Google, Speed, and Your Local Pizza Place

Editor’s Note: The following guest post is by Ed Robinson.  He is the CEO of Aptimize, a company that produces software to accelerate websites.

A week ago, Google announced a change to how its search rankings are calculated. This change will affect every business with a web presence. At the highest level, the change means that a website’s Google ranking will now be influenced by its speed. Faster websites now feature higher in search results, and slower websites drop down in the search results.

While Google and others are downplaying the impact this will have on most search results, the implications of the changes are much bigger for many businesses.  You might recall that load times are very important to Google itself, and they are just as important to every website.

Google search results typically generate more new leads than any other source of traffic on the web. If you’re the web equivalent of an average “mom and pop shop” or really are just a local business on Main Street, Google search is the foot traffic that keeps you in business. And changing the ranking calculations is suddenly moving that store to a much less desirable part of town.

For now, Google is targeting only the slowest sites saying that “only 1% of search queries will be affected.” Looking into the near future, however, speed is guaranteed to have an increasingly important impact on the search ranking calculations. And when presented with the choice, most businesses would not want to risk their livelihoods by assuming they’re not in that 1%.

Either way, website performance has become the newest cost of doing businesses for the modern organization, large or small. Building a cutesy site is no longer enough for the average business.  As Google increases the impact of speed on their calculations, businesses will only have more to lose, and it’s up to them to right the ship. Perhaps they don’t want to deal with yet another technical issue, or maybe they will just write this off as a minor change. Either way, they’re throwing money away if they don’t do something about their site’s performance.

If a tree falls in the woods…

The truth is that your local tailor doesn’t have a clue that Google made these changes. And the barbershop owner has never heard the term “load time.” In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the majority of small and mid-sized businesses haven’t heard a single word about this news, and wouldn’t even stop to think about it if they did.

Those everyday businesses will, at some point or another, suffer the consequence of lost revenue.

For far too long businesses have been able to treat their web presence as a checklist item that merely needs to be crossed off, regardless of how sloppy the results are. This news is a reminder that they not only need to have a web presence, but they need to have a really, really good one. That means they need to have good design, content, interactivity, SEO and fast load times for all of it.

Robert Scoble has lamented the quality of local business’ sites frequently, and also makes good points about big sites that don’t live up to the caliber of the brands they belong to.  If Google traffic converts to just $2,000 in revenue per month, that could make or break a small business with slim margins. The stakes only get higher as you move up to the enterprise level, and they are further compounded in a bad economy.

Shopzilla offers, quite possibly, the most compelling evidence of the direct correlation between page load time and revenue. I can’t think of a business that would turn down a 7-12% increase in revenue (while reducing costs) in this economy. But people need to think about their websites in terms of business results if they’re ever going to get it.

Now, What are You Gonna Do?

The good news is that there are plenty of solutions readily available for any business – from the smallest one-man shop, to the biggest enterprise sites and news blogs in the world. The only question is whether or not you’re willing to treat speed as an important factor in your success.

Here is a real quick way to find out if you’re likely to be affected: Test your site’s speed using WebPageTest, a popular and free online service that uses a browser in a controlled location to surf to your website and measure the load times for first-time and repeat visitors.

According to some research that my team at Aptimize recently conducted, the average website load time across the Fortune 500 companies is a little over 7 seconds. If your pages load under 7 seconds then you’re better than average, and there are good odds that beating this average is good enough for Google.

But if your load times are more than 7 seconds, you’re slower than the average, and may want to speed up the website.

If you have a load time problem, you have a couple of options to solve the problem. Typically this means either optimizing the backend (servers + infrastructure) or optimizing the front-end (HTML + page resources). Here are the three primary areas you should check to determine what’s slowing down your site’s performance:

  1. Networking —Is your site on fast broadband connection and are all the networking pieces working correctly? These days this stuff is part of the standard infrastructure and the only thing you should really be looking for are problems. Pay especially close attention to DNS resolutions. They are mis-configured with alarming frequency and end up adding precious seconds to the load times. And if you’re hosting the site with a dial-up connection in Omaha, it should be fairly obvious what you need to do.
  2. ServersAre the servers able to cope with the site load? The easiest thing here is to check the CPU and other measurements on the server. See if they’re redlining or close to redlining on a consistent basis. Typically server processing takes up 10%-15% of load times, so unless there are known problems, don’t spend a lot of time here, there’s just not a lot to gain. In fact, it’s not that common that we see issues with the servers themselves. They’re incredibly inexpensive these days, and they usually pack more than enough power.
  3. Client—Are the HTML, images, scripts, and videos optimized to load fast for clients? This is typically the low hanging fruit—the place you can make the most gains, since most webpages are bloated with too many un-optimized resources that can be streamlined. Google harps on these issues constantly, and there is no shortage of resources to help you diagnose issues in this area. Google also provides links to many of these resources here.

The key thing to remember is that if you’re site is sloppy, or bogged down by lots of Flash, video and images, simply throwing more server power at it usually doesn’t solve the problem. Ultimately you need to take a more holistic approach to achieve meaningful reductions in load time.

If you take the time to go through the above recommendations, assess your site’s performance, and focus on the areas where you can make the most gains, you should also be able to take advantage of the new speed criteria in Google’s search rank calculations.

Not to mention – you might see a nice bump in revenue too.

Phot credit/Flickr/Yarden Sachs