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Does Page Speed Really Matter for S.E.O.?

In the last video I began answering questions about Search Engine Optimization, describing  some best practices and acknowledging some true limitations that clients need to know—even if it’s not what they want to hear. 

One additional question that often gets asked around the topic of S.E.O. is website speed. I didn’t address this question last time so let’s dive into it now.

One reason I didn’t address speed last time is because I believe that page speed’s impact on S.E.O. is overblown. Don’t get me wrong, it is a factor, if a page takes forever to download it will negatively impact rankings—but more importantly it would discourage site users. 

But assuming a page’s speed is reasonable—that a site visitor wouldn’t notice any significant delays—the idea that shaving a few milliseconds off of a speed test would significantly improve search rankings is unjustified. 

Let me share why I believe this to be the case. First off, nobody knows exactly how Google’s search algorithm works. We know that speed is a factor, just like we know that meta titles, descriptions, and links are also factors, as I talked about last week. But how much of a factor, and exactly how much weight they have is deliberately concealed by Google. So when marketers claim that improving speed is key to increased rankings—they have no more insight into speed’s impact than anyone else. 

From the very beginning, Google has kept its algorithm top secret. That’s because there are many bad actors—sometimes called black hat S.E.O. firms—that would happily exploit any known factor to get hold of valuable search ranking real estate. In many ways Google’s changes to their algorithm are as much about improving it, as they are plugging holes that black hats exploit when they find a technique that gets them results. 

This is why I believe that page speed, while a factor, is not a primary factor. If it were black hat S.E.O. agents would just produce extremely lightweight pages and easily gain position. And Google would never invite such a simple exploit.

Google has, and always will have one goal in managing their algorithm—generating the most relevant results based on what they can infer from the content and context of a search query. That’s it. If they don’t successfully match search intent with relevant results, they will not be in business. Google has been exceptional at achieving this—and they will continue to adjust and improve their algorithm to match search intent with the most relevant results. Always and forever.

So let’s say your page is among the most relevant content to answer a particular searcher’s query. Do you think Google would put a less relevant result above yours, just because that page downloaded a little faster? No, the name of the S.E.O. game is relevancy. White hat S.E.O. efforts are all about helping Google understand better exactly what your content is, so when it is relevant, it will position properly. And shaving a few microseconds off of your page’s download speed does not make its substance any more or less relevant to a searcher’s intent.

That said, page speed is still important—nobody wants to have a slow website. But its importance is not primarily for search engines, but for users. And fortunately, there are some pretty simple ways to make your pages speedy.

Without question, the biggest page speed factor is the images it contains. If you have lots of images on a page, or large images, your page will require more time to display. Fortunately, at least in our WordPress framework, our clients can select the best thumbnail size for each image based on its presentation size. So, if a page has a grid of small thumbnails in a blog post list, those images can be set to use a small version of each image. But when a detail page displays a full width version of that same image, it can select the larger version for optimal clarity. Just as giving pages good meta titles and descriptions is an easy and simple way to optimize for S.E.O., picking optimal thumbnail sizes for images is the easiest and simplest way to optimize page speed.

Lastly, there are some excellent caching plugins available for WordPress, that can even make pages with loads of images download quickly. Following these basic practices and using simple tools can ensure that your pages are plenty fast for users, and more than sufficient to avoid any potential penalties in search results.

Don’t get blinded by marketers using tech jargon and scare tactics about page speed. There are lots of things you could potentially do in order to shave off a few milliseconds from download times. But these efforts represent the last few percent of potential optimization. And squeezing those milliseconds comes with exponential expense—and correspondingly diminishing returns as you strive to go from 95% to 100% optimized.  

Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend your time and money making more relevant content, than trying to make your pages download slightly faster? 

There is one other simple way to improve page speed and that’s to invest a little bit more on your server—where you host your website can have a significant impact on download speed, and so next time I’ll answer questions about website hosting options.

Until then… 

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