Back in the day, when I first started building web sites, controlling file sizes and download times were a critical part of the process. This was in the days of dialup. For those of you who grew up in a broadband world you have no idea how unimaginably slow some sites would render. Back then, it was important that image tags specified height and width of images so they could act as placeholders. This allowed the text of the page to download on the visitor’s screen in the right place so they could at least read the text while the images downloaded. And those images had better be small, or else. I remember chiding many clients for trying to put 1MB PDFs or 100K images on their sites.
Today, we take broadband for granted. Download speeds are so fast, that the occasional multi-megabyte PDF doesn’t faze most people. Some of us (yes, including me) have gotten a little lazy when it comes to optimizing images and other files for size. Some of our code is bloated and filled with redundancies. Still, for many of our customers, these things don’t really matter. Or do they?
Ah, But It Does Matter
There are two main reasons why download time really does matter: Consider mobile and SEO.
It’s a given that mobile browsing is becoming a larger and larger share of overall internet usage, and that share will continue to grow as time goes on. Think about your customers using their mobile device to visit your site. If they are running on a 3G connection, depending on their provider they can download at speeds from 350 kilobits to 1.7 megabits per second. Those speeds are under optimal conditions and can be/are often slowed by such factors as weather, network congestion, distance from the tower, tall buildings or trees and a host of other things.
While on average your mobile visitors can expect speeds faster than dialup, are they going to wait patiently while the beautiful 150 kilobyte image on your home page downloads? Chances are they won’t, especially if they are stopped at a red light trying to find your address or phone number.
I remember during Search Engine Strategies, San Jose in 2006, Google was already warning that Adsense relevancy scores were going to be tied to download times of the landing pages the ads led to. Since then, they have started using download speed as a signal for organic search results as well. I haven’t heard anyone specifically mention Bing using download speed as a relevancy signal, but I can well imagine if they are not using it now they eventually will.
To illustrate this point, Aaron Shear reported in his presentation at last week’s PubCon South during the Advanced SEO Tactics session, that performance gains alone accounted for a 5% increase in traffic to web sites he monitors because of better placement in SERPs on Google. How fast are your pages downloading? Could a performance gain help your placement in SERPs? It’s certainly something worth considering.
There are a couple tools you can use to check your download speeds. My employer uses Webmetrics as an outside monitor to alert if the web sites go down. Part of their weekly report shows download times for monitored websites from their multitude of monitoring sites along with a comparison to the average of all web sites they measure. This is a paid service, but it might be worth the cost for keeping tabs on downtime and download speeds.
A great free tool is the download speed indicator found inside Google Webmaster Tools. This shows you how long it takes to download your pages, “straight from the horses mouth,” so to speak. Google Webmaster Tools has so many other great features, I highly recommend signing up and using it to help you manage your sites better.
Speeding Things Up
If you find your pages are taking more than 4 seconds to download, there are some things you can consider doing to speed them up:
- Check your image sizes. If you have images on your pages larger than, say, 50 kilobytes, consider putting in some smaller images with options to click for a larger version. Making sure text is text and not embedded in images will not only make the images smaller, it will help search engines index your content better.
- Consider ditching large Flash movies if you have them. If you have one of those “Please wait while the content loads” things on your home page, your Flash movie is too large. Consider moving the “cool” content to other pages with links to it from the home page.
- Use CSS to control the look of your site. This helps eliminate redundant code by taking many style-related tags off each page and refers back to the CSS file, which can be downloaded once and used from the visitor’s local cache.
- Watch for code bloat. If you have CSS files and you’re no longer using some parts of it, delete those parts out. Copy and paste unneeded lines into a text file somewhere off the site if you think you might need them again.
- Consider moving your images and CSS files into a cloud service with distributed data centers. This can help speed up your downloads because bandwidth for these services is usually higher and multiple locations offer better speeds for visitors because files download closer to them. This isn’t usually a cheap solution, but if you have a large web site it could pay off quite well.
What about you? Have you wrestled with download speeds to improve visitor experience and/or SERP placement? Feel free to share in the comments.