Back in 2010, Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s Webspam team, announced that Google would begin using site speed as a factor in determining the rankings of sites. Later, he also announced that slow sites would receive a penalty in the search rankings. Since then, search engines have continued to use site speed as an indicator of the quality of the website. Theoretically, a faster website provides a better experience for the user, which makes the site more valuable to search engines.
Page Load Time
The page load time of a website may be measures in document complete time or fully rendered time. Document complete time refers to the amount of time required before the visitor can start clicking on website links. Fully rendered time is the amount of time it takes before the entire website is load. Many websites have components that delay loading components to make it more responsive to visitors. This is a technique that many operating systems use to improve boot time. Many website owners have run tests to see if document load time or fully rendered time had an effect on search engine rankings. It appears that page load time has no effect on search engine rankings, as there was no difference in ranking between pages with slow document load times or fully rendered times.
The Size of the Page
One interesting factor that would normally indicate a slower page load time is the actual size of the page. Pages with lots of content and lots of data tend to rank higher than pages with less data. There is no conclusive reason why this might be the case, but it’s possible that Google and other search engines are ranking pages with lots of content as more desirable for users. Pages with images, complex navigation structures and applications that run in the background seem to fare better than small sites with just text-based information. There are exceptions, but for the most part, a lower ranking site correlates with less total bytes per page.
However, a website with lots of images is not the way to go if you want to increase your search engine ranking. There doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the number of images on a site and how well a site ranks. It seems to simply be a matter of the size of the page. However, larger websites also contain more information, so the quality of the content should also be considered and could be a factor in larger sites getting better search engine rankings.
The time to first byte (TTFB) ranking of a site does have an effect on the search engine ranking. This may be what Google is referring to when it talks about site speed. The length of time between entering in a URL and getting to the page seems to have a dramatic effect on the search engining ranking of a site. When attempting to optimize your own website, your rankings might have less to do with how much data is on the page and more to do with the efficiency of your web host. Choosing a high-quality host that provides fast response times is critical to having a good search engine ranking.
Drawing Conclusions on Site Speed
Ultimately, it appears that the most influential factor on a website’s ranking is the TTFB number. A server that responds quickly is more likely to show up higher in the rankings. This means that it’s the server, speed and infrastructure that matters most when designing your website. The good news is that if you have a data-intensive website, it’s not going to impact your search results, even if the page takes 20 seconds to load completely. The bad news is that it may require you to spend more money up front to use a web hosting company that provides exceptional service, or use a dedicated server to get the best results.