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The Growing Need For Speed: How Site Performance Increasingly Influences Search Rankings

  • Written by Margaret Kuchler, Senior Industry Marketing Manager, Akamai Technologies
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kuchlerIn the never-ending quest to improve search rankings on Google and other search engines, e-Commerce companies have become experts at refining content, implementing keywords and expanding linkage to boost their profiles. But with Google’s April 2010 announcement that site speed would become a factor in search ranking, e-retailers have realized that site performance had become much more than an operational issue. Overnight, speed has become either a true marketing advantage or a serious liability that can limit access to potential customers. 

For example, by increasing its site speed Smartfurniture.com, an online furniture retailer, recently improved the company’s search engine rankings for its top 10 competitive keywords and best-selling products, Seven of the top 10 keywords increased an average of two positions. One term went from lower than 50th in rankings to third, and one term claimed the number-one position.

Better yet, these numbers have resulted in increased sales. T.J. Gentle, Smartfurniture.com’s President and CEO, explained that, “after years of focusing on content and SEO fundamentals, we discovered we could make a quantum leap in search engine rankings simply by increasing site performance. Across the board, we’ve seen sales increases because of our improved ranking, with 20% more organic traffic being driven to our site and 14% more page views.”

Speed impacts virtually every aspect of the online experience, especially as content and applications become more dynamic and interactive. Consumers feel the pain of slow page loads in every aspect of their shopping experience, from searching to rich media to checkout or shopping cart functionality. Google’s decision to add speed as a metric makes a lot of sense from a user-experience point of view. 

Directing consumers toward high-performance sites is crucial for aenabling a satisfying relationship with the online retailers that serve them. Speed is a very real measure of site utility for the person conducting the search. No matter how relevant the site is to the search, if it doesn’t perform well, it won’t be as useful to the user.

Now that Google has recognized this, other search sites are likely to follow. So what’s in it for retailers? Improving the speed of their site can equal an exponentially greater stream of prospects. More than 42% of users who search on Google click on the first (top) link provided in the organic search results. The number drops to 11% for the second link, and 8% for the third link.

Speed Enhances Site Satisfaction
Speed improvements continue to pay dividends beyond search rankings. Consumers expect a richer, more interactive shopping experience and are not prepared to compromise on speed. Poor site performance can cause frustration, abandoned transactions and defection to other, better-performing sites.

Not surprisingly, each year, research points to a lower and lower threshold for acceptable page load times. Leading online retailers have discovered that faster performance is therefore directly related to increased sales resulting from more time spent on-site, more items in-cart during the shopping experience, and improved checkout completion rates. One leading online furniture store made performance improvements that led to 20% faster page loads, and was able to attribute an increase in revenue from online sales directly to this effort.

Increased Speed Costs Less Than Poor Performance
Perhaps the biggest “Aha!” moment for online retailers has been the realization that increased speed costs less than poor performance. The cost of working with 3rd party companies to enhance their site performance is more than offset by the improvement in both search rankings and overall sales. What’s more, with search sites like Google incorporating site speed into search ranking calculations, sites that don’t perform to customers’ expectations will start to slide into the background, while high-speed sites that offer a better customer experience become more successful and profitable.

Optimization Beyond The Homepage
Optimizing your homepage for performance is obvious, but have you optimized these other popular traffic areas which can often make a first impression for your end-user?

Three areas of your site you might not have considered optimizing for SEO include Search Engine Sub-categories (for example: deals and promotions page, registry page or store locator page); Marketing Mini-sites or Campaign/Advertising Landing pages; and Deep Links from partners, channels or media sources.

Five Questions To Answer To Achieve Advanced Site Optimization
When thinking about the above areas for optimization, consider the following 5 questions to determine which techniques you could add to your arsenal for improving page speed:

1. Will the page be the same for all users?
Is this a marketing or landing page that will be the same for all users? This makes the page a good candidate for full page caching even if you plan to have the page update every 15-20 minutes. Perhaps the page will be the same for “anonymous users” with nothing in their cart (vs. logged-in users) or for all international users vs. those coming from the U.S.? This makes the page a good candidate for dynamic page caching which can tell the difference between various types of users and serve several different cached pages as appropriate, or not, in cases where a truly unique page needs to be served from your site origin. Even if the first hit from end users “needs” to go back to your origin to set cookies ― some cookies can actually be set at the edge of the cloud as well.

2. How often is the content on these pages updated?
What is the publishing cycle? Once or twice daily? What is the business commitment to end-users? Is content more than an hour old? These are good ways to ask yourself to determine, and take advantage of, the maximum Caching TTL (Time To Live).

3. What objects within these pages have high volume or request rates?
Given today’s rich interactive, ajax heavy pages, many CSS and JS files are as large, if not larger than, the images and are often shared across different elements of the site. Those objects should be tweaked for the best TTL and cache hit ratio ― even if the rules for those objects need to be specified for pages or directories.

4. Do these pages redirect to a deeper link or to alternate content based on logic such geographic location of the end user?
Those redirects might best be handled from the edge of the cloud to increase performance and decrease load on your origin.

5. Does your company maintain multiple Host names for different countries?
They should all be “c-named” to unique CDN host names in order to avoid being tagged as suspicious by search engines.


Margaret Kuchler is the Senior Industry Marketing Manager for Commerce at Akamai Technologies with 8 years of experience in B2C and B2B Retail Marketing. Akamai securely enables over $100 Billion in annual US e-Commerce and is a trusted solution provider to over 700 global e-Commerce organizations.  In this role, Margaret is responsible for the marketing strategy, messaging and go-to-market execution in the Online Retail and Travel sectors. She leads the commerce marketing programs and public relations team.