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Page Speed and SEO: Everything Google Has Said So Far

Page Speed and SEO: Everything Google Has Said So Far

In May 2020, Google announced that the Core Web Vitals will be a ranking factor.

Naturally, the news got the SEO community interested in site speed (again).

And like other UX-focused algorithm updates, this one also caused lots of confusion.

That’s why it’s useful to go over the previous speed-related updates and try to predict where this one might lead us.

So, in this article, you’ll learn about:

Let’s get started.

2010 – Using Site Speed as a Ranking Factor on Desktop

The first time Google announced it was using site speed as a ranking factor for desktop searches was in 2010.

They had been building up to this with a series of tools, articles and case studies on site speed in 2009 and 2010.

For example, in 2009 they open-sourced Page Speed and launched Site Performance as part of their Webmaster Tools.

As far as the announcement itself, there’s a very important statement towards the end:

This is still true today. Google has always said that content quality and relevance beats everything else. 

Again, this update only affected desktop searches. Mobile searches aren’t mentioned anywhere in the article.

Beyond SEO, Google’s posts from 2009 to 2011 show how long ago they laid the foundations for today’s Lighthouse/PageSpeed Insights, Chrome’s DevTools, CrUX and other similar projects.

2018 – Speed is now a landing page factor for mobile searches

After 2010, Google continued to publish case studies and research on the importance of site speed.

Around 2016, pages built with their AMP framework also started appearing in search results.

And soon, it was time for another update forced on speed.

Eight years after making speed a ranking signal for desktop, Google did the same for mobile searches.

They even called it the “Speed Update”.

This wasn’t the most surprising thing in the world. By 2018 mobile had taken over most of the world but websites’ mobile versions were too slow. 

Before this update, Google had released AMP (and Facebook – their Instant Articles) with the goal of improving performance, especially on mobile.

2021 – Page Experience Signals (Core Web Vitals)

The latest update on site speed as a ranking factor came in May 2020 when Google announced the Core Web Vitals.

The Core Web Vitals are three metrics (FCP, FID and CLS) that measure the load time, interactivity and visual stability of a page. More importantly, these metrics would play a role in organic ranking as part of Google’s page experience signals.

PageSpeed Insights was also updated with a new report that shows if websites pass the Core Web Vitals assessment.

As a quick side note, Google only uses Field Data (data from real users) for this assessment. The overall optimization score is derived from Lab Data, which only shows how well a page might perform based on predetermined conditions.

Put simply, you should monitor your website’s Field Data for an accurate view on its performance.

Google also added new Core Web Vitals and Page Experience reports in Search Console.

Again, this algorithm update stirred a lot of interest in the SEO community. However, it’s still too early to tell how big of an impact the Core Web Vitals will have on organic rankings.

Google’s Videos on Page Speed and SEO

After the Core Web Vitals announcement, Google released two important videos to clear misconceptions about speed’s role as a ranking factor.

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First, check out this video on page speed and SEO.

Most importantly, this quote sums up the video perfectly:

  • “If you’re the fastest website out there, but the content isn’t great, that (page speed) is not helping you.”
  • – Martin Splitt – Developer Advocate at Google

And here’s another video on the Core Web Vitals and SEO that says pretty much the same:

And the obligatory quote:

  • “In general, we (Google) prioritize pages with the best information overall even if some aspects of page experience are sub-par. A good page experience doesn’t override having great, relevant content”. 
  • John Mueller – Search Advocate at Google

As you can see, Google has been very clear on this:

Great, relevant content trumps everything else, including speed and user experience. 

Or in other words, content is still king.

Google also said the same thing in the announcements for the 2010 and 2018 algorithm updates. 

What We Still Don’t Know

Even 10+ years after Google first made speed a ranking factor, there’s a surprising lack of research on the topic.

Mainly, there are almost no case studies (at least public ones) on just how much speed affects organic rankings.

In 2020, Brian Dean did a rare experiment comparing a fast and slow version of the same page.

While interesting, it isn’t enough for a definitive answer to our question since it’s limited to a single page.

In fact, most studies on the topic focus on a single page or website. That’s why it’s hard to say just how much speed affects SEO.

To make a somewhat accurate assessment, we’d need a study that compares millions of pages with similar content. 

JustPremium and Future Plc Partner for Extensive Testing on Google’s Web Vitals Initiative

And here’s something else that hasn’t been researched in detail in SEO:

Does page speed affect the organic ranking and user experience of different types of websites equally? 

For example, visitors might be more patient when browsing blogs as opposed to eCommerce checkout pages. If that’s the case, is page speed an equally important ranking factor for both types of pages?

Again, this is pure speculation. I’m just trying to illustrate how much we still don’t know about page speed and SEO.

In sum:

We know that page speed is a ranking factor. However, it’s far from the most important one, as great, relevant content trumps everything else. Beyond that, it’s hard to say how much weight speed has in Google’s ranking algorithm.

The Real Reason for Improving Your Website’s Speed

We can speculate about speed and SEO all day, but the truth is there are much more important reasons to speed up your website.

Simply put:

Faster Website = Deeper User Engagement = More Conversions

It’s that simple.

Users like fast websites, just like they prefer faster checkouts at the grocery store and faster service at a restaurant. That’s why every second of load time adds friction to the customer’s journey. 

And unlike SEO, here speed’s effect can be directly measured in $. I recently compiled 18 case studies from companies like Google, Netflix and Walmart on this topic. 

Some of the results were staggering: 

  • Mobify (case study #9) shared that reducing load times on key pages by 0.5s resulted in six-figure annual revenue increases for their clients.
  • Zitmaxx Wonen (case study #10) increased their mobile revenue by 98.7% by reducing their load time to 3s.
  • Google (case study #17) found that websites that met the thresholds for all three Core Web Vitals see up to 24% less abandonment rate.

The important thing to take away is this:

Site speed directly affects your business results. That’s why you should care about it, even if we don’t know how much it affects SEO.

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