Is Page Speed All It's Cracked Up to Be?

Make no mistake, page speed is critical to a site's success from both search engine and user perspectives. However, is it the gold standard by which the performance of a site should be measured? Well, not exactly.

Digital Experiences -
A person speeding by on a motorbike.

Why Page Speed Matters

The speed of a site matters for several reasons. Two of the most critical reasons are:

  1. How search engines judge, and ultimately rank, your site
  2. The end user's experience

I would argue that the latter should always be prioritized, but naturally if your site can't be found (and found easily) you might as well pack it up and go home.

Page Speed for the SEOs

While search engines guard their ranking algorithms like I guard my personal condiments in the office fridge, they do make suggestions that can help your site’s SEO. These factors are largely related to a page's content: text, URL, titles, etc. They are not, however, exclusively based on content. Things like markup, or how a page is coded, and speed, also play an important role.

Google announced back in 2010 that page speed, while not as important as relevancy, is, in fact, a player in the ranking game.

Like us, our users place a lot of value in speed — that's why we've decided to take site speed into account in our search rankings.

-Google Webmaster Central Blog

It would be my professional recommendation that if Google says, "jump," you’d better respond, "how high?"

Page Speed for Happy Visitors

Google goes on in the aforementioned article and video that while speed is important, content is most certainly king for rankings. The real value of page speed is the user's experience. We all want sites to load faster. Snappy websites are a joy to use, and conversely, sluggish websites are worse than forgetting to lock the door on a public toilet.

It's also worth noting that most of the planet access the Internet via poor, throttled, or pay-per-byte connections. In fact, 2.3 million people last year were still accessing the web via good old fashioned AOL dial-up connections. The point being that a slow website due to poor optimization and delivery might be minor annoyances for many people, but they’re downright unusable (or even cost prohibitive) for much of the planet.

Perception vs. Reality

This whole time I've been discussing page speed as a single concept. The truth is, how fast a page is in reality and how fast a visitor perceives that page can be drastically different. Usually, the concepts are, in fact, synonymous, but often enough they aren't.

Google Page Speed Insights measures a page objectively. Simply put, it tells you how long everything (seen and unseen) takes to load. It then assigns a score out of 100 based on how fast everything happened relative to what Google deems acceptable. From there, it offers a laundry list of suggestions on how to improve said score. These suggestions are typically related to beefing up server power and compressing images and code. As developers, we take these metrics very seriously and always work to improve them. What did you think we were doing while your site was in alpha and beta stages?

The main gripes I have about Page Speed Insights is that no one knows how their different metrics are calculated, weighted or how they relate to each other. This makes the number itself somewhat ambiguous, and I don't really agree with some of their recommendations.

Eliminate render-blocking JavaScript and CSS in above-the-fold content

Google recommends withholding all “render-blocking” resources that might interfere with the speed of simply getting some content on the screen. The rationale is that the user seeing something immediately is better than nothing for a brief moment. This seems like a valid recommendation except for the fact that there are some fairly significant drawbacks.

  1. It looks bad.
    We’ve all been to sites where this is enough of a problem that we notice. You start scrolling down a page, or begin reading an article, only to have everything start moving around pushing content out of view, making headlines change size, etc. This creates user experience problems that, while minor, can be frustrating to a visitor in addition to the message that the site is built poorly.
  2. It seems cheap.
    The unfortunate side effect of pages loading so sloppy is that there comes an inherent sense that you’re on a cheap website. Take a look at sites from any high-end fashion label, for example. I can almost guarantee that it will load fairly slow as they often rely on high-quality graphics, videos and animations to reinforce their high-end brand image. You can rest assured the site will build itself eloquently and will be anything but jarring.
  3. It feels slower.
    This is the main drawback. We stopped using progressive JPEGs and interlaced GIFs a decade ago for this very same reason. Stair-step loading of resources looks a lot slower, regardless of actual speed. When a photo loads on the screen progressively it immediately conveys to the visitor that it’s a large file. Additionally, it offers no visual feedback when it’s done. Sure, it gets clearer and clearer, but that is a subjective trait that can’t be 100% communicated to the user.

Unattractive, cheap and slow are all negative descriptions that are often lumped together in technology. They are also probably the worst traits to be associated with and should be avoided. For this reason, it is most always my recommendation to emphasize page speed perception over Google Page Speed Insights score.


Summing it all up

Page speed should not be ignored in the web design and development process. Speed is a common trait of successful websites in terms of search engine performance and user experience.

Google Page Speed Insights is an invaluable tool for developers in identifying performance issues. However, as with most things in life, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Websites should never lose sight of their number one priority, the end user's experience. At the end of the day, Google and your visitors want you to produce good and relevant content. Ensuring that your site performs its best (and looks the part) so that it can deliver your content will get you well on your way to the top of the charts.

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