Speed is among the most important variables to optimize for any website
It doesn’t matter how great your site looks or how much time you’ve spent on SEO improvements—it’s all for nothing if people leave before the page loads! Similarly, if visitors spend minutes waiting for images to render or experience significant lag clicking through the navigation, they won’t stay on-site for very long. Website speed is one of the core fundamentals of site-wide optimization.
The problem with website speed optimization is that it’s a balancing act. It’s easy to load plain HTML in milliseconds, but it doesn’t look very good. On the flip side, a feature-rich site with complex CSS, high-resolution images and cumbersome animation looks exceptional, but takes much longer to load. Site owners and optimizers need to find a happy medium between aesthetic and speed. Thankfully, this doesn’t mean compromising on how great a site looks—it means drilling down into the nuts and bolts of the infrastructure to quicken basic functions.
Below, we’ll take a comprehensive look at website speed and how to optimize it, as well as what variables to consider for blazing-fast site load times.
The role of website speed
Why is a fast load time so important for sites? Think about your own experience using the Internet. If you click a link and land on a page that takes more than a few seconds to load, what are the odds you keep waiting? Slim to none. You’re not alone, either! Most people have high expectations for how fast a website should load when they click a link:
- 47% of web users expect a web page to load in two seconds or less
- 40% of people abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load
- 73% of mobile Internet users encounter a website that loads too slow
- It’s estimated every one-second delay on an ecommerce site lowers conversion by 7%
Based on these numbers, your website has a few precious seconds to make a good first impression. In order to do that, it needs to load. You could argue that website speed is the single most important variable in site optimization for this reason. Without it, everything else is moot!
Beyond initial site load times, on-page speed is also important. It affects how visitors interact with your site—what they click, watch, share, or buy. Visitors expect efficiency from their web browsing experience and they don’t respond well to sites with long load times or links that hang. There’s a direct correlation between site speed and a variety of important digital metrics: abandoned ecommerce carts, visitor return rates, pageviews, etc. Simply put: people don’t waste time on a site that fights them every step of the way with slow content delivery.
Finally, there’s the role of page speed in SEO. High-speed sites rank better than their slower-performing counterparts, purely because of user interaction metrics. Google will rank a site higher if it gets good traction and engagement, and has low bounce rates. This applies across all devices, too. For the last five years, Google has transparently ranked websites higher when they’re proven to deliver consistent speed and load times across both desktop and mobile devices.
Website speed boils down to three important pillars: visibility, conversions and usability. Optimizing your site for quickness ensures people see and use it in meaningful ways, no matter what device they’re using.
What it means to have a "fast" website
The term ‘fast’ tends to be subjective. What’s fast for you might be slow for someone else, and vice-versa. This isn’t the case for website load speeds. You can actually quantify what ‘fast’ is, which is extremely helpful for understanding and optimizing a site.
In a technical sense, we measure site speed in fetch requests. Web browsers perform fetches to serve site content to front-end users. The more content on your site, the more fetches a browser needs to perform. But this alone doesn’t quantify site speed. Again, fetching raw HTML happens in the blink of an eye—fetching a high-res image might take longer.
To simplify and quantify website speed, Google invented PageSpeed Insights. This tool takes into account the number of fetches performed, along with retrieval speeds, content organization and other variables that impact page load times. PageSpeed Insights score websites from 0-100 for an easy-to-understand rubric:
- 0-49: Poor website load times and/or errors, improvements needed
- 50-89: Generally good load times, recommended improvements
- 90-100: Great load times, few to no improvements necessary
In addition to quantifying site speed in one easy-to-use number, Google provides this score for both desktop and mobile versions of a site. It’s the easiest way to figure out how fast a site loads across platforms.
The best part about Google PageSpeed Insights is the complete breakdown of factors indicating speed. Google reviews “Opportunities” to increase site speed and load performance, as well as “Diagnostics” that gauge individual contributors to load speed. Google also conducts audits, field data and origin summaries for sites, to provide real-world data about how site load time affects usership.
Google’s PageSpeed Insights aren’t the end-all, be-all of website speed optimization… but they’re pretty darn close. For people who want an even more detailed breakdown of their site’s performance (along with a handy letter grade), sites like Pingdom test load speeds for all site variables and break them down into benchmarks. There are also many free tools out there that provide basic scores without the in-depth recommendations.
