There is a popular expression that you have no doubt heard – “Time is money”. The biggest cliches are often the most valid, and we are not looking at an exception to that rule here. When it comes to websites andpage load speed, time truly is money.
If we go back 15 years, page load speed was all the rage. Most of us were on dialup connections that downloaded at a rate of just a few kilobytes per second, and some webpages could take an age to load. Such pages typically did not fare well.
But as time went by and faster internet connectivity became the norm, page load speed became far less important to many developers. They jumped on the Flash-based and graphics-heavy website bandwagon, on the assumption that modern internet connections were able to cope with the increased pagesize. A lot of developers believed that faster connections were an excuse to create larger sites, not faster ones.
The internet was once a brave new world, and people were perhaps more willing to forgive a few seconds of load time. But we now live in a time where over 2 billion people – nearly one third of the global population (and the majority of the developed world) – have access to the internet. And the popularization of the internet has led to an increase in one key behavioral attribute in particular – impatience.
The internet is no longer a niche medium – it is used by the masses. And the masses are an unforgiving bunch. We have come full circle – once again, page load speed is an incredibly important factor.
Is It Really That Important Though?
Let’s go back to 2006, when Google ran an experiment. They increased the number of search results on the first page to 30. This seemingly innocuous change prompted a 20% drop in traffic and revenue. The difference? The page with 30 results took just over twice as long to load. Although there was only a half-second load time difference, the effect was dramatic.
Amazon carried out a similar experiment by delaying page load speed in increments of 100 milliseconds. Each drop resulted in a decrease of 1% in sales.
The Psychology of Page Load Speed
So objective data appears to point to a conclusion that page load speed is an extremely important factor. But what are people actually thinking when they come across a webpage with poor load speed?
Let’s turn to Jakob Nielsen for an explanation. In case you haven’t heard of him, Nielsen is known as “the king of usability” and “the world’s leading expert on user-friendly design”, amongst other things. In short – he knows his stuff.
Way back in 1993, Nielsen published a book called Usability Engineering. An excerpt from the book can be found here, in which he covers the “3 Important Limits” of response time. Those limits are as follows:
- 0.1 second is about the limit for having the user feel that the system is reacting instantaneously, meaning that no special feedback is necessary except to display the result.
- 1.0 second is about the limit for the user’s flow of thought to stay uninterrupted, even though the user will notice the delay. Normally, no special feedback is necessary during delays of more than 0.1 but less than 1.0 second, but the user does lose the feeling of operating directly on the data.
- 10 seconds is about the limit for keeping the user’s attention focused on the dialogue. For longer delays, users will want to perform other tasks while waiting for the computer to finish, so they should be given feedback indicating when the computer expects to be done. Feedback during the delay is especially important if the response time is likely to be highly variable, since users will then not know what to expect.
These limits are based upon 40 year old research, and so you might be excused for considering them outdated. But in 2010 Nielsen was careful to reiterate that the above limits are as valid today as they have ever been.
Now a 1 second load time is an ambitious target for anyone, but at the least it sets a benchmark. It would be pertinent at this point to uncover some more specific data to see where we stand in terms of tolerable load times.
Fortunately, a gold mine of data can be found in this article. The most important highlights are as follows:
- The tolerable wait time of web users peaks at around 2 seconds.
- Slow web pages lower perceived credibility and quality.
- Keep your page load times below tolerable attention thresholds, and users will experience less frustration, lower blood pressure, higher conversion rates, and lower bailout rates.
- Faster websites are actually perceived to be more interesting and attractive.
So in a nutshell, page load speed can have an impact on everything from brand credibility, to the psychological and physiological impact on the user, to conversion rates, to design quality perception.
What About SEO?
No article on site speed would be complete without mention of the potential positive ranking factors associated with faster sites.
Let’s start in February 2010, when Matt Cutts explained that page load speed was to become a ranking factor (amongst many):
This was followed up in April 2010 by a confirmation that Google was including site speed as a ranking factor in its algorithms. At the time Google were clear in stating that this ranking factor was a minor one, but the clear implication was that they wanted websites to improve their page load speeds. And let’s be honest – we all want to cater to Google’s desires if possible, and all the more so if it correlates directly with a better user experience (as it usually does).
You may be wondering if improved site load speed can really have an affect on your rankings. This article certainly seems to indicate that it can. The Smart Passive Income Blog switched from a bloated proprietary theme to the Thesis framework. Doing so resulted in a dramatic reduction in page load speed – and a temporary lift in the rankings for the site’s primary keyword from #2 to #1 (pushing Wikipedia off top spot). The change in ranking seemed too timely to be a coincidence.
In conclusion, speed can have a dramatic affect on a multitude of factors relating to the ultimate success of your site. It can affect the perception of your brand credibility. It can determine how long someone stays on your site as well as your conversion rate. And it can also affect your ranking positions in Google.
Whilst it may not be the most glamorous topic in the world, it is one that you should consider carefully if you wish for your site to perform better than the competition. This time next week we are going to take an in-depth look at exactly what you can do to better optimize your site, so stay tuned.
In the meantime, do you think that page load speed is an important factor? Let us know in the comments section!