October 27, 2008
In a world where more and more households are connected to the internet, bandwidth is becoming an issue and brownouts have been predicted to occur in the next few years. With the strain on the infrastructure of the internet this makes having an efficient, fast loading website all that much more important.
The bottom line for most site owners though, is not the efficiency of the internet as a whole, but rather the financial sustainability of their websites. While there are many ways to make a site perform better in terms of converting visitors, one of the simplest, and probably most important aspects is simply to reduce the load time of your website.
If your site suffers from poor performance you could be missing out not only on sales and average visitor time on site, but also search rankings. Below I will discuss some of the negative impacts a slow loading site may experience, as well as a few ways you can correct the issue. In some cases, correcting the problem will cost you only some time, although it has the potential to really pay off in the long run.
Negative Impacts of Long Load Times
If your site takes too long to load this can have a number of negative effects including loss of sales, loss or rankings, and increased pay per click cost. It can even increase your hosting costs depending on the cause.
Loss of Sales
Let’s pretend for a moment that search engines just didn’t exist and rankings didn’t matter. People are impatient – if your site takes too long to load, many potential customers will simply give up and go elsewhere.
Broadband connections are growing incredibly fast in the US; however, according to a study posted at FoxNews this past July, approximately 10% of Americans still have dial-up internet access. If your site loads slowly, you may be alienating 10% of your potential customers.
The last thing you want to do is frustrate your visitors. If you do this, you may drive them away, never to return. If you can provide a fast loading efficient website, you will increase the likelihood that your visitors will make a purchase, and return again in the future.
Increased Pay per Click Costs
Only a few short months ago a post by Heather Lane at the Inside AdWords blog announced that landing page load times will affect a keyword’s quality score. The reason for this is quite simple: a fast loading website improves the end user experience. As a result, ads directing to a slow loading page will be given a lower quality score. This in turn will cause your keyword bids to be higher, costing you significantly on a per click basis.
Loss of Organic Rankings
We know two things for a fact. Google factors in load times with AdWords, and Google focuses on an improved end user experience. As a result, I for one am convinced that a site’s load time does impact overall organic search rankings. While this is likely only a small piece of the very large algorithmic puzzle, it does play a part, and if you can speed up your site, you just may be able to move your rankings up a notch or two.
Speeding up your site is unlikely to move your site from page 8 all the way to page 1, but it may be enough to move up a few positions.
Increased Hosting Costs
Assuming your load times are due to file size issues and not other server constraints, your hosting costs may be more than they need to be. This factor will vary a great deal based on the hosting company and the package you have chosen.
Many hosts now offer packages where a significant amount of bandwidth usage is included, resulting in a single flat monthly or annual rate. (LunarPages for example, has a $4.95 monthly plan with unlimited bandwidth per month.) If your hosting provider does put a limit on usage and you are using beyond the allocated max, you could be paying a fair bit in overage charges. If you fall into this category, optimizing your files to reduce bandwidth usages could save you a considerable amount of cash.
Issues and Fixes
There are a number of issues that can cause a site to load slowly. Below I have noted a few items that are fairly common and can be relatively easily corrected.
Issue: Un-Optimized Images
This is probably one of the biggest culprits out there impacting load time today. I have seen countless websites where image optimization is simply not done, resulting in significantly increased page load times. One of the biggest problems is when images are scaled down to fit the application.
Quite often webmasters will take a large image, and scale it down using the height and width attributes rather than physically resizing the image. What this does is then require the browser to load the full high resolution image, when it really only needs a fraction.
Let’s take this real world example. A client recently had a photo on their home page; the photo was 600 x 403 pixels, weighed in at 124.68 KB, and visually they had scaled the image to fit 473 x 317 pixels.
By resizing the original image to the desired dimensions, and then reducing the quality of the jpg to 70%, the end result was an image that looked identical on his website but weighed in at only 23 KB – that’s 101.68 KB smaller than the original. Using a simple filesize download calculator I found online, 101.68 KB would take 14 seconds to download using a 56 Kb modem, or about 2 seconds on your run of the mill broadband connection.
