A Google ranking factor you may not have heard about

Quick quiz: how does Google decide how to rank web pages in search results? Write down as many things as you can think of. You have one minute. Go!

(One minute passes.)

How did you go? If you know a bit about SEO, you probably came up with some of the following answers:

  • Google likes pages with content that’s (a) useful and (b) relevant to the searcher’s query.
  • Google likes pages that are linked to by lots of other relevant pages – especially pages that are themselves linked to by lots of other relevant pages (and so on in an Escheresque loop).
  • Google likes websites that have been around for a while.
  • Google likes websites that are updated frequently.
  • Google likes websites that are easy for its web-crawling robots to read (that is, sites that use standard HTML rather than Flash).
  • Google really, really hates websites that blatantly use dirty tricks to try to get higher Google rankings.

All these things are certainly factors in Google’s ranking algorithm, and you should take them all into account when you’re developing your website. But there’s another ranking criterion that Google has recently started to use, one you may not be aware of:

  • Google likes pages that load quickly.

Yep, Google has confirmed that page load speed is now a factor in its ranking algorithm. This means that, all else being equal, a page that takes half a second to load will rank higher in Google than one that take two seconds.

There are many good reasons to have a fast-loading website

Of course, Google isn’t the only reason why you need a website that loads quickly – it’s not only Google but actual users that are turned off by slow-loading sites. Usability expert Gerry McGovern writes:

Practically every single piece of evidence I have gathered on customer behavior on the Web since 1994 can be summarized as follows: The customer is highly, highly impatient.

So regardless of what Google does, you should have a site that loads as quickly as possible. But this change by Google does give you one more reason to care about how quickly your site loads, and it’s a handy piece of leverage to use if your developer is trying to sell you on a site that’s so loaded with bells and whistles that it takes half a minute to load.

What can I do?

So what can you, as the website owner, do to make your site load more quickly?

  • Make sure your site is HTML, not Flash.
  • If you’re adding images yourself, make sure they’re scaled down for the web. Huge images are one of the main reasons web pages take time to load. Use a photo editing tool like Windows Photo Gallery or iPhoto (Mac) to reduce file sizes to under 100Kb at the absolute most.
  • Keep the number of widgets to a minimum. Because every widget has to be loaded from an external website, too many of them make for a slow-loading page. (They’re also ugly and annoying.)

How quickly your website loads also depends on where and how it’s hosted. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for website owners to make informed decisions about hosting – it’s a very technical field and there’s no easy way of comparing different providers. Different organisations have different hosting needs, depending on the size and functionality of their websites and how many visitors they have.

So control what you can control, and try to find a web developer you trust enough to give you good advice about hosting.

Above all, try to visit your website as often as possible, from as many different locations, networks and browsers as possible. If it feels like it’s taking too long to load, it probably is!

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