Gauge your site’s speed before you start tinkering
It’s pretty easy to plug your site’s URL into Google Page Speed Insights and react to the number you’re given. It’s another thing to cross-reference your site’s rating on several different platforms, to see what its strengths and weaknesses are. Here are a few tools to consult before making any major changes to your site:
- Google PageSpeed Insights: We’ve discussed Google PageSpeed Insights above. Just know it’s the foremost tool in setting a benchmark for speed. If you score well here, it means you’re in good shape. If Google’s grade comes back bad, start looking for ways to improve it immediately.
- Pingdom: Pingdom breaks down every aspect of your page to show how fetch requests function and what content is quickest to appear on the page. Be warned, some of the recommendations might be on the technical side. Pingdom is good for those who have the basics of site speed mastered, who are looking for ways to squeeze every last millisecond out of load times.
- Gtmetrix: Gtmetrix checks a host of different page speed variables—even more than Google. Don’t fret if your score is a little lower through Gtmetrix! The site provides a thorough breakdown of fetch requests and content, alongside recommendations for speeding things up. It offers a granular peek at site performance, for those who are intent on setting new page load time records.
- Uptrends: Uptrends gives you the ability to run device-specific speed tests, to see how your site performs across different hardware and browsers. It’s a more refined tool that can really help you zero in on how your site’s content gets delivered at the user level. Also, the breakdown of fetch requests is a sight to behold—highly informative!
There are also platforms that include speed test resources as part of their paid suite of tools, like SEMrush. Some browser plugins also offer site speed testing and tools, but not in the same depth as the free services listed above. Don’t worry too much about which tools you use—they all work a little differently. What matters is testing your site against a battery of them, to get a broad understanding of how it performs against many metrics.
Optimizing website speed
Having a website speed score provides a good baseline for mapping out improvements. Once you understand what’s depressing your site’s speed, you can look for meaningful ways to correct it—or tweak what already works to make it faster. This is where things get technical, and why it’s a good idea to have an experienced web developer on your side. Most website speed improvements involve tinkering with the infrastructure of a site, more than the content on it.
Here’s a look at some of the chief variables affecting website load times and content delivery speeds, and 8 things you can do to fundamentally improve the structure and function of your site to make it faster:
Use a CDN
A Content Delivery Network (CDN) is one of the best ways to boost site speed. Instead of storing your images, videos and other content on a single server, they’re distributed to a network of servers around the world. This has two chief purposes. First, fetch requests aren’t sent to the same server, meaning there’s less of a load on the hardware, which can then deliver content quicker. Second, visitor geography doesn’t matter as much. With a CDN, a site will load just as fast for someone in Los Angeles as it will in London, since user requests get directed to the nearest content server, instead of a central one.
A CDN brings massive speed improvements to a website and 80% of business can benefit from the free basic plan from CloudFlare.
Improving hosting / VPS
Hosting plays a big role in how fast and accessible your site is for visitors. Choosing a reliable hosting provider is a good first step, but more important is choosing how to host your site. You’ve got three options: shared hosting, Virtual Private Services (VPS) or a dedicated server.
Shared hosting is what most small website owners generally opt for. It’s the cheapest option, but comes at the expense of speed. The server your site’s assets are stored on is also getting fetch requests from hundreds or thousands of other sites. Website load times vary depending on server activity.
Costlier options like a VPS or dedicated servers are beneficial to site load times. Website owners don’t have to worry about jockeying for server attention, which means faster content delivery. Here, a VPS is the pinnacle of quickness. Best of all, VPS solutions have come down in cost in recent years, allowing smaller sites to take advantage of them.
Media optimization (image, video, audio)
It’s easy to tell the difference between a low-resolution potato-quality image and a 4k, high resolution one. The higher the resolution, the lower the load time. But between extremes there’s a slew of great resolutions that come in at very reasonable file sizes. Find the balance to make your site load fast and look great at the same time!
Image compression ratios have come a long way in recent years, allowing site owners to deliver high-resolution images and near-lossless audio and video to visitors. Combine the right file size and compression with a dedicated hosting solution and it’s possible to serve up jaw-dropping media at lightning-quick speeds.
Consolidate scripts and CSS
Scripting and CSS are what make your website look unique and appealing. The more layers there are, the more your site has to load and the longer it takes. Speeding up the pace of your site doesn’t mean stripping away the layers that make it unique—it means cleaning them up.
