good target. And remember the First Meaningful Paint metric: it will be much quicker than that. People’s expectations might be higher than ever, but if they can see that something is happening at least, then they’re less likely to head off elsewhere in a huff.
Optimising your website’s loading speed requires time and patience. It needs detective work and – ironically – it can be slow going. But there’s learning to be had and the upside is obvious. Get stuck in and your efforts will be rewarded!