Website speed and search engines

We all like fast websites, we somehow feel more efficient to save a couple seconds per search and believe that this will somehow make a difference. Apparently Google agrees – you can be sure that Yahoo and Bing will soon follow suit.

Anyone who follows Google’s Blog will have been aware about this since January. Though only recently implemented, the ‘score’ Google gives your site (called Page Rank) will now include website speed as a factor.

What is my website speed?

To check how fast your site is, you first need to clean out your browser’s cache, otherwise you’ll partly see what is already on your computer. Then visit your site and see what you think – it’s snap opinions like this that your users will make.

Secondly, if there is any point where you can see images slowly downloading (like a line down the screen) or you see a ‘loading …’ section (often an area that moves) then your site is slow.

Don’t forget you’ll need to include your intended audience here. For example if aiming for people in the country then broadband isn’t always available and is slower, so you’ll need an even faster site.

Sites providing an idea of speed

  • www.google.com/webmasters/tools – is Google’s own tool, which includes (under ‘Labs’ on the left) an idea of how fast your site is. It takes a while to gather data (a month or two) and requires at least 100 visits per month to get reasonable data. It does ‘wobble’ a bit but also provides suggestions on improvements (in techy speak) and is ‘from the horses mouth’. This is also a very useful tool for other Search Engine Optimisation work.
  • www.iwebtool.com/speed_test – a simple way to compare against similarly-sized sites, it doesn’t tell you fast or slow, rather the speed per kb and an overall speed of the html
  • www.websiteoptimization.com/services/analyze/ – is quite comprehensive, though you can end up with a few too many details. Remember that a line speed of T1 is equivalent to a 1Mbps connection, which is roughly basic broadband

Speeding things up …

Common sense is mostly where you can make considerable speed improvements. That is sites load faster if they don’t load as much and send what they do load faster.

Website Content

Some simple changes to content can vastly improve page speed. If you find your site is slow then re-evaluate the content on each page as it might be time to split it up, for example:

  • split large pages into two, it should be easier to navigate
  • reducing the number of large images, cropping an image can improve its clarity too
  • optimising images when they are saved (particularly easy on jpeg photos, 85% compression saves a lot)
Note: text doesn’t normally take up too much space, though being concise is always a good thing and keeping it around 3-400 words maximum (for an article)

Website Code

A lot of code can be quite bloated, particularly that produced by programs like DreamWeaver which creates a lot of unnecessary settings. Likewise sites built using tables to create structure when divs could be used also creates more code (except for tabulated content of course).

If you are loading more than 20 items per page (images, scripts, HTML and CSS files) then you have too much on the page, also they should roughly total 100Kb together (see the third link above to determine size).

Speed improvement suggestions

  • where a template is used, double-check whether there is unnecessary code, of site-wide importance
  • combine javascript files into one, avoid script in content if loading on all pages, though this isn’t always possible or practical, eg. Google Analytics javascript is best off-site unless you can update it regularly
  • combine css files into one, or have one reference another rather than two references
  • update any general scripts to the latest versions, they’re often a lot speedier
  • host all scripts on your server so you don’t have to wait for other servers to respond
  • remove unnecessary white space as it does add to the code, eg. don’t step in code from the left margin
  • comments can often be shortened (eg. <!– nav –> not <!– start of navigation –>)

Server

Compression. The most popular form is referred to as GZip Compression significantly reduces the time it takes to get files down to your computer. See Better Explained for a good definition and you will find it makes a significant difference (it is also highlighted by Google Webmaster Tools).

You also want to check that your hosting is based close to where you main users will be based. So if you’re UK based then you want a UK hosting service, while if more international a USA or multiple servers are better.

Not all hosting solutions are the same, some are very slow, some lightening fast, which completely depends on the server computers used and speed of connection to the Internet. However, changing hosting solutions should really come after all the previous have been tried and you’re still failing to be ‘fast’.

What freshSPRING is doing to keep our sites fast

Of course it already made sense to make your site faster and we have been constantly reworking our code and servers to gain extra speed. However as site speed has received additional importance of late, we have sped up development in this area.

This includes a roadmap to a complete re-working of our content management system to ‘cache’ as much as possible on the server, reducing the amount of processing that is needed when a page is requested. Likewise we are doing the same for our shop sites and more closely benchmarking all code updates for speed.

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