Speed’s Still the Thing

Google is set to deepen its commitment to speed in 2018 by making fast page loads a new factor in search rankings for mobile sites. Starting in July, the Speed Update will see mobile sites that deliver “the slowest experience” to users sink lower in search results, Google has announced, because “when pages load slowly, user attention wanders, and users perceive the task as broken.” Faster sites, on the other hand, enjoy “longer average sessions, lower bounce rates, and higher ad viewability.” For desktop sites, page speed has been a consideration in search rankings since 2010, when Google declared that “faster sites create happy users.”

While Google acknowledges that metrics for measuring page load performance can be a moving target, it currently recommends interactive first loads within five seconds, and subsequent page loads within two seconds. Users abandon more than 50 percent of visits that take more than 3 seconds to load, according to Google research—and as page load time rises from 1 second to 3 seconds, the probability of bounce rises by 32 percent. When load time hits 6 seconds, that probability rises by an astounding 106 percent.

Mobile users expect to “quickly pay bills on finance sites, get rapid results when they’re browsing vacation reviews, and view an article immediately when they click through,” Google says, concluding that “mobile page speed equals revenue.”

The drive for high-performing web pages inspired Google’s Accelerated Web Pages (AMP) initiative, launched in 2015. The open-source project has collaborated with publishers, web developers, distribution platforms, and technology companies—with Marfeel chief among them—to dramatically boost page load speeds and improve user engagement.

“We always thought AMP could play a very big role solving that problem of mobile web speed,” AMP project manager Rudy Galfin has said. “That was all it was about in those early days. Since then, we’ve built features to add more engaging experiences.” At the moment, Google is moving to change the fact that Google URLs from the AMP cache are displayed in search results, rather than publisher URLs—one aspect of AMP that has never pleased publishers.

Facebook opened a new path to speed in 2016, when it introduced the Instant Articles mobile publishing format to provide fast-loading articles for distribution within Facebook. Design elements meant for the desktop slow down mobile page loads; by limiting these elements, IA cuts page rendering time on Facebook. When publishers push pages to their apps with Facebook IA, they can be assured of delivering the same user experience and brand presence across multiple channels.

As for Google’s Speed Update, publishers can tap three main resources to evaluate page performance and make sure their pages are optimized for the best possible search results:

  • Chrome User Experience Report, to access key user experience metrics for trendy web destinations, drawn from the experiences of real-world Chrome users
  • Lighthouse, part of the Chrome Developer toolset, to automatically audit web page quality, including performance and accessibility
  • PageSpeed Insights, to learn how well a page performs according to the Chrome UX Report, and discover options for performance optimization

Is the push for ever-speedier mobile pages worth the effort? If the goal is user engagement—and the revenue that comes with it—the answer is yes. The critical mission of delivering an exceptional user experience can’t be accomplished without fast, faster, fastest loads. For mobile publishers and advertisers, the need for speed never gets old.

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