For broadband users 2 seconds may not seem like much, but remember, this is only for a single image. When you add up all other images and on-site components, the time can significantly add up.
Issue: Un-Optimized files
Another way you can speed up your sites load time is to have clean HTML, CSS, and other included files. Remove extraneous code from your files, and use CSS wherever possible. Every piece of old html code adds up in size, even if it doesn’t impact the visual site itself. I have seen many cases where links have been removed but the code remains accidently, leaving something like:
This code, while as tiny as it is, does contribute to an increase in load time (and in this specific example, could also be seen as spam by search engines).
If your site makes use of CSS, consider compressing it to save on load times. You can do this by grouping identical styles to save space. For instance,
font-family:Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;
font-family:Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;
can be compressed by grouping these two styles, reducing the coding by half:
font-family:Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;
Again this may not seem like much, but when you add this up with all of the other little things, it can ultimately result in a significantly increased load time for the page as a whole.
Audio and video can also be compressed. If your site uses a fair bit of multimedia, see if you can compress these files a bit more than you have already. You may be able to save some load time here as well without impacting user experience.
Issue: Hosting Server
It is possible that your site is perfect in every way, but the culprit is simply your web host. It does not necessarily mean that your host is slow, but if you are paying for an account on an old archaic computer with limited system resources servicing 1000 websites, this could seriously impact your site’s load time. If you have worked to ensure that the site is well optimized for efficiency and the load times are still extreme, you may need to upgrade your hosting account to one more suited for your business needs.
If your site is a fairly basic, such as a static 8 page html site, then a slow server may have little to no impact, but if your site requires extensive database queries and the help of an intensive content management system, and serves up tens of thousands of visitors a day, then you may need to switch to a higher end dedicated server. If you have found that your server is the only problem in your slow load times, contact your host to see what they can do for you.
Issue: HTTP Requests
According to a post at the Yahoo Developer Blog, “80% of the end-user response time is spent on the front-end. Most of this time is tied up in downloading all the components in the page: images, style sheets, scripts, Flash, etc. Reducing the number of components in turn reduces the number of HTTP requests required to render the page. This is the key to faster pages.”
The article discusses combining files in order to reduce the number of HTTP requests, largely by the use of CSS Sprites. They also discuss using image maps to combine multiple images, however, from an SEO perspective, this is not something that I would recommend as my experience has shown image-mapped links are not always followed by search engine spiders.
They go on to explain a vast number of rather technical aspects to speeding up a page. If you are a technical person capable of implementing advanced techniques, the Yahoo Developer Network is definitely something you should check out.
Load Time Tools
Before you undergo any changes to your site to resolve the slow load times, I suggest first finding a tool and benchmarking your progress. Record how long your site takes to load, and then try again after you have made an effort to correct the problem.
There are a number of tools out there that can help you calculate your load times. One such tool is WebSiteOptimization.com. This site specializes in optimizing the performance of your site in order to decrease bandwidth and load times. They have created a very simple tool which will give you the load times for the individual components of your site, which can give you a good idea where to start.
If you take a bit of time to speed up the load time for your website by optimizing your existing content and cleaning up your code, you may just find yourself making more sales. As an added bonus you may also find improved search engine rankings, which will then in turn increase your sales further. Depending on your hosting provider, you may even have a reduced monthly hosting bill. Decreasing the load time of your site is really win-win for everyone.
As the internet becomes more and more bandwidth intensive with an ever increasing stream of users and higher use applications, doing whatever we can do reduce the strain on the system will make for a faster internet for everyone. If every webpage on the internet could be reduced be even just 100 kb, the web would be a much faster place.
Article by Scott Van Achte.
Scott Van Achte is the Senior SEO at StepForth Web Marketing Inc.; based in Victoria, BC, Canada and founded in 1997. You can read more of Scott’s articles and those of the veteran StepForth team at http://news.stepforth.com or contact us at http://www.stepforth.com/