Technical SEO 7 min read

2020 Marks The Start of The Page Speed Wars… Are You Ready?

By Chris Liversidge Chris Liversidge 5 May, 2020

Google kick started the move to a mobile-first indexing approach on July 1st 2019; as of March 2021 mobile-first will roll out across all sites . This means that Google’s ranking algorithm ingests the mobile URL version of a website, instead of the desktop URL. In the majority of cases this is the same URL.  

So, why is this important today? 

The time to render a page via mobile is often A LOT longer than via desktop. This is because lots of ‘mobile optimisation’ is just trying to use lower resolution images and compress other assets before serving them to reduce bandwidth, rather than trying to build an efficient, low impact page that renders quickly. Also, crucially, Google uses a particular criteria for evaluating mobile page render times: it assumes you are on a medium-strength 3G connection. 

This has two implications. 

  1. To achieve Google’s proposed target of sub one second to render the viewable part of the page for your mobile screen, the CSS and Javascript required to display that content needs to be inline, because… 
  2. The HTML page needs to be under 14kb due to the data throttling restrictions used for 3G connections. 

I have been writing about this intermittently, since as far back as 2014, when Google first highlighted the challenge. 

It is increasingly relevant today however, because back then Google was warning everyone so we had time to sort out our infrastructure: not something that happens overnight for the world’s largest websites, who are also typically big spenders on Google Ads. 

That time has now gone. 

Google are highly likely to be taking the same approach to ramping up the impact of page speed for mobile as they used for desktop from 2008 through to major updates in 2010 and increased impact through the full March 2021 roll out:  

  1. Initial migration to include the mechanism in their algorithm, with light testing of its impact (complete) 
  2. Application of stronger impact for very poor performance sites (completed in March 2018) 
  3. Stronger use of the component in the algorithm as general page speed performance improves (pending…) 

And point 3 should be scary for webmasters with average speed sites. While averages generally remain slow, with penalisation for ranking and extremely poor conversion behaviour, page speed must be top of the development list pile for every dev with a stake in website performance. 

It means that the following are all now true, and will be the key performance drivers for your SEO over the coming year: 

  1. If you are in the top positions for a search term, but are generally slower than your immediate competition, you will be dropped out of the top three and your competition will be pushed up.
  2. If you are fighting to achieve top rankings, but are slower in speed than the top ranked results, then the impact of that effort will be negligible while speed remains slow.

Given that the VAST majority of traffic for SEO comes when in the top 1-2 positions, this means that poor page speed performance for mobile may become the single reason why you succeed or fail in 2020 for SEO.

Today, mobile page speed averages are trending down, increasing the pressure to make real performance change. Where do you rank on that performance scale for your top terms? And where does your competition? How much work are they doing to improve speed? How quickly are you moving? 

Self Diagnosis

You can check your 3G response time with Chrome Dev tools, by opening your site up in a new tab, then hitting CTRL + Shift & I, selecting the device you’d like to emulate from the drop down at the top of the page, and then selecting “Mid-tier mobile” for your connection speed – recreating 3G. Then, to see what your performance looks like, select ‘Network’ from the top right selection options, force an un-cached page load by holding down shift and hitting F5. 

You’ll see a waterfall chart with all assets required to load the page on the right, and a red score to the bottom right recording the time to First Render: this is the point that matters for Google when assessing your page speed. You also get a time for complete render. 

In my 2017 article on Search Engine Land I warned about the impending challenge faced by site owners and their reaction – or lack of reaction! You can see that even today – and even for the august and fantastic SEL – there is a major challenge ahead for site owners: 8.4 seconds for the render, and a full 40 seconds to complete the page… 

2020 is categorically the year of the page speed wars, as anyone failing to get their game in order will fail in the rankings immediately – not tomorrow, or some uncertain, distant date: today. 

And if we spin the wheel of time all the way back to ask why Google cares so much about page speed and getting times down under a second, it’s simple: any longer, and the user experience is interrupted. This affects perception of quality and value, and ultimately means that sub one second load times will cause visitors to convert at a much – much! – higher rate. It’s win win folks: time to get optimising! 

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