Published in: Web performance optimization

The benefits of reducing your website's load time

The speed that a website loads as well as the impact it has is often completely underestimated; website owners can spend a huge amount of time and money getting their site looking perfect, with clear call-to-actions, intuitive navigation and informative design, yet they may not realize how important load speed really is.

Website load time vs Conversion
Why is it worth having a fast-loading website?

Google's search rankings & Page Speed

For starters, since April 2010 there has been a signal in Google search ranking algorithms directly related to page load speed .

The video below expands a bit on how Google collects this data; of particular note here is how the page speed doesn't necessarily relate only to how fast your server can deliver the data:

So, not only does Google consider the speed that the website's server makes data available, it also takes into account the amount of time spent loading from the user's point of view; if they have a slow connection and your website is fairly hefty in terms of size, then there's going to be a delay in the load time and that could potentially cause minor harm to your SEO efforts. This might seem worrisome already, but it's really only scratching the surface of the issues that lethargic load times can cause. Chief among these is that if users aren't getting access to what they want quickly, then they're simply not going to engage with your site, with many giving up and moving on. This will have dire consequences on your bounce rates and overall time that users spend on pages on your website; if there's no content to see, why stick around?

Stepping away from human users for a minute, another key issue is that if pages are not loading in an acceptable timeframe then there's a risk that site indexing will run into problems; if search engine robots try to connect to a particular webpage but don't receive the data they need in a timely fashion, then it will simply ignore the content, which can have dire consequences. Usually, you might only worry about ranking in searches, but if some pages are not being indexed by search engines then all the great content and keywords contained therein will not be taken in account when generating search results, which can severely limit through-traffic to a website.

In a further twist, it's possible that another of the factors Google takes into account when setting rankings in searches is the user engagement index; that is, if a site is getting an abnormal amount of people jumping ship shortly after starting loading the content then Google will assume that the website is not legitimate or is misrepresenting itself in some way, and will place it further down the rankings as a result.

The real-world impact of slow website load times

However, though these technical risks are important, they pale in comparison to the fact that a fast website helps create an excellent & comfortable user experience, which will directly influence conversions. Imagine for a moment that you're hungry and decide to pick up a hotdog, but when you reach the stand you find that there's a huge queue. Even if the hotdog you can get at this stand is better than their competitors there's still a good chance that you'll prioritize actually getting something to eat in a timely manner over a slight, or even major improvement in quality.

This same principle can apply to websites too; we can talk about SEO all day, but this often doesn't take into account the emotional, impulsive nature of the majority of people. A user might well be interested in reading a few articles or purchasing a product from your site, but if it's taking several seconds to load each page completely the user is quite likely to simply give up and head elsewhere. It may mean that they have to accept a drop in the quality, but day-to-day life is often about finding the right balance between quality and time, accepting poorer results when they can be delivered quickly.

Every second counts where conversions are concerned

It may be hard to believe, but I did actually mean "seconds" in that last paragraph; when we're talking about time abstractly a few seconds seems like a blink of an eye, but in the case of page-loading times a few seconds can be an eternity. In fact, there have been several studies that highlight the severe impact that a website's load time can have on sales conversions, directly affecting profit margins.

For example, BrandPerfect reports that, after surveying 2500 online shoppers from the UK and USA, that two-thirds of respondents (67%) from the UK and more than half (51%) from the USA stated that a slow website is the main reason for abandoning a purchase that they were going to make. Similarly, Mozilla found that reducing their loading time by 2.2 seconds they could increase conversions by over 15% , leading to an additional 10 million downloads over one year.

Further expanding on the real-world impact of site speed, Amazon reported that for every 100ms extra delay (quite literally a fraction of a second) lead to a 1% decline in sales; a sobering thought. Google also discovered that delays affect more than just sales; an extra delay of just half a second more in their search generation caused a 20% drop in traffic. Just consider that for a moment; a mere .5 of a second extra dropped their traffic by one-fifth. At the Velocity 2013 conference this theory was further supported by results gathered during a period of updating a series of sites based on Intuit, which supports many older websites that come from the pre-Web Standards era. Some clear A/B tests were conducted to see how conversions and SEO were affected by load speed.

What they discovered was quite significant; older, slower sites with load times hitting the fifteen-second mark and beyond were reduced down to a faster seven-second load, and for each second saved from the load time they saw an increase in conversions to the tune of 3% (so a total 24% increase once the load time hit seven seconds). When the time was further improved from seven seconds to five seconds, they again saw conversions increase by 2% per second saved. Finally, when moving from five seconds to two seconds, a further 1% increase in conversions was observed for every saved second; it's clear that making improvements to load times a priority has clear, measurable benefits for businesses.

Hunting for solutions - how to speed up your website load times?

As you can see, slow load speeds are a problem for any website, not just ecommerce sites, though for online stores load time is a much more influential; in fact, it's matter of life and death. There's a lot to be gained from improving load speed, but the question remains; how do we go about reducing our load times?

In future articles I will present concise information to help us overcome these obstacles, from how to analyze our site, what tools should be used and, most importantly, the solutions that can be applied.

As a brief introduction, based on prior experience I can say that the main factors that impact load time are:

  • Lack of browser cache and Gzip compression.
  • Slow Hosting (this includes server configuration; most of us use Apache, but why does it load so many redundant modules? Why not use the faster LifeSpeed or NGix?
  • Excessive number of scripts & fonts; we've encountered websites that loaded 6-7 different fonts along with dozens of scripts, some of which were loaded multiple times.
  • Repeated scripts or CSS files - very often a single common script will be re-run several times by different extensions.
  • Images - one of the elements with the highest volume; we've seen many different horror stories, such as an image that should have been just 300px by 300px that was being loaded at its original 2560px by 1600px resolution, so instead of weighing 15KB it weighed 800KB. An an example, we once had a post on GavickPro's blog that, after the images were optimized, was slimmed down by 65MB (Yes, I really meant to type MB then!).
  • Too many plugins/extensions in the CMS - many plugins for popular CMSs don't just send requests to the database; they often also send them to external sources, which can cause significant delays in loading the page.

There are many more factors that affect load time, but this list should give you something to start on. For more details, keep an eye out for the follow-up posts to this one, which will go more in-depth about the factors that limit load speed and how we can go about optimizing and speeding up our website.