It's not exactly a secret that page load times have long played a role in search engine rankings. Actually, it's not a secret at all, considering that Google employees Amit Singhal and Matt Cutts announced that fact on the Google Webmaster blog back in April 2010:
“You may have heard that here at Google we're obsessed with speed, in our products and on the web. As part of that effort, today we're including a new signal in our search ranking algorithms: site speed. Site speed reflects how quickly a website responds to web requests.”
Of course, a quick search on how to improve page load times turns up some pretty heavy technical jargon. Minify CSS? Enable keep-alive? Is it even possible to improve your page load times without a degree in computer science?
The answer is, of course, yes – it's possible to implement changes that dramatically improve your page load times, even if you aren't a total technical guru. In this article, we'll look at a combination of beginner and more advanced techniques you can use to improve your site's performance when it comes to this key metric.
But the first to fixing a problem, as they say, is to admit that you have one in the first place. This means that we need to understand if our sites are actually slow before we jump into a bunch of potential fixes. The following are two good ways to test your page's speed, and I recommend doing both, as the results you get from each service may be slightly different.
Option #1 – Google Webmaster Tools Site Performance
The first way to test your current page speed is to log into http://www.google.com/webmasters/tools and navigate to the profile of the site you'd like to analyze (if you haven't used Webmaster Tools before, you'll need to create a new profile for your site before going forward). Once you're inside the site's profile, click on “Labs” on the left side navigation bar, then click on “Site Performance.”
The data here will give you a brief overview of your site's current speed and how it compares to other sites, but if you want more detail, you'll need to download the “Page Speed” add-on for Firefox (if you don't already have Firebug installed, you'll need that program as well). Once the add-ons are installed, navigate to the page you want to analyze, open Firebug and then click on “Analyze Performance” under the “Page Speed” tab.
Once the Page Speed add-on has analyzed the current site, it will display a list of recommendations below:
The red circles represent items that should be fixed immediately (clicking on the arrow next to the text description will produce more detail about the performance issue). Items with a yellow triangle are things that could be improved, but likely won't provide as much benefit as improving the first set of items. Green check marks mean you're good to go!
Option #2 – Google Page Speed Service Testing
As a part of the roll-out of its new “Page Speed Service”, Google introduced the following way to test current page speed. To get a feel for how fast your current site is, as well as how much faster it could be using the Page Speed Service (more on that later), navigate to http://www.webpagetest.org/compare, enter your site's URL and click “Start Test”. The test may take a few minutes to complete, but once it's done, you should see something like this:
Clicking on “View Test” under the “Original” column will give you access to much more detailed information about your site's performance:
(Just a quick note – the fixes for some of the issues that will turn up in your website analysis are highly technical. If you don't understand what needs to be done, you can always outsource your on-page load times optimization. Or, for a few quick fixes that even non-technical people can handle on their own, read to the end of this article for some suggestions.)
Now, while analyzing your results, you probably noticed that your site is being compared to an alternative – what would be served via Google's new Page Speed Service. Although the service was only launched at the end of July 2011, plenty of SEO blogs are still up in arms about what this new service is and what it means for users.
To summarize, sites that sign up to participate in the Page Speed Service would set their CNAME DNS records to point to Google, where web pages would be automatically re-written to the fastest load standards and launched from the Google servers – not the site's web hosting account. Google estimates that this could result in as much as a 45-60% reduction in page load times. As you might imagine, reactions to this service are mixed.
As an example, Thom Craver of Search Engine Watch whether if what Google is introducing is closer to a web hosting service than its general perception as a content delivery network similar to CloudFlare:
“What Google is now offering is tricked out hosting, not a page optimizer. You have to set your DNS to point to Google instead of your current Web host. This means when someone types in your website, Google's servers will answer, not yours.”
Others are deeply concerned about the privacy and the level of access site owners would be giving directly to Google, while still others – like Jeff Ferguson of Fang Digital – simply look at it as a way of getting out of time-intensive SEO tasks:
“This is majorly cool in my book. Anytime I can outsource something like this to another pro that will just handle it for me, I'm on board.”
Of course, whatever the end result is doesn't matter much, as the service is currently only in limited release and won't be free once it's opened up. So instead of worrying about how this service will turn out in the future, let's get back to the topic of what you can do to improve your page load times now if your initial testing revealed that your site is performing poorly compared to others.
Step #1 – Install a caching plugin to WordPress sites.
If you run a WordPress site, a good web site caching plugin is a must. Caching plugins enable your site to store copies of web pages, rather than generating them dynamically each time a new visitor lands on your website. This reduces load times and speeds up the performance of your site. W3 Total Cache and WP Super Cache are two good free options that you can install and configure today.
Step #2 – Reduce file sizes.
Storing large image files on your site can dramatically slow page load times, as can large files of any type (including PDFs, Word Documents and others). If possible, reduce your image sizes and resolutions using a program like Photoshop and consider storing large documents in zip files. If you're storing sensitive documents, this has an additional SEO benefit, as zip files aren't indexed by the search engines and, therefore, won't be listed in the search engine results pages.
Step #3 – Use plugins wisely.
With the WordPress framework, plugins are available to handle just about any task you can think of, from sending your posts to Twitter to managing galleries of pictures and videos. However, the size of these plugin files adds up, so to improve page load times, it's smart to only use plugins you need, use plugins that handle two or more tasks at once and delete any plugins you aren't using. Following these guidelines will help improve your page load times and, consequently, your search engine rankings.