Eli Schwartz

Ever since Google announced that page speed is a critical part of the Google ranking algorithms, SEO audits began to include sections on page speed. In many cases, I have seen a good chunk of an audit devoted to page speed complete with screenshots of homepage page speed, internal pages and even competitor comparisons. These screenshots from popular page speed measuring tools can be quite ominous with waterfalls showing how many scripts are called during page load or they can include a big red pie chart showing a large chunk of the site in the slow category.

The logic behind most of these reports is that if page speed is slow then a site (or page) will experience low visibility in search. The converse is that if page speed is fast, a site (or page) will experience high visibility. If a site moves from slow to fast or vice versa, the visibility impact should be apparent. The goal, which is noble of course, is to improve a site’s visibility by making the necessary improvements.

While it would be great if something as straightforward as making site speed improvements would equal more visibility and search traffic, but in reality I have never personally seen this happen. Not only have I never seen speed improvements lead to more search visibility, I have also never been able to pinpoint a site’s low visibility as related to a speed issue.

I posed this question both Twitter and LinkedIn asking for case studies, and on both channels, I did not see conclusive data that showed that page speed moved the needle for the majority of websites. There were a few examples in the responses, but they appeared to be outliers with learnings that would not apply to all websites.

Speed for conversion

While I believe it is critical to have a fast website and page speed for conversion purposes, I am skeptical that there could ever be search visibility (defined by more URL’s ranking higher in search result) improvements directly correlated to speed. As a result, if there are page speed improvements to make, by all means do make them. The difference is where you expect to see ROI.

If any website were to make speed improvements specifically for SEO ROI, I don’t think this expense would be justified. On the other hand, if the speed improvements were made with the expectation of conversion/revenue improvements this could be justified.

The difference here would come down to the nature of the business. Any website that exists for immediate transactional purposes like ecommerce or any product/service that is sold online to consumers would likely benefit from speed improvements. Faster pages would minimize drop-offs that might happen if the time to sale takes too long.

However, a website that is in a B2B space where the content exists for more informational purposes or a content only site, may not see the same improvements in conversion/revenue from page speed. (One exception is an ad funded content website. If the ads take too long to load, the user may never even see them before they leave.)

One other aspect that should be considered in deciding whether to make a page speed investment is how much of a difference the investment might make. If a site is on shared hosting, moving it to dedicated hosting might be a world of difference. Or, if a site takes multiple seconds to load, cutting that number down by half would probably be a great idea. However, if a site is already fast, but just not fast enough, shaving off milliseconds may not really move the needle at all when it comes to actual engagement.

I have seen this site speed recommendation with clients who already operate their own data centers. In nearly every scenario, there is really nothing actionable to do to improve their site speed and even if there was it is unlikely to ever be worth the large expense. Certainly, if there are dead scripts to remove from the page load, they should be removed, but refactoring an entire site or upgrading to more data centers should be out of the question.

In summary, if you see a recommendation to revamp your entire website’s structure to improve page speed with the outcome of better SEO take it with a grain of salt. If there is low hanging fruit to improve overall speed, of course make those fixes, but don’t spend a significant amount of money hoping that page speed will make enough of a difference in SEO visibility.

If anyone reading this has an example of a website that improved their site’s visibility purely from page speed improvements, I would love to see it!

Note: I deliberately did not address core web vitals because I want to do more research on it.