For the uninitiated, caching is a simple process for speeding up load times by storing the last-accessed version of a webpage as a prerendered item. If your site doesn’t change based on each unique user, a cached version will load much quicker without compromising user experience. Caching works best for static content and pages without dynamic elements.
Caching is usually a built-in feature for VPS hosting solutions, and most Content Management Systems (CMS) have caching features either preinstalled or available through plugins.
Database optimization for CMS
Another speed-enhancing change website owners can make involving their CMS is database optimization. Database optimization is a more complex approach to increasing website page speeds, but it can be worth it if you have a lot of native content and a large number of plugins or page elements. If you have a WordPress site with hundreds of blog posts, hosted images and plugins, for example.
Database optimization is actually a lot of small tasks rolled into one big process. It might involve clearing out old caches, purging old or corrupt files, removing unnecessary meta data and much more. Basically, it’s the constant cleanup and maintenance of shadow processes and content to reduce the glut of your CMS, allowing it to serve content faster on the front end.
Minimize 404s and redirects
Why waste your server’s time with requests that no longer exist? Remedy 404 errors and 501 redirects to improve the speed and responsiveness of your site. But before you start tweaking link structure and URL directs, do a little investigation.
How much traffic ends up going to a 404 error? If it’s quite a lot, throwing a 501 is actually a good option, since it’ll path your traffic to a page on your site people actually want to visit. This reduces server load slightly. Get rid of redirects that no longer play a role or that have since become obsolete by new link structure. Internal link maintenance is a great way to not only speed up your website’s performance, but also to improve usability and pageview metrics.
Prefetching (DNS, Link, Render)
Consider implementing prefetching techniques for your website to improve asset load times. Most modern web browsers actually prefetch assets automatically, but you can also optimize your website for this. Essentially, it means delivering content before it’s needed, in anticipation of user behavior. For example, if you have a landing page on your website with a clickable link at the bottom, your site can preload the linked page to deliver it faster, assuming someone clicks that link. It’s common for shopping carts on ecommerce platforms.
There are actually three kinds of prefetching: DNS, link and render. DNS prefetching resolves domain names into IP addresses in advance. Link prefetching, explained above, preloads page data for links. Render prefetching retrieves pages or crucial elements in advance. While prefetching is incredibly helpful for increasing website speed, it only works if you’re fetching the right content. It requires a lot of research on user behavior to be effective.
Following any of these practices is a step toward faster website speeds and better site performance. Compare these options to the insights provided by Google PageSpeed Insights or another assessment tool to see what makes sense for your site. Most importantly, don’t fix what isn’t broken! Website speed is definitely worth pursuing, but not at the expense of site design, functionality or success, as we’ll see in the next section.
Balancing site design and speed
We’ve already talked about how a simple website will load faster than a complex one, and how high-quality content impacts page speed. But it’s worth talking about how to strike a balance. How can you increase your website’s speed, without compromising its integrity?
There’s no good answer here, other than to diligently pursue the strategies listed above. For example, you can keep your library of amazing blog posts and high-res videos if you’re willing to pay for a VPS and practice good CMS database optimization. Likewise, if you set up your ecommerce site with prefetching and optimized media, you’ll get your products in front of people faster.
Optimizing your site for speed really comes down to knowing its purpose. How do visitors see your site and what do they use it for? Are they there to read, watch videos, listen to music, buy products or search for information? Knowing where they’ll land, how they’ll act and what you want them to accomplish play a big role in optimizing site speed to reach these objectives. Connect purpose with practice and you’ll have no trouble squeezing out simple improvements that have a positive impact on site speed.
Speed matters. Here's how to unlock it.
Hopefully this guide has been helpful in explaining why website speed is important and what factors influence it. Now, there’s only one thing left to do: evaluate your own site and make improvements. We recommend following this simple three-step guide:
Look at the purpose and structure of your website to determine users’ expectations of how it should serve their needs. Understand how people get to your site and where they go once they’re on it.
Run your website through Google PageSpeed Insights or another evaluation tool to understand its speed-related strengths and shortcomings. Use this as your foundation for making improvements.
Consider which of the improvements and tweaks in this guide match up to the speed-based inefficiencies of your site. Make those improvements! Start with the smallest incremental changes before moving into the more time- and cost-intensive ones.
Finally, it goes without saying that working with a professional to increase site speed is a smart investment. If a web developer or site engineer can shave even a few seconds off your load times and improve your site’s performance, it’s worth the cost. After all, think about how much your traffic is worth and how much you might be missing if the site doesn’t load quick enough.